Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Bruce Weigl.
Charles Simic is a Puliter Prize winning American poet of Serbian origin, and one of the few modern poets in the US who doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any ‘school’ or style. Yet he is always recognisably himself: pared down, short poems polished to perfection like small gems, no fancy diction or ‘swallowing a thesaurus’ type of vocabulary, but containing big ideas.
I like the conciseness of the lyric and I like to tell stories – an impossible situation! Brevity has always impressed me! A few striking images and goodbye… How to say everything with the minimum of words is my ideal.
Born in Belgrade and witnessing the indiscriminate bombing of the city as a small child, he is deeply distrustful of absolutist statements or those who claim moral authority. Partly surrealist, deceptively simple but never simplistic, he remains preoccupied with history and truth, the search of meaning in a world that seems determined to destroy all innocence.
I continue to believe that poetry says more about the psychic life of an age than any other art. Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.
Where does he get all his inspiration from? Simic has no qualms about admitting that it’s from his personal experience.
Form is the extension of content, so it’s not an invention – something out of nothing, but a discovery of what is already there… Poetry is the archeology of the self. The bits and pieces one keeps digging up belong to the world – everybody’s world. It’s a paradox that has always amused me. Just when you think you’re most subjective, you meet everybody else.
But if poetry is about universal experience, then why is it so little appreciated and read? Simic has quite trenchant views on that and I can’t help wondering what he feels about the current popularity of Instagram poetry.
… why more people don’t read poetry? I suppose for the same reasons more people don’t read philosophy. Philosophy is important, was alayws important, but very few people in any age have read it. No point kidding ourselves! The human animal is lazy. Thinking is work and so is poetry… You notice how all those imported Eastern phiosophies, when they come to the West, reduce their theologies to the simplest possible terms? A two-word mantra and off you go! That’s all you need, kid! Imagine if someone actually tried to make them study the great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers and poets?
War The trembling finger of a woman Goes down the list of casualties On the evening of the first snow
The house is cold and the list is long.
All our names are included.
The tragic in Simic’s verse is always tempered with something uttered so baldly, it almost becomes comic. As he describes it, the world is a mix of the sacred and the profane, the serious and the absurd: ‘dopiness is at the heart of much human activity.’ I love the juxtaposition of abstract and very concrete indeed, of high-minded, high-falutin’ ideals and the boring old everyday.
Mother Tongue Sold by a butcher Wrapped in a newspaper It travels in a bag Of the stooped widow Next to some onions and potatoes
Toward a dark house Where a cat will Leap off the stove Purring At its entrance
For a boy who learnt English only after he emigrated to the States at the age of 16, to then go on to become the Poet Laureate… Not a bad accomplishment, right? Oh, and the title of this post? It’s from a quote of his: ‘Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.’
Louise Glück is one of those American who is temperamentally diametrically opposed to me, but whose style I greatly admire. Her austere, pared-down poems are deeply confessional, but you don’t quite know what the poet confesses to, so deeply embedded is the truth in her narrative. Like Elizabeth Bishop, she wants to reshape events from memory, with discipline, technical precision, and above all a certain distancing. Restraint is her favourite tool, but we can guess at an undercurrent of passion.
Bearing testimony, she seems to suggest, is the poet’s fate:
I’ll tell you
what I meant to be-
a device that listened…
Not inert. Still.
A piece of wood. A stone.
I was born to a vocation
to bear witness
to the great mysteries.
The poet has stated in essays that she often writes poems backward: she begins with the abstract insight or illumination that she wants to demonstrate and then tries to find a real-life example to relate it to. She often turns away from the very specific and concrete – this is not the poetry of rich detail, allowing you to feel textures, colours, tastes – but a poetry of the abstract, the universal.
Does it matter where the birds go? Does it even matter what species they are?
They leave here, that’s the point,
first their bodies, then their sad cries.
And from that moment cease to exist for us.
You must learn to think of our passion that way.
Each kiss was real, then
each kiss left the face of the earth.
She has a wonderful way of blending the personal with the myths of the Ancient World, especially in the two collections which are of most bleak comfort to someone going through a divorce: Meadowlands and Vita Nova. Yet, in an interview, she takes issue with being called ‘grim’ or ‘bleak’.
Unless it is grim to write a poetry that does not soothe or placate or encourage (except in the sense that it might, if it worked, dignify a certain kind of struggle). Or grim to write without a taste for noble thought or moral heroism. Perception seems to me in its very essence not grim: it tacitly believes meaning exists, that experience has complexity and weight, that accuracy is of the most immense importance.
The sustained blessing of my life has been the weird conviction that certain kinds of distilled utterance have unique, timeless, unquestioned value. This conviction confers meaning on experience.
I’ll close with fragments from one of my favourite poems: The Untrustworthy Speaker. Notice the cool detachment of her spin on confessional poetry (if you can bear to use that word).
Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken. I don’t see anything objectively. I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist. When I speak passionately, that’s when I’m least to be trusted. In my own mind, I’m invisible: that’s why I’m dangerous. People like me, who seem selfless, we’re the cripples, the liars; we’re the ones who should be factored out in the interest of truth. When I’m quiet, that’s when the truth emerges. That’s why I’m not to be trusted. Because a wound to the heart is also a wound to the mind.
After reading Robert Bly’s ruminations about poetry, I wanted to read more poets on poetry. It’s always inspiring, even though occasionally it sounds like they are making it up, to provide legitimacy after writing a poem. Perhaps it’s their own way of reflecting on their work. I certainly find poets have much more trouble articulating consistently what they try to achieve with their poetry. They are perhaps too open to change, to different interpretations, to evolving over the course of one’s lifetime. And, of course, there is probably no ‘purpose’ in poetry at all, or if it has too obvious a purpose, it ceases to be poetry.
Anyway, long preamble to say that I borrowed a small volume from the libary entitled Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, published in 1979 but containing essays and interviews going as far back as the 1950s. Levertov is truly a citizen of the world: an American poet with a Russian name, born and raised in England, with a Welsh mother (and a Russian Jewish father who became an Anglican priest), she also translated from French and Italian (although she only spoke the former). She was also very politically engaged, worked as a nurse during the war, campaigned against the war in Vietnam, supported and encouraged feminist and leftist writing. She is perhaps the perfect contrast to Robert Bly’s far more ivory tower approach to poetry, with his need for solitude and finding inspiration in nature. This becomes obvious when she talks candidly about Bly, but in fact they have similar thoughts about inspiration and craftsmanship.
But visual imagery can be overemphasized, and I think that is what dissatisfies me about so much of the poetry of Robert Bly and the Sixties group write. I like some of it very much, but Bly’s point of view is too much based on phanopoeia (visual image). I think the visual image is terribly important, but it must be accompanied by melopoeia (sound)… of a distinctly expressive kind, not just the musical over-and-aboveness that Pound speaks of in How to Read.
Elsewhere, she has the dancer’s discipline when it comes to poetry (she trained as a dancer in her youth). She creates (in my mind) this image of poetry as some kind of primordial sea that all poets flow into whether rivers or streams. They are all contributing to Poetry in some small way.
I believe that the gift of being able to write poetry must always be considered as a gift. It’s a responsibility, whether one considers it given by God or Nature. It’s something which the poet must take seriously. His responsibility is not to himself, not to his career, but to poetry itself…
She is also very clear-eyed about reading and teaching poetry:
It’s natural that people want to feel that they have understood what has been said, and sometimes a degree of interpretive paraphrase may be necessary if you want to talk about a poem. But you can receive a poem, you can comprehend a poem without talking about it. Teachers at all levels encourage the idea that you have to talk about things in order to understand them, because they wouldn’t have jobs otherwise. But it’s phony, you know.
Above all, I enjoy her discussion of inspiration, what sparks a poem and gives it life.
There is often a kind of preliminary feeling, a sort of aura… which alerts one to the possibility of a poem. You can smell the poem before you can see it. Like some animal… Hmmm, seems like a bear’s around here…
A poem in which the intellect and conscious mind have predominated can be a very good poem, but not at deep levels… In the first-rate poems, something the method breaks and something utterly unpredictable happens… a sudden illumination.
The most interesting poetry can move back and forth with perfect ease between the rational and the irrational.
She was well known as a bit of a stickler for how poetry should be read and carefully ‘annotated’ her own poems with indentations and punctuation, becoming too prescriptive, as her students used to tell her.
I defend it, absolutely, because I feel that it’s exactly like the writing down of music. When music is written, it allows a considerable amount of interpretation to the performer, and yet it is always definitely that piece of music and no other… without that much care about the structure of a poem, I think what you have is a lot of slop.
Given how demanding she is with the way her poems appear on the page, you can imagine that she is frustrated by the limitations of the printed format (I dread to think what she’d have thought of ebooks, which I find almost unusable for poetry). As someone who adores oddly sized books but has experienced some frustrations with shelving them, I could relate to the following:
It bugs me when I have a line broken up that way… I have wished that poetry books could be different dimensions… but my publishers tell me it’s very hard to change the dimensions of books. Bookshelves are designed to hold books of certain dimensions, booksellers don’t like to handle books that are odd shapes…
After recent events in America, I felt I needed the comfort of some thoughtful women poets, who can uplift and inspire us with their words and their lives.
Maxine Kumin: Jack and Other New Poems
Maxine Kumin has been one of my heroines from way back, when I wrote poetry the first time round, in high school. Her trademark close observation of nature life is often humorous, with just a tinge of fear and wonder at the power of nature, its bounty but also its indifference. She has sometimes been described as a ‘regional pastoral poet’, but her themes seem universal to me, although they often start from personal experiences of farming life. The poem ‘7 Caveats in May’, for instance, describes her dog chasing a bear up a tree and no patrol car being available to help, so she has to ask her neighbour to poke the bear to come down (without tearing apart the dog). The cheeky redpoll birds are described as ‘highwaymen’, intimidating ‘your year-round faithfuls away from the feeder’, yet Kumin notes with tenderness how charming they are ‘in their little red yarmulkas’.
Of course, nature always leads humans to awareness of their own mortality, especially when beloved animals (horses and dogs) die, yet leave their ghostly imprint upon us. The almost unbearable pain of farewell from her beloved old mare Broody, who had a good life, yet the indignity which follows death is always present, no matter how quiet and gentle the passing away itself is.
If only death could be
like going to the movies.
You get up afterward
and go out
saying, how was it?
Tell me, tell me, how was it?
Kumin must have been a delightful person to know, her poems often feel like a personal conversation, with brilliant moments of insight, yet always elegant, restrained, making you work to understand what lies below the carefully constructed and balanced surface. Yet there are personal touches too, like this charming reference to her fellow poet Stanley Kunitz:
Luck of the alphabet,
since 1961 we’ve leaned
against each other, spine
on spine, positioned thus.
Upright or slant, long may we stand
on shelves dusted or not
to be taken up by hands
that cherish us.
Of course, this being Kumin, firebrand and feminist, the poems are not just inward-looking, but expertly mix the lyrical with the political. Particularly striking is the poem ‘Women and Horses’, which asks how poetry and beauty is still possible after the experiences of Auschwitz, Vietnam, Korea, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, after the Towers’ (you can imagine which twin towers this refers to). It is an exhortation that the only way forward is to allow freedom and beauty rather than seek to constrain life, even if the result is messy.
Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables. Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest. War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder, we can never break free from the dark and degrading past. Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel as a meadow over which women and horses wander.
Cecilia Woloch: Carpathia
I’d never heard of Cecilia Woloch before but the title of this collection appealed to me, since a good part of the Carpathian mountains are in Romania. However, it turns out that the poet is referring to the Polish portion of the Carpathians, which is where her family originally came from. She instantly appealed to me, with her nomadic lifestyle and her poetry outreach work in prisons and schools, as well as collaborations with visual artists and theatres.
Growing up in rural Kentucky as one of seven children, she pens a beautifully tender ode to her parents, the love they have for each other and their family, entitled ‘Why I Believed, as a Child, That People Had Sex in Bathrooms’. Here she is on You Tube performing it.
Poets always seem to find it easier to write about sad things and troubled times, but Woloch has the knack of happiness. She captures perfectly the dizzying moments of falling in love, with the breathless listing of key moments, the repetitions, the simplicity of language:
And hadn’t you kissed the rain from my mouth?
And weren’t we gentle and awed and afraid,
knowing we’d stepped from the room of desire
into the further room of love?…
And were we not lovely, then, were we not
as lovely as thunder, and damp grass, and flame?
Her poems evoke a special kind of tenderness, a profound understanding of the less than perfect situations or humans. In the tour de force of a poem which is the pantoum Le Jardin d’Isabelle, she describes a woman being invited to the home of her lover and his wife. This is a love triangle without rancour or bitterness, although it addresses the shattering of illusions. But the language conveys so much richness, flowing, shimmering brightness, that it feels ultimately uplifting.
Sharon Olds: The Wellspring
I’ve admired Sharon Olds since I discovered her when she won the TS Eliot Prize (the first American to do so) for her collection ‘Stag’s Leap’, which described her abandonment and the breakdown of her marriage. There is nothing she does not address fearlessly and in a very feminine way (strong, feisty feminine way) in her poetry – family, politics, inner life, but I’d never read a whole collection by her. As the name indicates, ‘The Wellspring’ is about the female experience in its entirety: from the mother’s womb, to childhood and sexual awakening, to motherhood and learning to let go, to mature love. It’s full on instantly recognisable moments too, yet always with a surprise twist: a father smiling triumphantly at a daughter who comes last in a swimming race ‘almost without meanness’; the bonding between brother and sister both wearing braces, like a tribe sharing a sibilant language with its ‘orthodontial lisp’; love-making in narrow beds in college.
It’s a very sensual description of the body and emotions – fully-charged eroticism counterpointed with tenderness, humour and wonder at the miracle of giving birth to something so profoundly other. This is poetry which speaks directly to the emotions rather than being a tricky intellectual puzzle, which is exactly what the poet intended. I particularly liked the bittersweet feeling of no longer being needed, so eloquently described in the poem about the smashing (mercy killing) of the cow butter-dish, marking the end of motherhood.
Some critics have complained that her poetry is too accessible (while others usually complain that poetry has become too difficult and unappealing), but I think she is popular without becoming populist, and has the perfect balance between the personal and the universal. Many of her poems start off with a funny moment and then rapidly change into something far more serious and poignant, with a real wind of loneliness blowing through it, as in her poem ‘Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil’. I’ll have to share it with you in its entirety, as it would be a shame to cut off any part of it.
In the strange quiet, I realize
there’s no on else in the house. No bucktooth
mouth pulls at stainless-steel teat, no
hairy mammal runs on a treadmill–
Charlie is dead, the last of our children’s half-children.
When our daughter found him lying in the shavings, trans-
mogrified backwards from a living body
into a bolt of rodent bread
she turned her back on early motherhood
and went on single, with nothing. Crackers,
Fluffy, Pretzel, Biscuit, Charlie,
buried on the old farm we bought
where she could know nature. Well, now she knows it
and it sucks. Creatures she loved, mobile and
needy, have gone down stiff and indifferent,
she will not adopt again though she cannot
have children yet, her body like a blueprint
of the understructure for a woman’s body,
so now everything stops for a while,
now I must wait many years
to hear in this house again the faint
powerful calls of a young animal.
Sharon Olds seems to be getting more and more honest and uncompromising in her examination of the female body and ageing, according to the critics, in her latest book ‘Odes’. I feel myself attracted to it already…