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Opinion: Remembering poet Charles Simic

Poet Charles Simic is photographed at the City University of New York, May 13, 2003.
Richard Drew
Poet Charles Simic is photographed at the City University of New York, May 13, 2003.

In his "How To Psalmodize" Charles Simic described The Poem:

It is a piece of meat
Carried by a burglar
to distract a watchdog

Charles Simic, a former poet laureate of the United States, Pulitzer Prize winner, MacArthur genius and professor, died this week at the age of 84.

His poems could read like brilliant, urgent bulletins, posted on the sides of the human heart. He was born in Belgrade, in what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, just in time for World War II, amid the click of Nazi jackboots. As Charles recalled in his 1988 poem "Two Dogs,"

A little white dog ran into the street
And got entangled with the soldiers' feet.
A kick made him fly as if he had wings.
That's what I keep seeing!
Night coming down. A dog with wings.

"I had a small, nonspeaking part/ In a bloody epic," he wrote in a poem he called "Cameo Appearance." "I was one of the/Bombed and fleeing humanity."

I think of that line to this day, when I see columns of human beings — in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Syria — fleeing their homes, history and loved ones in their one pair of shoes. Each of those persons has poetry inside.

Charles Simic didn't hear English until he came to the United States, and Oak Park, Ill., outside Chicago, as a teenager. He went to the same high school as Ernest Hemingway — lightning can strike twice! — then became a copy-kid at the Chicago Sun-Times as he went to night school at the University of Chicago. And he learned from the city:

"...the city wrapped up in smoke where factory workers, their faces covered with grime, waited for buses. An immigrant's paradise, you might say," Charles remembered for The Paris Review. "I had Swedes, Poles, Germans, Italians, Jews, and Blacks for friends, who all took turns trying to explain America to me."

"Chicago" he said, "gave me my first American identity."

Asked "Why do you write?" he answered, "I write to annoy God, to make Death laugh."

Charles Simic lived, laughed a lot and taught at the University of New Hampshire, while he wrote poems prolifically and gorgeously about life, death, love, animals, insects, food and what kindles imagination. As he wrote in "The Initiate,"

The sky was full of racing clouds and tall buildings,
Whirling and whirling silently.

In that whole city you could hear a pin drop.
Believe me.
I thought I heard a pin drop and I went looking for it.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.