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Charles Simic: From Belgrade to Poet Laureate

September 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: For 35 years, Charles Simic has lived in a house on Bow Lake in the town of Strafford, in southern New Hampshire. Here, Simic wrote numerous volumes of poetry, won a Pulitzer and other prizes. He’s a prolific essayist and author of a delightful memoir of his youth.

In many ways, he fits the profile for a poet laureate, but there is at least one interesting twist…

Poet laureate is a long way to come for a kid who didn’t really speak English until 15.

CHARLES SIMIC, Poet Laureate, United States: It’s astonished me. I mean, when they called me and after I realized precisely what you were saying, that I ended up being a poet laureate to the United States, you know, starting in Belgrade, expecting that I would continue to live there for the rest of my life. But then lots of things happened, and…

JEFFREY BROWN: History happened, didn’t it?

CHARLES SIMIC: History happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Simic was a child when Germany bombed Yugoslavia in World War II. He remembers being thrown from his bed by a bomb that destroyed a nearby building. His earliest years saw occupation, civil war, and the beginnings of a Stalinist regime in his homeland.

Simic’s father made his way to the U.S., but along with his mother, Simic and his younger brother were arrested trying to flee. It wasn’t until 1954 that they were allowed to leave, first to Paris, and then with the help of a refugee aid agency, to the U.S. The family settled outside Chicago.

CHARLES SIMIC: I used to joke, I used to say, “Hitler and Stalin, it’s thanks to them that I became an American poet.”

A sense of history

JEFFREY BROWN: The sense of history is everywhere in your writing, in your poetry and in your prose.

CHARLES SIMIC: Well, history from the point of view of an individual who is in the midst of events that are beyond his or her control. I mean, a poet as a historian can also, I mean, write about the leaders, the great battles, the military successes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean a sort of epic poetry?

CHARLES SIMIC: Epic poetry, I mean, that...

JEFFREY BROWN: But that's not you.

CHARLES SIMIC: It's not me. I write from, you know, the point of view of somebody who -- a refugee on the road. I remember I wrote once a poem about the Bosnian war in the '90s, and there was a -- just caught a little bit of sort of footage of a woman with two little kids. And she's running down the road, some road -- God knows where she is or where she's going -- and I said, "Well, this is me and my mother and my brother running, and history repeats itself."

And so, yes, I mean, a poet is the one -- my kind of poet is the one who notices such things.

"December 21st."

These wars that end

Only to start up again

Somewhere else

Like barber's clippers,

Or like these winters

With their bleak days

One can trace back to Cain.

All I've ever done --

It seems -- is go poking

In the ruins with a stick

Until I was covered

With soot and ashes

I couldn't wash off,

Even if I wanted to.

From city to country life

JEFFREY BROWN: Simic came to the University of New Hampshire in 1973. Now a professor emeritus, he's taught several generations of students and continued his own writing.

CHARLES SIMIC: It first starts in a little notebook like this. I mean, these are just bits and pieces.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it all starts this way?

CHARLES SIMIC: Yes, it starts this way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Simic's wife, Helen, was also born in Yugoslavia, but the two met in New York. They call themselves city people who happen to have left city life long ago, to raise a daughter and son here in the relative peace of woods and water.

So a lot of the experiences you write about come from the city, but you write them by the lake.

CHARLES SIMIC: It's true. Precisely. I'm a much more alert observer when I'm in the city than in the country. And I'm still a stranger here.

JEFFREY BROWN: A stranger after, what, 35 years?

CHARLES SIMIC: Thirty-five years.

JEFFREY BROWN: "It's a great stroke of luck when it comes to poetry," Simic once wrote, "that human beings do not know themselves very well."

CHARLES SIMIC: If we had this self-knowledge, if we had, you know, ideas about who we are, what we are, I mean, it would be very difficult to write poetry. I mean, the best things that happen in poems are discoveries. They're accidents -- what comes out of our imagination, out of our deepest self, out of our memory -- and when they're good, they always surprise us.

"The Absentee Landlord."

Surely, he could make it easier

When it comes to inquiries

As to his whereabouts.

Rein in our foolish speculations,

Silence our voices raised in anger,

And not leave us alone

With that curious feeling

We sometimes have

Of there being a higher purpose

To our residing here

Where nothing works

And everything needs fixing.

The least he could do is put up a sign:

AWAY ON BUSINESS

So we could see it,

In the graveyard where he collects the rent

Or in the night sky

Where we address our complaints to him.

The role of poetry

JEFFREY BROWN: One of your newest poems is called "My Turn to Confess," and it begins, "A dog trying to write a poem on why he barks. That's me, dear reader!"

CHARLES SIMIC: Yeah, well, that's the way I think of myself. I mean, we are all barking at the moon. We are barking at some injustice out there.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing that I see in your essays about poetry is that you eschew any grand pronouncements. You don't like to say, "Poetry's role is this," or, "Poetry should do that."

CHARLES SIMIC: I hate that. I mean, it reminds me so much of communism. I mean, they used to have party congresses, and they will say, "Soviet writers must do this." "The poets of the great Soviet Union should" -- no. Poets are best when they're completely left alone. They'll do what they please, and if they're lucky, they'll write some, you know, good work.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, but here you are, and you've accepted this very public position, poet laureate.

CHARLES SIMIC: Poet laureate. Well, I'm going to remind people, you know, of that. I'm going to remind them that, you know, what poems can bring to readers, what poetry is good for, as it were.

Reminding people of their humanity

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you tell them what poetry is good for, what are you going to say?

CHARLES SIMIC: I remember once -- I was teaching in the schools in El Paso, Texas. And a student had asked in the class, asked me what poetry was good for. And I was stunned, because it's such a serious question. It's a difficult question. And suddenly a hand went up. It was a young woman. So I said, you know, "What do you think?" And she said, "To remind people of their own humanity." That struck me as so sensible, so moving, so poignant.

JEFFREY BROWN: "To remind people of their own humanity."

CHARLES SIMIC: You know, I'm mortal, I exist, I have my own conscience, I have my own being, myself. Here I am with this universe. Maybe there's a God; maybe there's no God. This is my predicament, my human predicament. Poetry reminds readers of that.

JIM LEHRER: Charles Simic will answer your questions in our Insider Forum. To participate and to see and hear other poets read their work, visit our Web site at PBS.org.