Style poem ‘‘Prodigy’’

The term ‘‘minimalism’’ in relation to literary works refers to a style of writing in which the author uses as few words as possible. Generally in a minimalist work, only the barest of details are presented. Often these details at first seem to imply the ordinary events of a day. Emotional and other descriptive phrases are usually understated or not stated at all. The major points, rather than being written out, are implied in minimalist works, leaving the reader the responsibility of figuring them out on their own.

However, it is the responsibility of the minimalist writer to provide hints to the reader that more meaning lies hidden behind the minimal details that are given. An example of how Simic does this is by his informing the reader, in a simple statement, that the particulars of his poem occurred in 1944. He never uses the word war. However, war is implied in his use of this date. Simic merely mentions the date as if that year were like any other year. Careful readers will associate the year with the horrific circumstances of World War II. Simic only trips the reader’s memory and then invites the reader to discover the hidden emotions and meaning.

Imagery

Being an author of few words, Simic takes advantage of images to help convey deeper meaning in his poems. ‘‘Prodigy’’ begins with a powerful image. Through this image, readers can envision a young boy sitting at a chess table, possibly spending hours studying the board and the pieces on it. Through this image, readers can begin to guess at what kind of a boy this was. Chances are he was quiet, intelligent, studious, observant, and dedicated to this game. If this image is correct, then the boy probably rarely went outside, rarely played the games that other children normally played. The interpretations of this image could continue as the reader envisions personality traits for this young boy. However, all Simic did was to offer a picture through a few simple words.

Another powerful image is that of the young boy being blindfolded by his mother. At first, a reader might find this image disturbing. Then the author adds an image that clarifies that the boy’s face is not covered with a piece of material that is knotted at the back of his head. Rather, the mother ducks the boy inside her coat, which makes the boy blind. In the image of the boy inside his mother’s coat, readers can better sense the emotions that are involved in the blinding. The mother is scared, and she does not want her son to see what is happening on the war-torn streets. Readers might imagine the mother cowering to soldiers or running away from the sight of dead bodies. Through these images that the poet has created, readers’ imaginations fill in the emotional gaps.

The country of Yugoslavia was created at the end of World War I. The formation was an intellectual and political one and occurred after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, which had previously held rule over this part of the Balkan peninsula. At first, this new union was called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Serbia, with its major city of Belgrade, was the most dominant in the union. Later, the nations of Vojvodina and Montenegro were added to this union.

Political uprisings threatened the kingdom. These were caused mostly by the Croats, who resented being controlled by the government in Belgrade, which was located in Serbian territory. Fearing separatist activities, King Alexander I banned all political groups and divided the kingdom into nine districts, providing each with some sense of local administration. He hoped this would ease the threatening surge of those who wanted to dissolve the union. The king, in 1929, also changed the name of the union to Yugoslavia, which translates to ‘‘the land of southern Slavs.’’ Alexander’s attempts at a more heavy-handed rule, however, upset the Croatians even more. In addition, the countries of Germany, Italy, and Russia also disagreed with the union of these countries as well as Alexander’s dictator-style rule. They all had their own ideas of what they hoped to gain from the Balkans. As the pressure mounted, the king visited France in October 1934, and he was assassinated by a Bulgarian named Vlado Cher-nozemski. Chernozemski was a member of a revolutionary group that sought the secession of Macedonia from Yugoslavia. Upon his death, Alexander’s eleven-year-old son, Peter II, became king, but he was too young to rule. So his cousin, Prince Paul, assumed authority through a regency council.

In 1941, army general Dusan Simovic, supported by the governments of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, launched a military coup, which resulted in Prince Paul’s exile. Alexander’s successor, Peter II, was only seventeen years old but was put into power. Taking advantage of these unstable conditions, German leader Adolf Hitler tried to pressure Yugoslavia to join the political powers referred to as the Axis, which included Germany, Italy, Japan, and Bulgaria. Though the official powers in Belgrade were willing to work out a compromise with these foreign powers, the people of Yugoslavia were strongly against the Nazi influence. In retaliation, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and bombed Belgrade and other major cities. Yugoslavia was completely occupied by outside forces by April and then dismantled, with each of the Axis powers taking their share. Germany ruled Belgrade. Hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavians were imprisoned, murdered, or exiled.

The National Liberation Army was established by the Serbian resistance under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. In cooperation with the National Liberation Army, the Allied Forces, made up of United Kingdom, United States, and Soviet Union nations, invaded Yugoslavia, and Serbia was liberated from Nazi rule in 1944. However, Tito, a committed communist, continued his governance of Yugoslavia for almost forty more years. Upon his death in 1980, the separatist movement regained strength. Slobodan Milosevic eventually took power in Serbia and demanded direct rule over the country from Belgrade. As Milosevic favored Serbs over other ethnic groups, tensions grew worse. In 1997, armed resistance emerged. As civil war raged on, the United Nations became involved as the organization set up a military presence in Kosovo in 1999. This led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 2003, as a new constitution for a new state union was created. Serbia and Montenegro became the Republic of Serbia in 2006. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence, although Serbia has not officially recognized this. The status of the former group of nations that once made up Yugoslavia continues to be unsettled.

The Game of Chess and World Masters The gameof chess has been traced back toancient times, possibly as far back as 100 CE. Although the modern game of chess, as most people who live in Western cultures recognize it, differs a lot from the ancient form, the first chess games were probably played in what is now northern India and in what was once called Persia, in modern-day Iran. European countries have records of the game that date back to 1000 CE.

Chess is played on a checkered board, with two players controlling sixteen pieces each. Each set of pieces is usually differentiated by the colors white and black. The pieces of each set are a king, queen, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, and eight pawns. The game is somewhat war-like, as the object of the game is to capture the king. The pawns are the least powerful but carry their weight much as foot soldiers would do in a real-life battle.

Competition for chess players usually begins with games with friends or family. Then it intensifies, depending on how serious a player is. There are chess clubs in schools and community centers. One can find competitive players online, too. There are also state-level competitions and national ones. The top layer of competition is found in world championships. The first official world chess champion was Wilhelm Steinitz, who won the title in 1886.

Since the 1940s, Russian chess players have dominated the competition. Until the Soviet Union dissolved, only one person who was not Russian held the title of World Champion. That one non-Russian champion was American Bobby Fischer, who claimed the title from 1972 until 1975. Russian chess masters included Mikhail Botvinnik (1948–1954, 1958, and 1961.) Boris Spassky was the victor from 1969 until 1972. More recently, the Russian chess players remained the ones to beat, with Garry Kasparov and Veselin Topalov holding the titles until 2007. Then in September 2007, a new country, India, was represented by Viswanathan Anand, who claimed the title until 2010, when Magnus Carlsen came on the scene. Carlsen is from Norway and has been referred to as a child prodigy.

Carlsen played his first chess tournament when he was eight years old. At the age of thirteen, Carlsen won the title of Grandmaster, the third youngest person to do so. At eighteen, he played a game in the Nanjing Pearl Spring Tournament that has been deemed one of the greatest games ever played. In 2010, Carlsen was the youngest chess player in history to be ranked number one in the world when he defeated Russian player Vladimir Kramnik in the World Chess Championship. Carlsen was only nineteen at the time. In the poem, the white king is missing.

‘‘Prodigy’’ has been published in several collections because of its simple yet powerful form As Poetry magazine’s Steven Cramer explains in his review of Simic’s Selected Poems 1963–1983, ‘‘Prodigy’’ is one of Simic’s finest. Poems like this ‘‘bear the scars of historical witness,’’ Cramer writes. He adds that Simic’s ‘‘memories of growing up in war-torn Belgrade provide an experiential groundwork for the primeval violences in his work.’’ Cramer concludes with praise for Simic’s writing, stating that ‘‘future readers will return to Simic’s mythic well for enchantment and instruction.’’

In an article for the Texas Observer, Yvonne Georgina Puig writes, ‘‘Applied in admiration or disdain, ‘accessible’ is among the truest claims to be made for the poetry of Charles Simic.’’ Puig continues: ‘‘At their best, Simic’s poems are observant meditations on the unseen and overlooked. . . . His poems are accessible not because they’re prosaic or simple, but because they make the mundane compelling.’’

Many critics of Simic stress the accessibility or simplicity of his poems. William Corbett, writing for Poets and Writers, describes Simic’s style in this way: ‘‘He continues to write in sentences and prefers an everyday language, words that know hard use and give good value.’’ In speaking directly about Simic’s poem ‘‘Prodigy,’’ Virginia Stuart, writing online for the University of New Hampshire Magazine, uses some of the images of the poem to describe Simic’s strengths as a poet. Stuart writes: ‘‘In short, the prodigy has become not amaster of chess, buta master of words—words he can use to transport readers, fight a modern-day tyrant, or galvanize young writers.’’

In a review of Simic’s Selected Poems: 1963– 1983 for the publication Erato, a critic notes that ‘‘in all of his work Simic confronts the mystery which lies behind the world’s plainness. He gives an almost romantic life to what we are too busy or jaded to notice.’’ In a review for World Literature Today of Simic’s The Voice at 3:00 A. M.: Selected Late and New Poems, Fred Dings writes: ‘‘When so much contemporary poetry seems to sprawl in loquacious and prosaic free verse, Simic’s succinct, powerful, revelatory expressions. . . remind us why the best poetry is an essential art.’’

Diana Engelmann, writing for the Antioch Review, notes Simic’s bilingual and bicultural background and how these elements influence his work. She writes, ‘‘A Simic poem may begin with a corner musician’s tune in New York, and then move to the street’s end where a gypsy fortune-teller whispers some odd lines resembling old Slavic proverbs, and we suddenly discover that the same street ends in a different country and in a different time.’’

Langdon Hammer, writing for American Scholar, observes that Simic is ‘‘one of America’s most honored poets.’’ Hammer makes reference to Simic’s dual Eastern European and American influences when he says that Simic ‘‘is typically seen as a surrealist, carrying forward a European tradition of an oblique, bemused way of looking at the world that probes the strangeness of daily life in brief fables and anecdotes. This is a fair characterization, but his jazzy meanderings and smoky riffs are also intensely American.’’




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Mann Erudite – Essays on Literary Works