Charles Simic: Bridging the Abyss

Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Bruce Weigl.

Photo from the Poetry Center

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
The young Simic with his father, from This Recording/Poetry.

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.’

Editing Poetry: Some Examples

Each poem is only as good as its last (or should that be ‘latest’?) incarnation. Elizabeth Bishop would spend years polishing her poems, making them briefer in the process, packing them with hidden meaning and memorable imagery.

But do we sometimes over-edit things? To test out this hypothesis, I’ll share some of the transformations one of my poems has undergone. I’m still not quite happy with it, but really do want to/need to  write it.

The first version of ‘Who Am I? (Third Culture Kid)‘ appeared quite early on in the life of this blog. I was initially quite proud of it, felt it was honest and heartfelt, and it got some positive comments. Then I took it to a poetry workshop and received lots of comments and suggestions, which made me realise it was not as clear or as precise as it might be. I felt it needed more ‘explanation’, so instead of cutting, I added to it. Here is the second version:

Moving on, I think –
what a blessing!
Head down, prepare
for exit, re-entry, again and again,
glad to stay moss-free,
rolling past the moved-upon
with a wave, a whoopee!

But ultimately revenge is theirs:
for they sprout roots, link up, form tissue
richly alive with shared hours and tales.
Shortcuts roll glib off their tongues,
always creating and leading their own trend,
while the mover is running to catch up,
to fuddle in the language of past generations,
never quite getting the nuance or slang.
I fear we are a shade disappointing:
we stammer, we marvel at the wrong thing.
Our plumage exotic, not enough erotic,
our glamour too alien when you want to preen.
Askew, inefficient, never quite sufficient,
alignment and meekness passed us by.
So easy to shoot at, never enough time
to grieve. Nor find reason or season to rhyme.

So I’ve learnt to hide my real thoughts
my own thoughts
my solitude

Who am I?
I am all that is half-forgotten,
all the places in which I’ve left my heart,
all that is preserved in the mud.
I’m done with digging!
I dare not show you all my layers
for fear the rubble may bury you.

See that flying line of geese? There’s one just off,
destroying the symmetry…

But it too has learnt.
Above all, this:
a short answer to the question:
‘Where are you from?’
just enough humour to colour it harmless.

Unsurprisingly, this was too verbose, too prosy, forcing things down the reader’s throat rather than startling them with an unexpected insight. I tried to experiment a bit with lines and punctuation, in a vain attempt to ‘spice it up’. I suppose I was also aiming for a contrast between cultures – the more oral, ‘hip-hop’ verses alternating with calmer, almost erudite verses. Here’s that opening stanza again in this version:

Moving on                                          what a blessing!

Head down/ prepare

for exit, re-entry                              again and again

glad to stay moss-free//

rolling past the moved-upon

with a wave                                        a whoopee!

Thanks to my poetry tutor, I began to understand some of the poetic bad habits I had picked up along the way. It wasn’t the layout on the page that was the problem, nor the topic itself. There was a kernel of truth there that people could connect with, but I needed to find a way to ‘tell it slant’.

My current attempt has reduced the poem to just the following lines:

Who am I?
I am all that is half-forgotten,
half-mourned, misunderstood.
I am all the places in which I’ve left my heart.
All buried deep inside,
calling halt to excavation.
I am all I dare not show you
for fear you will drown
in my impure
clinging mud.

Not sure that this is going to be the final version, though… 

I’m linking this a good few weeks later to dVerse Poets Pub, where Mary asks us to write a poem about where we are from. A subject that is difficult for me to describe, and yet so close to my heart. There are some wonderful poems on this topic over there, just follow the links!