In his essay "The Minotaur Loves His Labyrinth," Charles Simic writes: "It's the desire for irreverence as much as anything else that brought me first to poetry. The need to make fun of authority, break taboos, celebrate the body and its functions, claim that one has just seen angels in the same breath as one says that there is no god. Just thinking about the possibility of saying shit to everything made me roll on the floor with happiness."
Wow. This doesn't sound anything like the poetry they made me study in high school (or college, for that matter). I don't remember exactly how I stumbled upon the work of Charles Simic, but I remember being young and impressed by his book titles: The Unemployed Fortune-Teller. Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk. A Wedding in Hell. As an impressionable reader under the spell of Raymond Carver and Sam Shepard's lyric, vernacular prose, I felt like I had discovered an equally observant and unaffected voice in Simic's poetry. I was right, but I was hardly the first to discover it. Simic has published more than 60 books, edited many more, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, etc. etc. etc.
But despite Simic's canonization, his poetry continues to sound raw, true, and slightly outsiderish. Now approaching 70, Simic writes of "all-night cafeterias and dark barrooms" and "a pastry chef carrying a lit birthday cake/[who] found himself in the blinding snowstorm." Simic's use of both familiar, noir-y tropes (Vegas motels, pawnshops, insomnia) and surreal scenarios (a drunken bum who uses passersby as his ventriloquist dummies, a decapitated man who orders two beers at a bar—one for himself, one for his head), creates a gritty, dreamlike haze where his unadorned lyricism is able to slip right through your ears and into a deeper, seldom-stirred part of your consciousness.
In the "Minotaur" essay, Simic writes that his aspiration "is to create a kind of nongenre made up of fiction, autobiography, the essay, poetry, and of course, the joke." Since the mid-'70s, Simic has been tweaking and whittling that formula into something wholly unique and mesmerizing—a literary world of bad luck, panhandling Jesuses, motel beds, lost cats, and entrancing verse.