A Poem for the Moment by Charles Simic
As panic sweeps the United States and the world in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, our regular contributor George Chigas of UMass Lowell was reminded of the poem “Fear” by Charles Simic, the Serbian-born Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who has taught at the University of New Hampshire since the 1970s. The poem was published in his collection Dismantling the Silence (1971).
By Charles Simic
Fear passes from man to man
As one leaf passes its shudder
All at once the whole tree is trembling
And there is no sign of the wind.
Note: “Charles Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1938. In his early childhood, during World War II, he and his family were forced to evacuate their home several times to escape indiscriminate bombing of Belgrade. Growing up as a child in war-torn Europe shaped much of his world-view, Simic states. In an interview from the Cortland Review he said, “Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of others. I’m still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life.”
“Simic immigrated to the United States with his brother and mother in order to join his father in 1954 when he was sixteen. He grew up in Chicago. In 1961 he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and in 1966 he earned his B.A. from New York University while working at night to cover the costs of tuition. He is professor emeritus of American literature and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire, where he has taught since 1973, and lives on the shore of Bow Lake in Strafford, New Hampshire.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Simic)
2 Responses to A Poem for the Moment by Charles Simic
Thanks for remembering this poem, George.
Charles Simic is one of my poetry heroes going back to my early years of reading and writing poems. I first saw his work in a special feature in New Republic magazine, which at the time was running a series on new voices in poetry, probably 1975. His work struck me as fresh, insightful, a bit strange (I didn’t know much about surrealism in those days), and urgent. I immediately ordered the two books of his that were available from Prince’s Bookstore on Merrimack Street, across the street from Cherry & Webb women’s clothing store where my mother had gotten me a job as a part-time operator of the manual elevator (4 floors). The manager at Prince’s, a middle-aged woman whose name I have forgotten, happily special-ordered the two books from the publisher, George Braziller. I have the books upstairs on my Simic shelf.
Several years later I made an appointment to meet him in his office at the University of New Hampshire in Durham on a Good Friday, maybe 1981, where I asked him about the Master of Fine Arts program in poetry. He said, as best as I recall, “This program won’t make you a poet. When I was younger I had a choice to either write poems or not write poems. Poetry is like breathing to me now. I’d be writing poems even if I was a street sweeper.” This meeting was the first time I had sought out a writer whose work I had read in books. I needed to hear what he said. I didn’t apply to UNH at that point, but later entered the MFA Program at University of California in Irvine. I was still curious about the benefits of an MFA workshop program and had residual feelings of being an outsider in the literary subculture. What was I doing with my political science degree rooting around in the poetry field? Simic gave me some confidence just by meeting with me. This was Charles before he became widely known and won prizes.
Skip ahead to the late 1980’s, I guess, and Manya Callahan, the manager, asked me to introduce Charles when he came to the UMass Lowell Barnes & Noble bookstore on Merrimack Street, diagonally across from the old location of Prince’s Books and Stationery. I don’t recall which book he read from, but he had driven down from Durham on his own (nobody took him out for supper in Lowell) for the early evening reading. I’d like to say there were about 20 people in the store, not many more than that. I hope not fewer. We exchanged some small talk. He has a distinctive accent from being a boy in Serbia, old enough to have seen the Nazis in the streets. He was born in 1938. My Bulgarian doctor, at Riverside Medical at Lowell General Hospital looks and speaks very much like Charles. One time I gave him a book of Charles’ poems.
Ever since those first two books from Prince’s, I have bought each new book of his and still have them here upstairs in Amesbury.
I’m glad this poem stuck with you. Pound wrote, “Poetry is news that stays new.” Old Ezra was a dumpster fire when it came to politics, but he did some good in poetry. He also, supposedly, said or wrote: “Make it new.” He charged the poets of the day to find their own way of saying things.
Simic found his own way of seeing and saying in his poems. He’s an immigrant. As the cast sings in “Hamilton,” immigrants get the job done. Simic made a life for himself and then his family in America and has made an indelible mark on American culture with his smart, haunting, wry, revelatory poems and essays.
The fear we now have and live with.