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Charles Simic, US poet laureate who won a Pulitzer and taught at UNH, dies at 84

Mr. Simic, who was the nation's poet laureate in 2007 and 2008, taught at the University of New Hampshire.Davis, Jim Globe Staff

The cruelty that poet Charles Simic witnessed as a boy in Serbia during World War II surfaced in verses that combined childlike innocence with a poet’s eye for an arresting image.

In “Two Dogs” he watched, at 6 years old, as Nazis marched past his family’s Belgrade home:

The earth trembling, death going by …

A little white dog ran into the street

And got entangled with the soldiers’ feet.

A kick made him fly as if he had wings.

That’s what I keep seeing!

Night coming down. A dog with wings.

An endlessly prolific poet, translator, and essayist who taught at the University of New Hampshire for more than 30 years, Mr. Simic died Monday of complications from dementia.


He was 84, had lived in Strafford, N.H., for many years, and had recently moved into assisted living in Dover, N.H., said his son, Philip.

Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990 for “The World Doesn’t End,” a collection of prose poems, Mr. Simic served as US poet laureate from 2007 to 2008. He also was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984.

Between 1967 and last year, Mr. Simic published more than 60 books – poetry, translations of other poets’ work, collections of essays, and even “Dime-Store Alchemy,” his musings about the art of Joseph Cornell.

“I’m always doing something, writing about all sorts of things, so I’m busier than ever,” he told the Globe in 2015. “It’s better not to sit around when you’re old and wait for death.”

Fluent in multiple languages, he wrote only in English, which he didn’t fully master until moving to the United States at 16.

In his own poetry, and in the work of other poets whose work he translated, Mr. Simic “has simultaneously worked out a syntax and vocabulary that belongs to an entire world,” poet Fanny Howe wrote in a 1985 Globe review of his “Selected Poems: 1963-1983,” a Pulitzer finalist.


“Charlie has a wonderful, unique imagination,” Robert Pinsky, a former US poet laureate, told the Globe in 2007, when Mr. Simic was named to that post. “Each of his poems is like a new planet, partly recognizable and partly unprecedented.”

The range of Mr. Simic’s topics was far-reaching — not surprisingly, given his enormous output.

Some poems, such as “Fork,” focused on unheralded objects. “I had a kind of minimalist urge and so I started writing poems about the simplest things,” he told The New York Times in 1990, after winning the Pulitzer Prize.

While working in a series of New York City jobs in the 1960s, he wrote a poem about his uninvited guests: cockroaches.

“The places where I lived in New York were infested with them,” he said in a 2005 Paris Review interview. “They were the only visitors I had all day. I was brought up to be polite to strangers and help old ladies across the street, so I’d stop whatever I was doing and inquire about these roaches’ health.”

The poet, at his home in Strafford, N.H., in 2015. Joanne Rathe

In poems, prose, and some of the liveliest interviews given by writers of his era, Mr. Simic didn’t hesitate to criticize politicians and heads of state who led countries into bloody wars like the one he survived.

His wit and humor were ever-present, though. In his memoir “A Fly in the Soup,” he wrote that “poetry is always the cat concert under the window of the room in which the official version of reality is being written.”


And in his Paris Review interview, he said simply: “I write to annoy God, to make Death laugh. I write because I can’t get it right.”

Born in Belgrade on May 9, 1938, Dusan Simic was the older of two brothers and changed his name to Charles after moving to the United States.

His father, George, was an electrical engineer, and his mother, Helen Matijevich Simic, was a voice teacher who sang in opera performances.

In the room where he often wrote, Mr. Simic kept a photo of his father (left) and uncle arm wrestling.Joanne Rathe

Arrested several times during World War II occupations of Belgrade by foreign forces, George finally left for Italy in 1944, en route to settling in the United States.

Helen moved the boys to Paris in the early 1950s and they all finally joined George in 1954. The family lived in New York City for a year before moving to Chicago, where Mr. Simic began writing poetry while a student at Oak Park High School, Ernest Hemingway’s alma mater.

After graduating, he juggled classes at the University of Chicago with working at the Chicago Sun-Times, where his duties included proofreading classified advertising, a valuable lesson in how “to say less and less to mean more and more,” he recalled in the 1990 Times interview.

He became a published poet at 21, when the Chicago Review printed two of his poems.


Drafted in the early 1960s, Mr. Simic was a US Army military policeman in West Germany and France. While overseas, he asked his brother to send a shoebox he had filled with his poems. Dismayed at their quality, Mr. Simic recalled to The Paris Review, he “ripped them all up, and threw them in the trash in a kind of ecstasy.”

Returning home, he began writing anew and married Helen Dubin, a fashion designer, in 1964.

Mr. Simic graduated from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in 1966 and taught at what was then California State College in Hayward, until the University of New Hampshire offered him a job.

“Teaching forces me to formulate ideas about poetry and craft. Not once, but repeatedly, from different angles,” he told the late writer Barry Lopez for an interview posted on “It keeps you alert.”

The poetry books he published, starting with “What the Grass Says” in 1967, have often been honored, including with the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2005 and the Wallace Stevens Award in 2007.

“He carries our souls around in his back pocket like a map of the lost world,” the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Tate said of Mr. Simic.

Mr. Simic’s poems “are full of abrupt moments, mistaken identities and roads not taken, a sense of other selves one might have been,” Katha Pollitt wrote in a 2008 Times review of Mr. Simic’s book “That Little Something,” which included the lines:


The last time anyone saw me alive:

I was either wearing dark glasses

And reading the Bible on the subway,

Or crossing the street and laughing to myself.

In addition to his wife and son, both of Strafford, N.H., Mr. Simic leaves his daughter, Anna of Strafford; his brother, Milan Simich of New York City; and two grandchildren.

The family plans to hold a private memorial gathering.

Mr. Simic told the Globe that as a boy in war-battered Belgrade, he was knocked out of bed twice from the shaking of bombings. Exploring a cemetery with friends, he came upon two dead German soldiers and — without glancing at the man’s face — snatched the helmet from one.

“It took me many years and meetings with some of my childhood friends from Belgrade to realize that I grew up in a slaughterhouse,” he told The Paris Review, adding that “whenever I read about a ‘just war’ in which thousands of innocents have died or will die, I want to jump out of my skin.”

In his poem “Autumn Sky” he wrote:

Take a clock that has lost its hands

For a ride.

Get me a room at Hotel Eternity

Where Time likes to stop now and then.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at