Charles Simic: Selected Early Poems

Overview

When this selection of Charles Simic's work first appeared, it was hailed as "easily the best volume of poetry published in 1985....[Simic] is one of the wisest poets of his generation, and one of the best." (The Georgia Review) For this new edition of his selected poems, Simic has added twenty-eight poems and extensively revised others, making this the most complete collection available of his early work. In the spare, haunting vision of these poems, the familiar takes on a disturbing, often sinister, presence. ...
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Overview

When this selection of Charles Simic's work first appeared, it was hailed as "easily the best volume of poetry published in 1985....[Simic] is one of the wisest poets of his generation, and one of the best." (The Georgia Review) For this new edition of his selected poems, Simic has added twenty-eight poems and extensively revised others, making this the most complete collection available of his early work. In the spare, haunting vision of these poems, the familiar takes on a disturbing, often sinister, presence. A fork "resembles a bird's foot / Worn around the cannibal's neck" and a bird's chirp is "Like a match flickering / In a new grave." Life's horrors--violence, hunger, poverty, illness--lurk unnervingly in the background. And yet, despite the horror, a sense of wonder pervades these poems, transforming the ordinary world into a mysterious place of unknowable forces. Classic displays of the economy and grace of Simic's work, these poems occupy an established place in American poetry.
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Editorial Reviews

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So Many Things for Which to Find a Name

During the last 32 years Charles Simic has quietly become the craftiest, most verdict-snatching, thief-in-the-night poet in America. His is the sly, far-seeing voice of the sorcerer. His poems defy the reader, the poet, and themselves at every turn. In a poem from this year's Jackstraws, his most recent collection, he asks, "Do you believe in something truer than true?" Answering the question is good preparation for any reader of his poems, for though they cleverly confound reason and narrative, what they surrender is the real marrow of experience. Critics have been quick to proclaim his poems "surreal," but Simic's work is very real, constantly undoing our expectations of a literary experience and offering instead an experience more akin to the hearing of a startling news flash from an unknown country. Simic won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for his brilliant volume of prose poems, The World Doesn't End; this year we finally have a comprehensive selection of his early poems, selected from his first ten volumes. It is a collection anyone acquainted with Simic should own and, for those unfamiliar with his work, one that serves as an excellent introduction.

Simic found his poetic voice early on. The short, vivid line he perfected as a young writer has already become one of the great poetic styles of the century. His lines crawl from word to word, as if some animal cunning was in control; then just before the crawl becomes a familiar traipse, the line breaks off and hurries back to the left margin, leaving the eye in blankness. Simic is as adept at creating humor out of this clipped style as he is at creating a mood of revelation. Here are the first two stanzas of "Austerities":

        From the heel
        Of a half loaf
        Of black bread,
        They made a child's head.

        Child, they said,
        We've nothing for eyes,
        Nothing to spare for ears
        And nose.

Or the beginning of "Hurricane Season":

        Just as the world was ending
        We fell in love,
        Immoderately. I had a pair of
        Blue pinstripe trousers
        Impeccably pressed
        Against misfortune

It is as if after each line break the poet had fallen asleep, dreamt of the next three words, and woke up writing. Something unexpected always waits in the next line. This is the trickster poet in Simic. His poems are constantly defying their own expectations, giving us an epiphany in the middle of a laundry list or drifting wryly away where we think we'll get something grandiose.

Simic is part of a long-running tradition of poets who practice this kind of sly, practical joking, expectation defying verse. Pablo Neruda and many other South American poets learned a good deal of their tricks by apprenticeship to the great, lusty American rascal of the 19th century, Walt Whitman. In the 1950s, Simic, as well as Robert Bly, James Wright, and others, discovered the South American poets and found in their work much more blood and joy than among the largely academic poetry of American journals at the time. This story of influence is one of the great narratives in the literary history of the Americas: Whitman gave his rollicking democracy to the South Americans; the South Americans gave Whitman, updated and soaked in folklore and surreal imagery, back to his countrymen. In a memoir of his early days in New York, published in Orphan Factory (1997), Simic writes about discovering South American poetry: "The book that made all the difference to my idea of poetry was an anthology of contemporary Latin-American verse.... After that anthology the poetry that I read in literary magazines struck me as pretty timid.... Of course, I started imitating the South Americans immediately." The poetry that emerged from Simic's fascination with the South American poets was a sort of prankster verse. One poem is entitled "Charles Simic," another, which begins, "Is our Charles Simic afraid of death?," is called "Further Adventures of Charles Simic." This is straight out of the South Americans' bag of tricks. There are investigations of cockroaches, explosions of spoons, bedtime stories about ants. Simic is absorbed by the fun of South American surrealism, its maniacal attention to detail and the primitive and unadorned insights it can lead to.

Another serious influence on Simic's early work was jazz. In his New York memoir he remembers hearing Sonny Rollins play: "He was playing 'Get Happy,' twisting it inside out, reconstituting it completely, discovering its concealed rhythmic and melodic beauties. It was great. The lesson I learned was: cultivate controlled anarchy." In the dry world of midcentury American poetry, Simic writes that he found jazz musicians to be "far better models of what an artist could be than most poets." With Simic's appraisal of Rollins's playing in mind, read his beautiful love poem (one of the few), entitled "My Beloved":

        In the fine print of her face
        Her eyes are two loopholes.
        No, let me start again.
        Her eyes are flies in milk,
        Her eyes are baby Draculas.
        To hell with her eyes.
        Let me tell you about her mouth.
        Her mouth's the red cottage
        Where the wolf ate grandma.
        Ah, forget about her mouth,
        Let me talk about her breasts.
        I get a peek at them now and then
        And even that's more than enough
        To make me lose my head,
        So I better tell you about her legs.
        When she crosses them on the sofa
        It's like the jailer unwrapping a parcel
        And in that parcel is a Christmas cake
        And in that cake a sweet little file
        That gasps my name as it files my chains.

It's a great poem. The poem isn't about jazz at all, and it does not attempt to sound particularly jazzy, but in light of what Simic says about Rollins, the poem has the feel of a horn solo. The poem revises and revises, throwing out and drawing in, until it arrives at the final concluding release, which comes as a result of having found something on which to dwell. It has great reverence for the loved one, alongside great irreverence for the love poem. This is Simic's great paradox, which he toys with so well: The thing behind the word is always sacred, but the word does such a shoddy job of calling up the thing that we might as well take a few pokes at the word and see how well it can defend itself.

It is this sense of the ridiculousness of naming things, together with the need to name them, that drives Simic's poems. In "Description," he writes, "So many things / for which to find a name. / Standing here, partaking / of that necessity." The poet lost in a blur of nameables. He seems to be spinning.

        A street that always
        somehow resembles me.

        Gray day and I
        the source of its grayness.

        A corner where
        a part of myself

        keeps an appointment
        with another part of myself.

        This small world.
        This dumb show.

The recognition of the self in other things becomes a metaphor for naming, for writing. There can be such sensitivity in Simic's clipped lines -- to write more words would seem inappropriate, like roughhousing at a funeral. The slow detachment of the poet from all the things around him leads to the detachment from himself. The poem could end here, but what makes it a great poem is the final section, which picks up the two "parts of myself" from the previous section. You can see the South American influence in the ending here, but Simic has made the mode his own:

        The two of them
        all hunched up,

        hand in hand,
        afraid to cross the street

        on some age-old errand
        to a store, a hospital

        where the grim doctor
        won't use any anesthetic

        when he takes bread
        out of their mouths.

Charles Simic is one of the truly great poets of the late 20th century and one of the all-time great trickster poets. In this newly expanded edition, we have the definitive collection of his early pranks.

—Jacob Silverstein

Adam Kirsch
His skill and sure instinct make this book one of the important poetic achievements of our time.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirsch
Simic's skill and sure instinct make this book one of the important poetic achievements of our time.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807614563
  • Publisher: Braziller, George Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/28/1999
  • Edition description: REVISED
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 5.37 (w) x 8.33 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Table of Contents

Butcher Shop

Cockroach

Tapestry

Evening

The Inner Man

Pastoral

Animals and Birds

Fear

Marching

Chorus for One Voice

Sleep

Psalm

Poem

Summer Morning

Dismantling the Silence

Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand

Fork

Spoon

Knife

My Shoes

Ax

Stone

Poem without a Title

Explorers

Concerning My Neighbors, the Hittites

Invention of Nothing

errata

The Bird

Elementary Cosmogony

Two Riddles

Brooms

Watermelons

Watch Repair

Traveling

Needle

Ballad

Solving the Riddle

The Place

Breasts

Charles Simic

Closed House

Solitude

The Point

The Pillow

The Soup

The Chicken without a Head

White

What the White Had to Say

The Partial Explanation

The Lesson

A Landscape with Crutches

The Variant

The Summons

Poem

Nursery Rhyme

Help Wanted

Animal Acts

Charon's Cosmology

Happy End

The Ballad of the Wheel

A Wall

The Guest

Description

The Terms

Eraser

Traveling Slaughterhouse

Eyes Fastened with Pins

Trees at Night

Euclid Avenue

The Prisoner

A Day Marked with a Small White Stone

Position without a Magnitude

Untitled

Primer

School for Dark Thoughts

Empire of Dreams

Prodigy

Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators

Whispers

Shirt

Great Infirmities

The Healer

Navigator

A Suitcase Strapped with a Rope

Begotten of the Spleen

Toy Factory

The Little Tear Gland That Says

The Stream

Immortal Prankster

Furniture Mover

Elegy

Note Slipped under a Door

December Trees

Grocery

Classic Ballroom Dances

Progress Report

Harsh Climate

Peaceful Kingdom

Bedtime Story

The Tomb of Stephane Mallarme

Forest Birds

Figuring

History Book

Black Days

Fool's Paradise

Body and Soul

Venus

Sewing Machine

Gravity

Northern Exposure

Winter Night

The Cold

A Fall Day

There They Stand Unaware of Their Wretchedness

Further Adventures of Charles Simic

Devotions

Shortcut

Old Couple

Cold Blue Tinge

The Writings of the Mystics

Window Washer

The Homeless

Misfortune Is on the Way

Prison

The Overcoat

The Game

Gallows Etiquette

In Midsummer Quiet

Peaceful Trees

The Unknown One

Chairs

My Beloved

Gospel Hour

A Quiet Talk with Oneself

Hurricane Season

Note

An Evening with the Master

Spoons with Realistic Dead Files on Them

History

Rough Outline

Strictly Bucolic

Crows

February

Inheritance

The Amazing Potato Peeler

A Tub

Fable

Punch Minus Judy

Small Wonders

Piety

Austerities

Thus

Shaving at Night

Eastern European Cooking

The Childhood of Parmenides

Drawing the Triangle

Interlude

My Weariness of Epic Proportions

Madonnas Touched Up with Goatees

Rural Delivery

Old Mountain Road

The Great Horned Owl

Autumn Air

Midpoint

Drawn to Perspective

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2000

    Great poems as expected, compilation a bit lacking

    This book is all right if you're just discovering Simic, but if you're adding it to a collection it's not an essential buy. Despite the dust jacket's promise it doesn't deliver much in the way of new or revised material, and the choice of poems mirrors too much the older (and cheaper) compilation, Selected Poems. Most of Simic's books are available and very affordable in paperback, and once you start reading him, you'll want them all. The 'greatest hits' package here is optional.

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