Friday, April 24, 2009

Simic and Sudoku

Sometime in the mid 90s, my friend Al Hellus - God rest his soul - told me about Charles Simic. On Al's recommendation, I read Simic's Pulitzer Prize-winning (prose) poems in The World Doesn't End. I was blown away. I thought they were great. I'd never read poems that twisted logic to its own ends like that before.

Since then, I've talked to other poets who say of these poems that they "don't get them". I understand that because, the first time - at least the first time - I read the poems, I often didn't know what to make of them either. More than half of the poems are untitled. Clearly though, the poems feature recurring atmospheric elements such as life after wartime, barking dogs, poverty and an overhanging sense of a distant governing authority that may use force to obtain the cooperation of the governed. Occasionally a poem will allude somehow to art and/or literature.

More recently I read the 51 poems in Simic's book of poems (2005, Harcourt) titled my noiseless entourage. In these poems, Simic continues to twist logic according to the needs of his poems. Gone, however, are the atmospheric elements of life after wartime, barking dogs, poverty and the sense of a ruling stultifying political power. And each poem has a title.

To Simic's would-be readers who "don't get" his poems, I recommend reading my noiseless entourage before The World Doesn't End. Here is the initial poem of my noiseless entourage:

Description of a Lost Thing

by Charles Simic

It never had a name,
Nor do I remember how I found it.
I carried it in my pocket
Like a lost button
Except it wasn't a button.

Horror movies,
All-night cafeterias,
Dark barrooms
And poolhalls,
On rain-slicked streets.

It led a quiet, unremarkable existence
Like a shadow in a dream,
An angel on a pin,
And then it vanished.
The years passed with their row

Of nameless stations,
Till somebody told me this is it!
And fool that I was,
I got off on an empty platform
With no town in sight.

Now, what if, instead of going after the meaning of this poem with hammer and tongs, we use instead our powers of inference, conjecture and surmise? Our initial inference is likely to be that the lost thing is small enough to fit in his pocket. Because I've read enough poems by Simic, my conjecture at the end of the first stanza is that the poem is not going to tell me what the lost thing is. But I see at that point that three stanzas remain. As I continue reading, I keep an eye open for what else might be going on, since the lost thing is probably not going to matter much to this poem. Immediately (2nd stanza) the reader is given several places where the lost thing was taken as a matter of course, being part or parcel of the speaker. Then (3rd stanza) we learn that the lost thing did not draw attention to itself but was small and quiet. The poem ends (4th stanza) by telling how life has been for the one who lost the thing and does not mention any more the lost thing.

We can surmise a generosity on the part of the speaker of the poem. At some point, the speaker took the time to notice a seemingly insignificant thing which was then kept for some time in a pocket. Although the thing was small and quiet, the speaker remembers it and composes this poem on its behalf. We can also surmise a sense of humility on the part of the speaker. When "somebody" tells him "this is it!" he disembarks onto "an empty platform/With no town in sight." Because of this, he regards himself as foolish. But we know he isn't stupid by the way he talks about the years passing as a ride on a train. It is neither similie nor metaphor. We might call it surrealism. In Simic's poetry, there's a lot more where that came from.

If you enjoy solving Sudoku puzzles, I'm sure you've noticed that inference, conjecture and surmise are also useful for solving those puzzles. In my writing here, I haven't included any wrong inferences, conjectures or surmises I made while reading "Description of a Lost Thing". That doesn't mean I didn't make any. Part of the fun of reading Simic's poems is figuring out what's important and what isn't so important. As with Sudoku, sometimes one has to erase incorrect interpretations of Simic poems before arriving at a satisfying understanding.

1 comment:

Andrew Christ said...

Yes! I love to do sudoku.