Sixty Poems

by Charles Simic
Harcourt 2008
Reviewed by John Deming


“…These backdoor movie houses in seedy neighborhoods / Still showing grainy films of my life.”

sixty poemsWith Charles Simic’s term as U.S. Poet Laureate drawn to a close, is Sixty Poems relevant? It was published in January 2008 as a result of the laureateship, and there’s nothing substantive in it that fans don’t get in The Voice at 3 a.m.: New and Selected Poems, unless you consider 2005’s My Noiseless Entourage substantive, which isn’t unreasonable.

As an overview of Simic, Sixty Poems can’t give the whole picture in the same way that The Voice at 3 a.m. couldn’t; 1990’s The World Doesn’t End floats peculiarly parallel to the last two decades of Simic. I interviewed the poet for the University of New Hampshire paper when he received a 2003 National Book Award nomination for The Voice at 3 a.m.: New and Selected. I asked why he didn’t include anything from The World Doesn’t End.

To fans of this startling little book (winner of the Pulitzer Prize, built almost exclusively of rich, concise prose poems), the answer would have been evident even without Simic’s comment that “that book was such a unit, so self-contained.” It was and is, and he’s written nothing quite like it since. His “verse” poems aren’t entirely different in mood, but The World Doesn’t End presents a uniform mystery, sound bytes that prop each other up, exist in a world all their own. It makes sense that The Voice at 3 a.m. and Sixty Poems keep their hands off.

Alternately, “uniformity” is a criticism I’ve heard of his other work, that he’s done a familiar thing for a while, with peaks and valleys: tightly controlled, often symmetrical poems. Metaphorical, thick with imagery transmitting a bleak, rhetorical mysticism. Maybe. Anyone so prolific will impel readers to pick favorites. Sixty Poems represents, at turns, the best of this Simic. Some poems are noticeably absent (“The Gods”), others cheerfully resurrected (“Crazy About Her Shrimp,” “Country Fair”), others pace-keepers for the poetry workshop crowd (“An Address With Exclamation Points”), and a select few (“The Devils,” “Late September”) representing some of the best poetry written in the last five decades.

But this Simic is better represented in The Voice at 3 a.m.: controlled, concise Simic, elusive, mysterious–usually suspicious of mankind. In the introduction to The Best American Poetry 1992, Simic writes, “There’s the history of human vileness to contend with…”. There is powerlessness in Simic; “the secret wish of poetry,” he observes in the same essay, “is to stop time.” Sixty Poems doesn’t provide enough from any individual collection to make that collection seem distinctive. It swaps some of the time-stoppers for a few of his more patterned or easily-digestible poems, but it’s a perfect bulk-buy for poetry workshops and book clubs, an attractive paperback lesson in controlling what will never be controlled.