'January' by Charles Simic

A couple weeks ago I picked up the new issue of The Paris Review, mainly because it has some interviews I wanted to read (Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis, Elena Ferrante) and a new novella by James Lasdun. But it also features some excellent poems, including three poems by Charles Simic.

Usually I'm not wild about Charles Simic. He strikes me as a rich man's poet. He's an oenophile's oenophile. I find his chumminess around the finer things distasteful. But that's my problem, not his. I'm a bit of a populist, and sometimes that clouds my judgment.

So with no more hemming and hawing, here's 'January' by Charles Simic, from the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review:

Children’s fingerprints
On a frozen window
Of a small schoolhouse.

An empire, I read somewhere,
Maintains itself through
The cruelty of its prisons.

The line breaks online aren't arranged the same way as they are in print, so I've adjusted them to match the what-seems-to-me more sensible option. This is the second time I've found that a big publication didn't get the line breaks right online (the first time was with Michael Robbins' 'Country Music', where The New Yorker website did away with the line breaks entirely.)

What to say about this poem? It's a simple construction. One image and one idea, yolked together in an unlikely but clever pairing. We could interpret that image of the children's fingerprints in any number of ways, but Simic puts a great spin on it by recalling something he read once. He gives voice to something we all felt as school kids, I think: it isn't fair that we have to spend our childhoods locked up in some classroom. I went to Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) elementary school, a Catholic school run by Sisters of the Immaculate Conception; it was a good school but my we still found it hilarious to refer to OLPH as the Old Ladies' Prison Home.

The structure of this poem would make a good writing exercise. Juxtapose an image and an idea so that the second one spins the first in an interesting way. You could do the same thing with two images: I'm thinking of Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro". The important thing is to get in and out of the reader's imagination quickly. It's a good way to make people laugh or consider an unpleasant truth that they otherwise wouldn't make time for.