Charles Simic

Charles Simic, 84, a graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990 and became U.S. Poet Laureate in 2007, died on Jan. 9, 2023 in Dover, New Hampshire.

Born Dusan Simic on May 9, 1938 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, his family fled first the Nazis, then the Soviets, landing in Oak Park in 1955. According to a Wednesday Journal profile by Lydialyle Gibson in November of 2007, he was 17 when he entered OPRF as a junior. He also changed his name to Charles. 

According to Gibson’s profile, “Ask Charles Simic about Oak Park, and he’ll describe for you its public library: stacks upon stacks of philosophy, fiction, history, and poetry; art books with stiff, heavy pages full of Renaissance portraits and Impressionist landscapes; jazz albums, opera recordings and classical-music compilations. Plus, of course, the librarians, who would pencil a name and a due date onto a little card and send readers home with armloads of borrowed literature. 

“‘It was heaven,’ Simic says. ‘I was a constant visitor. I couldn’t believe it when I discovered that they would let you take all these books home for free and read them at your kitchen table.’

“Simic spent his last two years of high school in Oak Park. He arrived in 1955, after an 18-hour journey on the Twentieth Century Limited, a yearlong immigrant existence in New York City and a turbulent, war-torn upbringing in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. He was 17 years old the first time he stepped foot on Oak Park’s sidewalks, and he had never written a poem. It had not yet occurred to him that he might.

“Simic’s father, an engineer for a branch of the Western Electric Company, had been transferred from New York to Chicago, and on the advice of Serbian friends who declared Oak Park a nice place to live, the family rented a two-bedroom, third-story apartment abutting the railroad tracks on Wesley Avenue. Trains roaring west out of Union Station rattled dishes in the cupboard and pots on the stove, but the family stayed put. Simic’s mother took a seamstress job at the Marshall Field’s at Harlem and Lake, and his younger brother started third grade. 

“Simic enrolled as a junior at OPRF High School, where his French teacher, a Miss Miller, reminded the class ‘at least three times a week,’ he says, that Ernest Hemingway was once a student there. ‘I think he had taken a French class with her,’ he recalls, adding waggishly, ‘and everybody knows that Hemingway spoke awful French.’ An English teacher, Mr. Dolmetsh, took an interest in Simic and began supplying him with volumes of Joyce and Faulkner and other 20th-century writers. Yet another teacher introduced Simic to French poetry.

“‘They found out I liked to read and just kept handing books to me.’

“It was his peers, though, who inspired Simic’s first poems. During his senior year at OPRF, he discovered that a couple of friends were writing poetry … and wooing pretty girls.

“‘They showed me their poems, and I thought, I can try this too,’ Simic recalls. ‘I can do what they’re doing.’”

Simic took to poetry as his many awards attest: A MacArthur Fellowship in 1984, the Pulitzer in 1990 (for The World Doesn’t End, a book of prose poems) and the Wallace Stevens Award from the American Academy of Poets. 

Looking back to the mid-1950s, Gibson wrote in her 2007 profile, “he recalled his Oak Park years fondly: movies at the Lake Theatre, hamburger joints and coffee shops on Lake Street …

“After high school, Simic moved into the city and got a job as an office boy and then a proofreader at the Sun-Times. He started taking night classes at the University of Chicago. And he wrote constantly.

“By the winter of 1959, when the Chicago Review printed two of Simic’s poems — his first publication — he had already departed for the bohemian chaos and commotion of New York. Afterward, he returned now and then to visit family and friends in Oak Park, but it’s been probably a decade since he was back.

“He says he’d like to see the new public library. He’s been told it’s beautiful. ‘And I’m sure it is,’ he says. ‘I just hope they kept all the old books. I’m sure some of them have a few stains I made when I was eating some sandwich, sitting in a kitchen and reading into the night.’”

 To read the full profile, go to oakpark.com/https://www.oakpark.com/2007/11/13/simply-simic.

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