The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charles Simic, poet laureate of the surreal, dies at 84

His jarring, hallucinatory poems earned him the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation genius award

Poet Charles Simic at the City University of New York in 2003. (Richard Drew/AP)

Charles Simic was a little boy when the bombs began falling in Belgrade during World War II. Later in life, he remembered laughter in the cellar where his family took shelter.

“Serbs in general have a great sense of humor,” he told Publishers Weekly in 2013. “We heard bombs exploding someplace else, and that’s a sound you don’t forget, it’s like inside the Earth some kind of deep rumbling. Someone would say something funny and everyone would laugh. That’s black humor. I guess you survive that way.”

For Mr. Simic, who died Jan. 9 at age 84, the laughter amid exploding bombs became not just a memory but also a surreal, metaphorical lens for how he drew the world in more than 30 collections of jarring, hallucinatory poems that earned him the Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Foundation genius award and an appointment as poet laureate of the United States.

“He’s very hard to describe, and that’s a great tribute to him,” James H. Billington, then the librarian of Congress, told the New York Times after appointing him poet laureate in 2007. “His poems have a sequence that you encounter in dreams, and therefore they have a reality that does not correspond to the reality that we perceive with our eyes and ears.”

Wistful old men on park benches, homeless people, the lonely — they were all characters or points of view in Mr. Simic’s work, which began appearing in literary journals in the late 1950s. Later, following positive reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere, Mr. Simic became a regular presence in the New Yorker, the Paris Review and the New York Review of Books.

In “My Turn to Confess,” the narrator is a dog writing a poem about why he barks:

On a bench, I saw an old woman

Cutting her white curly hair with imaginary scissors

While staring into a small pocket mirror.

I didn’t say anything then,

But that night I lay slumped on the floor,

Chewing on a pencil,

Sighing from time to time,

Growling, too, at something out there

I could not bring myself to name.

The war loomed over Mr. Simic’s life and work, particularly in his autobiographical poem “Cameo Appearance,” which begins:

I had a small, nonspeaking part

In a bloody epic. I was one of the

Bombed and fleeing humanity.

In the distance our great leader

Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,

Or was it a great actor

Impersonating our great leader?

That’s me there, I said to the kiddies.

I’m squeezed between the man

With two bandaged hands raised

And the old woman with her mouth open

As if she were showing us a tooth.

Dusan Simic — he later changed his name to Charles — was born May 9, 1938, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. His mother was a voice teacher. His father was an engineer. In 1944, his father slipped over the border into Italy and hoped his family would follow. They were not successful, staying behind while he eventually immigrated to New York City.

The family was reunited there in 1954.

“The trash on the streets, the way people were dressed, the tall buildings, the dirt, the heat, the yellow cabs, the billboards and signs,” Mr. Simic wrote of arriving in New York. “It was terrifically ugly and beautiful at the same time. I liked America immediately.”

The Simics moved to Chicago, which he liked even more.

“I liked the anarchy of the city,” he wrote in a 1996 Washington Post essay. “There were dives and strip-joints a few blocks away from the monumental Art Institute and the ritzy hotels. Chicago was the garage sale of all the contradictions America could contain. Some rusty water-tower on the top of an old warehouse would look as beautiful as some architectural wonder along the lake shore.”

Settling in Oak Park, the Chicago suburb where Ernest Hemingway grew up, Mr. Simic worked on his English and fell in love with libraries and literature. His interest in poetry had amorous origins.

“I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems,” he said in the Cortland Review in 1998. “I found out that I could do it, too. I still tremble at the memory of a certain Linda listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps.”

After graduating from high school, Mr. Simic moved to the city and worked part time as a proofreader at the Chicago Sun-Times while he continued writing poetry. In 1959, when he was 21, the Chicago Review published two of his poems. His father was pleased with his literary pursuits. His mother was not.

“My mother would say, ‘What is going to become of you?’” Mr. Simic told the Boston Globe in 2007 after his appointment as U.S. poet laureate. “In her last four years, she was in a nursing home. I would come to visit her, and she would say, ‘Son, do you still write poetry?’ I would say yes, and she would shake her head and say, ‘No good. You are going to get in trouble.’ She would not have liked this poet laureate business.”

Mr. Simic was drafted in 1961 and served as a military police officer in West Germany and France. After his service was completed, he studied Russian literature at New York University, graduating in 1967, the same year he published his first collection of poems, “What the Grass Says.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990 for “The World Doesn’t End” and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1996 for “Walking the Black Cat.”

In addition to his prodigious output as a poet, Mr. Simic wrote several well-reviewed collections of essays and taught at the University of New Hampshire for more than 33 years, residing in a woodsy home near Bow Lake in Strafford. His routine was to write in bed early in the morning.

“When you write in bed,” he told the Boston Globe in 2015, “you don’t feel like you’re doing something serious. I’ve been traveling, visiting European institutions, and they give you a gorgeous space to work, with perhaps a lake and a beautiful desk. I could never write there; I feel intimidated by the whole thing. When you’re in bed, you feel very casual about it. It’s just doodling.”

Mr. Simic died at an assisted-living facility in Dover, N.H., according to Daniel Halpern, his longtime friend and editor. The cause was complications from dementia.

Survivors include his wife, Helen Dubin, whom he married in 1964; their daughter, Anna Simic; their son, Philip Simic; a brother; and two grandchildren.

In 1975, Mr. Simic published a poem and collection titled “Further Adventures of Charles Simic.” It begins:

Is our Charles Simic afraid of death?

Yes, Charles Simic is afraid of death.

Does he kneel and pray for eternal life?

No, he’s busy drawing a valentine with a crayon.

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