Charles Simic, one of the most innovative voices in American poetry of the last half century, died on Monday at the age of 84 at an assisted living facility in Dover, New Hampshire. The cause of death was complications from dementia, The New York Times reported.
Born in Belgrade (Serbia) in 1938, during his childhood he suffered the horrors of the war, which left a mark that he never could or even tried to get rid of. “The past cannot be erased, it is what shapes us,” he said in an interview with EL PAÍS in 2015.
Author of 30 books of of essays, poetry and miscellaneous prose, in 1990 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for The World Doesn’t End. Any one of his poetry books can serve as an excellent introduction to his unique universe, although perhaps the most direct gateway is his memoir, A Fly in the Soup, a title that encapsulates the ironic, visceral and irreverent tone that dominates his work.
He was 15 years old when he arrived in the United States from his native Serbia, then part of Yugoslavia, after an agonizing stay in Paris with his mother, waiting to be granted a visa that would allow them to join his father in Chicago, where the latter worked as an electronics engineer. Although he could barely speak English, he immediately adopted the language, which he mastered with astonishing speed, eventually becoming one of its most original and innovative poets.
After high school, he worked as a proofreader and delivery boy for the Chicago Sun-Times, moving to New York in 1958, where he enrolled in college and worked in various trades while writing in the evening. The city left a deep impression on him, and the poet paid tribute to it in The Book of Gods and Devils.
Simic had an overpowering, fascinating personality. His omnivorous curiosity led him to use everything as an ingredient in his poetry. In conversation he awarded more importance to any matter related to daily life than to literary questions. He liked to talk about food and drink, jazz and blues, painting and cinema, stressing his interest in Westerns and film noir, which seemed to him the best possible X-ray of the country to which he had emigrated: “Film noir has always seemed to me the most reliable representation of the American soul,” he said.
The other element of the culture of his adopted country that he made his own with relish was Black music, jazz and blues. The poet was five or six years old when he turned on the radio in his hometown during the war. “The important thing for me was not the speeches of Hitler or Stalin, but jazz,” he said. Regarding the nefarious historical figures who forever marked the destiny of his family and his country, forcing him into exile, he would joke that “Hitler and Stalin were my travel agents.” It was his way of transcending the most adverse circumstances, giving them a positive spin. “There is no horror that surpasses that of war,” he maintained. Yet in the midst of it, he and his childhood friends always managed to find an open space for play and hope. “It is a contradiction very similar to the one that nests in the soul of poetry,” he said. Such a conception of what it means to be a poet accompanied him for the rest of his life.
It took him a long time to shape the voice that inhabited him. While he was doing his military service in France and Germany, he wrote poetry at night, as he would always do. When he later reviewed what he had written in his beginnings, he realized that the great poets whose work he had passionately read had erased his own voice. “My poems were not mine,” he discovered. “They were by Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot.”
He had to start over from scratch, this time relying on Central European, Latin American and especially French models, such as Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and especially the Surrealists. His more than 30 books of poetry earned him distinctions such as the 1990 Pulitzer Prize or the appointment of Poet Laureate to the US Library of Congress in 2007.
His most notable titles include books of miscellaneous prose such as The Unemployed Fortune-Teller and volumes of verse, such as Hotel Insomnia, My Noiseless Entourage, The World Doesn’t End and Other Poems, or Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell.
As for his vision of poetry, he was very clear that it was not something that should be kept away from people, as an elitist activity reserved for sensitive souls, hence the rejection of Pound and Eliot when he discovered that they had infected his poems. When I asked him to define what poetry is, he replied: “Something that my dog can understand.” And he recited these verses: “Sausage-makers of History, The bloody kind, You all hail from a village. Where the dog barking at the moon. Is the only poet.”
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