Professor Emeritus Charles Simic U.S. Poet Laureate
August 8, 2007
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington has announced the appointment of
Charles Simic to be the library’s 15th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.
Simic will take up his duties in the fall, opening the library’s annual
literary series on Oct. 17 with a reading of his work. He also will be a featured
speaker at the Library of Congress National Book Festival in the Poetry pavilion
on Saturday, Sept. 29, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Simic succeeds Donald Hall as Poet Laureate and joins a long line of distinguished
poets who have served in the position, including most recently Ted Kooser,
Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass
and Rita Dove. The laureate generally serves a one- or two-year term.
On making the appointment, Billington said, “The range of Charles Simic’s
imagination is evident in his stunning and unusual imagery. He handles language
with the skill of a master craftsman, yet his poems are easily accessible,
often meditative and surprising. He has given us a rich body of highly organized
poetry with shades of darkness and flashes of ironic humor.”
“On behalf of the entire university, I congratulate the nation’s
new poet laureate, UNH Professor Emeritus Charles Simic,” said UNH President
Mark Huddleston. “Charlie’s extraordinary achievements as a poet
have been richly and appropriately recognized with numerous honors and awards,
including the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur ‘genius grant.’ The
UNH community has known him not only as a poet, but as an outstanding teacher
for more than three decades. Now, we are privileged to share this great person
with the rest of the country.”
Simic is the author of 18 books of poetry. He is also an essayist, translator,
editor and professor emeritus of creative writing and literature at UNH, where
he has taught for 34 years. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990 for
his book of prose poems “The World Doesn't End” (1989). His 1996
collection “Walking the Black Cat” was a finalist for the National
Book Award for Poetry. In 2005 he won the Griffin Prize for “Selected
Poems: 1963-2003.” Simic held a MacArthur Fellowship from 1984 to 1989.
In addition to his memoirs, titled “A Fly in the Soup” (2000),
he has written essays; critical reviews; a biography on surrealist sculptor
and artist Joseph Cornell, known for his collage boxes; and 13 translations
from Eastern European works. Simic’s own works have been widely translated.
Born in Yugoslavia on May 9, 1938, Simic arrived in the United States in 1954.
He has been a U.S. citizen for 36 years and lives in Strafford.
“I am especially touched and honored to be selected because I am an
immigrant boy who didn’t speak English until I was 15,” he said.
Simic’s mastery of English has made his work as appealing to the literary
community as it is to the general public.
Simic’s childhood was complicated by the events of World War II. He
moved to Paris with his mother when he was 15; a year later, they joined his
father in New York and then moved to Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. Simic was
graduated from the same high school as Ernest Hemingway. Like a previous laureate,
Ted Kooser, Simic started writing poetry in high school to get the attention
of girls, he has said.
Simic attended the University of Chicago, working nights in an office at the
Chicago Sun Times, but was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1961 and served until
1963. He earned his bachelor's degree from New York University in 1966. From
1966 to 1974 he wrote and translated poetry, and he also worked as an editorial
assistant for Aperture, a photography magazine. He married fashion designer
Helen Dubin in 1964. They have two children.
Simic will publish a new book of poetry, “That Little Something,” in
Feb. 2008. His most recent poetry volume is “My Noiseless Entourage” (2005).
In reviewing the tome in Booklist, Janet St. John wrote, “Simic's gift
is his ability to unite the real with the abstract in poems that lend themselves
to numerous interpretations, much like dreams. Whether using the metaphor of
a dog for the self, or speaking to sunlight, Simic, original and engaging,
keeps us on our toes, guessing, questioning, and looking at the world in a
In another critique of “My Noiseless Entourage,” Benjamin Paloff
wrote in the Boston Review that Simic's “predilection for brief, unembellished
utterances lends an air of honesty and authority to otherwise perplexing or
Simic’s first collection, “What the Grass Says,” (1967)
was noted for its surrealist poems. Throughout his career, he has been regarded
for his short, clear poems in which the words are distilled and precise. His
poem “Stone” often appears in anthologies. It begins “Go
inside a stone / That would be my way. / Let somebody else become a dove /
Or gnash with a tiger's tooth. / I am happy to be a stone …”
Among his earlier books, “Jackstraws” (1999) was named a Notable
Book of the Year by the New York Times. “Classic Ballroom Dances” won
the 1980 di Castagnola Award and the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, and “Charon’s
Cosmology” was a National Book Award for Poetry finalist in 1978. He
has also received the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the PEN Translation Prize and
awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute
of Arts and Letters. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American
Poets in 2000. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and
the National Endowment for the Arts.
Background of the Laureateship
The library keeps to a minimum the specific duties required of the Poet Laureate
in order to permit incumbents to work on their own projects while at the library.
Each brings a new emphasis to the position. Allen Tate (1943-44), for example,
served as editor of the library’s publication of that period, The Quarterly
Journal of the Library of Congress, during his tenure and edited the compilation “Sixty
American Poets, 1896-1944.” Some consultants have suggested and chaired
literary festivals and conferences; others have spoken in a number of schools
and universities and received the public in the Poetry Room.
Increasingly in recent years, the incumbents have sought to find new ways
to broaden the role of poetry in our national life. Maxine Kumin initiated
a popular women’s series of poetry workshops at the library’s Poetry
and Literature Center. Gwendolyn Brooks met with groups of elementary school
children to encourage them to write poetry. Howard Nemerov conducted seminars
at the library for high school English classes. Most incumbents have furthered
the development of the library’s Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature.
Joseph Brodsky initiated the idea of providing poetry in public places—supermarkets,
hotels, airports and hospitals.
Rita Dove brought a program of poetry and jazz to the library’s literary
series, along with a reading by young Crow Indian poets and a two-day conference
titled “Oil on the Waters: The Black Diaspora,” featuring panel
discussions, readings and music.
Robert Hass sponsored a major conference on nature writing called “Watershed,” which
continues today as a national poetry competition for elementary and high school
students, titled “River of Words.” Robert Pinsky initiated his
Favorite Poem Project, which energized a nation of poetry readers to share
their favorite poems in readings across the country and in audio and video
recordings. Billy Collins instituted the Web site Poetry180 (www.loc.gov/poetry/180),
designed to bring a poem a day into high school classrooms. Most recently,
Ted Kooser created a free weekly newspaper column (www.americanlifeinpoetry.org)
that features a brief poem by a contemporary American poet and an introduction
to the poem by Kooser. Donald Hall participated in the first-ever joint poetry
readings of the U.S. Poet Laureate and British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion
in a program called “Poetry Across the Atlantic,” also sponsored
by the Poetry Foundation.
Consultants in Poetry and Poets Laureate Consultants in Poetry and their terms
of service are listed below.
Joseph Auslander, 1937-1941
Allen Tate, 1943-1944
Robert Penn Warren, 1944-1945
Louise Bogan, 1945-1946
Karl Shapiro, 1946-1947
Robert Lowell, 1947-1948
Leonie Adams, 1948-1949
Elizabeth Bishop, 1949-1950
Conrad Aiken, 1950-1952, First to serve two terms William Carlos Williams,
Appointed in 1952 but did not serve Randall Jarrell, 1956-1958 Robert Frost,
1958-1959 Richard Eberhart, 1959-1961 Louis Untermeyer, 1961-1963 Howard Nemerov,
1963-1964 Reed Whittemore, 1964-1965 Stephen Spender, 1965-1966 James Dickey,
1966-1968 William Jay Smith, 1968-1970 William Stafford, 1970-1971 Josephine
Jacobsen, 1971-1973 Daniel Hoffman, 1973-1974 Stanley Kunitz, 1974-1976 Robert
Hayden, 1976-1978 William Meredith, 1978-1980 Maxine Kumin, 1981-1982 Anthony
Hecht, 1982-1984 Robert Fitzgerald, 1984-1985, Appointed and served in a health-limited
capacity, but did not come to the Library of Congress Reed Whittemore, 1984-1985,
Interim Consultant in Poetry Gwendolyn Brooks, 1985-1986 Robert Penn Warren,
1986-1987, First to be Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Richard Wilbur, 1987-1988
Howard Nemerov, 1988-1990 Mark Strand, 1990-1991 Joseph Brodsky, 1991-1992
Mona Van Duyn, 1992-1993 Rita Dove, 1993-1995 Robert Hass, 1995-1997 Robert
Pinsky, 1997-2000 Stanley Kunitz, 2000-2001 Billy Collins, 2001-2003 Louise
Glück, 2003-2004 Ted Kooser, 2004-2006 Donald Hall, 2006-2007
The annual poetry and literature reading series at the Library of Congress
is the oldest in the Washington area and among the oldest in the United States.
These readings, lectures, symposia and occasional dramatic performances began
in the 1940s and were designed to bring good literature to a larger audience.
The events are free and have been largely supported since 1951 by a gift from
the late Gertrude Clarke Whittall.
The Poetry and Literature Center administers the series and is the home of
the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a position that has existed since 1936,
when the late Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library
of Congress. Since then, many of the nation’s most eminent poets have
served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and, after the passage
of Public Law 99-194 (Dec. 20, 1985), as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.
The Poet Laureate suggests authors to read in the literary series and plans
other special literary events during the reading season.