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Charles Simic (1938-2023) [by David Lehman]

BAP 1992The saddest moments in my life as an editor occur when word reaches me that a guest editor in The Best American Poetry series has passed away. Charlie died some five months shy of what would have been his 85th birthday. Born in Belgrade in 1938, he had dreams and memories that he could draw upon from his early boyhood in battle-torn, Nazi-occupied Yugloslavia. In A Fly in the Soup, his absorbing memoir, Simic tells of growing up: “My family, like so many others, got to see the world for free, thanks to Hitler’s wars and Stalin’s takeover of East Europe.” Simic and his little friends played soldiers as the war went on: “A boy a little older than I had disappeared. It turned out that he had slipped out to watch the bombs fall. When the men brought him back, his mother started slapping him hard and yelling she’s going to kill him if he ever does that again. I was more frightened of her slaps than of the sound of the bombs.” When the Americans arrived in Belgrade, they took the Simic family to the barracks and gave them chewing gum, chocolate, bacon and eggs. 

Maybe the happiest moment in Charlie's life came when he and his family arrived in America in 1954.  Charlie and his brother watched a Dodgers-Giants game on television, ate burgers and fries, and ended in a jazz club (the Metropole): “I was all absorbed in the music. This was definitely better than any radio. It was heaven.” He has also written, “Awe is my religion, and mystery is its church.”

Charlie loved jazz and jazz clubs and barroom philosophy. He wrote brilliant, often brief poems that critics characterized as surreal and did highly innovative work with the prose poem as a form. When he won the Pulitzer Prize for a book of his prose poems, it marked a signal event in the history of that genre that Baudelaire invented and that the French (Rimbaud, Jacob, Michaux, Ponge, Char) established into a tradition.

When I worked with Charlie on The Best American Poetry, I remember the poems that knocked us out -- we were crazy about "Nostalgia" by Billy Collins, then a new voice, and we had poems by Lawrence Raab, Carolyn Kizer, Elizabeth Spires, Alice Fulton, Galway Kinnell, Charles Bernstein. After that year of close reading, when we got together for lunch or dinner, with Charlie's wife Helene joining us, we talked as much about jazz and popular songs as about poetry. Charlie loved the girl singers of the 1920s and he made me tapes of Lillian Roth ("Tell Me, Why Am I So Romantic?") and Bee Palmer ("Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone") and of great piano music that he recorded in bars. In the background you could hear someone shouting "hey Paulie" -- people at the bar holding their conversations, music or no; Charlie got a kick out of that. Wine, he knew his wines, and one of his favorite New York restaurants was Provence on MacDougal Street near where I lived. -- DLSimic  Lehman 1992At the launch reading of Best American Poetry 1992, organized by William Wadsworth for the Academy of American Poets. As I recall Jonathan Aaron, Agha Shahid Ali,  Lynda Hull, and Rosanna Warren read their poems from the anthology after I initiated the evening and Charlie introduced the book.


Boston April 2013 Simic  DL  Warren  SchwartzAbove, left to right: Charles Simic, David Lehman, Rosanna Warren, Lloyd Schwartz (Boston, April 2013)

See also:

BAP 1992 launch reading

Photo Gallery, Lannan Foundation, March 14 2007

Podcast March 14, 2007

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December 28, 2021

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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