Profile of Charles Simic, featured poet for John Holmes Memorial Poetry Reading

Charles Simic is pictured in this portrait by Zoran Tucić from the 1999 book 'Razgovori.' Courtesy Zoran Tucić

Charles Simic will read his work at the Hirsh Reading Room in Tisch Library today, beginning at 3:30 p.m. The Serbian-American poet, translator, essayist and memoir writer will be reading select poems from his latest poetry collection, “The Lunatic” (2015). Throughout his career, Simic has published over 20 books and been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award, the Griffin Prize, the MacArthur Fellowship and the Wallace Stevens Award. Simic was also the 2007 Poet Laureate of the United States.

A large portion of Simic’s poetry milieu deals with war in simultaneously heartbreaking and humorous ways. Simic grew up in Belgrade, in former Yugoslavia, during World War II, when the region was being heavily bombed. Simic’s family had to evacuate, and Simic migrated to the United States at the age of 16 in 1954.

Simic explained his early interactions with poetry in a piece for the New York Review of Books.

“The only extensive exposure I had to poetry was in the year I attended school in Paris before coming to the United States,” Simic wrote. “They not only had us read Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine, but they made us memorize certain poems of theirs and recite them in front of the class … Today, it’s clear to me that my love of poetry comes from those readings and those recitations, which left a deeper impact on me than I realized when I was young.”

Simic’s choice to write his poetry in English as opposed to his native Serbian has also come up, and his response to this question harkens back to the tone of his poetry.

“Not being a native speaker of English, they also ask me why I didn’t write my poems in Serbian and wonder how I arrived at the decision to ditch my mother tongue,” Simic wrote. “Again, my answer seems frivolous to them, when I explain that for poetry to be used as an instrument of seduction, the first requirement is that it be understood. No American girl was likely to fall for a guy who reads her love poems in Serbian as they sip Coke.”

While Simic’s poems cover a large range of tones, no matter the gruesomeness of the topic, the reader never feels subject to its harshness. Simic delivers his images in such a way that one is too focused on the delicacy of the image itself and its delivery to contemplate the larger picture the poem is hinting at.

A great example is Simic’s most recent contribution to The New Yorker, “The Infinite” (2017). The poem begins with the line, “The infinite yawns and keeps yawning,” and then goes on to ask a series of questions personifying the infinite and speculating what it thinks about. “Does it ever sit over a glass of wine / and philosophize?” The mundane quality of this image paired with the ever-expanding limitlessness of the universe almost makes the infinite more human or less daunting to try to understand. If the reader can imagine the infinite thinking over a glass of wine similarly to watching a family member ruminate, it might make the concept more approachable.

By the end of the poem, Simic flips on the humanity of the infinity by posing, “Does it find us good to eat?” Suddenly, the reader is reminded that the infinite is bigger than us and will go on long after they are gone.

“The Infinite” is just one great example of Simic’s work, and there are plenty more to be heard at his reading.