Charles Simic, the Utopian
In 1972, I found myself on a panel whose subject was the poetry of the future. It was at the Struga Poetry Festival in Macedonia. I wasn’t scheduled to participate, but the American poet who was supposed to, W.S. Merwin, begged me to take his place, since he wanted to visit some monastery with his girlfriend. Being older, much more famous, and immensely admired by me, he couldn’t be refused and I went to the morning panel without any idea of what I was going to say. To my horror, the other panelists had come well-prepared, reading either from copious notes or as in the case of a poet from the Soviet Union, from a lengthy typewritten text that confidently predicted a golden age of poetry in a world turned Communist and living in harmony for the first time in human history.
My turn came next, though I was in near-comatose condition from uninterrupted drinking, smoking and talking since my arrival to the festival after a twenty-hour long journey from San Francisco with barely any sleep. Nevertheless, roused back to life by the drivel of the previous speaker, I said that predicting the future of poetry is a total waste of time, because poetry has not changed fundamentally in the last twenty-five centuries and I doubted it would do so in the next hundred years. Since that was all the energy I had, I fell silent and didn’t open my mouth again for the rest of the session. As for my fellow-panelists, I have no memory of any of them responding to anything I said as they continued arguing with each other about the future of poetry.
To the aspiring avant-gardist in all of us, Simic sounds like a straight-up buzz-kill here. He goes on to ponder what he meant that day at the conference:
I came to understand what I said that day in Struga many years later when I was standing, one lovely May afternoon, on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City, waiting for a friend who was late. It was five o’clock, the hour when the offices empty and thousands of people fill the streets on their way to catch a subway or a train. I had spent the previous hour in a bookstore in the neighborhood that was famous for stocking up on the latest literary magazines and poetry books, turning the pages and reading a poem here and there. Waiting at the busy intersection, it suddenly occurred to me that if the old Greek poetess, Sappho, could see what I’m seeing now, she would not only understand nothing, but she would be terrified out of her wits. If, on the other hand, she could read the poems that I had just been reading, she would nod with recognition, since, like her own, many of these new poems spoke directly of the sufferings and joys of one human being. Suspicious of every variety of official truth, they brazenly proclaimed their own, while troubled and unsure of what the person whose life they were describing amounts to. This voice, which Sappho would recognize, has continued to speak to us quietly in poems since the beginning of lyric poetry.
A young man in a small town in Patagonia or in Kansas reads an ancient Chinese poet in a book he borrowed from the library and falls in love with a poem, which he reads to himself over and over again as the summer night is falling. With each reading he brings the voice of the dead poet to life. For one unforgettable moment, he steps out of his own cramped self and enters the lives of unknown men and women, seeing the world through their eyes, feeling what they once felt and thinking what they once thought. If poetry is not the most utopian project ever devised by human beings, I don’t know what is.
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