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A new chapter in verse

A special brand of dreamy realism marks the work of Charles Simic, anointed the nation's poet laureate.

August 26, 2007|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Strafford, N.H.

Imagine the new poet laureate of the United States in a blue, short-sleeved linen shirt and blue jeans. He is 69 years old. His neatly cut hair is white and gray. He has the squared jaw of an Eastern European, with a perpetual, almost sly half-smile that moves from left to right up his face. He is standing on his wooden deck by the shores of Bow Lake. He shrugs a lot, as if the answers to all the questions one might ask a poet could be turned back on the interlocutor. As if there were nothing to it, really, no big deal.

Maybe he's right. It's possible that, here in America, 2007, instead of being some arcane activity, some marginal, nonlucrative profession, writing poetry is easy; vertical text, that's all, anyone could do it. In fact, there are healthful and romantic benefits -- Charles Simic claims he began writing poetry to get girls. Between the MacArthur (1984-89), the Pulitzer (1990), the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets (which he won Aug. 2, the same day he received the news that he was poet laureate), it pays better than a lot of other jobs. Together, these add up to almost half a million dollars. Simic, who looks suspiciously like a man of modest appetites, claims, likably, to have squandered much of the money, at least from the MacArthur, on hotels in Europe and good food.

The new laureate doesn't mind the prospect of many trips down to Washington, D.C., a city not known for its poetic aspect. "I love it," he says. "It's a capsule of empire." He remembers watching four congressmen crossing the street, thinking how utterly "shifty" and untrustworthy they looked and wondering how anyone could ever possibly elect them.

A suspicious number of poets laureate, including Robert Frost, Maxine Kunin and the outgoing laureate, Donald Hall, have been from New Hampshire (where the state motto, don't forget, is "Live free or die"). Simic, who was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1938, spent much of his childhood listening to bombs and later jazz. Still, having lived for many years in New York, he calls himself a city poet. "I'm more alert, observant in the city," he tells me. "Perhaps because I understand the city. I don't, for example, know the names of things in the country."

He started writing poetry when he was 15, to get girls, but also, he says, because he was "too lazy for anything else." "Nobody writes to find truth and beauty, especially in high school" (there's that shrug), "they write for love."

Jazz came even earlier, when he was 7 and would listen to American military stations on the radio. The music, he remembers, got louder and louder as the American troops moved through Europe. The first music he remembers hearing was big band and bebop; Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In conversation, he jokes about his childhood, claiming, for example, that his travel agents were Hitler and Stalin or that his "imitation of a heavy machine gun was famous in my neighborhood in Belgrade." But a reader does not easily forget the image of the poet's mother carrying him at 3 from his bed to a safer place in the middle of the night during the 1941 bombing of Belgrade. This scene appeared in the poem "Cameo Appearance," which begins: "I had a small, nonspeaking part / In a bloody epic."

His poems are full of verbal shrugs, a special brand of dreamy realism, full of imaginative leaps, surreal images, symbols and leering, looming, staring objects, many from his own childhood memories. His first poems were published in the Chicago Review in 1959; he has since published 20 collections of poetry and countless essays and anthologies. He writes regularly for the New York Review of Books. In 2006, he retired after 40 years of teaching poetry and literature at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, where he remains a professor emeritus and lectures once a week to a select group of students.

Pots of leggy basil sit on the deck. Inside the extremely simple, comfortable house there are paintings made by friends on the white walls. One, of peasant women in tones of blue and red, which Simic made decades ago before he decided he had no talent, hangs by the kitchen. Every so often, he admits, he picks up a brush and paint, if only to clear his mind of poetry.

The poet's pulpit

It has been three weeks since the 15th laureate was announced, and Simic does not yet know what he plans to do with the position. "As I understand it, it's an honor, not a job," he says, hoping to ward off the calls and requests for interviews that accompany the position. "The Poet Laureate," as described on the Library of Congress website, "gives an annual lecture and reading of his or her poetry and usually introduces poets in the Library's annual poetry series." The laureate also, it claims somewhat hopefully, "seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry."

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