New U.S. Poet Laureate Grew Up Abroad

Voices: Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Simic's poem about his youth in Belgrade.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 1:43 AM

Oct. 7, 2007 — -- The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic didn't speak English until he was 15 years old, so he was astonished when asked to be America's new poet laureate. Here is a poem about growing up in Belgrade, which was then part of Yugoslavia.

Charles Simic:


I grew up bent over

a chessboard.

I loved the word endgame.

All my cousins looked worried.

It was a small house

near a Roman graveyard.

Planes and tanks

shook its windowpanes.

A retired professor of astronomy

taught me how to play.

That must have been in 1944.

In the set we were using,

the paint had almost chipped off

the black pieces.

The white King was missing

and had to be substituted for.

I'm told but do not believe

that that summer I witnessed

men hung from telephone poles.

I remember my mother

blindfolding me a lot.

She had a way of tucking my head

suddenly under her overcoat.

In chess, too, the professor told me,

the masters play blindfolded,

the great ones on several boards

at the same time.

Charles Simic, "Prodigy" from Charles Simic: Selected Early Poems. Copyright © 1999 by Charles Simic. Reprinted with the permission of George Braziller, Inc.Source: Charles Simic: Selected Early Poems (1999).