The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems, by Charles Simic
Even though this is the first book by the author I have read, I can tell that the author is slumming here. That is not to say that this book is bad, which is not true at all. Yet this book is the result of someone resolutely punching below their weight and writing far beneath their capabilities and potential. Part of the reason I feel this way is a matter of style, as these poems are all prose poems , which lack a certain amount of that nobility that one finds in verse with rhyme or meter. In one of the poems, there is even a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy as the contemporary age is called the age of minor poets who are only known by their small circle of friends and family and not the age of major poets who are recognized widely. In the case of the author, this is not strictly true, as he has been the poet laureate of the United States and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, demonstrating that his poetic skill has been recognized far more wisely than most. Yet this book is surely a book of minor poetry, even if it is by a major poet.
Overall this book consists of three parts and is about 75 pages long. None of the poems are given their own formal titles, and take their titles from their beginning lines. Within the range of the medium of the prose poem, the works included here range a bit in size from a couple of sentences on the short end to a page (admittedly a small page) on the larger end. Many of the poems paint a picture, and quite often that picture is unpleasant and even disturbing, and at all times the poet has a clever sense of ambiguity and irony. The poet appears to be toying with the reader at many points here, sometimes teasing the reader with an image of old men on toilets and at other times showing a picture of a Frenchman stuck for more than two centuries in the retreat from Moscow. Clearly the author is aware of history and literature, because he mentions gypsies and the beast of Revelation here as well, demonstrating that he surely could write better poetry if he chose to, but chooses to write poetry that is deliberately well beneath his capability.
And it is the deliberateness of that choice that presents the reader with a real difficulty in viewing this book. If this book is self-aware about being a minor work, the reader is aware that it could have been much more. The reader, therefore, is presented with a dilemma as a reviewer. Are we harder on a poet who writes a minor work of poetry when he could write a major one than we are on a poet who is doing the best that they can? Many people would be, yet this book is clearly intentionally written the way it is. Indeed, it is likely that the book’s minor aspects are a result of the deliberate choice to write in prose poetic form. It is as if the author set for himself a challenge to write an entire book in a way that he knew was somehow beneath him but that was a challenge that he felt it necessary to make for himself. As a writer I have certainly behaved that way, choosing to spend time and effort on works that are nowhere near as ambitious as they could have been. There are many other writers who have done the same thing, deliberately choosing to create minor works in genres that did not suit their strengths in order to show that they could master them as well. And in that light I am inclined to be generous, for I too have at times made the same decision he did to punch below his weight simply to show himself a master of a lower road than he was qualified to walk.
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