Introduction by Andrew Periale
Charles Simic, my Buddy
I Never Forget Anything
That’s my trouble!*
Charles Simic was a Poet of Memory as well as a brilliant essayist, venerated teacher and
one of the last great voices of his generation, but to me and the many others who knew him,
he was Charlie – devoted husband, father, grandfather and a friend to every dog that lived along the route of his morning walk near Bow Lake. My wife Bonnie and I live just down the road from the Simics, and though we’d met them earlier, we didn’t become friends until 2010. I had been doing some teaching at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, and Charlie was there to do a reading. The next morning, he gave a talk to a small group. I wrote down as much as I could:
Why do we remember one thing and not another—a fly
on the cracked plaster of my childhood, a decaying watermelon rind
on a hot New York City street one summer in the late seventies,
a couple walking naked, curtains flying out of the windows…
Go to Sappho for a sense of place. If she were to read current lyric poetry
She might say, Hey, I wrote this same shit 2,500 years ago. Amazing.
Also Catullus, always walking through the streets of Rome.
Among the unreadable poetry from ancient Egypt, a gem:
A man pretends to be sick. He stays home from work, hopes
the neighbor he adores will come by, put a cool cloth on his forehead.
Fantastic! It could have been written yesterday…
Look, there’s no formula—Frank O’Hara wrote on his lunch hour
Wallace Stevens composed a poem as he walked to work each day.
I began “That Little Something” and waited twenty years for the ending.
After the talk, I introduced myself to his wife, Helen, as a neighbor of theirs. She and Charlie
were intrigued to meet a fellow Strafford resident and invited my wife and me over for
dinner once we were all back home.
Look, there’s no formula—Frank O’Hara wrote on his lunch hour. Wallace Stevens composed a poem as he walked to work each day.
Thus began a friendship that lasted a dozen years, ending only when Charlie went into
the hospital around Thanksgiving. Whether it was dinner on their back deck or just wine
and appetizers, time with the Simics was always filled with laughter and engaging
conversation about local history, music, theater, art, travel, politics… . Though my wife and I
had made our living in the arts, it was impossible to match Charlie’s stories. He’d begun life
in Belgrade, living through the Nazi bombing of his neighborhood. He spent many of his
formative years in France before coming to the US in 1954. He was stationed in Europe with
the military as an MP before he began writing the poetry that would win him the Pulitzer
Prize. It seemed that he knew every poet writing in the latter half of the 20 th century and
had stories about all of them.
Over the past few years, I would sometimes drive him and Helen to various events,
these were opportunities to hear more stories. Toward the end, our drives were more local–
to shop for food, visit the pharmacy, the doctor. His increasing frailty was evident in the
shaky inscription in his final collection of poetry, No Land in Sight, which came out last fall:
“For my buddy Periale and his wife, Bonnie. Much love, Charlie.”**
* Simic, No Land in Sight, p 68
**He always called me by my last name, fairly shouting it in the Italian way – “Peddy-ah-leh!”
It is one of the many things I’ll miss about my friend.
Charlie was my teacher. I had written only three real poems in my life, I was a
young mother, but I was determined to become a poet and Charles Simic was a
rising star from wherever he had been teaching in California and we in New
Hampshire were lucky to get him.
We were sitting in Ham-Smith basement, in a rather dour workshop room. The
woman to my right was the first to read. Her poem filled the page. She raced
through it, her hands shaking, and her head down. Then silence. Lots of silence.
Next Simic said. The woman sank deeper into her chair and disappeared.
I learned in those first two hours of Poetry 628 that a failed poem and a poem that
flew off the page with wings needed very little from us, the beginners. It was poems
of promise, poems that stumbled upon meaning and music that needed our poking
Oh and those were the days. We drank and smoked our way through fifteen poems.
Charlie held court. We brought homemade cookies and Genoa Salami. Charlie liked
anything I brought from Emilo’s Italian Market. When a poem worked, but had the
possibility to shine Charlie would tell a story, a parable really. If you paid attention
to how the narrative turned, stalled, started up again in a new village or under a
table you might see a way back into your poem and bring back an improved version
later in the semester. He loved to laugh and said a poem was much like a good joke,
the pacing, the surprise and always the unexpected. Titles? Never let the title tell
what the poem was about. Start as far away as possible and work your way toward
the poem and then stop short.
He loved to laugh and said a poem was much like a good joke, the pacing, the surprise and always the unexpected.
I had to take the undergraduate workshops since I was not enrolled in the masters
program, but one day I screwed up my courage and told Simic I wanted in. “You’re
not good enough,” he said looking me straight in the eye. Fuck You I hoped my face
said back. I stopped taking 628, had another baby and went about working on my
After a few years, I returned to 628. The very first class I read a poem about a
donkey who lost his way going round and round the same trees. I think it was
titled, A Theorem since I set it up like an algebraic equation. “What if a donkey…”
After class I hurried down the steps to get home in time to have supper with my
“Wait up,” Charlie called from the landing. “What happened, Mimi? That poem was
wonderful, really terrific.” I thought to tell him his challenge pissed me off, but I
thought for a moment longer and said, “I wanted it.” He smiled at me. That was it.
Charlie knew that becoming a poet, a good poet was up to us. All he could do was
bring us to the point when we discovered for ourselves whether we wanted it badly
enough. Apparently I did.
I am eternally grateful that he never told me to stop. I went on to get my masters
and teach 8 years of 628. Charlie and I were colleagues, but first and always he was
What to say about Charlie? Great poet, translator, critic, and essayist. Philosopher of that 3 a.m. wake-up call when, all alone, one contemplates the ironies and cosmic jokes of the universe, when the image of the face of God looking down on you may really be just an apparition brought on by the badly cooked sausage of an inferior chef. Yes, he was brilliant, but, more important, he was a good guy—kind, generous, and humble in a field that doesn’t often reward humility. He had to have been aware of his brilliance, but his playful self-deprecation always kept any chance of egoism at bay.
It was 1975 and I was twenty-five. I had just arrived at the University of New Hampshire to begin a Masters program in literature. Someone mentioned Charlie’s work to me, so I bought Dismantling the Silence and Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk and went on the two-and-a-half hour Mt. Washington boat ride around Lake Winnipesaukee.
Lost in those books, I didn’t do much sightseeing. You could write poems like this? I thought. And you could be funny to boot? I couldn’t wait to get home and, in a fit of heavenly inspiration, scratch out my world-changing ideas in a similar simple style. Which of course was quite impossible to expect, even dumb. And yet those two books gave me permission to discover my own voice and feel free to juxtapose the learned and quotidian, to write a poem with the Pope and President standing next to each other wearing “I’m With Stupid T-shirts.” And, as discovered, after speaking with Charlie a few years later, I could even do it in a prose poem.
In short, this morning it became apparent that there would be no Peter Johnson prose poems if I hadn’t read Charlie on that boat ride, and subsequently met and studied under him. Now you might argue that it would be a good thing if there wasn’t a Peter Johnson prose poem, but there you have it.
James Tate, Bill Knott, my dear friend Russell Edson, and now Charlie--all gone, but no need for complete sadness with all their wonderful books out there to read. Those are the books I’ll take with me on that last boat ride with Charon at the helm. No wait, it’s not Charon at all, just Charlie half-smiling, half-smirking, wanting to get home quickly so he can keep scribbling in the dark.
Listen to Charlie reading his “Cameo Appearance” to hear all his gifts at work. https://poetryarchive.org/poem/cameo-appearance/
“A poem can be about anything and everything.” He spoke in that accent that would soon grow familiar, a cigarette held between his fingers, his eyes behind his glasses watching the smoke curl up and away. “You decide. But don’t be surprised when the poem yanks you around to where it wants to be.” Then he grinned.
That was the first day of his class. I’d returned to UNH 9 years after flunking out, wanting to be there but not yet quite sure why. By the end of Charlie’s class, I knew. I wanted to know about words, and creating, and sorrow and magic. Undergrad workshops, grad workshops, the visiting-writer readings, the poetry collections and chapbooks stacked on the floor, Tate and Lowell, HD and Milosz. I found friends I’ll love for all my life, and poets in print and in person I loved just as much.
In time, my own work passed his inspection. A poem published here, another published there. An Alice James Press chapbook. An NEA grant, a MacDowell residency I suspect he championed but he would not admit it.
Two simple ideas, he said: To write about large things (bombs, tornados, plague, life and death), use small language, muscled, taut, like a bullet just before it leaves the gun. For small things (sun on a leaf, a sleeping child, a fine glass of wine), go big—find lyrical words to embrace the small thing, until the poem itself becomes music. “Because life is a collection of small things,” he said, “but with occasional big ones. We need the one in order to survive the other.”
“Because life is a collection of small things,” he said, “but with occasional big ones. We need the one in order to survive the other.”
Was love a big thing or a small one? I asked.
“Oh, both,” he said. “Depends on the day.”
My son said, years later, “I think he’s a buddha.”
Others wiser than I have spoken of his poems and essays, awards and grants, the depth of his knowing, the reverence in which he was held. I can’t do that, because he’s gone and I’m angry. Instead, I hold a singular image in my head: Charlie and my dad at my wedding, sitting in the sun drinking champagne from paper cups. And laughing. I wondered which one had said something funny. A big thing or a small one? The ultimate gift: Both.
I’ve been letting this sink in all day and find myself back in those days at UNH. I remember once we had our weekly office visit and I was struggling with this excruciatingly sensitive subject and he was puttering around and when he sat down and realized what my draft was trying to do his eyes grew wide and he spent 90mins helping me recraft and rewrite it.
I’ve thought of that afternoon on many many occasions. He always made me feel like I mattered. Which to this young lost searching soul meant everything.
I had the immense fortune of taking several workshops with Charlie Simic while I was a student at the University of New Hampshire’s MFA program. As someone very new to poetry—having just started writing poems the year prior—these workshops were transformative experiences for me. Charlie was a generous, thoughtful teacher, whose highest praise was a gesture toward the page, and a “Yes, this is a poem.” He started each class by dumping a bag of books and journals on the table, encouraging us to take them home—I didn’t own many books of poetry at that time, so this always struck me as an incredibly kind gesture. His work—ever-perceptive of the often-overlooked—held the sad, funny moments of our world so gently, and taught me to strive for the same. I think of his six-legged dog at the country fair; his lone spider repairing a web; his horse that wandered from stable on a cold winter night.
“The purpose of poetry is to return that which is familiar to its original strangeness,” Simic wrote. As I worked through my first manuscript, his lessons on the power of perceptiveness greatly influenced my own poetry: parking chairs, laundromats, garbage nights—all here, sacred, strange, mundane. I often re-read an email he sent me about Confluence, my first book of poetry: “This sublime one, To Lead a Pig Skyward, ought to be translated into hundreds of languages, since it’s the best poem ever written about pigs.” I can think of no higher praise for the poem or the pigs.
“The purpose of poetry is to return that which is familiar to its original strangeness,” Simic wrote.
Once, I asked Charles Simic for an extension on a paper. The door to his office was open
a crack. I stood in the hallway, taking a few deep breaths. I was the type of graduate student who did not feel comfortable calling professors by their first names.“Professor Simic,” I said after I tapped on the door and he told me to come in. He sat at a nearly empty desk, facing the door. He was middle-aged and had been through a lot, starting with his childhood in war-torn Belgrade. Yet, when he lectured, he sometimes reminded me of a chick that had just hatched, perpetually astonished and experiencing everything for the first time.
I stammered when I asked for an extra twenty-four hours.
“OH, MY GOD!” he yelled as he hit the desk with his palms. “OH, MY GOD!” he kept
repeating as he grabbed his head with his hands. It took me a moment to realize he was trying to make me laugh. I did.
“How about Friday?” he said. Three extra days.
I had not told Simic that week was the first anniversary of my mother’s death. I was
utterly unmoored, yet in that moment, he reminded me what many of his poems and essays do: that levity and wonder can sometimes bump up against, and even pierce, what is hardest and saddest about life.
I stayed on for a few years as an instructor at UNH. I brought my boyfriend’s dog to all
of my classes. In the mailroom, Charlie asked if I had named the dog Omar after Ezra Pound’s son. He hosted a night of Polish Poetry in the dimly lit Alumni Center and handed out red bound packets of poems and essays by and about the Polish greats. Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh and Bogdana Carpenter took turns at the microphone, reading and speaking in Polish and English. Charlie was nearly levitating. I can still hear his Serbian accent as he read the final lines of Zbigniew Herbert’s first published poem:
To the end they were similar/ like two drops/ stuck at the edge of a face.
Once, after a reading he hosted by Mary Ruefel, I sat with a friend near a brick mill in the
nearby town of Newmarket. An old woman in high heels was feeding the swans and calling them by name. I told her we had just attended a poetry reading. “Girls after my own heart,” she said, then told us she had been a student in Robert Lowell’s class, that she knew Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. The next day, I went to Charlie’s office to ask if he had heard of the woman. “There are a lot of ghosts in Newmarket,” he said, eyes wide.
“How incredible, I thought, all of us here, existing.” That is one of my favorite lines in
Charlie’s essay, “Reading Philosophy at Night.” I have taught this essay and many of his others, every semester throughout my teaching career. No essayist has made a bigger impression on me than Charles Simic. Somehow, his essays have the ability to challenge, disturb and comfort me every time I read them.
Once, years ago, Charlie showed up in one of my dreams. He was wandering around a beach, dressed in black, including black socks. I was worried he might be too hot, but this did not seem to be the case. He walked from towel to towel, stopping to chat briefly with everyone he encountered. He appeared to be looking for something, but he also
seemed to be having a good time.
My late paper was on Robert Frost’s poem, “For Once, Then Something,” which, I think,
is about the ways glimmers of truth appear then disappear before we can catch them. I do not have the paper anymore, but I can still see Charlie’s only comment: “You’re almost there,” he wrote in pencil at the bottom of the final page.
For a man who was stolen by gypsies as a child. And was so poor his family would place him as bait in the mousetrap. Charlie did okay for himself. He knew the only thing a poet. Should never let a poem be. Was boring. And he never once let us down. In a time of minor poets. He was Maj. Major. The highest-ranking of absurdist. Small enough to sleep in his own ear. Yet big enough to still hear in our own. I first did in the late 80s. At the Blacksmith House in Cambridge, MA. In a barely contained interview with William Corbett. Even though, in Charlie's work. You always felt you were a radio click from the apocalypse. "The buildings... tottering; the computer screens... dark as our grandmother's cupboards." You still sensed that the words. Could never end there. And thus, neither could the world. Down at the Zero Mile Literary Seminar. Back in 2003. Charlie takes me aside like a devilish grade schooler. Tells me, a woman just asked him. To autograph a literary review. With one of his poems in it. Only it’s not his poem it’s James Tate’s. “I wanted so bad to sign it,” he laughs at himself. “Fuck you, James Tate.”
Now, come to my office when you can and we’ll listen to some real gypsy music.
I’ll never forget when I put one of his poems to music and got up the nerve to give him a cd. I saw him in the hall a week later, and he made an awkward zigzag across student traffic to stop me in my tracks. “Sounds like Tom Waits,” he said. “Now, come to my office when you can and we’ll listen to some real gypsy music.”
I was able to "audit" Charlie's workshop (I think in 1995 or 1996) by invitation, the beginning of his kindness to this orphan from Iowa. I'd been in workshops led by a half dozen well-known poets by then, but I'd never experienced the kindness and insight that Charlie brought.
Marilyn A. Johnson
I don’t remember how it first came up, my Roomba vacuum cleaner. I craved it and finally got one for my birthday. This almost forty years after I’d been one of Charlie’s four poetry graduate students— we did have other things to discuss — but Charlie wanted to hear about the Roomba. I described the compact self-propelled disc to him and Helen one jolly dinner, how it slid into the charger, how I pressed its nose and it revved up, and how with a dogged thrum and flashing lights it proceeded to bump into furniture and walls, learning its way around a room (and occasionally, if I was distracted, tumbling down the stairs). I longed for a video of my cat riding the Roomba. No such luck. Instead I shared a photo of my cat, eyeing the device balefully from the other side of the French door.
This is just what we need, Charlie said, rubbing his hands. We parted that night, fellow enthusiasts of the robot vac, the marvelous invention that ate dust balls and generated comedy.
Alas, he soon wrote, it was not meant to be. “After agonizing for days we came to the conclusion that Roomba would not be welcome in our home, because our rooms are small and have too much furniture, so the poor thing would find itself confronted by obstacles at every turn it takes and would probably explode with frustration. And we had such high hopes for a spick-and-span home. O cruel fate! Thank you so much for opening our eyes and pointing us at what could have been a serene old age….”
I don’t think it was the object itself that fascinated him. It was that name, Roomba, said with relish. I think he wanted to say my Roomba with his accent and that funny mumble of his. (I always needed to be in the first row or two at his readings, or I’d miss his last lines.) A man who was always tuning into the crackling sound of distant eras—old blues records, old jazz recordings, the Vo Do Dee Oh Do of Rudy Vallée (“one of the greatest artists this country produced”), or the laughter on an old episode of The Honeymooners—did not need a bumbling noisy machine underfoot.
Not long ago, he sent me a link to a tribute to Viola Smith, a jazz musician who died at 107. The performance, a set of songs by the glamorous all women’s swing band, Frances Carroll and the Coquettes, featured our Viola attacking the drums with a cool smile and an inventive flair. It had been filmed in 1940; Charlie, then little Dušan of Belgrade, would have been two. “Who can forget her drumming? I feel strongly that it contributed to her longevity. What do you think?” I think Youtube was the invention made for him.
He liked to stir mischief into any stew. In an appreciation of used bookstores for his column in the New York Review of Books, he wrote: “Of course, every now and then, there would come along some trashy book that one could not resist having, like the biography of Rudolph Valentino, the silent movie heartthrob, I bought last fall, which advertised itself as the sensational, never-before-published truth about the most fiery sex god of our time, and promised to reveal why his first wife left him before dawn on their wedding night.” I read on for the truth about Valentino, in vain. Imagine dangling a line like that and then not telling us! I logged into the comments and said, So what was the big secret? Is that you? he replied. I’ll send you the book. And soon I was holding thet very paperback published in 1966 and purchased secondhand by Charles Simic, with its foxed and yellowed pages, the throwaway joke from an old issue of the NYRB. It came apart in my hands. I read it with glee (it seems the Great Lover had no interest in sex), then slipped the pieces of the book back in its padded envelope and parked it on the Charlie shelf of my bookcase.
I pulled it out today. The cover came off when I opened the paperback. There, on the title page, in his familiar spidery hand, “For Marilyn: This rare and valuable book to share only with her most trusted friends. Charlie 8/15/13”
Her most trusted friends! I keep reaching up to find my face wet.
Charlie was the first real poet I knew. Real not just because he got published but because he looked at poetry the way whales look at water; there is simply no other way to get around in this world. In workshop, he listened to our poems as if he were listening to a joke for the first time. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it fell flat, but like that joke, the poem was new and it deserved to be heard, and hell, there was always tomorrow to make it better. He is to blame for introducing me to: 1) the work of other poets of Eastern Europe – who shaped my view of what poetry could be, 2) the acceptance that joy and grief are usually found together sharing a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup, and 3) the jolt of aged provolone set against hard peppered salami. That seamless welding of what is real and what might be real is what always gets me in Charlie’s poems. It’s what you hope for in your own life. He loved the game of baseball and he had the best laugh and he was right there, listening, paying attention. How can you not weep at the news of his passing? Stupid mortality.
The portrait of Charles Simic, done by Jeane Kondo, is from his book, Biography And A Lament, published by bartholomew's cobble, 1976