Applied in admiration or disdain, “accessible” is among the truest claims to be made for the poetry of Charles Simic, Pulitzer Prize winner and 2007’s national poet laureate. At their best, Simic’s poems are observant mediations on the unseen and overlooked: The mail truck goes down the coast/Carrying a single letter/At the end of a long pier/The bored seagull lifts a leg now and then/And forgets to put it down.
Simic emphasizes small things, remembered conversations, details that offer some morsel of truth about being alive. His poems are accessible not because they’re prosaic or simple, but because they make the mundane compelling.
Accessibility begs the question whether anyone reads poetry these days. Simic, Donald Hall (also a former poet laureate), and Kay Ryan (current laureate), among others, write compactly in beautiful and comprehensible language. Yet the common complaint I hear from well-educated and well-read friends is that they don’t “get” poetry. Simic’s work would be a good place to start.
The Renegade, Simic’s latest collection of criticism and personal essays, out in April, is a book for the poetry lover as well as the amateur-at-the-end-of-his-existential-rope. It’s accessible and not strictly academic in its attentions. The title piece centers on Simic’s childhood in war-torn Serbia.
One of Simic’s best books, Jackstraws, is a collection of prose poems. As with that book, much of Simic’s prose in The Renegade resides in a poetical gray area. His poems can often be read as prose; his prose can often be read as poetry:
“When people speak of the dark years after the war, they usually have in mind political oppression and hunger, but what I see are poorly lit streets with black windows and doorways as dark as the inside of a coffin. If the lone light bulb one used to read by in bed late into the night died suddenly, it was not likely to be replaced soon.”
In addition to the titular essay, there are two other personal essays in the collection, “Reading About Utopia in New York City” and “The Life of Images,” both meandering, lovely pieces. In “The Life of Images,” Simic tells us why he loves photographs and what stories we might discover within them. “The attentive eye makes the world mysterious,” he says. The “shadowy couple under the El with their backs turned to us,” the “portly man with glasses,” these are faces and images that haunt Simic’s poems.
Where Simic’s essays have a morose sort of pep to them, his criticism is more grandfatherly. The Renegade may be heavy on criticism, but the diversity of subject and depth of Simic’s knowledge make the reading educational. Bearing in mind the standard implications of “educational,” this book is far more delight than bore. It’s a thorough look into the lives and work of some of the better writers of the 20th century, including Anne Carson, Robert Creeley, and W.G. Sebald. My favorite entry is “A Great Twentieth-Century Poet,” about Edwin Arlington Robinson, the author of “Richard Cory.”
Simic, attaching himself to Emily Dickinson, once said “she felt like an outsider and so do I.” Perhaps this vantage allows him to tap so sensitively (and bluntly) into the inner workings of other poets and writers. We leave The Renegade with a better understanding of Simic’s art, maybe even “getting it” after all. n
Writer-editor Yvonne Georgina Puig lives in Austin and Los Angeles.
Charles Simic reads with poet Ed Hirsch at Houston’s Jewish Community Center on Monday, March 30. See www.inprinthouston.org for information.