Charles Simic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose singular art of lyricism and economy, tragic insight and disruptive humour awed critics and readers, died at the age of 84.
The death of Simic, the country’s poet laureate from 2007 to 2008, was confirmed Monday by Alfred A. Knopf executive editor Dan Halpern. He did not immediately provide any additional information.
Simic, the author of dozens of books, was widely regarded as one of the greatest and most original poets of his generation, despite the fact that he did not begin writing in English until he was well into his twenties. His bleak, but humorous, outlook was shaped in part by his childhood in wartime Yugoslavia, prompting him to observe, “The world is old, it was always old.” His poems were usually brief and to-the-point, with unexpected and sometimes startling shifts in mood and imagery, as if to mirror the cruelty and randomness he had witnessed as a child.
Simic writes in “Two Dogs” about how a dog in “some Southern town” and another in the New Hampshire woods reminded him of a “little white dog” who became “entangled” in the marching German soldiers’ feet. “Reading History” depicts the “vast, dark, and impenetrable” skies for those who are “led to their death.” Life is a cosmic joke in “Help Wanted,” and the narrator is a willing dupe:
Simic, on the other hand, enjoyed wordplay (“The insomniac’s brain is a choo-choo train”) and catcalls (“America, I yelled at the radio/Even at 2 a.m. you are a loony bin!”). In “The Friends of Heraclitus,” he wrote about the interplay of great ideas and everyday follies: “What was that fragment of Heraclitus/You were trying to remember/As you stepped on the butcher’s cat?” Sex becomes a near-literal feast of the senses in “Transport”:
“The World Doesn’t End,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, “Walking the Black Cat,” which was a National Book Award finalist in 1996, “Unending Blues,” and more recent collections such as “The Lunatic” and “Scribbled in the Dark.” In 2005, he won the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the judges described him as “a magician, a conjuror,” with “a disarming, deadpan precision that should never be mistaken for simplicity.” He was multilingual and translated other poets’ works from French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian.
“No Land in Sight,” his 2022 collection, presented a dark vision of contemporary life, such as the poem “Come Spring,” which warned: “Don’t let birdie in the tree/Fool you with its pretty song/The wicked are back from hell.”
Simic married fashion designer Helene Dubin in 1964, and they had two children. He became an American citizen in 1971 and joined the faculty of the University of New Hampshire two years later, where he remained for decades.
Dusan Simic was born in Belgrade in 1938, a year before World War II began, and he would later describe his childhood as “a small, nonspeaking part/In a bloody epic.” His father fled to Italy in 1942 and spent years apart from his family. Simic saw the war as a necessary escape from his oppressive home life.
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“The war ended the day before my birthday, May 9, 1945,” he told the Paris Review in 2005. “I was having fun in the street. I went upstairs to get a drink of water while my mother and our neighbours listened to the radio. ‘War is over,’ they said, and I apparently looked at them puzzledly and said, ‘Now there won’t be any more fun!’ There is no parental supervision during wartime; the adults are so preoccupied with their lives that the children can run free.”
Simic referred to Hitler and Stalin as “travel agents.” When Nazi rule gave way to Soviet-backed oppression in the mid-1950s, Simic fled to France with his mother and brother, then to the United States. His family settled in Chicago, where Ernest Hemingway once attended high school, and he became interested in poetry — for the art and for the girls. Due to his parents’ inability to pay for college, he worked for a decade as a payroll clerk and house painter while taking night classes at the University of Chicago and, eventually, New York University, where he graduated in 1966 with a degree in Russian studies.
“What the Grass Says,” his first book, was published in 1967. He then published “Somewhere Among Us, a Stone is Taking Notes” and “Dismantling the Silence,” and he was soon averaging a book a year. In a 1978 New York Times review, he was praised for conveying “a complex of perceptions and feelings” in just a few lines.
“Of everything said about poetry, the axiom that less is more has made the biggest and most lasting impression on me,” Simic told Granta in 2013. “I’ve written a lot of short poems in my life, but ‘written’ isn’t the right word to describe how they came to be. Because it’s impossible to sit down and write an eight-line poem that’s large for its size, these poems are pieced together over time from words and images floating around in my head.”