The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic
(Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1989)
In 1990 Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End became the first (and, thus far, only) collection of prose poems to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, a decision that set off a firestorm of controversy amongst genre purists. Despite the widely acknowledged, non-lineated work of such lofty predecessors as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Gertrude Stein, the taxonomic controversy over Simic’s work continued. Residual grumblings can still be heard today: “Is it really poetry?”
Suffice to say, if you enjoy nothing more than a nice long romp in formalism, this book is not for you. But if you are able to shelve your Pulitzer issues and genre boundaries, this book may prove a welcome, challenging surprise. Don’t be deceived by the slimness of the volume or the small, untitled rectangles of text suspended on each page. This is a book which, like the nature of prose poetry itself, thrives on contradictory elements. Despite the implied intimacy of the work’s size, The World Doesn’t End is significant in scope, spanning from the old world, populated by gypsies and dancing dogs, to a modern era of all-consuming objects, cluttered with TVs and blank canvases entitled “Blank.”
Amongst the most moving pieces is the book’s opening poem, which acts as a genesis story, fusing the dark aura of a war-torn childhood (“My mother was a braid of black smoke/she bore me swaddled over burning cities) with a perverted primordial skyscape (“the high heavens were full of little shrunken dead ears instead of stars”). Imbued with a proverbial biblical quality, this piece sets the stage for a series of familiar, yet hopelessly skewed events. Make way for surrealistic appearances by Jesus and the ever-weeping Mary Magdalene. Prepare for a woman applying blood as if it were lipstick, using a severed thumb. Watch a man descend a ladder while holding his own disembodied head.
As fantastical as this opening poem is, it’s difficult not to read it as Simic’s reflection on his own youth. He was born in 1938 in Belgrade, Serbia (then Yugoslavia), where he remained throughout childhood, enduring World War II. In 1954, he immigrated to Chicago, and later spent time in New York, instances which are also chronicled in the book. These autobiographical tidbits seem to crop up exactly when we are most desperate for a moment of clarity, serving as anchors to adjacent events which are far more fantastical (“Margaret was copying a recipe for ‘saints roasted with onions’”), muddied by myth (“…Hermes showed up. He was not much to look at”) and often puzzling (“The rat kept lovebirds”). The strategic placement of such bursts of realism manages to fill the entire book with the sense that this really happened. The result is a startling, unnerving effect which both consumes readers in an alternate reality and reminds them of their own gullibility.
Many of these elements feel like the stuff of prose fiction: a temporal trajectory from childhood to adulthood, the creation of another world, the entrance and exit of characters. So what makes it poetry? Consider Simic’s own defense: ”What makes them poems is that they are self-contained, and once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again. That’s what a poem does.”* If one agrees with this definition, then one must agree that these are indeed poems. Their folkloric, riddling quality can be as frustrating as it is addicting, a characteristic found in such other Serbian poets as the phenomenal Vasko Popa (whom Simic has translated).
If you read The World Doesn’t End (which you should) and still feel inclined to argue about the nature of Simic’s poetry, just be aware that you are going up against someone who has won the Edgar Allen Poe Award, the P.E.N. Translation Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation Scholarship, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the Wallace Stevens Award, and the Robert Frost Medal in addition to the Pulitzer. In summary: a literary giant. This is not to say that one man can decide what poetry is and is not. But I’d still be nervous to have him at my dinner table.
*From “The Smiles and Chills in the Poetry of Charles Simic”, NY Times, May 28, 1990
Beth Steidle is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, DIAGRAM, and several anthologies.