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Charles Simic is the new 'public face' of poetry

STYLE & CULTURE

The U.S. poet laureate is known for works that are sophisticated yet accessible.

August 03, 2007|From Times wire reports

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic, who learned English as a teenage immigrant, will be the new U.S. poet laureate, the Library of Congress announced Thursday.

Simic, who lives in Strafford, N.H., will replace another New Hampshire poet, Donald Hall of Wilmot, who said Thursday he was delighted by Simic's selection. The poet laureate program promotes poetry across the nation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Charles Simic: An article in Friday's Calendar section about Charles Simic's appointment as U.S. poet laureate referred to the Academy of American Poets as the American Academy of Poets.

Separately, the American Academy of Poets announced that Simic was the winner of its Wallace Stevens Award for "outstanding and proven mastery" of the art of poetry. Executive Director Tree Swenson said the announcement was moved up to Thursday instead of today because of Simic's laureate appointment.

"The fact that he has been appointed just reconfirms the importance of Charles Simic's work in the contemporary poetry landscape," Swenson said.

The laureate appointment, which can be one year or two, comes with a $35,000 annual stipend. The award from the American Academy of Poets carries a $100,000 prize.

Simic, 69, received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant of $500,000 for the period 1984 to 1989. He won the 1990 Pulitzer for poetry for his collection "The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems."

His reaction to the brace of honors Thursday was humorous. "Now I just have to break a leg. It's just too much luck," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm just overwhelmed by the amount of good luck, being a superstitious person."

Simic said he had no plans for extravagant spending: "I'm almost 70 years old. I gotta put it in the bank." He said when he got the MacArthur, he "wined and dined the wife and kids."

He has published more than 60 books in the U.S. and abroad, including 18 books of poetry. He began teaching at the University of New Hampshire in 1973, where he is professor emeritus of creative writing and literature.

"He's sort of a Renaissance man. He's a very worldly and sophisticated and intelligent poet," said Jonathan Galassi, president of book publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux and a former president of the Academy of American Poets. "He's a very open and accessible person with no pretensions who is kind, so I think he will be a very good public face for poetry."

Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938, and his childhood was disrupted by World War II. He moved to Paris with his mother when he was 15 and joined his father in New York a year later, in 1954. He has been a U.S. citizen for 36 years.

"I am especially touched and honored to be selected because I am an immigrant boy who didn't speak English until I was 15," he said.

Simic graduated from the same suburban Chicago high school as Ernest Hemingway, where he started writing poetry in high school to attract girls, he said.

Simic's first collection, "What the Grass Says," was published in 1967. It was noted for its surrealist poems.

Simic is known for short, clear poems. His poem "Stone" often appears in anthologies. It begins: "Go inside a stone / That would be my way. / Let somebody else become a dove / Or gnash with a tiger's tooth. / I am happy to be a stone. . . . "

"He handles language with the skill of a master craftsman, yet his poems are easily accessible, often meditative and surprising," Librarian of Congress James Billington said in a news release.

"When you read it, you feel like he's talking to you," Marilyn Hoskin, dean of the college of liberal arts at the University of New Hampshire, said of Simic's work. "Whatever the subject matter -- a cat walking at midnight or a view from Serbo-Croatia -- someone is there telling you something beautifully phrased."

Simic's recent poetry collections are "The Voice at 3:00 A.M." (2003) and "My Noiseless Entourage" (2005). Harcourt expects to publish his next collection, "That Little Something," in February 2008.

Richard Howard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and translator who as editor of the George Braziller poetry series published Simic's first full-length book, calls his work "wonderful, just wonderful. I loved that first book -- I've loved everything that Charles has done."

Simic takes up his duties as poet laureate with a speech at the library's National Book Festival on Sept. 29 and a reading of his work Oct. 17 at the library's annual literary series.

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