from Selected Early Poems
Poets old and young are often asked in interviews when and how they decided to become poets. The assumption is that there was a moment when the poet came to realize there can be no other destiny for him or her but to be a poet. This was followed by an announcement to his or her family; their mother exclaimed, "Oh God, what did we do wrong to deserve this?" while their father ripped out his belt and chased them around the room threatening to kill them. Telling the interviewers that there was no such decision in my case inevitably disappoints them. They want to hear something heroic and inspiring, and I tell them that I was just another high school kid who wrote poems in order to impress a couple of girls, with no other ambition beyond that. They also want to know why I, not being a native speaker of English, didn't write my poems in Serbian, and they wonder how I arrived at the decision to forsake my mother tongue. Again, my answer seems frivolous when I suggest that when poetry is used as an instrument of seduction, the first requirement is that it be understood. No American girl was likely to fall for a guy who reads love poems to her in Serbian as she sips a Coca-Cola.
My early poems were embarrassingly bad, and the ones that came right after were not much better. I have known a number of young poets with immense poetic talent who gave up poetry even after being told they were geniuses. No one ever made that mistake with me, and yet I kept going. I now regret destroying my first poems, because I no longer remember who they were modeled after. At the time I wrote them, I was reading Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mann, Celine, and Camus, but I had little knowledge of modern poetry and modernist poetics. The only extensive exposure I had to poetry was at the age of fifteen, during the year I attended school in Paris before coming to the United States. The teachers not only had us read Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarme, but also had us memorize certain poems of theirs and recite them in front of the class. This experience was such a sheer nightmare for me as a rudimentary speaker of French—but lots of fun for my classmates, who guffawed every time I mispronounced some sublime and justly famous line of poetry—that for years afterwards, I couldn't bring myself to take stock of what I learned in that class. Today it's clear to me that reading and memorizing those poems left a far deeper impact on me than I realized when I was young.
There's something else in my past that I only recently realized contributed to my perseverance in writing poems: my love of chess. I was taught the game in wartime Belgrade by a retired professor of astronomy when I was six years old. Over the next few years, I became good enough to beat all of the kids my age as well as many of the grown ups in my neighborhood. My first sleepless nights, I recall, were due to the games I lost and replayed in my head. Chess made me obsessive and tenacious. I could not forget each wrong move, each humiliating defeat. I adored games in which both opponents were reduced to a few figures, in which every single move was of momentous significance. Even today, when my opponent is a computer program (I call "God") that outwits me nine out of ten times, I'm not only in awe of its superior intelligence but find my defeats far more interesting than my infrequent victories. I found the same experience in writing poems. The kind I like to write, which tend to be mostly short, require endless tinkering. They depend for their success on the placement of word and image in proper order, and their progression duplicates the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate.
Like all young poets learning their craft, I went from short-lived bursts of euphoria about what I was writing to long periods of darkest despair once I realized how worthless my poems seemed. I knew almost from the first day that I had to remedy my ignorance of poetry if I was ever going to write something worth reading. Oak Park, Illinois, where I went to high school and then lived for a couple of years after graduation, had a first rate public library with an impressive collection of modern poetry. With no one to guide me, I sought out the books of poets whose poems had impressed me in anthologies or whose collections I had come across accidently while browsing the stacks. I fell in love with each for a while and imitated them as best as I could, until some new favorite took its place in my pantheon. At different times in my early years I was influenced by Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, W.C. Williams, Theodore Roethke, Pablo Neruda, Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Desnos, and other famous and less famous poets whose names now slip my mind. I read everything I could find on Dada and Surrealism and every other avant-garde movement in literature and the arts, both in Europe and this country.
The first two poems I knew I wanted to keep were "Butcher Shop," which I wrote in the fall of 1963, and "Cockroach," which I cannot properly date, since I recall earlier versions tracing back to 1961. There's nothing odd about my interest in "Cockroach." I lived in buildings and hotels that were infested with cockroaches, so they were my constant companions and my perpetual subject. As for the other early poems, I can remember writing some of them, but not the others, since I led a busy life in those days. To feed myself in New York, I worked in different offices. I attended university classes at night in pursuit of a degree in Russian Language and Literature. I wrote poems and published a few of them in literary magazines. But the people I worked with and befriended had no inkling that I was a poet. I also painted a little and found that easier to confess to a stranger. Most people understand someone wanting to be an artist, a musician, and even a novelist, but calling oneself a poet is regarded as weird and downright laughable. All I knew with any certainty was that I was getting more and more obsessed with poetry, hoping furtively to do something outrageously different with it, something that I wouldn't feel embarrassed to show to a few friends or have seen in a magazine.
This book is what came out of that pursuit. Now that I'm in my seventies, I have a clearer sense of how that was made possible and to whom I owe gratitude. If not for George Braziller, who kept faith in me as my publisher and friend in those difficult years, I have no idea what would have happened to me as a poet.
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About the Author
Charles Simic, former United States Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner (1990), is also an essayist and translator. Born in Belgrade, Simic now lives in New Hampshire. He is the professor emeritus of American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of New Hampshire and a Distinguished Poet-in-Residence at New York University.
Selected Early Poems
George Braziller, Inc.