Charles Simic was recently appointed the new Poet Laureate, taking over from Donald Hall. I figured now was a good time to get to know a bit of Mr. Simic's work. I checked his volume of selected poems out from the library and, contrary to what most people have been saying, I found Mr. Simic's poetry a bit thin.
Simic's best poems seem to come from Billy Collins-type subject matter or metier—sly intertextuality, the off-hand insertion of intellectual subjects into situations we find humorously mundane, or at least simple and concrete. These insertions gain Simic a small measure of profundity because, while mundane, simple, or concrete, these situations are nevertheless apposite, though in a largely tangential fashion. Take, for instance, a line from "Talking to the Ceiling," a poem which is filled with examples of this phenomenon—"Long hours of the night: St. John of the Cross / And Blaise Pascal the cops in a patrol car." The humor is facile in its playful incongruity, and yet it does mean something more than its humor, perhaps because of the clarity with which we see the human need for spiritual reassurance behind its playful image. It is in this sense that Simic achieves more with his poetry than his forebear in the office of Poet Laureate, Mr. Collins—Simic evidently has a greater and deeper spiritual life than Billy Collins, and a greater need for one.
While Collins's "Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" is, in some superficial way a delightful poem, there is no sense in it that it is anything more than artifice—there is almost no poetic feeling whatsoever, merely a poetic thought—a great idea bloodlessly arrested in verse. Mr. Collins has great ideas frequently—"Marginalia" is another grand example—but has maybe one or two examples of poems that open onto a life of poetic feeling ("Vade Mecum" comes to mind). Mr. Simic has a few more, but these poems—"Mummy's Curse," a fine example—nevertheless seem to require the delivery vehicle of cleverness and device. There are, perhaps, also some less clever, more direct ones as well, but Simic's really emotionally powerful poems—"A Letter," "What the Gypsies Told My Grandmother"—come in devices that force these emotions into discrete messages that are neatly distanced from the poem itself—a feature evident in the titles of those two poems—letters and gypsy prophecies are not the poem, but what the poem is about—a consequential and apparently necessary remove. Of course, Mr. Simic is not alone in this—all poets to some extent need the recalcitrance of an alien element (typically form) to absorb the excesses of feeling that cannot be poetically expressed. (A letter from Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop posted on the Critical Mass blog today makes this point: "This book [Day by Day] is almost entirely free verse; but the next, God willing, may be metrical. One needs to hold a shield before one's feelings and the reader. Meter might, but really it's a matter of character and imagination. Right now I'd like to borrow your villanelle armor.")
Ultimately, Simic's devices become a matter of course while reading him and their profusion becomes a gradually pleasant property—one comes to expect their presence and wonder at what Simic might say next. I certainly enjoyed a large number of his poems, and I imagine a great many new people will as well, now he has been appointed to a position of such prominence; he is likely to be a solid laureate.