Poetaster Charles Simic and the Poet Laureateship

Updated on July 8, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Sketch of Charles Simic



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.

Biographical Sketch

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 for 36 years, 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, he 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.

Wanted to Impress Girls

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 Hemmingway attended in Oak Park, Illinois.

Poet Laureate

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.

Simic's Literary Career

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.

A Duped Reviewer and a Ludicrous Review

Simic's book, That Little Something, appeared in February 2008. And the tone-deaf, poetaster Katha Pollitt scribbled a review of Simics' little screed.

From the piece titled, "Memories of the Future," Pollitt excised the following lines:

There are one or two murderers in any crowd.
They do not suspect their destinies yet.
Wars are started to make it easy for them
To kill a woman pushing a baby carriage.

According to Pollitt, in this poem, Simic is "explicitly tak[ing] on the largest political and moral themes." She further muses:

In this and other political poems Simic cleverly directs the reader away from himself and his feelings and toward a sardonic vision of humanity more or less trapped in recurring cycles of cruelty and stupidity.

The speaker of that Pollitt-quoted piece has made the insane claim that wars are started so that murderers may easily kill women pushing baby carriages. And the review pretends that some profound statement, some "sardonic vision of humanity," has been offered readers.

The travesty that such "poetry" takes up the time and energy of readers travels on. And that travesty is exacerbated by extending a poet laureateship to such non-poet.

Then Simic's fellow-traveling poetaster and master of the fake review further extends the travesty by writing glowingly about a set of poems that do not deserve a second glance.

This claptrap exemplifies the state of poetry and poetry reviewing today. The fact that Charles Simic was poet laureate at the time of this review provided the needed cover for this ridiculous exercise in futility.

The literary world continues to suffer fools, as readers continue to watch in dismay hoping that poetry will once again regain its life and force. Likely, that rebirth will not happen in this century.

Luckily, readers can still turn to earlier centuries to find real poems as they watch eagerly for a few good poems to come to them from the world of words and deeds.

Regarding Simic's laureateship: the poetaster served only one year, and as one might expect, engaged no meaningful poetry project as earlier laureates such a Ted Kooser and Billy Collins has done.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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