Charles Simic

poet laureate icon
1938 –
Poet Laureate of the United States, 2007–2008

Charles Simic was born on May 9, 1938, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he had a traumatic childhood during World War II. In 1954 he emigrated from Yugoslavia with his mother and brother to join his father in the United States. They lived in and around Chicago until 1958. In 1961 he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and, in 1966, he earned his bachelor’s degree from New York University while working at night to cover the costs of tuition.

Simic’s first poems were published in 1959, when he was twenty-one years old. His first full-length collection, What the Grass Says (Kayak Press, 1960), was published the following year. Since then, Simic has published more than sixty books in the United States and abroad, twenty titles of his own poetry among them, including The Lunatic (Ecco, 2015); New and Selected Poems: 1962–2012 (Harcourt, 2013); Master of Disguises (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010); That Little Something (Harcourt, 2008); My Noiseless Entourage (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005); Selected Poems: 1963–2003 (Faber and Faber, 2004), for which he received the 2005 International Griffin Poetry Prize; The Voice at 3:00 AM: Selected Late and New Poems (Harcourt, 2003); Night Picnic (Harcourt, 2001); Jackstraws (Harcourt, 1999), which was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times; and The Book of Gods and Devils (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990).

His other books of poetry include Walking the Black Cat (Harcourt, 1996), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; A Wedding in Hell (Harcourt Brace, 1994); Hotel Insomnia (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992); The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990; Selected Poems: 1963–1983 (G. Braziller, 1985); and Unending Blues (Harcourt, 1986).

In his essay “Poetry and Experience,” Simic wrote:

At least since [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Walt] Whitman, there’s a cult of experience in American poetry. Our poets, when one comes right down to it, are always saying: This is what happened to me. This is what I saw and felt. Truth, they never get tired of reiterating, is not something that already exists in the world, but something that needs to be rediscovered almost daily.

Simic has also published numerous translations of French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian poetry and is the author of several books of essays, including Orphan Factory: Essays and Memoirs (University of Michigan Press, 1997). He has edited several anthologies, including an edition of The Best American Poetry published in 1992.

About Simic’s work, a reviewer for the Harvard Review said,

There are few poets writing in America today who share his lavish appetite for the bizarre, his inexhaustible repertoire of indelible characters and gestures […] Simic is perhaps our most disquieting muse.

Simic was appointed the fifteenth poet laureate consultant in poetry in 2007. About the appointment, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said,

The range of Charles Simic’s imagination is evident in his stunning and unusual imagery. He handles language with the skill of a master craftsman, yet his poems are easily accessible, often meditative and surprising. He has given us a rich body of highly organized poetry with shades of darkness and flashes of ironic humor.

“I am especially touched and honored to be selected because I am an immigrant boy who didn’t speak English until I was fifteen,” responded Simic after being named poet laureate.

Simic was chosen to receive the Academy Fellowship in 1998 and was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2000. He has received numerous other awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995. Most recently, he was the recipient of the 2011 Frost Medal, presented annually for “lifetime achievement in poetry.” In 2007, he received the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.

Simic was a professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, where he had taught since 1973. 

Charles Simic died in Dover, New Hampshire, on January 9, 2023.