Librarian of Congress James H. Billington has announced the appointment of Charles Simic to be the Library’s 15th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Simic will take up his duties in the fall, opening the Library’s annual literary series on Oct. 18 with a reading of his work. He also will be a featured speaker at the Library of Congress National Book Festival in the Poetry pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 29, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Simic succeeds Donald Hall as Poet Laureate and joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served in the position, including most recently Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass and Rita Dove. The laureate generally serves a one- or two-year term.
On announcing the appointment on Aug. 2, Billington said, “The range of Charles Simic’s imagination is evident in his stunning and unusual imagery. He handles language with the skill of a master craftsman, yet his poems are easily accessible, often meditative and surprising. He has given us a rich body of highly organized poetry with shades of darkness and flashes of ironic humor.”
Simic is the author of 18 books of poetry. He is also an essayist, translator, editor and professor emeritus of creative writing and literature at the University of New Hampshire, where he has taught for 34 years. In addition to his memoirs, titled “A Fly in the Soup” (2000), he has written essays; critical reviews; a biography of surrealist sculptor and artist Joseph Cornell, known for his collage boxes; and 13 translations from Eastern European works. Simic’s own works have been widely translated.
Simic held a MacArthur Fellowship from 1984 to 1989. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990 for his book of prose poems “The World Doesn’t End” (1989). His 1996 collection “Walking the Black Cat” was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry. In 2005 he won the Griffin Prize for “Selected Poems: 1963-2003,” and he was recently presented with the 2007 Wallace Stevens Award for Mastery in the Art of Poetry from the Academy of American Poets.
Born in Yugoslavia on May 9, 1938, Simic arrived in the United States in 1954. He has been a U.S. citizen for 36 years and lives in Strafford, N.H.
“I am especially touched and honored to be selected because I am an immigrant boy who didn’t speak English until I was 15,” he said. Simic’s mastery of English has made his work as appealing to the literary community as it is to the general public.
Simic’s childhood was complicated by the events of World War II. He moved to Paris with his mother when he was 15; a year later, they joined his father in New York and then moved to Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. Simic graduated from the same high school as Ernest Hemingway. Like a previous laureate, Ted Kooser, Simic started writing poetry in high school to get the attention of girls, he has said.
Simic attended the University of Chicago, working nights in an office at the Chicago Sun Times, but was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1961 and served until 1963. He earned his bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1966. From 1966 to 1974 he wrote and translated poetry, and he also worked as an editorial assistant for Aperture, a photography magazine. He married fashion designer Helen Dubin in 1964. They have two children.
Simic will publish a new book of poetry, “That Little Something,” in Feb. 2008. His most recent poetry volume is “My Noiseless Entourage” (2005). In reviewing the tome in Booklist, Janet St. John wrote, “Simic’s gift is his ability to unite the real with the abstract in poems that lend themselves to numerous interpretations, much like dreams. Whether using the metaphor of a dog for the self, or speaking to sunlight, Simic, original and engaging, keeps us on our toes, guessing, questioning, and looking at the world in a new way.”
In another critique of “My Noiseless Entourage,” Benjamin Paloff wrote in the Boston Review that Simic’s “predilection for brief, unembellished utterances lends an air of honesty and authority to otherwise perplexing or outrageous scenes.”
Simic’s first collection, “What the Grass Says” (1967), was noted for its surrealist poems. Throughout his career, he has been regarded for his short, clear poems in which the words are distilled and precise. His poem “Stone” often appears in anthologies. It begins “Go inside a stone / That would be my way. / Let somebody else become a dove / Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth. / I am happy to be a stone….”
Among his earlier books, “Jackstraws” (1999) was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. “Classic Ballroom Dances” won the 1980 Alice di Castagnola Award and the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, and “Charon’s Cosmology” was a National Book Award for Poetry finalist in 1978. He has also received the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the PEN Translation Prize and awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2000. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.