The Poet of the People

The nation's new laureate will make his debut at a Sept. 29 reading in Washington.
The nation's new laureate will make his debut at a Sept. 29 reading in Washington. (By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007

The way to become a poetry lover, according to the next U.S. poet laureate, Charles Simic:

Find a poetry anthology, any one will do, at the library.

Open it at random. Read aloud one stanza.

You won't like most of what you read.

But whatever you like, read that.

Don't worry about reading the English-teachery stuff at first, since most people's taste will organically mature. There's only one potential warning sign relating to poetry preferences, says Simic, 69: "If greeting-card verse brings you to tears at the age of 70, well, what can I say. You might be beyond help."

This down-to-earth, hey-it-ain't-rocket-science approach to appreciating poetry is part of Simic's appeal. Honored with a MacArthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize, he now takes his place as the nation's 15th poet laureate. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington is set to announce Simic's appointment today; his official duties begin Sept. 29 with a reading at Washington's National Book Festival. They will continue through May, when Simic may be invited to keep the position for another year. (The current laureate, Donald Hall, elected to step down after one term because of health issues.)

Now. All of you lit majors who were rarin' to blog angrily after the rocket-science comparison, simmer down and read closely: Writing poetry is just as hard as doing rocket-sciency things. Maybe even harder. M'kay? And in an increasingly abbreviated text-messaging world, the lofty and languid title of "poet laureate" seems particularly quaint, difficult, inaccessible.

But Simic's works are not, which is what makes them so digestible. Consider the 1974 poem "Watermelon," which Simic says was initially several stanzas before he realized everything he wanted to say could be done in four lines: "Green Buddhas / On the Fruitstand / We eat the smile / And spit out the teeth."

Simic is, says Billington, "an extraordinarily original poet. His work is surreal and surprising, commonplace yet dreamlike. [It] has both shades of darkness and flashes of ironic humor."

The former can be traced to Simic's childhood in World War II Eastern Europe. Born in Yugoslavia, Simic cites as his first memory the 1941 bombing of Belgrade, when a next-door blast threw him from bed and knocked him unconscious. He was barely 3. His mother rushed in and scooped him up, Simic says, "and that's how my life sort of started." (That 3 a.m. episode would later become "Cameo Appearance," which begins, "I had a small, nonspeaking part / In a bloody epic.")

It was not war, however, or even love of words that brought Simic to poetry. It was instead the most sublime of adolescent reasons: girls. After immigrating to the United States at 16, Simic witnessed his buddies score dates by writing drippy love sonnets. He thought he could do better. "Turns out," he says, "I couldn't. The girls told me I bored them to death."

He persevered, eventually producing 18 volumes of poetry with a 19th, "That Little Something," due out in February. He also married fashion designer Helen Dubin in 1964 (sans poetry wooing), had two children and settled into a tweedy position teaching English at the University of New Hampshire at Durham, where he remains an emeritus professor. Some of his best works, he says, are written in the kitchen while Helen makes dinner.

Simic's laureate title, which comes with a $35,000 honorarium, won't much diminish his time to write. Official duties are limited to three engagements: a fall and spring reading and the February selection of two Witter Bynner fellows, who represent new voices in poetry. Most recent laureates have supplemented their obligations with a legacy-making project: Billy Collins created the Web site Poetry 180 to bring a poem a day to high school students; Ted Kooser penned a free weekly newspaper column.

These community-oriented contributions are a way of stressing poetry's relevance in the everyday world. "Most of our education is about learning how to break things down," Billington says. "Poetry puts things together."

Simic has yet to think about his own project, but says he's excited about brainstorming.

Might we suggest improving the poetry anthology selection at local libraries?

Or what about this? Hire some ex-laureates to work for Hallmark.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company