Friday, August 03, 2007

Charles Simic -- New Poet Laureate

Charles Simic has been named the new Poet Laureate of the United States. This is an interesting choice in that Simic isn't the generically good type of poet were accustomed to seeing in the past few selections. Simic is challenging and has often been very political, including a stand against the Iraq War.

Here is some of a New York Times article:

But what kind of Poet Laureate will Simic be?

In an interview today in The Times, Simic seemed to downplay the idea that politics should play a role in his public actions. He told Motoko Rich: “That reminds me so much of the way the young Communists in the days of Stalin at big party congresses would ask, ‘What is the role of the writer?’”

Charles Simic
Charles Simic in 2003. (Photo by Richard Drew/The Associated Press)

But isn’t that question - “What is the role of the writer?” - one we are still asking? Do we know the answer yet?

In the past, to his credit, Simic - like generations of great poets before him - has not shied from political engagement. Witness the prescient advertisement above, which ran in The Times on October 1, 2002, before the start of the Iraq War. (Click here to see the whole thing.)

Simic’s name is on the bottom right. “It is … incumbent upon domestic critics to make their voices heard,” the ad reads. “It is the obligation and the privilege of elected representatives to raise hard questions and risk unpopularity in the broader national interest. It is the duty of concerned citizens to demand that they do so.”

Simic has also written, in a 1995 essay called “In Praise of Invective,” these ringing words: “There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when there comes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, rail at in the strongest possible language.”

Is this one of those moments?

Two other worthy articles -- less focused on the politics angle -- can be found here and here.

For a better sense of Simic the poet, it is worthwhile to check out the Academy of American Poets entry devoted to him and his work. Here is one of my favorites among his many fine poems:

The Initiate
by Charles Simic

St. John of the Cross wore dark glasses
As he passed me on the street.
St. Theresa of Avila, beautiful and grave,
Turned her back on me.

"Soulmate," they hissed. "It's high time."

I was a blind child, a wind-up toy . . .
I was one of death's juggling red balls
On a certain street corner
Where they peddle things out of suitcases.

The city like a huge cinema
With lights dimmed.
The performance already started.

So many blurred faces in a complicated plot.

The great secret which kept eluding me: knowing who I am . . .

The Redeemer and the Virgin,
Their eyes wide open in the empty church
Where the killer came to hide himself . . .

The new snow on the sidewalk bore footprints
That could have been made by bare feet.
Some unknown penitent guiding me.
In truth, I didn't know where I was going.
My feet were frozen,
My stomach growled.

Four young hoods blocking my way.
Three deadpan, one smiling crazily.

I let them have my black raincoat.

Thinking constantly of the Divine Love
and the Absolute had disfigured me.
People mistook me for someone else.
I heard voices after me calling out unknown names.
"I'm searching for someone to sell my soul to,"
The drunk who followed me whispered,
While appraising me from head to foot.

At the address I had been given.
The building had large X's over its windows.
I knocked but no one came to open.
By and by a black girl joined me on the steps.
She banged at the door till her fist hurt.

Her name was Alma, a propitious sign.
She knew someone who solved life's riddles
In a voice of an ancient Sumerian queen.
We had a long talk about that
While shivering and stamping our wet feet.

It was necessary to stay calm, I explained,
Even with the earth trembling,
And to continue to watch oneself
As if one were a complete stranger.

Once in Chicago, for instance,
I caught sight of a man in a shaving mirror
Who had my naked shoulders and face,
But whose eyes terrified me!
Two hard staring, all-knowing eyes!

After we parted, the night, the cold, and the endless walking
Brought on a kind of ecstasy.
I went as if pursued, trying to warm myself.

There was the East River; there was the Hudson.
Their waters shone like oil in sanctuary lamps.

Something supreme was occurring
For which there will never be any words.

The sky was full of racing clouds and tall buildings,
Whirling and whirling silently.

In that whole city you could hear a pin drop.
Believe me.
I thought I heard a pin drop and I went looking for it.

From The Book of Gods and Devils, published by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Charles Simic. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

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