Charles Simic on Poetry in America

This month held a glut of poetry riches for those inclined to subscribe to things: Knopf’s Poem-a-Day, Poetry Daily, FSG Poetry. I’ve read a lot of poems, including some real stunners, and have decided that these days I really prefer my poets on the proletarian—or at least the unflowery—side. So it was a real treat to see a piece by Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books blog talking about his turn as the United States Poet Laureate. Though the term smacks of loftiness, he manages to strip the position of any pretentiousness and at the same time give it a little working class romance:

The amount of attention was not only overwhelming but also full of surprises. I was asked, for instance, to read a poem to an annual convention of Kansas businessmen in Topeka, to be photographed in New York’s most popular ice cream parlor eating one of their huge concoctions, to have my picture taken in a butcher shop chopping meat with a cleaver, to read a poem at the unveiling of the new vintage of a famous California vineyard, and so on. Since I had an office at the Library of Congress and spent a few days there every month, I got a few invitations from official Washington, which I mostly turned down.

The position itself is an odd designation. It purports to speak for the country as a whole, although the official title since 1985 is The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—no mention of the United States. And in fact a quick scan of past Poets Laureate shows a clear leaning to the left, which is probably as it should be. We are talking about poetry, after all.

But for all that, and for Simic’s unequivocal politics, his idea of poetry’s role these days is quite patriotic in the most refreshing sense of the word:

America may be going to hell in every other way, but fine poems continue to be written now and then. Still, if poetry is being written and being read now more than ever, it must be because it fulfills a profound need. Where else but in poems would these Americans, who unlike their neighbors seem unwilling to seek salvation in church, convey their human predicament? Where else would they find a community of likeminded souls who care about something Emily Dickinson or Billy Collins has written? If I were asked to sum up my experience as the poet laureate, I would say, there’s nothing more interesting or more hopeful about America than its poetry.


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