The legacy of Charles Simić

The Serbian-American Pulitzer-winning poet, Charles (Dušan) Simić, died on 9th January this year.

Although his death is an immeasurable loss for both American and Serbian cultures, it seems that people in Serbia have never really grasped the importance of Simić for both countries. Why was Simić so significant and why was his body of work so revered in the United States but never received widespread recognition in Serbia?

First and foremost, he is one of the three writers/poets of Serbian origin who were the recipients of a highly esteemed award such as the Pulitzer, the Oscars of the literature world, if you will. The renowned scientist Mihajlo Pupin is one of them, having received the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for his autobiography.

Simić emigrated to the US (Chicago) in 1954 with his family, later referring to Hitler and Stalin as his “travel agents”. He went to the same high school as Ernest Hemingway, which many see as a premonition of his future career and proof that lightning does strike twice. He wasn’t thrilled by Chicago, which he saw as a grey industrial city.

„The city wrapped up in smoke where factory workers, their faces covered with grime, waited for buses. An immigrant’s paradise, you might say. I had Swedes, Poles, Germans, Italians, Jews, and Blacks for friends, who all took turns trying to explain America to me,” he said. However, he does credit Chicago for giving him his “first American identity”.

While he was attending night courses in Russian studies first at the University of Chicago and later at the University of New York, he did odd jobs to pay for his college tuition – a payroll clerk and house painter were just two of them. Simić published his first book of poetry called “What the Grass Says” at the age of 29, a quite remarkable feat considering that he didn’t even speak English until the age of 15.

As a poet, he hated pretentiousness and this disdain was clearly visible in his work – his poems were short, surreal, minimalist, to the point, as well as rife with irony or dark humour. “Every grand theory and noble sentiment ought to be first tested in the kitchen — and then in bed, of course,” he told an interviewer from the Paris Review.

Seeing poets as avid seekers of truth as their main role, Simić wrote the following in his essay “Poetry and Experience”:

“At least since [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Walt] Whitman, there’s a cult of experience in American poetry. Our poets, when one comes right down to it, are always saying: This is what happened to me. This is what I saw and felt. Truth, they never get tired of reiterating, is not something that already exists in the world, but something that needs to be rediscovered almost daily.”

A lot of his poems were marked by his childhood spent in Belgrade, during World War II, and the horrors of war he experienced. For instance, in his poem “Two Dogs”, he recalls how, at only 6 years of age, he watched Nazis, marched past his family house in Belgrade:

“The earth trembling, death going by …

A little white dog ran into the street

And got entangled with the soldiers’ feet.

A kick made him fly as if he had wings.

That’s what I keep seeing!

Night coming down. A dog with wings.”

As a boy in war-torn Belgrade, he was knocked out of bed twice by the bombings of the city. He recalled how he once explored a cemetery with friends, stumbled across two dead German soldiers and without glancing at the soldier’s face, snatched his helmet.

“It took me many years and meetings with some of my childhood friends from Belgrade to realize that I grew up in a slaughterhouse,” he told The Paris Review, adding that “whenever I read about a ‘just war’ in which thousands of innocents have died or will die, I want to jump out of my skin.”

Simić was never hesitant about criticizing politicians and heads of state who led countries into bloody wars like the one he survived. “I had a small, nonspeaking part/ In a bloody epic,” he wrote in a poem he called “Cameo Appearance” – “I was one of the/Bombed and fleeing humanity.” In the Georgia Review, Peter Stitt claimed that Simić’s biggest concern “is with the effect of cruel political structures upon ordinary human life.”

The 1990s and the disintegration of former Yugoslavia affected Simić greatly. He was a strong opponent of the rising Serbian nationalism during the early 1990s and as such, was dubbed “a traitor” and “a spy”. “Here is something we can all count on,” he wrote in 1993, “sooner or later our tribe always comes to ask us to agree to murder”.

As he grew older, the idea of his own mortality didn’t faze Simić much or drew him closer to religion or certain philosophical certainties. Instead, he saw death as a mysterious event which reveals how most of us remain strangers to ourselves until the very last day. In his poem “Late-Night Inquiry” he writes:

“Have you introduced yourself to yourself?”

Have you found a seat in your room

 For every one of your wayward selves?

 And can you do so before they take their bow and the curtain drops

As the match burns down to your fingertips?”

As a translator, Charles Simić was very important for Serbian literature, because by translating works of the greats such as Vasko Popa, Ivan Lalić, Milorad Pavić, Radmila Lazić and Novica Tadić, he contributed to the popularisation of the Serbian literature in the US. He also taught English and creative writing for over 30 years at the University of New Hampshire. 

When, in his interview for the Paris Review, he was asked to give a reason why he became a poet, Simić said simply: “I write to annoy God, to make Death laugh. I write because I can’t get it right.”

This post is also available in: Italiano

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