New Poet Laureate’s Work Influenced by Wars

Posted August 3, 2007 at 6:33pm

Just because he’s from New Hampshire, don’t expect new Poet Laureate Charles Simic to be knocking on doors and putting out yard signs for the upcoming 2008 election. Unlike his predecessor, fellow Granite State poet Donald Hall, who sometimes railed against the Bush administration, Simic primarily leaves his commentary to his poetry.

“There are moments in my poetry where there is history, not so much politics, something specific happening out there in the world,” said Simic, who last week was selected to be the 15th poet laureate. He replaces Hall, 78, who did not stay on for a second term because of health issues.

Simic, 69, a MacArthur Fellowship and Pulitzer Prize winner, often is described as a city poet, known for producing a surrealist quality in his poems while still remaining accessible.

“There’s an unusually rich quality in his poetry both in terms of imagery — dark and sometimes light — but mostly a dark suggestion lying beneath the surface of things,” said Librarian of Congress James Billington, who selected Simic for the post.

“There’s a beauty to his language,” Billington added of Simic’s ability to communicate in his non-native language of English. Born in war-torn Yugoslavia during World War II, Simic immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager.

Simic’s life has been touched by wars since his childhood. After coming to the U.S., he served in the Army in the early 1960s and says he worried about his brother serving in the Vietnam War as well as his son having to fight in the first Gulf War.

“The world has been at war constantly with me. In some of my poems I certainly react,” he said. That is displayed in an excerpt from “Battling Grays,” a poem from his 2005 book “My Noiseless Entourage,” in which he describes the stark aftermath of war:

Another grim-lipped day coming our way

Like a gray soldier

From the Civil War monument

Footloose on a narrow country road

But the New Englander does not just focus on war material. Rather, he’s “sort of brooding on the fate of his country … he doesn’t write about it all the time. He’s really writing about the American experience,” Billington said.

That melting pot was evident for Simic during a reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in the 1970s. As he started reading some of his works, Simic said he noticed a couple of audience members wearing “Mao jackets.”

“That was always amazing in Washington, the sort of the international community that shows up. It’s very different from reading in Topeka, Kansas,” Simic said.

Simic’s role as the nation’s poet starts Sept. 29, when he is scheduled to help kick off the Library of Congress’ poetry season with a reading at the National Book Festival, which is held on the Mall. He also will choose two young poets to become Witter Bynner fellows. His duties will continue through May, when he may be asked to continue on for another year. He receives a $35,000 stipend.

Former poets laureate have taken on individual projects, including Billy Collins, who created Poetry 180, a Web site that sends a poem a day to high school students. Simic says he’s been thinking about what he’ll take on as his signature project, but he hasn’t yet landed on anything specific.

He has published 18 poetry volumes, with a 19th, titled “That Little Something,” due out in February.