Charles Simic ihas been Poet Laureate of the United States. His most recent books, The Lunatic, a volume of poetry, and The Life of Images, a book of his selected prose, were published last year. (May 2016)

You Laugh Uncontrollably

Bohumil Hrabal at the Canadian embassy in Prague, summer 1990
Bohumil Hrabal’s complete works in Czech add up to nineteen volumes, of which at least twenty books have been translated into English, an achievement not many foreign fiction writers of the recent past can claim. I first heard his name when I saw Closely Watched Trains, a film based on …

The Meaning of New Hampshire

A primary voter in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 9, 2016

Seeing Trump signs in impoverished towns here that never fully recovered after the mills closed forty years ago makes one sad. These are clearly stunningly uninformed people, ignorant even of their own family histories.

Sticking to Our Guns

The coverage of our elections has a fairy tale feel to it. Our national press pretends that they are dealing with men and women of principle, offering carefully thought-out solutions to our nation’s problems, rather than groveling servants of billionaires who finance their campaigns; and that the voters these candidates try to persuade in the primaries are well-informed and well-meaning Americans and not people who by and large get their information from Fox TV and hate radio.

Bernie & Hillary & the Future

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic presidential debate, Las Vegas, October 2015
This was, indeed, a very different presidential debate from the ones Republicans had in August and September. Sixteen candidates then used their allotted time trying to outdo each other in scaring Americans out of their pants by warning them about enemies everywhere, from illegal immigrants pouring across our borders, selling …


It was like a teetering house of cards, A contortionist strumming a ukulele, A gorilla raging in someone’s attic, A car graveyard frantic to get back On the interstate highway in a tornado, Tolstoy’s beard in his mad old age, General Custer’s stuffed horse…

Swept Away

Melville had the sea and Poe his nightmares, To thrill them and haunt them, And you have the faces of strangers, Glimpsed once and never again. Like that woman whose eye you caught On a crowded street in New York Who spun …

A Brutal American Epic

Olympian Cotton Mills, Columbia, South Carolina, 1905

Charles Reznikoff’s long poem Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative is a compilation of case summaries, a sequence of self-contained pieces. These “recitatives,” as he called them, tell the stories of some five hundred court cases from all over this country and deal with a broad segment of the American population, urban and rural.

Sundays at Slugs’

Donald Ayler, Albert Ayler, Lewis Worrell, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Michel Sampson outside Slugs’, 1966

Milan Simich: After the gig Ornette Coleman gave me his address and invited me to visit. About a week later on a Sunday afternoon, I went to the West Village. I forget the street, he had a basement apartment. I hesitated, couldn’t ring the bell, and walked away. Thing is, I was nineteen, what was I going to talk to him about?

The Incomparable Critic

Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, University of Oklahoma, 1976
“The critics always get everything wrong,” John Ashbery said. Well, some do and some don’t. They get on poets’ nerves, of course. Not just for the obvious reason that critics can find poems wanting, but even when they admire them, the way they read their poems often makes poets scratch …

The Joy of the Street

Prague, 1964

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. Like most of our habits, my love of street life has its origins in my childhood. I was lonely and miserable, but was not always bored, and at times almost happy seeing so many strange and interesting things. If anything made me who I am, living like a vagrant in the streets did.

A Book in the Darkness

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. As a snooze-inducer, nothing comes close to poetry, or a story you’ve already read.

The Godfather of Modernism

It’s not often that a biographer is as fortunate with his subject as Ian S. MacNiven has been with James Laughlin. As the founder and publisher of New Directions, the most prominent press in this country of modernist American and foreign literature, Laughlin not only had an interesting life, or …

Our Wars, Our Victims

Matteo di Giovanni: Massacre of the Innocents (detail), inlaid marble mosaic, 1481-1482

President Obama’s new request for war authorization, now pending before Congress, to fight ISIS over the next three years with further airstrikes and “limited” combat operations, despite the complete failure of all our previous attempts in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to do any good, may make our wars legal, but no less foolish.

The White Labyrinth

There is one waiting for you, On every blank sheet of paper. So, beware of the monster Guarding it who’ll be invisible As he comes charging at you, Armed as you are only with a pen. And watch out for that girl Who’ll …

Mark Strand: Living Gorgeously

The poet Mark Strand at 192 Books in Manhattan, July 11, 2012

Mark Strand, who died in November at the age of eighty after a long battle with cancer, is the first among my oldest friends to go. Having known him for forty-six years, I’ve come to realize since he passed away what a huge presence he was in my life and still continues to be.

On Mark Strand (1934–2014)

Mark Strand, New York City, 2013
The poet Mark Strand, a contributor to these pages, died on November 29. JOSEPH BRODSKY The following was given by Joseph Brodsky as an introduction to a reading by Mark Strand at the American Academy of Poets in New York City on November 4, 1986. It’s a …

A Thieves’ Thanksgiving

Joseph Keppler: The Bosses of the Senate, 1889

It ought to be obvious by now that if we ever become a genuine police state, it will not arise from an authoritarian ideology necessarily, but as the end result of that insatiable greed for profit that has already affected every aspect of American life from health care to the way college students are forced into debt. No doubt about it, in the coming holiday season our crooks will have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to celebrate.

A Masterful Storyteller Between Worlds

Aleksandar Hemon, Amsterdam, 2004
“And who are you?” she asked…and then he told her who he was, with fatigued detachment, as if retelling the plot of a tedious Eastern European movie. The 1970s and 1980s were a golden period for many young people in Yugoslavia. The universities and some high schools were first-rate. Cultural …

New York in Eight Parts

Central Park, New York City, 1970

On the corner of Fifth Avenue and 13th Street, a block from where I lived in the 1960s, there was a movie theater that showed a lot of foreign movies. I’d go to bed at night, toss and turn unable to sleep, and realize that I still had time to catch the late show. I remember exiting through the empty lobby at one o’clock in the morning wearing pajamas under my raincoat and finding that an inch or two of snow had fallen in the meantime.

A Granite State Miracle

In 1973, when I moved to New Hampshire, wines were available only in state liquor stores in selections so limited and of such mediocre quality that someone like me, coming from California and accustomed to an immense variety of wines available everywhere, had a reason to panic. To remedy the situation, I and a couple of friends who shared my love of wines used to make monthly trips to Boston and Cambridge to diversify and replenish our supply. We did this for years, until the state loosened the regulations. What became obvious over the years is not just the increase in quantity, but the improved quality of the wines that are being drunk. 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

The world is going to hell in a hurry. At my age, I ought to be used to it, but I’m not. Perhaps ignorance is bliss, I say to myself and think of people I know who care little about what goes on in the world. I have sympathy for them. It’s no fun starting one’s day or retiring at night with images of dead children. When he was old, my father said that he could think of two ways to break his addiction to newspapers: enter a monastery or a lunatic asylum.

The Prisoner of History

Charles Simic, age seventeen, with some of his paintings, Oak Park, Illinois, 1955
It is hard for me to believe that I was born in Belgrade, and not in New York City, for I have a pretty good idea what it was like to live in New York in 1938. I can picture what the New Yorkers were doing in various neighborhoods and …

Confessions of a Soccer Addict

The World Cup semifinal match between France and West Germany, Guadalajara, Mexico, June 25, 1986

I haven’t done a thing in three weeks except watch soccer. Mowing the lawn, paying bills, working on an essay whose deadline is fast approaching, answering dozens of urgent emails—all these have had to wait. Should an unexpected visitor come to the door, I would emulate the example of soccer players and fake an injury, dropping on the floor and writhing in agony until the person left.

The Poets in the Distance

Bill Knott

The poet Bill Knott always had some eccentric stunt, like the time he walked out on stage at the Guggenheim Museum carrying a brown paper bag, from which he’d extract a poem written on a small notebook paper, hold it up to the light, read a few marvelous lines of poetry and then stop, telling the people this poem is complete shit—and then go through the same routine again and again before deigning to read an entire poem.

The Great Poets’ Brawl of ’68

As soon as the fight started, Allen Ginsberg went down on his knees and began chanting some Buddhist prayer for peace and harmony among all living creatures, which not only distracted those fighting, but also startled a few puzzled couples who had discreetly retreated into the bushes and were now returning in a hurry with their clothes in disarray.


Wounded protester, Kiev, Ukraine, February 2014

Every time I see a large crowd on TV demonstrating against some autocratic government, I have mixed feelings: admiration for their willingness and bravery to take a stand, and a foreboding that nothing will come of it. I’ve watched too many worthy causes fizzle out over the years. But even by that grim reality the defeat of democracy movements across the Middle East and North Africa is staggering.

What’s Left of My Books

Abelardo Morell: Down the Rabbit Hole (From Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), 1998

These days, I look in disbelief at many of the books on my shelves, from thick novels and memoirs to works of great philosophers, wondering whether it’s really possible that I devoted weeks or even months reading them. I know that I did, but only because opening them, I find passages and phrases I’ve underlined, which upon rereading I recall better than the plots, characters, and ideas I encountered in these books; what has made the lasting impression on my literary taste buds, to use culinary terms, are crumbs strewn on the table rather than the whole meal.

What a Beautiful Mess!

Gary Shteyngart, New York City, 2009
“I am a kind of joke, but the question is: which kind?” Gary Shteyngart writes in his new memoir. That’s something every immigrant could say. Most lives don’t make much sense even to people who never leave the city and the country where they were born, so they have the …

Short Days and Long Nights

Théodore Rousseau: The Forest in Winter at Sunset, c. 1846–67

My favorite writing implement continues to be a stub of a pencil and my favorite writing surface the back of an electric bill. I like to sit at the kitchen table my wife uses to chop onions and shed tears on, because every time I’m unable to think of what to write, the refrigerator opens and here comes a plate of cold pasta.

It’s on YouTube, Kid

Red Allen at the Onyx Club, New York, May 1946

It dawned on me recently that every song, movie, and TV show that ever made an impression on me is available on YouTube. To test that proposition, and with so many options where to begin confronting me, I began by looking up a 1939 western called Oklahoma Kid with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart that I saw in 1950 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, one cold and snowy winter day while playing hooky from school.