Metaphysician of Doubt

A review of Charles Simic's first reading as U.S. poetry laureate.
Not surprisingly, Charles Simic's first reading since being names U.S. poet laureate was a little crowded. Jessica Allen gives us a front row look at the laughs and strangeness.

Like an image from one of Charles Simic’s own poems, the crowd wedged itself between the stacks: Architecture & Design on one side, Art Technique on another. Rainy weather had forced the reading (part of the Bryant Park Word on Word series, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets) to be moved into a nearby Barnes & Noble. It would be Simic’s first appearance since being named to the nation’s top poetry post.

Poet Kurt Brown introduced Simic as both a “metaphysician of doubt” and a “lapsed Platonist” who sees “shadows as oracles, messengers.” He spoke about Simic’s ability to infuse images with black comedy in order to comment on life, in all its absurdity and anguish. Brown concluded his encomium by using Simic’s new official title: Poet Laureate of the United States.

Simic said it would be tough to read after such an introduction, that perhaps he’d better tell jokes instead. “To read poems is going to be a disappointment,” he claimed, “not just to you but to me.”

In his Slavic accent, he read lines about bugs doing the splits and studying the Battle of Gettysburg, three-fingered waiters, bad haircuts, noir-like dreams, depressing Sunday papers, and the tense uselessness of mirrors at 4 a.m. He laughed a lot, and didn’t overtly mention politics present or past.

His first poems of the evening described the New York Simic experienced as a poor young man in the 1950s, walking the streets and reading in the huge public library. Next he launched into the crowd-pleasing “My Beloved,” a poem about the difficulties of finding fresh ways to describe the superior physical attributes of one’s lover. After tinkering with its similes and metaphors for 25 years, Simic decides:

Her eyes are two loopholes.
No, let me start again.
Her eyes are flies in milk,
Her eyes are baby Draculas.

To hell with her eyes.
Let me tell you about her mouth.
Many poems depict the vivid presence of the past. Simic prefaced “Ghosts” by stating that he does not believe in ghosts, but, he continued, “you know.” He folded his hands across the podium as he read, holding the pages down. A new poem, “That Little Something,” showed how, given enough time, insignificance sometimes begets significance: the speaker recollects, over the course of a half century, a seemingly chance encounter with a woman who has lost some pearls.

Before reading “Notes,” Simic mentioned that he simply couldn’t think of a better title. The poem describes a rat running across the stage during a Christmas pageant, stunning the actors and audience into silence. The only sound is someone, offstage, bludgeoning the rodent—twice. A few snorts of nervous laughter from the audience turned into the real thing.

This ability to mask despair with comical irreverence appeared as well in “My Turn to Confess,” Simic’s ars poetica. The poem’s speaker is a dog who growls and barks but also sighs and tries to articulate in verse the “something out there / I could not bring myself to name.” By the end, Simic and his canine doppelganger have confessed both a desire to versify experience and an inability—or unwillingness—to capture the dread that surrounds us. What makes him write might also make him unable to write. Still Simic perseveres, like a “dog trying to write a poem about why he barks.”
Originally Published: September 21st, 2007

Jessica Allen has written for the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Small Spiral Notebook, and the Onion AV Club, among other places. She lives in New York City.

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  1. September 27, 2007
     Majid Naficy

    On April 28, 2002I had a conversation on the stage with Charles Simic in Central Public Library in Los Angeles. HHere are the

    questions which I asked him:

    1. In your memoir, A Fly in the Soup, you say that your greatest teachers, in both art and literature, were the streets. (P. 80) In fact in your poetry there are many references to the street and the homeless. Why is that? Before you answer, would you please read a poem, "Bible Lesson" from your book, Night Picnic,(p. 26) which demonstrates this fact?

    2. The street people are displaced persons, just as you and I who have immigrated to this country. Do you think that there is a connection between your literary interest in the homeless and your social status as an emigre? Could you please read the first passage from your memoir, A Fly in the Soup, (p. 1) in which you call yourself a displaced person?

    3. In an interview with Cortland Review 1998, you consider yourself as a hard-nosed realist who observes the surrealist reality of the homeless and mad people on the street. Does surrealism in your poetry originate from your surreal subject matters or it has a broader meaning?

    4. In page 116 of your memoir, you say that from jazz musicians and modern painters you have learned to cultivate "controlled anarchy" in poetry. Is this a manifestation of surrealism in your work? Would you please read the poem, "My father loved the strange books of Andre Breton" from The World doesn't End P. 66 and tell us what does it mean and how "controlled anarchy" has effected it.

    5. In spite of the appearance of streets and the people in your poetry, one feel that the narrative is a loner. In page 159 of your memoir you state that we all live at the bottom of our private pit. Could you elaborate on this existentialist approach to man and poetry?

    6. In a poem in The World doesn't End, (p. 58) you address "minor poets" whose readers are limited to their families. You come from eastern Europe in which the folk bards, to some extent, still play the same role that Homer did thousands years ago. But in this country, except poets such as Whitman and Ginsberg who were related to spiritual or social movements, other American poets have rarely enjoyed popularity. Is this bad or good? How much eccentric schools like surrealism or postModernism have played a role in this isolation?

    7. You have a good sense of humor. for a happy ending could you read from your memoir, p. 34 about your grand father?