For Charles Simic—one of America’s most famous poets, a former poetry editor of the Paris Review and former U.S. Poet Laureate, and perhaps one of the best-known poets writing in English—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s publication of New and Selected Poems: 1962–2012 is an especially powerful event; until now, US readers had to buy two “selected poems” volumes, one from Braziller representing Simic’s early poems and another from Harcourt, gathering poems from Simic’s books since the mid-80s. For the first time, they’re all on display in one hefty tome, a concise and complete primer on one of the signature 20th-century poetic styles.
Assembling a “selected poems” volume is, for a poet, an obvious occasion to reflect on the past—to ponder where the poems came from, where they seemed to be going, and where they finally arrived. Simic, who turns 75 this May, was born in Belgrade, Serbia, which was then part of Yugoslavia; he came to the United States in 1954 when he was 16-year-old, spending his adolescence in Chicago. Simic was as open to the new cultural powers of America—jazz and abstract expressionist painting, for instance, have been lifelong passions—as he was unalterably shaped by the violence of his childhood in Yugoslavia during World War II.
If the body of work represented in this volume does not exactly trace Simic’s biography, it is nonetheless a poetry born of Simic’s particular circumstance: European poetry as written by an American; American poetry that only a poet who lived through Europe’s dark hours could write. “I don’t really insist on telling about myself,” Simic says. “I always felt it’s most important to write a good poem, so it’s okay if my mind strays and changes the plot. I, like most people, begin with some experience that I had, but in the process, I’m very happy if there is another alternative. I think the war is probably one place where I pretty much say what I remember, but everything else is really 50% reality and 50% invention, sometimes 100% invention.”
Simic published his first poems in 1959; they appeared in “the winter issue of Chicago Review,” Simic recalls. He was as eager an any young writer to see his name in print: “There was a bookstore here [in New York], on the corner of 8th Street, called 8th Street Bookstore, then it moved across the street—it was a famous bookstore. And I worked at N.Y.U. on Waverly Place at the time, in the payroll department; I used to come every day to check if the issue was in.” Simic adds that readers won’t find any of these very early poems in New and Selected. “They were no good,” according to the author.
What the Grass Says, Simic’s first book, was published in 1967 by Kayak Books, an imprint tied to the legendary California-based literary journal Kayak, which published early works by many now-famous poets. As that title suggests, Simic was, from the beginning, interested in elemental imagery; stripped down, simple sentences; and a kind of vaguely funny spookiness that almost suggests surrealism. His work both fit in with and stood apart from the influential poems of the late ’60s and ’70s, the “deep image” poetry of W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, and James Wright. Simic’s best early poems—most of them truly extraordinary—feel haunted by his war-torn past, by the political fervor of the Vietnam era, and, more than anything else, by a deeply familiar sense of strangeness, a simple bafflement at being a person. Poems like “Fear” blend a little bit of haiku with a little bit of fable and a little bit of Zen koan, resulting in a poem that feels old, but also timeless and somehow also contemporary:
Fear passes from man to man
As one leaf passes its shudder
All at once the whole tree is trembling,
And there is no sign of the wind.
It’s a parable on the spread of political hysteria that applies to that time as much as it does to this or any time. Then there is the exquisite “Fork,” part of a series of poems that riff on everyday objects, making them wild by giving them sentience:
The strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles the 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:
It’s head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.
The rest of the bird? What? But then, with rereading, the poem sinks in, makes sense, shows the small acts of violence that infiltrate our everyday lives.
Simic notes that compiling this book shows him his own obsessions. As for why meat appears in “Fork” and so many other poems, as do butcher shops, Simic says, “The killing of animals has always upset me. When I was a kid in Yugoslavia, my grandmother used to go in the yard and cut the throats of chickens. She’d say, ‘Put your foot here.’ I also saw pigs being butchered. It’s just always really upset me. At the same time, if you like to eat—and I love to eat—you go out to eat, and you look and say, ‘Yummy!’ ”
Simic traces his sense of humor to similarly conflicted circumstances: “My father’s family—they were all very funny. Serbs in general have a great sense of humor. During the Second World War, in Belgrade, during the German Occupation, while the Allies were bombing the city—they were bombing the Germans but mostly hitting their allies, us—people weren’t glum all the time. They would tell jokes. I remember being in a cellar—we used to go down to the cellars when there was an air raid—and somebody would say something funny, and all these people who were down there cowering. We heard bombs exploding someplace else, and that’s a sound you don’t forget, it’s like inside the Earth some kind of deep rumbling. Someone would say something funny and everyone would laugh. That’s black humor. I guess you survive that way.”
His beginnings, Simic says, made him inevitably pessimistic, but he also says that he’s “a cheerful pessimist.” So are the speakers of his poems, which, in shape and style, haven’t changed much since the beginning. There was the notable detour into prose poetry—Simic’s collection of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End, won the 1990 Pulitzer. These little fables are simultaneously Simic’s funniest and scariest works, beginning with ridiculous scenarios like this: “I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole me right back. Then the gypsies stole me again. This went on for some time...” They end with impossible events that, as in the most enduring fables, embody true feelings, such as a poem that recounts an immigrant father talking to his children. “ ‘I love America,’ he’d tell us. We were going to make a million dollars manufacturing objects we had seen in dreams that night.”
The new poems in this latest collection, those not selected from a previously published volume, are a lot like Simic’s old poems; they do the things Simic does best—things no one else can do: they look to the future by way of the past, they worry by hoping. In a new poem called “The Future,” Simic says:
It must have a reason for concealing
Its many surprises from us,
And that reason must have something to do
With either compassion or malice.
I know most of us fear it,
And that surely is the explanation
We’ve never been properly introduced,
Though we are neighbors
This fear—of time, of change, of death—the way Simic describes it, is almost a comforting one, something we all have in common, something we share the way two children might share an ice cream cone, something only a cheerful pessimist could show us.