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Friday Forum: Charles Simic

On March 6, 2015, poet and translator Charles Simic discussed the craft of poetry and translation at the American Academy. Following the presentation, he signed copies of his collected works, New and Selected Poems, 1962–2012. An excerpt from the introductory remarks of Dr. Fanton follow below.

We are delighted that Charles Simic—one of our nation’s most distinguished poets—is able to join us today. Professor emeritus of American literature and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire, he was also our nation’s fifteenth Poet Laureate, from 2007 to 2008. He was elected to the American Academy in 2002, and won a MacArthur Genius Award in 1984.

The first poet elected to the Academy—or, at least the first Fellow to burnish his reputation through his published poetry—was John Trumbull, elected in 1791. Trumbull was educated at Yale and began practicing law in John Adams’s Boston office before and during the Revolution. In later years, he became a member of the literary fraternity known as the Hartford Wits, a group that included David Humphreys, Joel Barlow, and Lemuel Hopkins. Together, the Hartford Wits published a mock epic called The Anarchiad in 1786 and 1787. In twenty-four books, The Anarchiad expressed the poets’ loathing for the Articles of Confederation and their desire for a stronger central government. The poem begins with the following dark image of America in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution:

In visions fair the scenes of fate unroll, And Massachusetts opens on my soul; There Chaos, Anarch old, asserts his sway, And mobs in myriads blacken all the way.

Twenty-four books later, it ends in similar sentiment:

Virtue no more the generous breast shall fire, Nor radiant truth the historic page inspire; But lost, dissolved in thy superior shade, One tide of falsehood o'er the world be spread.

This was the poem that made Trumbull’s literary reputation, and may have been a primary reason for his election to the Academy. The Anarchiad also served its political purpose: Trumbull and the Wits celebrated the ratification of the federal Constitution less than one year after the publication of the poem.

However effective our literary forebears may have been, I am pleased to say that the Academy’s taste in poetry has improved over time. And I am delighted that we are joined by such a distinguished poet this afternoon, whose work also explores, as one reviewer put it, “the effect of political structures upon ordinary human life.”

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