Today I was talking with Carol Ann Davis and Dana Thieringer about poetry and specifically a poem by Charles Simic “A Letter.” Professor poem brought up another poem by Simic, “The Prodegy,” and then told us her theory that the “retired professor of astronomy” in the poem refers to Whitman because of his poem “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”.
Here are the two poems.
by Charles Simic
I grew up bent over
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 board
at the same time.
When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Walt Whitman
|WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;|
|When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;|
|When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;|
|When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,|
|How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;||5|
|Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,|
|In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,|
|Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Charles Simic was born in Yogoslavia in 1938 where his childhood was deeply marked by the second world war. He moved to America when he was sixteen later to become the US Poet Laureate. In an interview at NYU Simic recently said that he began to write poetry to better understand his post-war experience. The poem, “Prodigy” talks about a chess game, but another subject of the poem is Simic’s childhood. During the war, Simic had to spend most of his time indoors due to the dangers of being outdoors as well as a Nazi-imposed 8 pm curfew. Simic and others spent their time doing indoor activities like cards and chess.
Chess was a way for Simic to deal with his war experience during the war and poetry is how he deals with his experiences afterwards.
In Whitman’s poem “After I heard the Learn’d Astronomer” the speaker has gone to a lecture where he feels “tired and sick,” probably due to the weight of listening to a man try to unpack the mysteries of the universe within a lecture hall. The speaker eventually goes out and “wander[s] off by [him]self”, allows himself the space to come up with his own original ideas, and “look[s] up in perfect silence to the stars.”
Whitman is not shut down by the lecture, he still comes to his own conclusions about the universe independently. The child in Simic’s poem is taught how to play chess to distract him from the “Planes and tanks [that shook the house’s] windowpanes.” If we think of the relationship between the roles chess and poetry have played in Simic’s life than we can read this also as a poem about Simic learning to write.