‘I was a kid off the boat, adrift in the New World’: Remembering NH poet Charlie Simic
Charlie Simic speaks during a naturalization ceremony at the U.S. State Department on Feb. 28, 2008, in Washington, D.C. Simic was named poet laureate of the United States in 2007. (Brendan Smialowski | Getty Images)
Charlie Simic was an adopted son of New Hampshire, having arrived here 50 years ago, but as a poet, literary critic, and commentator, he remained a citizen of the world. He lived in a blue saltbox near Bow Lake in Strafford with his wife, Helen Lubin, while sharing his world view and faith in the written word with thousands of literature and creative writing students at the state university in Durham.
When he died Monday at the age of 84, he left behind a rich trove of poetry, memoir, literary criticism, and political commentary. This work earned him a MacArthur genius grant in 1984, the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1990, and the U.S. poet laureateship in 2007.
As the editor and self-appointed poetry beat writer of the Concord Monitor, I became a faithful reader of Charlie’s work. I first interviewed him shortly after his Pulitzer Prize was announced. On the drive to the house in early spring, rain blackened the nearly bare branches and a bleak sky augured yet more winter. When I stopped at Thorne’s general store to check my directions, the message on the chalkboard inside said nothing about that day’s specials. Instead, it haled Charlie as “our Pulitzer Prize winner,” emphasis on the “our.”
Charlie told me his life story that day. Born in 1938 in Belgrade, Serbia, he had immigrated to the United States after World War II and the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia. His memories of these experiences shaped the core of his poetic vision.
As a young boy during the war, he had played in the streets of Belgrade, where Yugoslav partisans hanged suspected traitors from telephone poles and American bombardiers dumped leftover bombs. “We kids at an early age were abandoned to ourselves,” he said. His earliest memory was of the April night in 1941 when the Germans first bombed the city. “I was thrown out of my bed and across the room,” he said, “and I remember the room lit up from the flames – a bright, bright light.”
Yugoslavia’s population was 16 million, and World War II and a savage civil war afterward killed more than 1.7 million of them. As a boy, with no other knowledge of the world, Charlie lived those days of destruction and death as a grand adventure. Just before his seventh birthday, when his parents told him the war in Europe was over, he thought, “Oh, now there won’t be any fun.”
Charlie’s father, an engineer employed by an American company, and his mother, a teacher, escaped Yugoslavia with their children after years of hunger, deprivation, and hiding. They lived briefly in Paris before coming to the United States in 1953. Charlie attended the University of Chicago and New York University.
During a visit to Yugoslavia when he was in his mid-thirties, Charlie discovered in these events a path to poetry. When he saw his street, his house, the places he had haunted in his youth, the scenes came back, and a sense of their absurdity came with them. “Once I was there,” he told me, “I just realized the craziness of it – this 7-year-old kid roaming around there.”
“Old Soldier” is one of many poems that echo the experiences of his childhood. It begins with a scrap of common childhood memory and deepens as it goes.
By the time I was five,
I had fought in hundreds of battles,
Had killed thousands
And suffered many wounds
Only to rise and fight again.
After the bombing raid, the sky was full
Of flying cinders and birds.
My mother took me by the hand
And led me into the garden
Where the cherry trees were in flower.
There was a cat grooming herself
Whose tail I wanted to pull,
But I let her be for a moment,
Since I was busy swinging at flies
With a sword made of cardboard.
All I needed was a horse to ride,
Like the one hitched to a hearse,
Outside a pile of rubble,
Waiting with its head lowered
For them to finish loading the coffins.
I spoke with Charlie again after he was named U.S. poet laureate. Nearly the first thing he said was how proud he was to be only the second foreign-born poet to hold the position. The first had been Joseph Brodsky, the Soviet dissident. “Fifty-three years ago,” he mused, “I was a kid off the boat, adrift in the New World.”
Many nationally known poets lived in New Hampshire in those days. With the help of the Monitor and the eager volunteers at the Concord City Auditorium, I regularly planned and emceed poetry programs. To honor Charlie’s being named U.S. poet laureate, I planned a show called “Poets Three.” The readers were Charlie and the state’s other two living national poets laureate, Maxine Kumin and Don Hall. They each began their readings with a poem by Charlie.
Max, a fierce critic of war in her own life and work, read one of Charlie’s antiwar poems. Don had survived many health scares, but at 79, he seemed to find his old groove at the microphone. As he read, I sat onstage next to Charlie, who flinched at one point as though a lightbulb had blinked on. I saw him scribble a note to himself.
When his turn at the microphone came, he told the audience it had just occurred to him that he was a 20-year-old undergrad at New York University when he first heard Don read his poems. On that long-ago night, Robert Bly had introduced Don and Louis Simpson. “All three of them wore ties and looked spiffy,” Charlie told they audience, “and here we are, 50 years later, not so spiffy.”
One poem Charlie read that night seemed emblematic of his work. It showed his lighter side, his absurdist bent, the range of his imagination, and his signature touch of darkness. Although he rejected the notion of joining any of the myriad poetic movements of his day, people often asked him if he considered himself a confessional poet. Charlie’s self-portrait in “My Turn to Confess” answered this question once and for all.
A dog trying to write a poem on why he barks,
That’s me, dear reader!
They were about to kick me out of the library
But I warned them,
My master is invisible and all-powerful.
Still, they kept dragging me out by the tail.
In the park the birds spoke freely of their own vexations.
On a bench, I saw an old woman
Cutting her white curly hair with imaginary scissors
While staring into a small pocket mirror.
I didn’t say anything then,
But that night I lay slumped on the floor,
Chewing on a pencil,
Sighing from time to time,
Growling, too, at something out there
I could not bring myself to name.
Now the poets three are gone. Maxine Kumin died in 2014, Don Hall in 2018, Charlie this week. For those who love great poetry, their lifework abides.
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