Charles Simic’s poem ‘‘Prodigy’’
On a positive note, the narrator of this poem recalls the joys of his youth. He spends a lot of time playing chess, a game he loves. Outside his house, however, and sometimes right on the other side of his windows, a war is raging in his country. The narrator remembers how his house shakes when heavy tanks pass by on the streets. He also recalls the noise of military planes hammering the skies. He cannot recall, however, the most horrific images, such asmen hanging dead from telephone poles. He knows that someone told him he saw such things, but he refuses to call up these images. He would rather think about the professor who taught him all he knows about chess. He does not want to remember feeling afraid and belittled by the soldiers and their guns. He would rather think about mastering his favorite game.
‘‘Prodigy’’ is one of Simic’s more popular poems. The writing style is simple and easy to understand. Although Simic leaves the reader with many unanswered questions, he provides enough hints that readers can infer the hidden meanings. The poem was first published in 1980 in Simic’s award-winning collection Classic Ballroom Dances.
Simic was born on May 9, 1938, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now called Serbia). He grew up there during World War II. In the midst of the war, his father, an engineer, immigrated to Italy to find work. Later, his father was able to flee to the United States. Simic’s father was separated from his family for ten years. During that time, Simic’s mother attempted to leave Belgrade several times, but the communist government would not allow it. After one attempt, she and her sons were turned back and spent two weeks in jail. Eventually, they did leave and spent one year in Paris before obtaining visas to continue on to the United States. While in France, Simic learned to speak English.
Ten years after the war ended, when Simic was sixteen, his family was reunited. They lived one year in New York City then moved to Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Simic attended Oak Park High School, the same school that novelist and short story writer Ernest Hemingway graduated from more than forty years earlier. It was in high school that Simic began writing poetry. In 1961, Simic attended classes at the University of Chicago before being drafted into the U. S. Army. When he was discharged from service in 1966, Simic moved back to New York City, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian from New York University. A year later, in 1967, Simic published his first collection of poems, What the Grass Says.
In 1978, Simic’s book Charon’s Cosmology (1977) was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry. In 1980, Simic’s collection Classic Ballroom Dances, in which his poem ‘‘Prodigy’’ was first published, won the di Cas-tagnola Award and the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award. In 1990, Simic was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his collection The World Doesn’t End (1989). Simic also won the 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize, an international award, for his Selected Poems: 1963–2003, which was published in 2004, and his collection Jackstraws (1999) was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times.
In 2007, the Library of Congress appointed Simic the fifteenth
Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. As a professor at the University of New Hampshire, Simic has taught creative writing and literature for thirty-four years. In 2007, Simic won the coveted Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets for lifelong excellence in poetry.
Simic has published twenty poetry collections, five
books of essays, and the memoir A Fly in the Soup (2000). He is married to Helen Dubin, a fashion designer. The couple has two children, a son and a daughter. As of 2010, Simic lives with Helen in the countryside outside of Strafford, New Hampshire.
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Simic’s career and the place of poetry in the contemporary United States Charles Simic, the new poet laureate of the United States, did not begin learning English until he was 15 and moved to New York City, then Chicago, after a traumatic childhood in the former Yugoslavia.
‘‘The big, big influence on my life was being born in Yugoslavia in 1938. And then, in 1941, the war started ‘‘Prodigy’’ as a poem of ‘‘traumatic displacement . . . Simic begins a poem entitled ‘‘Prodigy’’ (1977) by stating: ‘‘I grew up bent over / a chessboard. / I loved the word endgame’’ (Selected Poems 1–3). In ‘‘Prodigy,’’ Simic reports how in Belgrade in 1944, he learned to play chess from a retired professor of astronomy when ‘‘Planes and tanks / shook Simic’s earlier poetry was more startling and evocative than his later work The best poems by Charles Simic harbor an enigmatic simplicity, contain an evasive weight to them. Influenced by riddles, parables and nursery rhymes, Simic populates the folk world of his poems with simple objects and puzzling omens. His poems have the atmosphere of a Bruegel feast day, without any of the people.
Born in Yugoslavia in The theme of war runs through Simic’s poem ‘‘Prodigy’’ in two different ways The first is through the game of chess. The references to war are subtle when the speaker brings up the topic of chess. If readers are familiar with the game, they will know that the game is based on war-like strategies. Those less familiar with the game, however, might miss the allusions to war.
Even if Simic discusses his life growing up as a young immigrant in New York City In his new book of poetry, a Pulitzer Prize winner returns to the New York City of his youth.
Charles Simic is Yugoslav and American, skeptic and believer, a poet convinced, as he once wrote, that ‘‘writing is always a rough translation from wordlessness into words.’’ Poetry ‘‘attracts me because it makes trouble for thinkers,’’ he