In the U.S, poetry's most visible ambassador is the Poet Laureate of the United States, an honorary position bestowed upon our most distinguished bards by the Librarian of Congress, usually for a year. VOA's Adam Phillips spoke with the newest Poet Laureate of the United States: 70 year old, Belgrade-born, Charles Simic, and prepared this profile.
With his heavily-lined face and deep-set eyes, Simic looks every bit the stereotype of an elder poet with a complex inner life. Yet he is best known for the simplicity of his poems, which are accessible, though tinged with surrealism, as in this excerpt from his poem "Evening Walk."
The sky at the road's end cloudless and blue.
The night birds like children Who won't come to dinner.
Lost children in the darkening woods.
Many poet laureates have made it their mission to expose everyday Americans to the joys of poetry. But Simic says that poetry is already more popular in the U.S. than in any other Western nation. He points to the millions of poetry books sold here every year, the myriad university poetry writing programs, and the consistently high attendance at poetry readings he has seen across the country, from cities to rural hamlets.
"So isn't that there is an emergency for something to be done," he says. "American poetry is in good shape. It's a sophisticated audience, and they've been coming for years!"
When he began writing poetry during the 1950s, he rarely met others who wrote poetry, but that has changed dramatically. "There is something about poetry that fulfills a need," he says. "[Today] all kinds of institutions try to obliterate the individual as a unique self. So poetry has always been a place where that self, aware of its own mortality, of its own insignificance, can say something about the strangeness of ... that consciousness of knowing 'here I am alone, trying to make sense of things.'"
Sometimes Simic focuses on the loneliness one can feel with another in the presence of impartial nature, as in this excerpt from "Clouds Gathering," which takes place on the glorious New Hampshire seacoast as summer gives way to fall.
It seemed the kind of life we wanted.
Wild strawberries and cream in the morning. Sunlight in every room.
The two of us walking by the sea naked. Some evenings, however, we found ourselves, Unsure of what comes next.
Like tragic actors in a theater on fire, With birds circling over our heads
The dark pines strangely still,
Each rock we stepped on bloodied by the sunset....
Simic says that American poetry is characterized by its confessional content, as if Americans believe that the small details of one's life are automatically an interesting subject to others. That style would be out of place in Eastern Europe, where Simic spent much of his childhood and which is often the subject of his poetry.
In his typical paradoxical style, Simic remembers his childhood in war torn Belgrade, then being heavily bombed by German warplanes, as kind of "fun."
"Not the bombing itself, of course," he says with a twinkle. "The bombing always scared you. But the war itself, if you are a kid right in the heart of the city and your parents are preoccupied with all the awful things that are going on... there is minimal parental supervision. You see a lot of stuff!"
In Simic's poem "Cameo Appearance," he recalls watching with his children a videotape of an old movie newsreel. It briefly shows him as a child, standing with a crowd amid the ruins of a neighborhood home, but his kids could not identify him. Here it is, in part:
"That's me there," I said to the kiddies,
I'm squeezed between the man
With the two bandaged arms raised
And the old woman with her mouth open
As if she were showing us a tooth
That hurts badly. The hundred times
I rewound the tape, not once
Could they catch sight of me
In that huge gray crowd,
That was like any other gray crowd…
Simic says that when he first arrived in New York with his parents as a teenager, he was struck by the brilliance of the colors in the New World – the bright yellow taxis, the pink dresses and gaily patterned clothing as well as the music of his adopted homeland. He was especially moved by the poignant ways they co-existed with the grime of Times Square and the suffering he also saw on the streets of Manhattan. In his poem "The City," Simic focuses on homeless men and women.
At least one crucified on every corner.
The eyes of a mystic, a madman, murderer.
They know it's truly for nothing,
The eyes do.
All the martyr's sufferings
On parade. Exalted mother of us all
Tending her bundles on the sidewalk, Speaking to each as if it were a holy child...