Charles Simic is a poet, essayist and translator who’s won pretty much all the prizes worth having. Like the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The World Doesn’t End. I feel more than a little silly writing a review of his work so let me just say upfront (and this is no spoiler) that I love this collection. It has humor and pathos, indelible images, the craziest of details. But is it poetry?

This was the controversy that surrounded the Pulitzer award. Back then, readers believed that poems require line breaks. But Simic chose to wrap his poem-thoughts inside that most deceptively simple of packaging: the paragraph. Yes, The World Doesn’t End is a collection of prose poems.

I’m looking at these prose poems because Simic came up in my lyric essay class. The form raises all kinds of questions for me. Could a prose poem also be flash fiction or a lyric essay or all three at the same time?

It’s a store that specializes in antique porcelain. She goes around it with a finger on her lips. Tsss! We must be quiet when we come near the tea cups. Not a breath allowed near the sugar bowls. A teeny grain of dust has fallen on a wafer-thin saucer. She makes an “oh” with her owlet-mouth. On her feet she wears soft, thickly padded slippers around which mice scurry.

Charles Simic, The World Doesn’t End (Harcourt Brace and Company 1989)

The Historian

Simic was born in Belgrade in 1938. He survived Nazi invasion and Soviet occupation. His family evacuated, separated and crossed borders to escape bombs and internment. Simic famously quipped, “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin.”

I am the last Napoleonic soldier. It’s almost two hundred years later and I am still retreating from Moscow. The road is lined with white birch trees and the mud comes up to my knees. The one-eyed woman wants to sell me a chicken, and I don’t even have any clothes on.
The Germans are going one way; I am going the other. The Russians are going still another way and waving good-by. I have a ceremonial saber. I use it to cut my hair, which is four feet long.

Charles Simic

In my lyric essay class with Joanna Penn Cooper, this was one of the poems she gave us to read. Our assignment was to consider the possibility of “jumping off from autobiography into the surreal.” In Simic’s case, the surreal and the autobiographical may have been one and the same.

In a speech given at the 1990 Poetry Festival in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Simic recalled a publisher asking him to write a short memoir of his life. Simic worried about the reliability of his memory. He decided it would be “much more satisfying for me and the reader […] if I made everything up.” Here is the result.

I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole me right back. Then the gypsies stole me again. This went on for some time. One minute I was in the caravan suckling the dark teat of my new mother, the next I sat at the long dining room table eating my breakfast with a silver spoon …

Charles Simic

Simic the surrealist

This slide into the surreal is not limited to poems about the past. Simic also offers slices of life that take on freakish proportions.

My thumb is embarking on a great adventure. “Don’t go, please,” say the fingers. They try to hold him down. Here comes a black limousine with a veiled woman in the back seat, but no one at the wheel. When it stops, she takes a pair of gold scissors out of her purse and snips the thumb off. We are off to Chicago with her using the bloody stump of my thumb to paint her lips.

Charles Simic

In Simic’s universe, a dead man can bring himself and his head into a bar to order a beer for both. Men and women levitate while clutching hats and small books. A guardian angel, who fears the dark, sends his mortal charge ahead. According to Simic, this is what prose poetry is: “an impossible amalgamation of lyric poetry, anecdote, fairy tale, allegory, joke, journal entry, and many other kinds of prose.”

Someone shuffles by my door muttering: “Our goose is cooked.”
Strange! I have my knife and fork ready. I even have the napkin tied around my neck, but the plate before me is empty.
Nevertheless, someone continues to mutter outside my door regarding a certain hypothetical, allegedly cooked goose that he claims is ours in common.

Charles Simic

At the circus

In Rotterdam, Simic confessed that the works contained in The World Doesn’t End were compiled from old notebooks that contained “narrative fragments, along with ideas for poems consisting of isolated phrases and images strung together.” He found 120 passages worth salvaging. He then whittled these down to 68 works to show his publisher. The publisher agreed to publish if Simic could come up with a label for his work. Simic chose prose poems.

Given this genesis, Simic doesn’t seem like a reliable source for theories on prose poetry. But his Rotterdam talk came 10 years after he won the Pulitzer for these accidental prose poems. He’s had time to think on the topic.

Simic believes that prose poetry is subversive. It can be as casual as “caricatures left behind on café napkins” or deeply meditative or a boisterous performance at a three ring circus.

Prose poetry is a monster-child of two incompatible impulses, one which wants to tell a story and another, equally powerful, which wants to freeze an image, or a bit of language, for our scrutiny.

Charles Simic, “Essay on the Prose Poem” presented at The Poetry Festival in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on 1 June 2010, republished in Plume, Issue #102 (Feb 2020)

A prose poem can be a shapeshifter. It can demand much of the reader to grasp the loose tendrils of the poet’s thoughts. Once the reader is caught, the prose poem rarely lets go. As Simic says, “They look like prose and act like poems, because, despite the odds, they make themselves into fly-traps for our imagination.”

20 Feb 2022 | Karen Kao