Poet Laureate Simic: 'I grew up bent over a chessboard'

10/16/2007 – Dušan Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and leant English at the age of fifteen. His family emigrated to the US, where he changed his first name to Charles. He became a professor of American literature and this August was appointed 15th Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress. In an ABC News item Simic recites a poem about growing up with chess in war-torn Belgrade.

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Charles Simic, chess player and Poet Laureate

Dušan Simić was born in 1938 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and grew up in war-torn Europe. When he was sixteen his family emigrated to the United States, where he changed is first name to Charles and dropped the diacritical mark in his surname. He studied in Chicago and became a professor of American literature and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire.

Charles Simic made a name for himself in the 1970s as a literary minimalist, writing terse, imagistic poems which, like those of William Blake, have their roots in observed objects that serve to extrapolate the universe. Over the years, his style has become immediately recognizable. Critics have often referred to Simic's poems as "tightly constructed Chinese puzzle boxes." Simic himself has stated: "Words make love on the page like flies in the summer heat and the poet is only the bemused spectator." The quote intimates Simic's philosophy that true art must be greater than the person who created it [see article in Wikipedia]. He writes thoughtfully on such diverse topics as jazz, art, philosophy – and chess.

This August Charles Simic was selected to be the 15th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. One of the reasons cited was "the rather stunning and original quality of his poetry". The achievement was surprising, especially to Simic, who didn't speak English until he was 15 years old.

Like so many other young Yugoslavs Dušan played chess as a child. The poem he recited on ABC News on the George Stephanopoulos show was Prodigy. It is about the lad who learnt the game from a retired professor of astronomy, who grew up bent over a chessboard, using chipped pieces and missing a white king. It is a poem about growing up in Belgrade during the Second World War.


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