The King of the Insomniacs

Jill Krementz
Charles Simic, New York City, May 1996

Charles Simic is one of our most celebrated living poets. He has won a Pulitzer, a MacArthur Fellowship, the Wallace Stevens award, the Frost Medal, the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award, and served as the US poet laureate. What’s striking is that his distinctive poetic style continues to feel modest, seemingly casual, with a built-in shrug of bemused puzzlement before life’s anomalies. Most of the time it’s a good-humored shrug, though there are moments when ferocity breaks in, along with an Eastern European recognition of historical tragedy, as befits “someone like me who had the unenviable luck of being bombed by both the Nazis and the Allies.”

With the passing of Mark Strand, Galway Kinnell, Kenneth Koch, and Maxine Kumin, Charles Simic is one of the last remaining members of that marvelous generation of writers born before 1940 who did so much to reinvigorate American poetry. The Lunatic, his newest poetry collection, is his thirty-sixth. Simultaneously, Ecco, his publisher, has brought out The Life of Images: Selected Prose, which contains the cream of his six previous prose collections, and confirms that he is not only one of our finest poets, but a singularly engaging, eminently sane American essayist.

It’s through his nonfiction that we learn the basic facts about Simic’s life. Born in 1938, he grew up in Belgrade during the war. “I’m also a child of History. I’ve seen tanks, piles of corpses, and people strung from lampposts with my own eyes.” Still, he regarded his childhood as happy, being too young to imagine an alternative. It was when the war ended that things got really tough: food was scarce, and people sold whatever they could for edibles. In the course of the war and its aftermath, his father was separated from the family, and his mother tried to sneak Charles and his brother into Austria to rejoin him. When stopped by a British colonel who demanded to see their passports, “my mother replied that had we had passports, we would have taken a sleeping car.” They were sent back to Belgrade, and only when Charles turned sixteen, in 1954, were they able to emigrate to the United States, settling in Chicago.

Simic portrays his father, from whom he had been separated for ten years, with tender affection as his model: a tolerant, easygoing man who loved good food, music, pretty women, and philosophy, who had no use for organized religion but liked to visit houses of worship. (He is less kind to his mother, who comes across as something of a diva and a hypochondriac.) When his parents broke up Simic left home, taking night classes at the University of Chicago while working days at the Chicago Sun-Times.

He was initially drawn to Surrealism and the collages of Max Ernst. A lifelong insomniac, he read philosophy at night,…

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