Charles Simic has come to be regarded as one of America’s most important poets—a remarkable achievement given that English is not his native language. ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ is the title poem in Simic’s 1980 collection of poems, Classic Ballroom Dances. The collection won the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award and the Poetry Society of America’s di Castagnola Award in 1980. Like nearly all of Simic’s poems, ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ is brief, consisting of just sixteen lines, and is written in simple, straightforward language. Its purpose is not to outline a point of view, tell a story, or develop a situation. Rather, its purpose is to evoke an image by drawing a number of implicit comparisons between the people’s activities and dancing.
It can be difficult to classify or attach a label to contemporary poets like Simic, including the broader category called Modernism, given that most draw on a wide range of poetic traditions for their inspiration. Nevertheless, many critics see elements of the artistic movement called surrealism in Simic’s work. Surrealism was a movement that dominated both literature and the visual arts between World War I and World War II, and that has continued to have an influence on more contemporary poets. The goal of the surrealists was to create startling imagery, often juxtaposing words and phrases in ways that defied reason. The surrealists tried to link conscious and unconscious forms of expression to create a new, fuller reality—what surrealism’s spokesman, French writer Andre´ Breton, called a ‘‘surreality’’ in his manifesto of surrealism, published first in 1924, then in a revised version in 1929. (Breton, however, did not coin the word; it was first used by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917.) Accordingly, the emphasis in surrealist poetry, including that written by Simic, is on the psychological, unconscious thought processes. This surrealist tendency is evident in ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances.’’
Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on May 9, 1938. (Yugoslavia, literally ‘‘Land of the South Slavs,’’ no longer exists; during most of the twentieth century, the nation called Yugoslavia was an artificial confederation of various ethnic states that have since declared their independence. Belgrade is the capital of Serbia, one of those states.) Simic spent his childhood surviving the horrors of World War II; on numerous occasions he and his family had to evacuate their home because of bombings. The postwar period was little better. Yugoslavia, like other Eastern European nations, faced economic turmoil as it became a Soviet satellite state ruled by a Communist dictator. Simic’s father left for Italy to find work, but when the family tried to leave Yugoslavia to join him, they were stopped by the authorities. Meanwhile, Simic was by all accounts a poor student and was regarded as something of a juvenile delinquent.
The family’s fortunes changed in 1954 when they received permission to move to Paris. During his year in Paris, Simic studied English and attended night school. Finally, the family traveled to the United States to join Simic’s father, who was working by now for the American company he had worked for before the war. After landing in New York City, the family moved to Chicago, where Simic was enrolled in school. There he encountered teachers who seemed to care about him, and he flourished as a student. During his high school years he became interested in literature, especially poetry. He later quipped, though, that one of his motivations for writing poetry was that at the time it seemed a good way to meet girls.
Simic published his first poems in 1959, and he continued to write poetry while taking night classes and working as an office boy for a Chicago newspaper until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1961. Simic destroyed most of these early poems. After finishing his military service in 1963, Simic enrolled at New York University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1966. He worked as an editorial assistant for a photography magazine in New York City until 1969. From 1970 to 1973, he taught English at the State University of California at Hayward. Meanwhile, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1971.
Beginning in 1973, Simic taught English literature and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, though he has also been a visiting professor at Boston University and Columbia University. He has since retired. A prolific poet, Simic published his first collection, What the Grass Says, in 1967. Since then, he has published numerous collections, including Somewhere among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes (1969), Dismantling the Silence (1971), White (1972), Charon’s Cosmology (1977), Classic Ballroom Dances (1980), Selected Poems, 1963–1983 Charles Simic ( Christopher Felver / Corbis) Classic Ballroom Dances 2 (1985), Unending Blues(1986), The World Doesn’t End (1989), The Book of Gods and Devils (1990), Hotel Insomnia (1992), Walking the Black Cat: Poems (1996), Jackstraws (2000), and his most recent collection, Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek under Your Skirt (2005). A collection of sixty of his most popular poems was published in 2008. Simic has also published hundreds of poems in such publications as New Yorker, Poetry, Nation, Kayak, Atlantic, Esquire, Chicago Review, New Republic, American Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Harvard Magazine. In 1990 Simic received a Pulitzer Prize for his collection The World Doesn’t End. In addition to writing his own poetry, he has translated the poetry of numerous eastern European writers and has written and published various works of literary criticism. In August 2007, the U.S. Library of Congress appointed Simic as the nation’s fifteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.
(extracted from) Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010