Sunday, January 6, 2008


Charles Simic (shown here with his father in 1942) is currently the U.S. Poet Laureate. Unlike many of the past Poets Laureate, Simic has no qualms about being forthrightly political. Not political in the sense of favoring one party over another, but rather political in that he is unafraid to speak out against tyranny and injustice wherever he encounters it, from his native Yugoslavia to his adopted home country. Simic has a very powerful essay in the December 20 New York Review of Books, titled "The Renegade," which explains how his childhood in war-ravaged Belgrade influenced his lifelong suspicion of political leaders in general, and of nationalist demagogues in specific. He doesn't single out the current U.S. administration as a notable example of demagoguery, but the implication is there.

"Like many others, I was under the impression that Yugoslavia was a thriving country not likely to fall apart even after Tito's death. I made two brief trips to Belgrade, one in 1972 and another in 1982, had heard about ethnic incidents, but continued to believe, even when the rhetoric got more and more heated in the late 1980s after the emergence of the first nationalist leaders, that reason would prevail in the end. I had no problem with cultural nationalism, but the kind that demands unquestioning solidarity with prejudices, self-deceptions, paranoias of the collective, I loathed....

The years of the Vietnam War focused my mind. It took me a while to appreciate the full extent of the prevarication and sheer madness in our press and television and our political opinion, and to see what our frothing patriots with their calls for indiscriminate slaughter were getting us into. The war deepened for me what was already a lifelong suspicion of all causes that turn a blind eye to the slaughter of the innocent."

Like so much of Simic's writing, the essay is painfully direct, using unexpected yet perfectly tuned metaphors to turn his personal experiences into the stuff of universal truth. This is well worth reading and keeping.

You need to be a NYRB subscriber to visit their site, but the article is re-printed in full here.

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