Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Richard Hugo's Letter to Charles Simic

Since last week’s announcement by the Library of Congress that Charles Simic had been appointed the nation’s latest Poet Laureate, I have enjoyed browsing through the many pieces in newspapers, as well as online literary sites and poetry blogs, about Simic and his work. Indeed, because the Library of Congress kindly listed in its official release my previous commentary in “One Poet’s Notes” examining Simic’s most recent collection of poems, The Noiseless Entourage, as the sole source for an online review of that book, this blog experienced record levels of traffic in the past week. I am pleased to witness all this attention in the media devoted to poetry, and I am grateful for the numerous visits to this web page by new readers, many of whom I hope will return for future visits as well.

However, as I looked through the various articles about Simic, I noticed only a sentence or two usually remarked upon his childhood in Belgrade during World War II. Almost all the articles correctly concentrated on the quality and distinctiveness evident in Simic’s body of poems. Some even suggested a seemingly extensive shift in styles represented by the change of laureates from Ted Kooser to Charles Simic could be meaningful, signifying a contrast in the way Simic may view his role. I appreciated this focus, not merely as an example illustrating the wide range of possible poetic perspectives currently available in contemporary poetry, but also for the ongoing discussion about poetics such contrasting approaches could generate.

Nevertheless, I must admit one of my first thoughts upon hearing Charles Simic had been selected as Poet Laureate concerned another figure whose work has had a significant impact on a number of contemporary poets. With word of Simic’s appointment, I must acknowledge I remembered Richard Hugo, whose poetry and teaching had an important influence on a certain segment of poets who were first seeking their voices during the time I was a student. Although their styles of writing are so different, these two poets always are linked to one another in my mind.

Indeed, I clearly recalled the Friday night in late October of 1982 when some of my classmates and I in the graduate writing program at the University of Utah gathered at a seedy bar for pitchers of beer, eight ball, and loud music from a jukebox—as we did every Friday evening—and word spread that Hugo had died at the age of 58. My friends and I considered it most appropriate that the news arrived while we were in one of those local bars throughout the west that he might have included in any of his poems. Amid expressions of sadness were many celebratory toasts to Hugo or his writings, which we knew would persist with an impact on others well into the future.

In fact, Hugo’s slim yet enormously persuasive collection of lectures or essays on poetry and writing, The Triggering Town (W.W. Norton, 1979), continues to offer clear and entertaining guidance for beginning poets nearly thirty years later. In my creative-writing classes I still recommend Hugo’s wise advice and insightful observations on the process of poetry composition. In addition, during my poetry-writing course or my course on poetic forms, I frequently assign a particular letter poem by Richard Hugo from his 1977 collection, 31 Letters and 13 Dreams. Hugo’s letter poems offer young poets an opportunity to discover how one’s personal and distinctive voice can be more naturally compelling and how one may take advantage of aiming at a specific identifiable individual as the immediate audience for a poem rather than writing for a faceless multitude.

The example I like to highlight is titled “Letter to Simic from Boulder,” and this work came to my mind again, along with the triggered memory of the night Hugo died, when I heard the news Simic had been chosen Poet Laureate. The poem grows from a chance first encounter between Hugo and Simic in a San Francisco restaurant during a literary gathering in 1972. Simic writes about this meeting in his book of memoirs, A Fly in the Soup (University of Michigan Press, 2000), and I recommend a very engaging excerpt, with wonderful accompanying photographs from Simic’s childhood years, available online and located in the Spring, 2001 issue of UNH Magazine.

The excerpt from his memoirs powerfully recounts some of the harrowing incidents Simic experienced and survived as a young boy in a war zone. He speaks of the time when he was three years old and his neighbors’ buildings were destroyed by Nazi bombing during which thousands of citizens in Belgrade were killed, including a family with a small boy who lived across the street: “I was told again and again what a nice family they were and what a beautiful boy he was and how he even looked a little bit like me.”

Simic was once blown out of his bed by a bomb blast, and he still sees himself “on the floor with broken glass all around.” His mother hurried to take him up in her arms, an image Simic maintains along with a “vague memory of bright flames and then developing darkness as I was being rushed down the stairs of our building into the cellar.” Elsewhere, Simic comments upon other times when the German Gestapo rounded up townspeople, including his father, and about an attempt by Simic and his pregnant mother to escape Belgrade, how she once pulled him to the ground and covered him with her body while a volley of bullets were fired and “whizzed by.”

Another central incident in the memoirs concerns the bombing of Belgrade by British and American planes beginning on Easter Sunday in 1944. Simic reports the good fortune of a dud explosive: “a bomb landed on our sidewalk in front of our building. It spun around but didn’t explode.”

When he met Richard Hugo, Simic mentioned Belgrade during their initial conversation. In response, Hugo proceeded to draw an accurate outline of the city’s features “on the tablecloth among breadcrumbs and wine stains.” However, when asked by Simic when he’d visited the city, Hugo replied: “I was never there. I only bombed it a few times.” Upon learning Simic actually had been a boy among the people on the ground being bombed by Hugo’s squadron: “Hugo became upset. In fact, he was visibly shaken. After he stopped apologizing and calmed down a little, I hurried to assure him that I bore no grudges.” Simic characterizes Hugo as “a man of integrity, one of the finest poets of his generation.”

Five years later, Hugo published his piece about that chance encounter with Simic, a magnificent letter poem enhanced even more today by knowledge of Simic’s history and by his own eventual emergence as a celebrated poet, including now his position as Poet Laureate of the United States.

Letter to Simic from Boulder

Dear Charles: And so we meet once in San Francisco and I learn
I bombed you long ago in Belgrade when you were five.
I remember. We were after a bridge on the Danube
hoping to cut the German armies off as they fled north
from Greece. We missed. Not unusual, considering I
was one of the bombardiers. I couldn't hit my ass if
I sat on the Norden or rode a bomb down singing
The Star Spangled Banner. I remember Belgrade opened
like a rose when we came in. Not much flak. I didn't know
about the daily hangings, the 80,000 Slavs who dangled
from German ropes in the city, lessons to the rest.
I was interested mainly in staying alive, that moment
the plane jumped free from the weight of bombs and we went home.
What did you speak then? Serb, I suppose. And what did your mind
do with the terrible howl of bombs? What is Serb for "fear"?
It must be the same as in English, one long primitive wail
of dying children, one child fixed forever in dead stare.
I don't apologize for the war, or what I was. I was
willingly confused by the times. I think I even believed
in heroics (for others, not for me). I believed the necessity
of that suffering world, hoping it would learn not to do
it again. But I was young. The world never learns. History
has a way of making the past palatable, the dead
a dream. Dear Charles, I'm glad you avoided the bombs, that you
live with us now and write poems. I must tell you though,
I felt funny that day in San Francisco. I kept saying
to myself, he was on the ground that day, the sky
eerie mustard and our engines roaring everything
out of the way. And the world comes clean in moments
like that for survivors. The world comes clean as clouds
in summer, the pure puffed white, soft birds careening
in and out, our lives with a chance to drift on slow
over the world, our bomb bays empty, the target forgotten,
the enemy ignored. Nice to meet you finally after
all the mindless hate. Next time, if you want to be sure
you survive, sit on the bridge I'm trying to hit and wave.
I'm coming in on course but nervous and my cross hairs flutter.
Wherever you are on earth, you are safe. I'm aiming but
my bombs are candy and I've lost the lead plane. Your friend, Dick.

When I heard about the selection of Charles Simic for the post of United States Poet Laureate, once more I was amazed at the unpredictable twists and turns of fate. I wondered what Hugo would have said on such an occasion, and again I raised my glass as a toast—this time to both Richard Hugo and Charles Simic.


John Gallaher said...

Richard Hugo doesn't get mentioned much anymore, which is a shame. I've always enjoyed his work quite a bit. 31 Letters and 13 Dreams is wonderful throughout.

Levi Stahl said...

This is an excellent way to pay tribute to both poets. And thanks for introducing me to an unforgettable poem I'd never seen.

Shelly Stewart Cato said...

Yes, the idea of a letter poem is new to me. It's wonderful.

Unknown said...

I'd like to use this poem in my creative writing class for a letter poem assignment. Thanks for posting it and for providing your extremely useful and sensitive background information. I will be sure to attribute that information to you. Many thanks!

Óscar Paúl said...

Thaks a lot, Great poem. If you liked, you should read "Postscript" of Eleanor Wilner. Saludos!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Richard Hugo continues to be a very sought after writer. His poetry books are now offered on e-book and will continue to be published.


Richard Hugo said...

As Richard Hugo's Literary Executor, and daughter; I have started a legitimate Facebook page.
I hope you will visit and "like" the page. Feel free to comment...!