The 15th U.S. Poet Laureate discusses the purpose and accessibility of poetry.
(Photos by Scott Cook) There is nothing quite like hearing a poet speak the words he’s written over the course of nearly six decades—especially when that poet is 15th U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Simic, the inaugural speaker in the 2014 Winter With the Writers series.
Simic’s poetic journey is one highlighted by the publication of more than 60 books, including 20 titles of his own poetry, and a long list of awards. The distinguished guest also holds a spot at the “top of students’ favorites list,” according to Carol Frost, who, besides directing the annual literary arts festival, is also a poet and the Theodore Bruce and Barbara Lawrence Alfond Professor of English at Rollins, and has been sharing Simic’s work with students “for years.”
What follows are Simic’s answers to questions posed before his Feb. 6 visit to the Rollins campus.
Dixie Tate: In “Confessions of a Poet Laureate,” you say that, as a rule, you read and write poetry in bed. Could you share a little more about your creative process?
Charles Simic: I would if I knew what to tell you. I’ve been writing poems since 1956, and over all those years, I never had the feeling that the poems I wrote turned out as well as I had hoped them to be, so I keep trying.
DT: Your work has been described as visceral, unique, stark, even bizarre. How would you describe your poetry?
CS: It’s a poetry of someone who goes around with his eyes open, but who also knows that at times we see even better with our eyes closed.
DT: You have said that your conscious life started at age 3 with explosive light and shattered glass all around you on the floor where you’d been asleep. To what extent is your vast collection of work informed by the years you spent as a youngster in war-torn Belgrade?
CS: It’s a small portion of my work since those events took place more than 70 years ago.
DT: You’ve also said that you first tried writing poetry in high school just to see if you could. Do you remember what your first poem was about?
CS: I believe it was about an old armchair someone had thrown out on the curb, but I could be wrong.
DT: Do you have a favorite among your poems? A favorite by another poet? How about a favorite poet or someone whose work greatly influenced you?
CS: The poem of mine I really like is called “Shelley.” [Read “Shelly” or listen to Simic read it.] As for other poets, the list would run into hundreds of poems going back to ancient Greeks and Romans, so I wouldn’t even try to pick one.
(Photos by Scott Cook)
DT: What was your most memorable experience as U.S. poet laureate?
CS: Discovering, as I traveled around, how many Americans read and like poetry.
DT: What do you say to those who would say they just don’t understand poetry? Is reading poetry like learning a new language, or is it simpler than that?
CS: This is a ridiculous thing to say. Starting with Whitman and Dickinson, and down to the present day, there are thousands of poems that are perfectly accessible. One doesn’t need special training to read Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” For every difficult, hermetic poet, there are hundreds of others who can easily be read.
DT: What words of advice do you have for aspiring young poets?
CS: Read a lot of poets, imitate the ones you love, and trust your own imagination and your voice once you find it.
DT: Do you believe that poets see the world differently? How so?
CS: Every good poet like every interesting human being sees the world differently. I don’t believe poets are a separate species. That’s what makes it possible for people who don’t write poetry to enjoy reading it.
DT: Socrates said poets compose with an inspiration similar to that of the diviners and the oracles. In “A Defense of Poetry,” Shelley said, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” And, in more modern times, W. Somerset Maugham had this to say: “The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.” What do you believe to be the role of the poet and poetry in the 21st century?
CS: Poetry’s role has always been to remind readers of the fundamental realities of being a human being. We are born and die, try to make sense of our lives and the world, fall in and out of love, have family and friends, live through tragedies and periods of great happiness, and so forth and so on. That has always been the role of poetry. In other words, my view, and the view of most other poets in poetry’s long history, has been more modest than what these statements you quote propose. I love Shelley’s poetry, but he must have been drunk when he said that about poetry.