Golden wreath award acceptance speech at Struga poetry evenings festival in August 2017
When my mother was very old and in a nursing home, she surprised me one day towards the end of her life by asking me if I still wrote poetry. When I blurted out that I still do, she stared at me dumbfounded, I had to repeat what I said, till she sighed and shook her head, probably thinking to herself this son of mine has always had a screw loose. Now that I’m in my late seventies, I’m asked that question often by people I hadn’t been in touch with for a long time. Some of them, I suspect, hope to hear me say that I’ve come to my senses and given up once and for all that foolish passion of my youth and are visibly surprised to hear me confess that I haven’t yet. They seem to think there is something unwholesome and even shocking about it, as if they just heard me confess that I’m dating a high school girl, and going swimming with her on a nude beach.
Another question poets of all ages are typically asked in interviews is when and why they decided to become poets. The assumption is that there was a moment when they came to realize that there could not be no other destiny for them but to dedicate their lives to poetry, followed by the announcement to their families that they want to be poet with their mothers screaming: “Oh God, what did we do to deserve this?” and their fathers ripping out their belts and chasing them around the room. I must say that I was often tempted to tell people with a straight face that I had chosen poetry to get my hands on all that big prize money being thrown at poets, since informing them that there was never any decision like that in my life inevitably disappoints them. Instead of hearing something heroic and poetic from me, I tell them that I was just another youth who wrote poems in order to impress girls, but who had no other ambition beyond that. Not being a native speaker of English, I’m also often asked why I didn’t write my poems in Serbian and how I arrived at the decision to ditch my mother tongue. Again, my answer seems frivolous, when I explain to them that for poetry to be used as an instrument of seduction, the first requirement is that it must be understood. No American girl was likely to fall for a guy who reads her love poems in Serbian as they sit sipping Coke on her porch at night.
Before writing in English, the only extensive exposure I had to poetry was in the year I attended school in Paris before coming to the United States. They not only had us read Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine, but they made us memorize certain poems of theirs and recite them in front of the class. This was a nightmare for me as a rudimentary speaker of French – and guaranteed fun for my classmates, who fell on the floor laughing at the way I mispronounced some of the most beautiful and justly famous lines of poetry in French literature – that for years afterwards I could not bring myself to take stock of what I learned in that class. Today, it’s clear to me that my love of poetry came from those compulsory readings and recitations, which left a deeper impact on me than I realized only many years later.
The real mystery to me is that I’m still writing poetry sixty years after those first attempts. My early poems were embarrassingly bad, and many of the ones that came after, not much better. I have known in my life a number of young poets with immense poetic talent who gave up poetry even after being told they were geniuses. No one ever made that mistake with me, and yet I kept going. I now regret destroying my early poems, because I no longer remember what poets they were modeled after and there were many. At one time or another, I was influenced by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Vasko Popa, Zbignew Herbert, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and at least a few dozen equally famous and not-so famous poets I was reading.
There’s something else in my past that I only recently realized contributed to my perseverance in writing poems, and that is my love of chess. I was taught the game in wartime Belgrade by a retired professor of astronomy when I was six years old and over the next few years became good enough to beat not just all the kids my age, but many of the grownups in the neighborhood. My first sleepless nights, I recall, were due to the games I lost and replayed in my head. Chess made me obsessive and tenacious. Already then, I could not forget each wrong move, each humiliating defeat. I adored games in which both sides are reduced to a few figures and in which every single move on the chessboard is of momentous significance. Even today, when my opponent is a computer program (I call “God”) that outwits me nine out of ten times, I’m not only in awe of its superior intelligence, but find my losses far more interesting to me than my infrequent wins. The kind of poems I write – mostly short and requiring endless tinkering – often recall for me games of chess. They depend for their success on a word or an image being placed in right place and their endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate.
Poetry, I’m fond of saying, is the defense of the individual against all generalizations that seek to enclose reality in a single conceptual system. In that sense it is anti-utopian. Its core belief is that we can reach truth through the imagination. It has no trust in abstractions, but proceeds empirically by concrete particulars. In a lyric poem, another consciousness lives on in us as we recognize oneself in some stranger’s words. A young man sits at the kitchen table late at night eats a slice of pizza and reads an ancient Chinese poet in a book he borrowed from the library earlier that day and falls in love with a poem, which he will read to himself over and over again from that day on till he is old and gray. A beautiful poem is a secret shared by two people who have never met face to face. As far as I’m concerned, no love story can hold a candle to that.
Of course, it’s easy to say all this now. When that Charles Simic was eighteen years old, he had a head full of other things. His parents had split up and he was on his own at the age of eighteen, working in an office during the day and attending university classes at night. Years passed and he kept scribbling poems and publishing some of them in literary magazines and books, but he didn’t expect any of that to amount to much in the long run. People he worked with and befriended mostly had no idea that he was a poet. He also painted a little and found it easier to confess that passion to someone he didn’t know. All he was sure about his poems is that they were not as good as he wanted them to be and that for his own peace of mind he was determined, to write something that he would not be embarrassed to show some day in the future to a friend or to a complete stranger.