Charles Simic

3 posts

Rogue Poems on the Lam

dark honey

Charles Simic is of the camp that says poems, like characters in a novelist’s work, take on a life of their own minutes after written, quickly declaring independence from the poet-god that breathed life into their lungs.

It’s an expansive, capital-R Romantic notion, the type Dr. Frankenstein could relate to (if you forget, for a minute, that Dr. F’s “poem” was a monster hit with other lessons to teach).

Whether you believe your poems are independent states or not, it’s pretty to think so, and rather amusing, too. As evidence, you need only read Ellie Schoenfeld’s ode to other poets who, thanks to her imagination, take on lives of their own, too (“It’s…a-livvvvve!”).

Originally written in 2009 as part of her collection The Dark Honey: New and Used Poems, Schoenfeld’s poem, an ode to personification if ever there was one, was shared on yesterday’s Writer’s Almanac.

Let’s listen in here and see what poems (and rival poets) do when left to their own devices:


The Other Poet
by Ellie Schoenfeld

The poet explains exactly
what her poems are doing on a variety of levels.
I am jealously impressed.
My poems go places
but send no postcards––I have no idea
what they are doing. They do
whatever they want to.
I give them curfews
but they wake me in the middle
of the night, they interrupt meetings
and other situations where I have no time
for them. They hang on me
when I am on the phone.
They do not keep my secrets
and sometimes they lie.
They can be sullen and withdrawn
or explosively obscene.
I think my poems have problems with authority,
conduct disorders, attention deficit.
The other poet is like the parent
with the bumper sticker about their honor student
while I am speeding along
to get to the correctional facility
before visiting hours are over.
I try to give my poems direction.
They tell me they have cleaned their rooms
but we both know it’s not true.
After all these years of therapy
we still don’t understand each other.
I write a poem and think
“What the hell is that?!”


Humor is healthy, but humor popping the vitamins of truth can run circles around us. Rhomboids, too.

Still, if you cannot laugh at yourself, at your own obstinate writings, or at the whole danged microcosm called Poetry World (it runs by its own rules of physics, like your rogue poems), what business do you have filling white screens with briefly free verse?

I thought so.

What Lights YOUR Muse’s Campfire?

It’s a fact of life: Famous writers inspire famous writers. Don’t believe it? Doubting your inner Thomas? You need only read Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler, wherein dozens of writerly-types share snippets of works that lit their muse’s campfire. Curious, I read the book–mostly–and here are a few for you:

  • Aimee Bender chooses Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” particularly the line “How high that highest candle lights the dark.”
  • Sherman Alexie chooses a poem, too–one by the Paiute poet Adrian C. Louis called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” Alexie takes a shining to the line, “O Uncle Adrian! I’m in the reservation of my mind” because the metaphor gives him license to be an Indian and write like an Indian, which he has done with great success.
  • Elizabeth Gilbert waxes poetic for her namesake (unrelated), Jack Gilbert, who I have written about on this blog before (I took him on an Amtrak ride last spring and wrote a poem about the experience, too, which landed in my new book). Gilbert comma Eliza swoons to Gilbert comma Jack’s poem “A Brief for the Defense,” particularly the lines “We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness on the ruthless / furnace of this world.” That Jack. He comes out metaphors a blazing, doesn’t he?
  • Amy Tan makes a more predictable choice: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
  • Junot Diaz taps Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. He especially loves this: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
  • Andre Dubus III tips his hat to Richard Bausch’s “Dear Writer.” In it, Bausch writes, “Do not think, dream.” That advice is for first drafts, by the way. After that, Logic, who has been pounding on the door, can be let in. See Dubus’s essay for particulars.
  • Billy Collins selects W. B. Yeats’ famous poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I will give that choice and Billy’s reasons its own post tomorrow. I love talking with BC.
  • Kathryn Harrison gives a shout-out to Joseph Brodsky. She cites the poem “On Love” and the lines “For darkness restores what light cannot repair.” If you like mysteries in the dark, you’ll take a shining to her essay.
  • David Mitchell? The talented novelist chooses a poem (God bless him, everyone!) by James Wright– perhaps Wright’s most famous: “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” It’s the equally famous finish he cites: “I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on. / A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home. / I have wasted my life.” Those last five words serve as a warning not only to Mitchell, but to all of us wasting time with stuff like “writer’s block” and other malware of the mind. Just do it! (That’s Nike for the sport of writing.)
  • Curiously, Tom Perrotta is inspired by Our Town, the Thornton Wilder play. “At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.” The play moves Perrotta to tears to this day. And here I still have to read the thing!
  • Jonathan Lethem likes his Kafka, especially the short piece “Leopards in the Temple.” He notes the quote, “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the  sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.” Let the leopards in, Lethem says. Spot on, I’d add.
  • Charles Simic is the second writer to point to Whitman. But it is a less well-known Whitman: the poem “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.” The line noted here is “Young man I think I know you–I think this face is the face of the Christ himself, Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.” Simic’s own wartime experiences as a boy in the Balkans creates the camaraderie with Whitman’s poem.
  • Emma Donoghue is one of two in the book who point to Emily Dickinson, the pride of Amherst, Mass. It’s the poem “Wild Nights–Wild Nights”: “Rowing in Eden– / Ah, the Sea! / Might I but moor–Tonight– / In thee!”
  • Claire Messed resurrects an old favorite seldom read nowadays, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. “These fragments! I have shored against my ruins.” It’s an admittedly cool line, for those of us with both shores and ruins.
  • T.C. Boyle acknowledges Raymond Carver (also written about on these pages this past year). He loves the ending of the short story, “Cathedral,” specifically the lines “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything. ‘It’s really something,’ I said.” In that scene, the narrator has his eyes shut, trying to reimagine life from a blind man’s dark point of view. You can see how that might connect to the writing life, no? Carver is the man.

Anyway, that’s a a sampling. In each essay, the author explains why the lines noted inspire, why they “light the dark,” so to speak, and feed their muse’s inner fires.

You can play the game, too, of course. It’s a popular pastime for writers to keep a quote posted to the wall above in their favorite writing spot, after all. For me, it’s Wislawa Szymborka’s poem, “The Joy of Writing.”

And you?

The Messy Politics of Line Breaks


You can always tell a poetry expert (notice I didn’t say “snob”). They’re the ones who can go on and on about line breaks. I listen with one ear for a while, then yawn and say, “Pass the peanut butter and enjambment, would you?”

Theories on line breaks in free verse poetry are just that–theories. Here are some of the principles I’ve heard, some of them as “suggestions” and others as “hard and fast rules”:

  • end lines with important words
  • begin lines with important words
  • end lines with nouns and verbs
  • begin lines with nouns and verbs
  • special dispensation: end lines with important modifiers (if any modifier can graduate to such a level)
  • never end a line with an article or a conjunction
  • never begin a line with an article or a conjunction
  • use line breaks to build suspense
  • mix up long lines and short lines for visual appeal
  • mix up lines and sentences
  • use more end-stopped lines than peanut butter and enjambment
  • use Fluff
  • use line breaks as punctuation
  • use line breaks as signals for pauses and silence
  • use line breaks to guide a newbie who’s reading your poem aloud for the first time
  • use line breaks to make your poem more powerful

Charles Simic famously said, “The line is Buddha; the sentence is Socrates.” This is one of those profound lines that could be deep and could be shallow, similar to “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one BIG thing.”

I wonder who’s better at line breaks–the fox or the hedgehog?

This is all by way of saying that no one quite knows what works and what doesn’t when it comes to line breaks. Still, you can listen to many a sage on the topic. Here’s Edward Hirsch from his book A Poet’s Glossary:

“[The line] creates its own visual and verbal impact; it declares its self-sufficiency. Paul Claudel called the fundamental line ‘an idea isolated by blank space.’ I would call it ‘words isolated by blank space,’ because the words can go beyond the idea, they can plunge deeper than thought. Adam Zagajewski says, ‘Tragedy and joy collide in every line…’

“An autonomous line in a poem makes sense on its own, even if it is a fragment or an incomplete sentence. It is end-stopped and completes a thought. An enjambed line carries the meaning over from one line to the next. Whether end-stopped or enjambed, however, the line in a poem moves horizontally, but the rhythm and sense also drive it vertically, and the meaning continues to accrue as the poem develops and unfolds…”

As an example of enjambment’s awesome powers, Hirsch quotes a William Carlos Williams poem, “To a Poor Old Woman,” about a woman taking sensuous delight in eating a plum:

They taste good to her.
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

Hirsch comments: “Each line break emphasizes something different (that the plums taste good to her; that they taste good; that they taste) and the lineation is a signpost to the meaning.”

Never mind that plums cannot taste anything (at least in a transitive sense). They can only be tasted. Still, this explanation does provide some guidance, as does poet James Tate’s take on the whole deal. Tate said, “When people start talking about enjambment and line endings, I always shut them up. This is not something to talk about, this is a private matter. It’s up to the poet.”

And I hope that clarifies matters. Me? My head hurts. I’m off to eat a plum…