An Introduction to the Poetry of Charles Simic

SELECTED POEMS 1963-2003 by Charles Simic
(Faber, 2004, 160pp, £12.99)

Charles Simic belongs to no poetic school; his cartoon-like lyrics of myth, statement and surreal juxtaposition find their precise analogue in the boxes of found objects created by Joseph Cornell, about whom he has written. Born in Eastern Europe, transplanted to New York in the 1950s, his vision of America is a bizarre synthesis of Emily Dickinson, John Berryman and David Byrne: this career-spanning gathering (with one notable exception) offers an ideal introduction for the new reader.

But first, a brief word is necessary about how 'selected' this volume, Faber's third attempt to launch Simic in this country, actually is. In 1995, Frightening Toys appeared, which cherry-picked from four of Simic’s collections during the period 1986–1992: Unending Blues, The World Doesn’t End, The Little Book of Gods and Devils and Hotel Insomnia. It was a handy collation, became a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, garnered enthusiastic reviews and, importantly, included twenty pages of prose poems from the second title listed above, which won Simic the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. These are nowhere to be seen in this new 'selected' for some reason.

Two years later came Looking for Trouble
, subtitled 'Selected Early and More Recent Poems': the 'early' contents came from the period 1971-82 and the 'more recent' was represented by generous portions of the 1994 A Wedding in Hell and Walking the Black Cat from 1996. Jackstraws appeared in 1999, but some poems from it reappear here alongside about 70% of the contents of the two other complementary Faber volumes. Given this, why has The World Doesn't End now been passed over? Apart from winning the Pulitzer for Simic (no mean feat for prose-poems) this material is as vital as any of his recent work and possibly more important. It also seems like short-changing loyal readers and supporters of Simic, but to balance this, those nice people at Faber do also include material from Night Picnic and The Voice at 3.00 am, from 2001 and 2003 respectively. Okay, now back to the poems…

Although Simic has questioned elements of the phrase, 'folk surrealism' [1] aptly defines his tone and manner. Early 'object poems' such as 'Fork', included here, or 'Watermelons' (in Looking for Trouble) possess an almost Imagist impulse: they leap from one association, often visual, to another, forcing the reader to see it anew. Published in the mid–1960s, they now appear to be an early strategy. More representative of Simic's developing style is 'Brooms', which, though it begins in this manner, launches off into five sections involving Bosch, Judas, Copernicus, the syntax of fairy-tales and a shrugging, panoramic sweep of history:

          And then finally there's your grandmother
          Sweeping the dust of the nineteenth century
          Into the twentieth, and your grandfather plucking
          A straw out of the broom to pick his teeth.

          Long winter nights.
          Dawns a thousand years deep.
          Kitchen windows like heads
          Bandaged for toothache.

The concision and telegraphic shortening within statements may owe something to Emily Dickinson. Simic's later work, however, was to take the domestic and the historical sweep and play between them: by the time of 1992's Hotel Insomnia, a knowing lyric called 'Folk Songs' begins thus:

          Sausage-makers of History,
          The bloody kind,
          You all hail from a village
          Where the dog barking at the moon
          Is the only poet.

This concern with History becomes acute when Simic is creating landscapes of  totalitarian repression and post-Cold War realism: 'Dream Avenue', a later poem, talks of 'monumental, millennial decrepitude' and within it, 'a few solitary speck-sized figures' beside 'the long row of grey buildings and their many windows'. Reading Simic, however, is not a depressing experience: it is often hilarious. 'Crazy about Her Shrimp' appears a few pages later, one of the great poems about cooking and sex. [2]

Recent poems remain concerned about History: ovens, camps and guards appear beside barber shops, car graveyards, junk food and motels. For the latter items of 'American culture'on this list, think of the David Byrne film True Stories and you’re close to Simic's view of his adopted country. Since about 1980, the year of Classic Ballroom Dance [3], he has been pacing out his recurrent obsessions. Given his stated interest in chess and the structural limits of blues, this works as a stabilising sense of form, allowing him to pare away at the same stick over twenty, thirty years. Another useful parallel, bearing in mind Simic's admiration of Thelonious Monk, is to the jazz musician's redefinition of a classic ballad: Chet Baker, Anita O'Day and Rickie Lee Jones all attempt 'My Funny Valentine'– the essential chords remain but the interpretations differ.

Simic still worries about 'time's invisible penitentiary' and about being 'on death row' (both from 'Serving Time', 2003), just down the corridor from the jailors in the condemned cells ('Brooms', back in 1974). His tone, however,has acquired extra patina and touches of southern gothic within these landscapes. For a cartoon analogue, try the endless recurrent roads and cliffs of Road Runner and Wile.E.Coyote, or the constant yet shifting mesa topography of Herriman's great 'Krazy Kat'.[4] I have included several illustrative parallels in an attempt to give you a position from which to approach Simic's poetry,but the essential flavour of it is highly distinctive. This volume, even without The World Doesn't End, is the place to start.

          © M. C. Caseley 2004

[1] This phrase comes from the Artful Dodge interview with Simic, which took place on 16 March 1993 and can be accessed at www.wooster.edu/artfuldodge/interviews/simic – recommended. Another very funny, brief recent interview can be found at The Cortland Review site: www.cortlandreview.com/issuefour/interview4
[2] No, there aren't many.
[3] All Simic's books, and many of his poems, have wonderful titles : Austerities
(1982) includes 'Spoons with Realistic Dead Flies on Them' and 'Madonnas Touched up with Goatees'. If Andrew Motion wrote poems with titles like these, you'd want to read them, wouldn't you ?
[4] If you haven't looked at a colour George Herriman 'Krazy Kat' page, then do so: it is as great as they say. James Joyce was an admirer.