An Evening with Charles Simic
(Originally, this article was written for another publication but wasn't accepted. Better luck next time. So I'm happy to publish it here!)
On Tuesday, New England braced for a snowstorm. Not a blizzard or a Nor’easter, as the weatherman described on the evening news, but a “significant snow event.” Yet, the threat of inclement weather was not enough to keep us from attending a poetry reading given by former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic. Accompanied by two fellow poets, we drove 40 miles from just outside of Boston to the Portsmouth Public Library in New Hampshire on a night with no stars in the sky. In other words, it was the perfect night for poetry.
Nearly 60 people attended the reading, co-sponsored by River Run Books. Held at the two-year-old library, there was barely a seat left in the venue. I’m always amazed at poetry audiences that come out to hear a little verse in the middle of winter. And this audience was certainly anticipating Simic’s quirky, imaginative work.
A prolific essayist, translator, and poet, Simic was called “Charlie” by the host from River Run Books. The host was a former student of his, but her introduction had a nice effect, making the whole evening seem rather informal. You could tell as he began that Simic really has an affection for reading to crowds because he was very generous with his time. He told stories, chatted with the audience, even chuckled when he had trouble taking the cap off a water bottle.
Most of the poems Simic read were either from his book Sixty Poems, or old poems that he had reworked. He said that Sixty Poems was a book of his favorites, filled with poems as far back as 1986 to the present. It was a book his publisher wanted him to do to coincide with his stint as poet laureate because, as he joked, the book would, “sell like hot cakes.”
Born in Belgrade, Simic and his parents immigrated to the United States when he was 16 years old. Through his travels and experiences, he has become a master of illuminating those unexpected moments that can forever change one’s outlook. From a poem about by a woman at a funeral in “Have You Met Miss Jones,” to one inspired by a movie dictionary called, “Mummy’s Curse,” his range of subject matter is truly unique. And yes, love seems to be a central theme. The characters in his poems carry a certain sweetness, such as the man and woman in “In the Planetarium,” his last poem of the evening. Each person’s point of view is treated with respect. I felt for the people in the poem, the man chomping at the bit to leave the planetarium, and the woman who said at the end of the poem, “I have never seen anything so beautiful.”
On this starless New Hampshire night, there was one star in full zenith. The audience clapped and cheered for Simic and his work. And after, the crown lingered, chatted within their groups, bought books, and all went up to share a kind word. I overheard a few stories about past readings he has given, about favorite poems and books. There was even a question about his time as poet laureate.
Simic’s work is distinctive. I liken him to that slightly daft uncle who tells a story that you don’t fully comprehend the meaning of until you’re on your way home in the car wondering what it all meant. The multiple layers of meaning are there to be unraveled. And that’s exactly what we did on the ride home.