Thursday, August 02, 2007

Charles Simic, Poet Laureate

Images of nature tend to be very dark in Charles Simic’s work. Though self-described as a “city poet,” there is both menace and whimsy to be found everywhere in the work of the newly announced U.S. Poet Laureate. His influences include jazz and growing up in what was then Yugoslavia under National Socialism and Communism, having said: “I’m sort of the product of history; Hitler and Stalin were my travel agents.”

In an interview Simic clearly connects those influences:

“Yugoslavia was then a Communist country and in the first years of Communist rule, it was prohibited to listen to jazz. Jazz was regarded as a kind of decadent art form, an invention of the capitalists to undermine socialist youth. You could go to jail for listening to jazz. I know, for example, one of the poets I translated, Ivan Lalic, was then a student at the University of Zagreb and was a Communist party member. He was thrown out of the party for listening to jazz records. Which made it even more fun. So this, like a lot of forbidden things, became a secret pleasure. I remember later on going to houses of older boys who had records and listening to something like Bessie Smith with the volume turned down really low and the poor mother fretting in the next room saying ‘Oh God, those kids are going to get us all in trouble.’”

Simic is a prolific and rewarding poet, accurately described by the Librarian of Congress as “both accessible and deep.” For further reading Hotel Insomnia and Return to a Place Lit By a Glass of Milk are highly recommended. (His poem "Crepuscule with Nellie" was also included in Everyman's Library's Jazz Poems, reviewed here.)