Charles Simic

Charles Simic is a poet, essayist, and translator. He is the recipient of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Griffin Prize, and a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2007 Simic was appointed the fifteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The Lunatic, his new ­volume of poetry, and The Life of Images, a book of his selected prose, were published in April.

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  • A Brutal American Epic

    August 25, 2015

    This summer I read Charles Reznikoff’s long poem Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative for the first time. I know of nothing like it in literature.

  • Sundays at Slugs'

    July 29, 2015

    Following Ornette Coleman’s death, Charles Simic spoke to his brother Milan Simich, who has produced concerts and recordings for more than twenty-five years, about the avant-garde jazz scene in New York’s East Village that gave rise to that music.

  • The Joy of the Street

    June 17, 2015

    I’ve felt at home in cities as diverse and foreign to me as Barcelona, Krakow, Mexico City, and Sarajevo. All I need is a street full of people and I’m happy.

  • A Book in the Darkness

    April 1, 2015

    One of the compensations of being an insomniac in a snowbound house full of books is that I can always find something to read and distract myself from whatever mood I’m in.

  • Our Wars, Our Victims

    February 17, 2015

    President Obama’s new request for war authorization to fight ISIS over the next three years with further airstrikes and “limited” combat operations may make our wars legal, but no less foolish.

  • Mark Strand: Living Gorgeously

    January 24, 2015

    We were just a couple of short-order cooks who kept trying to pass themselves off as poets.

  • A Thieves’ Thanksgiving

    November 26, 2014

    It’s never been such a good time to be a crook. In what other country of laws does one enjoy so much freedom to defraud one’s government and fellow citizens without having to worry about cops showing at the door?

  • New York in Eight Parts

    October 8, 2014

    “Learn Barbering and make Money,” the sign said. Blind as I am without my glasses, the apprentice barber had cut off half of my hair with electric clippers, leaving just a tuft in front, before I realized what was happening to my head.

  • A Granite State Miracle

    August 28, 2014

    The improved quantity and quality of the wines that are being drunk in New Hampshire have become obvious over the years. Since I associate wine with good life and civilization, knowing that everyone from the old Greek and Romans to our Founding Fathers drank it too, Benjamin Franklin even claiming that wine is a proof that God loves us, I find this to be a most felicitous development.

  • Portable Hell

    August 5, 2014

    The world is going to hell in a hurry. At my age, I ought to be used to it, but I’m not.

  • Confessions of a Soccer Addict

    July 2, 2014

    I haven’t done a thing in three weeks except watch soccer.

  • The Poets in the Distance

    May 28, 2014

    Two poets, Russell Edson and Bill Knott, both of whom I was friendly with and whose poetry was very important to me, died this spring, each one leaving behind many original and memorable poems and many devoted readers, despite keeping their distance from our literary scene.

  • The Great Poets' Brawl of ’68

    April 23, 2014

    The biggest and the most illustrious gathering of poets I have ever attended took place in June of 1968 at Stony Brook.

  • Betrayed

    March 21, 2014

    There are few things that never change in this world of ours, but one of them happens to be the near certainty that those who raise their voices against injustice get betrayed in the end.

  • What's Left of My Books

    February 22, 2014

    There is nothing more mysterious and wonderful than the way in which some bit of language remains fresh in our memory when so many other things we were at one time interested in are forgotten.

  • Short Days and Long Nights

    January 21, 2014

    Cold December night. A homeless woman cowering in a doorway on East 3rd Street in New York talking to God—and He, tongue-tied as usual.

  • It's on YouTube, Kid

    December 17, 2013

    It dawned on me recently that every song, movie, and TV show that ever made an impression on me is available on YouTube.

  • Art Thieves and Gurus

    November 16, 2013

    “Doesn’t he look like Gurdjieff to you?” he asked, pointing at my father. I had to agree that there was a strong resemblance.

  • Bleak House

    October 16, 2013

    The concerted effort backed by some of the richest men in this country to deprive poor Americans of the chance to get health insurance may be without precedent for sheer malice.

  • Spaghetti Lessons

    September 9, 2013

    I don’t know how other poets imagine their muses, but mine is an Italian cookbook.

  • The Books We've Lost

    August 13, 2013

    Used-book stores are disappearing in our day at an even greater rate than regular book stores. What made these stores attractive to someone like me is that they were more indiscriminate and chaotic than public libraries and thus made browsing more of an adventure.

  • Summertime

    July 12, 2013

    Are rocking chairs in this country, I’m asking myself, being rocked on summer evenings as much as they once were? Or do they stand abandoned and motionless on dark porches across the land, now that their elderly owners tend to relieve their boredom by sitting in front of their computers?

  • Looking It in the Face

    June 4, 2013

    Of course, I never really believed it would happen. Grow old, I mean.

  • Shooting Our Way to Safety

    May 15, 2013

    Following on the premise that the more guns a person owns, the safer he and his family are going to be, the nation Wayne LaPierre and his supporters envision is one in which law enforcement would be supplanted by vigilantes in our communities.

  • A Poet on the Road

    April 23, 2013

    After my first book of poetry came out in 1967, I started getting calls and letters from schools around the country inviting me to come and read. If the money being offered was acceptable, I’d say yes. I have now after all these years given readings in nearly every state of the continental United States.

  • Health Care: The New American Sadism

    April 2, 2013

    Drug companies, medical device makers, hospitals, and labs are assured of profit; it just depends how big. And that’s really what all those who want to take the government out of healthcare are screaming about.

  • We Couldn't Stop Looking

    February 21, 2013

    I recall rainy afternoons with nothing to occupy me in the office but some photograph by Dorothea Lange, Paul Caponigro, Jerry Uelsmann, or by a complete unknown that I couldn’t stop looking at, because it seemed to grow more beautiful and more mysterious the longer I kept looking.

  • Dreams I've Had (and Some I Haven't)

    January 24, 2013

    In a lifetime of unexceptional and forgettable dreams, a few stand out.

  • A Year in Fragments

    December 31, 2012

    On my walk this afternoon, I saw a store window full of manicurists at work, a green grocer on a sidewalk watering his tomatoes and peppers with a hose, and a pharmacist sell with a wink something to an old man.

    He was writing a ballet for the radio, or did I hear that wrong in that noisy restaurant?

    Fifty years ago washing still hung from fire escapes on the East Side. Neighbors sat on the stoops chatting amiably on hot summer nights and bored boys threw cats from rooftops to pass time. Writers and poets, destined to remain obscure, wrote feverishly while everyone else slept and black barges glided on the East River taking loads of garbage out to sea.

  • Manhattan's Forgotten Film Studio

    December 7, 2012

    Here, briefly, is the story. In March, 1917, while walking on Broadway, Buster Keaton bumped into a friend from vaudeville who happened to know Fatty Arbuckle, the famous silent movie comedian and Chaplin’s rival.

  • Memory Traps

    November 19, 2012

    It doesn’t take much. A deserted street at dusk, with the summer sunlight lingering on the upper floors of a row of buildings and the sidewalks down below already deep in shadow, may get some old movie in our heads rolling again.

  • The Crying Game

    September 10, 2012

    “What are all these people crying about?” I imagine someone unfamiliar with our extraordinary national talent for hypocrisy asking while watching the conventions. It might even cross the mind of such a person that nowhere on this poor old earth of ours have there ever been people so caring of each other’s feelings as today’s Americans. Either the television networks had some kind of device on their cameras able to instantly locate tearful faces in a vast crowd of delegates, or they had nothing else to show, since there seemed not a dry eye in the house. The speakers choked up when mentioning their immigrant grandparents, their own supposed humble beginnings, their wonderful families sitting right there in the audience, whose adoring faces were then shown with eyes growing moist.

  • Poets and Money

    August 21, 2012

    “Poetry is dead!,” someone shouts happily every now and then, to the relief of parents and those among the educated who never read poetry. No such luck.

  • After Aurora: No End to Grief

    July 31, 2012

    One of the blessings of rural life is that newspapers are not readily available and cell phones often don’t work outside larger towns, so the news of the world reaches us late, unless one has the TV or the computer turned on at home. I didn’t hear about the shooting in Colorado till late the next day on my car radio, while driving to the town dump. The monstrosity of the act struck me with full force of its vileness in the peaceful surroundings. My mind wandered back to the morning of September 11, when after watching the unfolding tragedy that culminated in the collapse of the twin towers, I finally took my dog, who had been nagging me for hours, for a walk.

  • My Fourth of July

    July 3, 2012

    Summer is the time when memories of other summers flood back. You lie on the beach, take a swim in the sea, or toss and turn at night unable to sleep because of the heat, and recall yourself doing the same in years past, or surprise yourself by remembering a half-forgotten, entirely different summer experience. The year is 1963. I’m on an army ship playing poker for high stakes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. None of us has any money, but once we arrive in Brooklyn, get discharged and receive our pay, we’ll settle what we owe and collect what we have coming to us. I don’t believe this will happen, but I pretend I do and win and lose fortunes with the composure of a dissolute prince in a nineteenth-century Russian novel.

  • Poetry and Utopia

    June 7, 2012

    I was standing, one lovely May afternoon, on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City, waiting for a friend who was late. I had spent the previous hour in a bookstore in the neighborhood that was famous for stocking up on the latest literary magazines and poetry books, turning the pages and reading a poem here and there. Waiting at the busy intersection, it suddenly occurred to me that if the old Greek poetess, Sappho, could see what I’m seeing now, she would not only understand nothing, but she would be terrified out of her wits.

  • Why I Still Write Poetry

    May 15, 2012

    When my mother was very old and in a nursing home, she surprised me one day toward the end of her life by asking me if I still wrote poetry. When I blurted out that I still do, she stared at me with incomprehension.

  • The Bathroom Muse

    April 17, 2012

    Has there ever been any survey conducted among those who lock themselves in the bathroom inquiring how they spend their time? Do they read, smoke, talk to themselves, think things over, say their prayers, or just stare into space? If not, how come? All those lights burning in bathrooms late at night in large and small cities must indicate someone is doing much more in them than just answering the call of nature. Wives slipping away from husbands who snore, husbands kept awake by their wives grinding their teeth, or just plain old insomniacs, they seek a refuge, a quiet place to read and meditate. With all the surveillance that dozens of government agencies and countless private companies are subjecting every American to, I would not be surprised if they are not already tearing down the veil of secrecy from these late night activities and have a certain dentist in Miami, a farmer in Iowa, a showgirl in Vegas, and thousands of others around the country closely monitored to determine the level of threat they and other bathroom readers may be posing to our country that may require congressional action once their findings are made public.

  • Age of Ignorance

    March 20, 2012

    Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.

  • My Secret

    February 10, 2012

    All writers have some secret about the way they work. Mine is that I write in bed. Big deal!, you are probably thinking. Mark Twain, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Truman Capote, and plenty of other writers did too. Vladimir Nabokov even kept index cards under his pillow in case he couldn’t sleep some night and felt like working. However, I haven’t heard of other poets composing in bed—although what could be more natural than scribbling a love poem with a ballpoint pen on the back of one’s beloved?

  • When Movies Kept Us Awake at Night

    January 18, 2012

    A number of years ago I bought Halliwell’s Film Guide to inform myself about old movies shown on TV and available in video stores. Occasionally, however, when I found it lying around, I’d open the Guide at random and start reading, usually attracted by the name of the film, something irresistible like Calling Doctor Death, Isle of Forgotten Sins, Naked Alibi, or Prudence and the Pill, about a girl who “borrows her mother’s contraceptives pills and replaces them with aspirin, causing no end of complication.” One day it dawned on me that out of the twelve to fifteen movies listed on every page of the Guide, there was at least one I had seen and more often several. Like millions of others who grew up in 1940s, I had spent a good part of my life seeing hundreds and hundreds of movies, everything from genuine masterpieces of the cinema to worthless trash.

  • Goodbye Serenity

    December 5, 2011

    My own inordinate interest in what the lunatics are up to in every corner of our planet has to do with my childhood. When I was three years old, German bombs started falling on my head. By the time I was seven, I was accustomed to seeing dead people lying in the street, or hung from telephone poles, or thrown into ditches with their throats cut. Becoming a displaced person after that, one among millions, ending up in country after country, learning one foreign language after another, mispronouncing its words in school or when asking direction in the street, struggling to read and make sense of the history of the place, worrying about some war being declared and even bigger bombs falling on my head—all this contributed to my need to know what plans are being hatched behind our backs.

  • Was King Hammurabi a Commie?

    November 3, 2011

    “Nothing ever changes” may be one of the truest things ever said. Certainly, life was different when our grandparents were young, in many ways far worse and in other ways far better—as they never failed to inform us every time some new, faddish invention came along. But despite all the predictions of social reformers and utopian thinkers, human behavior seems to have remained pretty much the same throughout recorded history. The four-thousand-year old admonition in the Code of Hammurabi that the strong be prevented from oppressing the weak, or Thomas Moore’s observation in the sixteenth century that society was a conspiracy of the rich to defraud the poor, are not only perfectly understandable today, but are aimed at the same problem that has brought demonstrators to the streets from Wall Street to Oakland.

  • Take Care of Your Little Notebook

    October 12, 2011

    Writing with a pen or pencil on a piece of paper is becoming an infrequent activity, even for those who were once taught the rigorous rules of penmanship in grade school and hardly saw a day go by without jotting down a telephone number or a list of food items to buy at the market on the way home, and for that purpose carried with them something to write with and something to write on. In an emergency, lacking pen or notebook, they might even approach a complete stranger to ask for assistance.

  • A Reunion with Boredom

    August 31, 2011

    Do people still suffer from periods of boredom even with computers, smart phones and tablets to occupy them endlessly?

  • The Lost Art of Postcard Writing

    August 2, 2011

    Until a few years ago, hardly a day would go by in the summer without the mailman bringing a postcard from a vacationing friend or acquaintance. Nowadays, you’re bound to get an email enclosing a photograph, or, if your grandchildren are the ones doing the traveling, a brief message telling you that their flight has been delayed or that they have arrived. The terrific thing about postcards was their immense variety. It wasn’t just the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal, or some other famous tourist attraction you were likely to receive in the mail, but also a card with a picture of a roadside diner in Iowa, the biggest hog at some state fair in the South, and even a funeral parlor touting the professional excellence that their customers have come to expect over a hundred years.

  • Mladic's Arrest: What Did Serbia Know?

    May 26, 2011

    The surprise arrest in northern Serbia of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general believed to be behind the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, is very good news. As one mother, whose son was killed in Srebrenica, said on Serbian TV, “Justice is slow, but it does come.” The big question is why the Serbian government waited so long to arrest him.

  • A Country Without Libraries

    May 18, 2011

    I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut down library.

  • The New American Pessimism

    March 10, 2011

    I can’t remember when I last heard someone genuinely optimistic about the future of this country.

  • Where Is Poetry Going?

    February 7, 2011

    This is a question poets get asked often. The quick answer is nowhere.

  • Winter's Philosophers

    January 4, 2011

    “Everyone who thinks is unhappy,” says Sergei Dovlatov in one of his stories. Some crows caw all day, some have nothing to say. I see one of them pace back and forth on my lawn the way I’ve seen Hamlet do on stage. Whatever is bothering him seems insoluble, too much for one crow to figure out on his own

  • The Things I Learned at Dinner

    November 24, 2010

    Back in the early 1970s, when I was teaching in California, I had a colleague named Bob Williams who taught fiction writing and was famous for beginning each semester with a lecture on the art of cooking.

  • Reminiscing About the Night Before

    October 27, 2010

    One of the sorrows of our modern age is that so much of the life one knew in one’s youth has completely disappeared, or is on the verge of disappearing. It wasn’t always like that. For most of human history, one could count on one’s favorite dishes and songs still being around when one became old. Not anymore. One evening recently, thinking about this melancholy subject, I was wondering, for example, what happened to the delicious Manhattan clam chowder that was once on the menu in every restaurant and corner luncheonette in the city, when my mind drifted—first to different neighborhoods in New York where I lived, then to small piano bars, now nearly extinct, where I spent many an evening drinking and listening to music.

  • The Serbian Surprise

    September 28, 2010

    An astonishing event occurred in the United Nations this month: the government of Serbia made a complete reversal of its policy toward Kosovo.

  • America's Front Page

    September 15, 2010

    Cleaning my basement recently, I came upon an issue of The New York Times dated Friday, April 13, 1990. How familiar the headlines all sound.

  • The Hague's Balkan Confusion

    July 26, 2010

    There is nothing very surprising about the ruling by the International Court of Justice that Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence was legal.

  • On Losing

    July 19, 2010

    The obvious explanation, that a better team won that day, is never good enough for the tens of millions of disappointed. Here, then, are some excuses the fans universally rely on to explain defeat.

  • Last Words

    July 7, 2010

    Why the enormous interest in the final thoughts of men and women who were often guilty of committing horrific crimes? It must be the same morbid curiosity that brought huge crowds of Americans to public executions in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Many considered these grim occasions so much fun they brought their families along.

  • The Hague Convicts His Comrades, Mladic Enjoys Himself

    June 11, 2010

    Yesterday, a special court in The Hague convicted two Bosnian Serb military men of genocide for their part in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. But the man who is believed to be the mastermind of the killings, General Ratko Mladic, remains at large.

  • Strangers on a Train

    May 18, 2010

    Everyone who walks the busy streets of a city takes imaginary snapshots. For all I know, my face glimpsed in a crowd years ago may live on in someone’s memory the same way that the face of some stranger lives on in mine. Of course, out of the hundreds of people we may happen to see in a day, we become fully aware of only a select few, and often not even that many if we have too much on our minds. Then it happens.

  • Confessions of a Poet Laureate

    April 27, 2010

    It never crossed my mind that I would become the poet laureate of the United States. The day I received the call from the Library of Congress, I was carrying a bag of groceries from the car to the house when the phone rang.

  • The Blustering Blast

    March 17, 2010

    For someone like me who lives in New Hampshire, cold and snow are things I take in stride, the way I fancy the inhabitants of the tropics barely take notice of the hot muggy days they have there. It’s the howling wind that discombobulates me, the one a neighbor calls “Labrador Express,” conjuring up for me visions of the bleak landscape of that great peninsula in eastern Canada that once I surveyed in horror from a low-flying plane.

  • Death List, Poem

    February 22, 2010

    A strange little book came in the mail the other day. It’s called transcript and is published by the admirable Dalkey Archive Press. Translated from the German by Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling, its author, Heimrad Bäcker (1925-2003), was unknown to me. He was an Austrian book editor, photographer and concrete poet who as a teenager joined the Nazi party and became an active member in the regional leadership of the Hitler Youth. At a first glance, his book looks like a collection of verbal scraps of uncertain origin, some of which have the appearance of avant-garde poetry, but on examination it turns out to be something entirely different. Bäcker’s “poems” consist of excerpts from documents by Holocaust planners, perpetrators, and victims.

  • The Buster Keaton Cure

    February 4, 2010

    I have a collection of Buster Keaton’s films I bought in the late 1980s when they first became available on video. It’s made up of nineteen half-hour shorts and his nine full-length films, all made between 1920 and 1928. Every few years I take a look at some of them, and recently, being thoroughly depressed by our wars and our politics, I watched a dozen of his shorts to cheer myself up. Almost ninety years old, these shorts are still very funny and visually beautiful. They make the Dada and Surrealist pranks everybody was scandalized by in that era seem dated and tame in comparison.

  • On the Couch with Philip Roth, at the Morgue with Pol Pot

    December 14, 2009

    As a rule, I read and write poetry in bed; philosophy and serious essays sitting down at my desk; newspapers and magazines while I eat breakfast or lunch, and novels while lying on the couch. It’s toughest to find a good place to read history, since what one is reading usually is a story of injustices and atrocities and wherever one does that, be it in the garden on a fine summer day or riding a bus in a city, one feels embarrassed to be so lucky. Perhaps the waiting room in a city morgue is the only suitable place to read about Stalin and Pol Pot?

  • Homeless on the Home Front

    November 23, 2009

    Sometime in the fall of 1958, an old fellow came up to me late one night on MacDougal Street and said, “Mister, I’m writing the book of my life and I need a dime to complete it.” I gave him my last dollar and went off happy. This kind of inspired, seemingly spontaneous panhandling differs from what professional beggars do. They employ props: crutches, head-bandages, wooden legs, or have a skinny, sad-eyed dog accompanying them. They stage a theatrical performance for your benefit and hope for the best.

  • Dairy Queen and Barbed Wire: The New Reality of US Occupation

    November 5, 2009

    Back in September, I read an article in The New York Times about an American base in Iraq that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. It describes a U.S. military installation in the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad that houses 28,000 American troops and has a busy airport, two power plants, two sewage plants, and two water treatment plants that can purify 1.9 million gallons of water a day for showers, swimming pools and golf courses, and eighty to hundred buses any given moment crisscrossing the area on fifteen bus routes.

  • The Serbian Charade

    October 27, 2009

    In late September, I went to hear the President of Serbia, Boris Tadic, speak to students and professors at Columbia University. He was in New York leading his country’s delegation to the UN General Assembly meeting. Tadic is a nice-looking, charming, and articulate man without a trace of Milosevic’s arrogance. He said many reassuring things about democracy in Serbia, maintaining peace in the region, and preserving the territorial integrity of Bosnia. But, when it came to Kosovo, he asserted that Serbia will “never, under any circumstances, implicitly or explicitly, recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.”

  • "That Domineering Creature Called the 'I'"

    October 20, 2009

    Update: Listen to Frederick Seidel read from his work in the Review’s podcast.