Charles Simic, Pulitzer-winning poet and U.S. Laureate, dies at 84

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Charles Simic, Pulitzer-winning poet and U.S. Laureate, dies at 84
The Serbian American poet Charles Simic, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for “The World Doesn’t End,” a book of prose poems, at his home in Strafford, N.H., Aug. 1, 2007. Simic, the U.S. poet laureate from 2007 to 2008 whose work combined a melancholy old-world sensibility with a sensual and witty sense of modern life, died on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, at an assisted living facility in Dover, N.H. He was 84. (Alexandra Daley-Clark/The New York Times)

by Dwight Garner

NEW YORK, NY.- Charles Simic, the renowned Serbian-American poet whose work combined a melancholy old-world sensibility with a sensual and witty sense of modern life, died Monday at an assisted living facility in Dover, New Hampshire. He was 84.

The cause was complications of dementia, his longtime friend and editor Daniel Halpern said.

Simic was a prolific writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for “The World Doesn’t End,” a book of prose poems. He served as poet laureate of the United States from 2007 to 2008. “I am especially touched and honored to be selected,” he said at the time, “because I am an immigrant boy who didn’t speak English until I was 15.”

His poems defied simple classification. Some were minimalist and surreal, others determinedly realistic and violent. Nearly all were replete with ironic humor and startling metaphors.

“Only a very foolhardy critic would say what any Simic poem is about,” D.J.R. Bruckner wrote in a 1990 profile of Simic in The New York Times. “In rich detail they are all filled with ordinary objects, but they tend to leave the impression that the poet has poked a hole into everyday life to reveal a glimpse of something endless.”

Simic’s subject was frequently his World War II-era childhood in Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia. In a poem titled “Two Dogs,” for example, he recalled German soldiers marching past his family’s house in 1944, “the earth trembling, death going by.” In the poem “Cameo Appearance,” he wrote:

I had a small, nonspeaking part

In a bloody epic. I was one of the

Bombed and fleeing humanity.

In the distance our great leader

Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,

Or was it a great actor

Impersonating our great leader?

That’s me there, I said to the kiddies.

I’m squeezed between the man

With two bandaged hands raised

And the old woman with her mouth open

As if she were showing us a tooth.

Simic moved to the United States while in his teens. For the rest of his life he would look back on not merely his wartime childhood but on the circus of everyday life in Belgrade. His poems were full of folk tales and pickpockets and old grudges. In “The World Doesn’t End,” he wrote: “I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole me right back. / Then the gypsies stole me again. This went on for some time.”

But he embraced American life. He wrote verse like a man who had escaped a cruel fate and was determined not to waste a moment. His urbane and sardonic poems were increasingly filled with sex and philosophy and blues songs and late-night conversation and time spent at the dinner table.

He was almost certainly America’s most devoted and ecstatic food poet. One of his poems was titled “Crazy About Her Shrimp.” Another, “Café Paradiso,” reads in its entirety:

My chicken soup thickened with pounded young almonds

My blend of winter greens.

Dearest tagliatelle with mushrooms, fennel, anchovies,

Tomatoes and vermouth sauce.

Beloved monkfish braised with onions, capers

And green olives.

Give me your tongue tasting of white beans and garlic,

Sexy little assortment of formaggi and frutta!

I want to drown with you in red wine like a pear,

Then sleep in a macedoine of wild berries with cream.

A poet of dichotomies, his work arrived from many angles at once. Writing in The New York Sun, critic Adam Kirsch unpacked Simic’s influences: “He draws on the dark satire of Central Europe, the sensual rhapsody of Latin America, and the fraught juxtapositions of French Surrealism, to create a style like nothing else in American literature. Yet Mr. Simic’s verse remains recognizably American — not just in its grainy, hard-boiled textures, straight out of 1940s film noir, but in the very confidence of its eclecticism.”

He was born Dusan Simic in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on May 9, 1938. With the onset of war and the Axis powers’ occupation of his country, his father, an electrical engineer, fled for Italy in 1944 after being arrested several times. The father eventually went on to the United States, but his family was not able to join him there until 1954. The poet would later remark, “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin.”

The family settled in Chicago, where Charles — he changed his name after arriving — learned English and became a committed reader. Recalling the faculty at Oak Park High School in suburban Chicago, where he spent his senior year, he told Bruckner of the Times: “They did remind you all the time this was the high school of Ernest Hemingway, and that made you wonder who you were. But if they found you were interested in reading they just kept handing books to you.”

His parents could not afford to send him to college, but he attended night classes at the University of Chicago while working as a proofreader and office boy for The Chicago Sun-Times. He moved to New York in 1958, where he worked odd jobs while composing poetry at night. “I always wrote in English,” he said, “since I wanted my friends and the girls I was in love with to understand my poems.”

His first two poems to appear in print were in The Chicago Review in the winter 1959 issue, when he was 21. He was drafted into the Army in 1961 and spent two years as a military police officer in Germany and France. He found his voice, he said, upon his return.

“Before the Army I had become too literary, buttoned down, in tweeds, pipe-smoking, all that,” he said. “After the Army I had a much humbler view of myself. I started thinking about a remark of the painter Paul Klee, that if a young man is to accomplish something he has to find something truly his own. Well, I had a kind of minimalist urge, and so I started writing poems about the simplest things. Household objects: a knife, a fork, a spoon, my shoes.”

In 1964 he married Helen Dubin, a fashion designer. She survives him, along with their daughter, Anna Simic; their son, Philip; a brother, Milan Simich; and two grandchildren.

Charles Simic attended New York University, working at night to pay his tuition. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1966. His first book of poems, “What the Grass Says,” was published the next year.

The University of New Hampshire offered Simic an associate professorship in 1973, and he ended up teaching at the school for more than three decades. He won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1984.

Simic published more than 30 books of poems. The most recent career-spanning edition of his verse is “New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012.” He also published many books as an editor, an essayist and a translator of the work of French, Serbian, Croatian and other poets.

He was a regular contributor of criticism and essays to The New York Review of Books. His nonfiction books include “Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell” (1992).

Simic frequently returned, in all of his work, to political lessons learned young. He had a lifelong loathing of strident nationalists and ethnic divides, of what he called, in one essay, “so-called great leaders and the collective euphorias they excite.”

He lived for many years in rural New Hampshire, yet he refused to romanticize farm life. “What about the farmer beyond that gorgeous meadow who works seven days a week from morning to night and is still starving?” he wrote in another essay. “What about his sickly wife and their boy, who tortures cats?”

He had his own notions of earthiness. “Nature as experience — making a tomato salad, say, with young mozzarella, fresh basil leaves and olive oil — is better than any idea about Nature.”

Simic was a serious poet and thinker who disliked pretension in any form. He told a Paris Review interviewer: “Every grand theory and noble sentiment ought to be first tested in the kitchen — and then in bed, of course.”

In a late book of poems “The Lunatic” (2015), the idea of old age and death seemed to faze him not at all. A spring day made him so happy, he wrote, that even if he had to face a firing squad he would “Smile like a hairdresser / Giving Cameron Diaz a shampoo.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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