Charles Simic's "My Shoes"
Introduction and Text of Poem, "My Shoes"
Charles Simic's piece, "My Shoes," features five unriming movements. The exercise could be the response to a bizarre assignment such as the following:
Pick some ordinary object, perhaps one you see daily. Assign to it exclusive characteristics which only the imagination is capable of conjuring. Perform as outlandishly as you can, while staying focused on the object throughout. Choose either formal or free verse or any combination: for example, it may have rime but no regular meter or vise versa, and it may use traditional punctuation or innovative, postmodern style. Concentrate on creating a unified theme above a unifying metaphor.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
Shoes, secret face of my inner life:
Two gaping toothless mouths,
Two partly decomposed animal skins
Smelling of mice nests.
My brother and sister who died at birth
Continuing their existence in you,
Guiding my life
Toward their incomprehensible innocence.
What use are books to me
When in you it is possible to read
The Gospel of my life on earth
And still beyond, of things to come?
I want to proclaim the religion
I have devised for your perfect humility
And the strange church I am building
With you as the altar.
Ascetic and maternal, you endure:
Kin to oxen, to Saints, to condemned men,
With your mute patience, forming
The only true likeness of myself.
First Movement: "Shoes, secret face of my inner life"
The workshop participant chooses to write about his shoes. He sits staring at them and then begins a conversation with them, addressing them directly, "Shoes, secret face of my inner life." The speaker reveals that his inner life is like "[t]wo gaping toothless mouths." By this revelation, he implies that he recognizes two aspects of his inner self, and they both look dumbstruck.
The speaker continues to describe his shoes, which by chosen metaphor, describe his inner secret life: the shoes are made of "partly decomposed animal skins / Smelling of mice-nests." The leather shoes comport with the speaker's inner self as a consumer of animal flesh, it might be inferred; and the unpleasantness asserted by the stench of "mice-nests" alerts the reader to unwholesomeness to come.
The workshoppers will find this a clever and fresh way of expressing the melancholy and dreary existence of residents of the war-torn 21st century; someone will even suggest that they are now post-postmodern and declare a new literary era for their own verse attempts, but the era's name will have to remain undeclared for a year or two.
Second Movement "My brother and sister who died at birth"
In the second movement, the speaker reports that his siblings, a brother and a sister, both "died at birth." But oddly, those siblings are "continuing their existence in you / Guiding my life / Toward their incomprehensible innocence."
It is at this point that the workshop will break into pandemonium over the workability of this second movement. How the devil can he liken his shoes to his dead brother and sister? How on earth can those dead siblings be guiding his life through his shoes, no less?
And what is so "incomprehensible" about the "innocence" of infants who die at birth? What a treat it would be to listen in on the discussion this movement would engender! This speaker is on a dangerous path, no doubt, but will he pull it off?
Third Movement: "What use are books to me"
The speaker poses a question in the third movement: why do I need to read books when my shoes will tell me everything I need to know about myself and about everything else that I will experience in the future, even "on earth / And still beyond"?
Defending this kind of question in a poem can be done only by defending the dexterity with which it is expressed. The lines sound fresh, although esoteric; they show a progression from the material to the spiritual, yet they remain stuck in the obtuseness of the content of the question. The workshoppers will remain obsessed with their initial reactions.
Fourth Movement: "I want to proclaim the religion"
The postmodern workshop participants steeped in religion bashing will have no problem with the fourth movement. That the speaker will let his shoes be "the altar" in his self-proclaimed/created religion that will be housed in "the strange church [he] is building" will delight and tickle the fancy of all church and religion haters.
Better to worship shoes than a phantom that would control your sense pleasures and lusts with commanding guidelines for behavior. Only one or two of the workshoppers will shake their heads at this one and probably remain quiet after all the praise and gushing has subsided.
Fifth Movement: "Ascetic and maternal, you endure"
After the noted religious conversion of the fourth movement, the majority of the participants will hail the fifth movement an unparalleled success. Yes, the shoes have now taken on a god-like patina, permanent because "[a]scetic and maternal." It is wise to note that if the shoes had been paternal, feminist cries of sexism would have ballooned to the classroom ceiling, despite the fact that this is a man and a man's shoes.
But the true value of the playful and completely asinine final line is that it satisfies the postmodern nihilistic psyche, while at the same time capping the crap that has prevailed throughout the piece: it turns out that the man's motherly shoes are "[t]he only true likeness of [him]self."
The workshoppers have been had but will probably never know it.
Life Sketch of Charles Simic
Charles Simic was born May 9, 1938, in Yugoslavia. His father came to America and later sent for Simic and his mother, who had relocated to Paris. Simic arrived in the U.S. in 1954 at age 16. He has been an American citizen since 1971, and he currently resides in New Hampshire.
Working at the Chicago Sun Times to pay for tuition, Simic began studies at the University of Chicago but later finished his Bachelor's degree at New York University in 1966, after a stint in the U.S. Army from 1961 to 1963.
In addition to writing poetry, Simic translated poetry and served as editorial assistant at Aperture, a magazine of photography from 1966 until 1974. In 1964, he married Helen Dubin, a fashion designer; the couple has two children.
Simic claims that he started writing poetry in high school to impress girls, a claim made by many poets, including former laureate Ted Kooser. Simic graduated from the same high school that Ernest Hemingway attended in Oak Park, Illinois.
James H. Billington, librarian at the Library of Congress, announced on August 2, 2007, that Charles Simic would begin his duties as Poet Laureate that autumn, when the poet would open the literary series on October 17, 2007, by giving a reading of his work.
About being appointed poet laureate, Simic says, "I am especially touched and honored to be selected because I am an immigrant boy who didn't speak English until I was 15."
James Billington has offered the following description of Simic's poetry:
The range of Charles Simic's imagination is evident in his stunning and unusual imagery. He handles language with the skill of a master craftsman, yet his poems are easily accessible, often meditative and surprising. He has given us a rich body of highly organized poetry with shades of darkness and flashes of ironic humor.
The acerbic critic, Dan Schneider, offers a different description of Simic's efforts:
his poems lack depth, formal tightness, music, & any real meaning or reason for being written, other than, possibly, being a way to kill time by breaking prose into lines.
In 1973, Simic began teaching creative writing and literature at the University of New Hampshire, where he is now professor emeritus. In addition to his 18 books of poetry, Simic has written essays and translated poetry. For his book of prose poems titled The World Doesn't End, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990.
Simic served as a MacArthur fellow from 1984-1989. His book Walking the Black Cat made the finalist list of the National Book Award for Poetry in 1996. He was awarded the Griffen Prize for his Selected Poems: 1963-2003. Simic has also served as a literary critic, and he has written a memoir titled A Fly in the Soup. He penned a biography of Joseph Cornell, a surrealist sculptor.
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes