Yesterday was a day fit for a poet at Cornell – crisp, full of color and feeling like fall. In Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium in Goldwin Smith, a man stood before a packed crowd. He smiled from behind his signature round reading glasses until the long applause faded. He stands for many things — former U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer-Prize winning author, immigrant, American, New England man and professor. The man was Charles Simic.
“Without fanfare, he captures all of 21st century torment in language that shimmers, celebrates, honors, mystifies,” said Prof. Kenneth McClane, English, in his introduction to Simic’s reading.
“If you do not know a little something [about Simic],” McClane said. “Your life has been diminished, but do not worry — that’s why we have libraries and bookstores. A singular champion of poetry and possibility and generosity, tantamount to life itself … I rank him among gods of this unruly universe.” [img_assist|nid=32400|title=Out loud|desc=Charles Simic, the 2007-2008 Poet Laureate of the United States, speaks in front of a capacity crowd in the H.E.C. Auditorium in Goldwin Smith.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Simic read nearly a dozen of his poems including “Shelley,” “Factory,” “In the Library,” “Paradise Motel,” “Ghosts” and “Clocks of the Dead,” with anecdotal introductions of inspiration.
Simic was brought to Cornell as part of the Fall 2008 Reading Series, sponsored by the Program in Creative Writing in the Department of English and the contributions of two Cornell alumni.
“As someone who has been here now for 34 years,” said McClane, “until these donors came forward … we lived in a very arid literary landscape.”
This arid literary landscape has since been enriched by the series, which has hosted such writers as Salmon Rushdie and Junot Díaz MFA ’95, whose book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in the Spring.
On Wednesday, the day before Simic’s reading, Horace Engdahl, the top member of the award jury for the Nobel Prize in literature, told the Associated Press that the United States cannot compete with Europe when it comes to great writing because it is too insular and ignorant.
Simic’s work is haled as a unique example and has earned him many honored literary awards and positions including the Pulitzer, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, to selections to the positions of Poet Laureate and the Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets, as well as to The American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Simic recently resigned from the chancellorship and declined a second term as Poet Laureate. Though rumors have circulated about his reasons, Simic has mainly been quoted as seeking a return to his work, being limited from writing while holding these positions.
Simic was born in 1938 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and grew up during World War II. In 1954, he emigrated from Yugoslavia to the United States with his mother and brother to join his father in Chicago. Simic also was drafted into the U.S. Army. His first poems were published in 1959 when he was twenty-one, before he even earned his Bachelor’s from NYU.
He is one of the most prolific of American authors, despite not speaking English until the age of 15. His titles are numerous, and include multiple translations in several languages, such as French, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian and appear in several edited anthologies.
“His history as a ‘displaced person,’ in his words, has incited in him a profound sense of the human condition, its tragedies, and injustices,” said Director of Creative Writing Prof. Helena Viramontes. “Being a Serbian-American poet and selected to be the U.S. Poet Laureate, reveals that the U.S. literary canon continues to expand in ways that seem miraculous and almost unheard of 30 years ago.”
Simic explained the great – and at times, terrible — events he has been witness to as an influence on his work, but focused instead on the influences of his adult life, from the urban culture of Chicago, to his “divided existence” between New York City and a small town in rural New Hampshire.
“I have lived these wars since I was 3 years old,” he said. “After a while all these [war] poems are interchangeable.”
Simic’s work is often noted for its ability to transcend categorization.
Prof. J. Robert Lennon, English, has been reading Simic’s poems for 15 years.
“I’ve absolutely been influenced by his black humor and mastery of the short form,” Lennon said. “I think his work has a deceptive amiability — he’s got one arm around your shoulder, and with the other, he’s sliding in the knife. We need writers who are accessible, yet go deep. Simic is one of the best.”
After reading, Simic took questions from the audience. He was asked why writers do readings, the difference between short fiction and prose poetry, and the importance of punctuation.
Simic answered that in reading, a poet hears a poem in a way he has never heard before, and that one cannot sit down and say he or she is going to write a poem – calling them a kind of “creation out of nothing.”
Jared Harel, a third year MFA graduate student and lecturer in the English department, recently taught Simic in his class.
“A lot of students seem to have a skewed impression of poetry – they can’t relate to it necessarily,” he said. “Simic gets them to realize they can, in an academic and non-academic way.”
“People who read are a draw for Ithaca itself. It becomes more of a cultural center. Rather than 10 miles in the middle of nowhere, it becomes important,” he added.
Simic said writing is not a choice but something he is compelled to do.
“I don’t have a choice,” he said. “I started when I was young, and it became the way in which I made sense of my life. Through the process of all the layers of writing, I had the feeling I never got it absolutely – I wanted to keep writing to get it right.”
When asked what he had to say to Cornell, Simic said, “A lot of things, my head is full.” But on the importance of writing in a contemporary world, he declined to answer. His work speaks for him.