Charles Simic 1938-2023

Jeremy Harding

Charles Simic, who died on Monday, was a regular contributor to the LRB for nearly 25 years. Born Dušan Simić in Belgrade in 1938, he left Europe as a teenager in the 1950s and the family settled in Chicago. He became a US citizen in the 1970s, retaining dual nationality. In the 1990s he was intrigued by international press coverage of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Reviewing The Serbs by Tim Judah in the LRB in 1997, he argued that there was no deep-rooted concept of a ‘Greater Serbia’ driving Milosevic’s policies: it was just a bogus ‘Plan B’ after his ‘other schemes to extend his power over the rest of Yugoslavia had collapsed’. But ‘even if Mahatma Gandhi had been the president of Serbia there would still have been a Serbian problem to solve.’ Like many former Yugoslavs Simic wasn’t cut out for the reinvention of primitive nationalisms in Europe.

Nor is his verse. Many poems are bonsai fictions or miniature occasions of imagination and memory, recast as vivid sketches, with a beginning, an end and, often enough, a discernible middle. They fall comfortably short of contes moraux and read instead like dazzling fables without the pressure of folk tradition: there are few battles retold in Simic’s verse, as there are in Serbian oral tradition, and no conspicuous acts of heroism. (‘My fondest memories of my grandfather,’ he wrote in the LRB, ‘are of him inventing funny and bawdy versions of medieval heroic ballads.’)

And yet the weight of identity never quite lifts: why would it? When Michael Hofmann described the US-Albanian translator Ani Gjika as someone ‘ideally placed to traffic between the land of her birth and her adopted homeland’, he thought immediately of Simic, whose anthology of Serbian poetry, The Horse Has Six Legs, appeared in 1992 as Yugoslavia came apart (a new edition, revised and expanded, followed in 2010) and of ‘his numerous single volumes of Lalic, Tadic, Ristovic, Salamun and many more’.

In ‘Why I Still Write Poetry’, a piece for the New York Review of Books in 2012, Simic regretted destroying his early poems: if he’d had them to hand, he said, he would have remembered what he was trying to emulate. He was writing youthful fiction at the time. ‘The only extensive exposure I had to poetry,’ he said,

was in the year I attended school in Paris before coming to the United States. They not only had us read Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine, but they made us memorise certain poems of theirs and recite them in front of the class. This was such a nightmare for me as a rudimentary speaker of French – and guaranteed fun for my classmates, who cracked up at the way I mispronounced some of the most beautiful and justly famous lines of poetry in French literature – that for years afterwards I couldn’t bring myself to take stock of what I learned in that class. Today, it’s clear to me that my love of poetry comes from those readings and those recitations, which left a deeper impact on me than I realised when I was young.

And yet the influence is hard to spot, even if a thought, or a sentence, can achieve a proper discursive draft in a Simic poem, sailing across several lines. ‘The Election’ is one of many – more than seventy – he published in the LRB:

They promised us free lunch
And all we got Edna
Is wind and rain
And these broken umbrellas
To wield angrily
At cars and buses
Eager to run us over
As we struggle to cross the street.

Just as often, the line is abrupt, almost perfunctory – determined by the images and micro-incidents set out like steps in a devastating argument. As in this passage from a sequence in That Little Something (2008):

The torment of branches in the wind.
Is the sea hearing their confession?
The little white clouds must think so.
They are rushing over to hear.
The ship on the way to paradise
Seems stuck on the horizon,
Pinned by one golden pin of sunlight.
Only the great rocks act as if nothing’s the matter.