Audio

Charles Simic

August 10, 2007

Curtis Fox: This is thepoetryfoundation.org Podcast for the week of August 13th 2007. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the new poet laureate reads a few of his poems. As you’ve probably heard, earlier this week Charles Simic was named poet laureate by the Library of Congress. On that same day, it was also announced that he won the Wallace Stevens Award, a $100,000 prize given by the Academy of American Poets. A few months ago, before he became simultaneously rich and famous, we recorded Charles Simic reading a few of his poems, and we thought it’d be a good moment to play them for you. Simic is nearly 70 years old. He lives in New Hampshire, but he was born in Belgrade, and came to the US with his family when he was a teenager. In other words, he spent his formative years in Europe before, during and just after World War 2. During the war, he and his family were evacuated from their home to escape bombing. As he put it in an online interview with the Cortland Review, “my travel agents were Hitler and Stalin”. As a result, many of his poems are rooted in a history that includes political upheaval and war in a way that other American poets simply haven’t experienced. Take for example his poem “Prodigy”, which was written in the 1970s.

 


Charles Simic: It’s a poem that describes my discovery of chess. It takes place in Belgrade, Yugoslavia where I was born in 1938. This is during the second World War.

 

Curtis Fox: In the poem, there’s a mention of a Roman graveyard. Simic says when the poem was translated from English into other langauges, the translators assumed he meant a Roman Catholic graveyard.

 

Charles Simic: But actually it was an ancient Roman graveyard, because Belgrade was a part of the Roman Empire. The poem really tells a story of the discovery of chess, I didn’t really have to change very much from the original experience.

 

Curtis Fox: Here’s Charles Simic, reading “Prodigy”.

I grew up bent over   
a chessboard.

I loved the word endgame.

All my cousins looked worried.

It was a small house
near a Roman graveyard.   
Planes and tanks
shook its windowpanes.

A retired professor of astronomy   
taught me how to play.

That must have been in 1944.

In the set we were using,
the paint had almost chipped off   
the black pieces.

The white King was missing   
and had to be substituted for.

I’m told but do not believe   
that that summer I witnessed   
men hung from telephone poles.

I remember my mother   
blindfolding me a lot.
She had a way of tucking my head   
suddenly under her overcoat.

In chess, too, the professor told me,   
the masters play blindfolded,   
the great ones on several boards   
at the same time.

 

Curtis Fox: Charles Simic, reading “Prodigy”. There’s an image in that poem about men hanging from telephone poles, which I didn’t understand and asked him about.

 

Charles Simic: What the Germans did to frighten the local population — First of all, they would execute hostages. Anytime something happened to a German soldier, a soldier got killed, a hundred people they would round up indiscriminately and they’d shoot them. But sometimes they’d hang them on the main drag in Belgrade from lampposts to frighten the population even more.

 

… I’m told but do not believe / that that summer I witnessed / men hung from telephone poles.

 

It’s hard for me to remember correctly because later I saw so many photographs that I don’t remember if I actually did see myself.

 

Curtis Fox: Charles Simic is known as a poet who often blurs the line between ordinary reality and the extraordinary. His poetry has often been called the surreal, but as some people have pointed out, that doesn’t characterize it very accurately. According to the critic Vernon Young, “He speaks by the fable. His method is to transpose historical actuality into a surreal key”. Some of his best known poems give life to inanimate objects, making them seem unaccountably strange as if the world right in front of us is not at all what it appears to be. But his language is always clear and orderly.

 

Charles Simic: This is a poem called “Fork”. I wrote a poem also about a spoon and a knife. Actually, “Knife” is quite long. “Spoon” is a little longer, but “Fork” is very short. Here it is.

 

This strange thing must have crept

Right out of hell.

It resembles a bird’s foot

Worn around the cannibal’s neck.

 

As you hold it in your hand,

As you stab with it into a piece of meat,

It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:

Its head which like your fist

Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.

 

Curtis Fox: Charles Simic reading “Fork”. In the next and last poem we’re going to hear, he turns his attention to another familiar object.

 

Charles Simic: My Shoes

 

Shoes, secret face of my inner life:   

Two gaping toothless mouths,

Two partly decomposed animal skins   

Smelling of mice nests.

 

My brother and sister who died at birth   

Continuing their existence in you,

Guiding my life

Toward their incomprehensible innocence.

 

What use are books to me

When in you it is possible to read   

The Gospel of my life on earth

And still beyond, of things to come?

 

I want to proclaim the religion

I have devised for your perfect humility   

And the strange church I am building   

With you as the altar.

 

Ascetic and maternal, you endure:

Kin to oxen, to Saints, to condemned men,   

With your mute patience, forming

The only true likeness of myself.

 

Curtis Fox: “My Shoes” by the new poet laureate, Charles Simic. You can read all three of these poems, and a lot more by Charles Simic, on our website, poetryfoundation.org. You might also want check out the podcast we did with him about the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. Click on “Audio and Podcasts” then click “View All Podcasts”, and you’ll see it listed there with more than 75 others. Charles Simic’s latest book is Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek Under Your Skirt, illustrated by Howie Michels and published by Bloomsburry USA. Please let us know what you think of this program, where our motto is:

 

William Carlos Williams: You should never explain a poem, but it always happens nevertheless.

 

Curtis Fox: Email your comments to podcast@poetryfoundation.org. A listener recently emailed us saying he couldn’t understand what William Carlos Williams was saying there in our motto.

 

William Carlos Williams: You should never explain a poem, but it always happens nevertheless.

 

Curtis Fox: He’s saying, you should never explain a poem, but it always helps nevertheless. You should never explain a motto either, but what the heck. The theme music used comes from the Claudia Quintet. For the poetryfoundation.org Podcast, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

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