An interpretation of Charles Simic’s poem ‘Cabbage’ is as a parody of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To My Coy Mistress’ and John Donne’s ‘The Flea.’ These are two well-known seventeenth-century carpe diem love poems (The Explicator). I choose this poem because it is one of his most famous. Some of Simic’s best known works challenge the dividing line between ordinary and extraordinary. He gives substance and even life to inanimate objects to such ordinary objects like a knife or spoon ( CAO ). Or in this case a head of cabbage. I wanted to know what he was trying to say in this poem and what the cabbage symbolized. To understand the poem it is important to first know the poet.
For some back ground information Charles Simic’s first volume of poetry was published in 1967 when he was twenty-one. He has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the National Institue of Arts and Letters, and the Poetry Society Of America. His other honors include a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry . Simic, who is Serbian, but writes in English, has published many books of translations of Yugoslav poetry and his own poetry has appeared all over the world. Simic was born in 1938 in Belgrade, raised in Paris, Chicago, and New York City. He received a B.A from NYU. He has worked as a bookkeeper, acountant, house painter, and shirt salesman. He served in the U.S. Army from 1961-1963. He has described himself as “a realist and a surrealist drawn between the two.”
His poems are generally humorous and his images come from tiny things such as a piece of thread, tying his shoe, or looking at his earth.
Child experiences of war, poverty, and hunger lie behind a number of Simic’s poems. The Georgia Review commented, “The world of Simic’s poems is frightening, mysterious, hostile, and dangerous” (CAO). As he has from the start, Simic likes to focus his poems on a single image, or construct them out of a series of images. “Form in a poem,” he made a note to himself, ” is like the performing acts in a circus.” He continues to write in sentences and prefers an everyday language, words that know hard use and gives good value (Poets & Writers).
“Cabbage symbolizes mystrerious love.”
Who said many other strange and wonderful things,
So that people called him mad behind his back,
Whereupon I kissed the back of her neck
Whereupon she cut the cabbage in two
The “mistress” of Simic’s poem is about to “chop the head” of cabbage “in half,” just as the mistress in Donne’s poem prepares to kill a flea. The Cabbage is Simic’s emblem for love, like Donne’s conceit, but also brings to mind the “vegetable love” of Marvell’s peom. Simic’s narrator makes “her recondider” just as Donne “stays” his mistress’s hand, temporarily. Simic’s poem reduces the rhetorical seduction, so elaborate in bothe Donne and Marvell, to only one line: “Cabbage symbolizes mysterious love.” Simic’s line, however, is still “a line,” and appropriately cavalier in its formal and hyperbolic tone andin its allusion to charles Fourier, not exactly a cavalier lover, but a late-eighteenth-century Frech socialist.
Yet Fourier is a fitting hero for Simic’s late-twentieth-cavalier, who wishes to impress upon a woman the mysteries of love and other “strange and wonderful things” still associated with the “mad” French. Of course, his language would be veiled in “romantic suggestiveness” rather than mock argumentation. In fact, Simic’s contemporary lover trusts actions more than words, and his attempted suduction shifts quickly from the rhetorical to a physical attempt to seize the day, “Whereupon I kissed the back of ther neck/Ever so gently.”
The love emblem–the globlelike cabbage head–(like Donne’s flea, with whose “blood of innocence” his mistress “purples” her nail) is destroyed: “…she cut the cabbage in two / With a single stroke of her knife (Mid-America Review).” Again, actions speak louder than words in Simic’s poem, and unlike Marvell’s “coy” mistress or Donne’s, who has the “tables” of the argulment turned upon her, Simic’s woman succeeds in whimsically cutting the dramatic moment short and exposing the real substance of the narrator’s intentions (The Explicator).
In Charles Simic’s poems he uses everyday words and objects to convey his intentions and his mood. While reading one of his poems we can see a piece of ourselves. Cabbage is unlike the rest because at first we would not know it was a parody of two others, that takes more of an indepth look.
So if I did not know any better the poem is an act of rebellion. He said “But I made her reconsider/By telling her/Cabbage sybolizes mysterious love. But then, Whereupon she cut the cabbage in two/With a single stroke of her knife. Note how she did not slowly cut the cabbage but quick and swiftly with a single stoke cut it, as if she were angry. So does she love this man? Probably not if she quickly cut this symbol of love. The first line of the poem reads, She was about to chop the head/In half. It seems as though Simic want us to think something gruesome, a murder maybe. why didn’t he say “she was about to chop the cabbage in half.” Simic stated, “I was aware, in writing The Book of Gods and Devils, of an almost pagan impulse (Publishers Weekly).”
The style in which Simic writes continues to iritate some readedrs who see a failure to let the self become vulnerable. As further testimony to Simic’s retreat into an invulnerable persona, critics point to his frequent ambiguities, his failure to commit himself to the humane task of communicating. His austere language sounds less like a man speaking to man speaking to himself (Mid-America Review). Charles Simics poem The Cabbage is an alligory. You can read it as the parody of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To My Coy Mistress’ and John Donne’s ‘The Flea.’ Or you can interprate it in your own way. Either way Simic will continue to write in sentences and everyday lanuage. And it is facinating how he does not use any rhyme sycheme or meter in his poems. They are short, full of emotion, and the words are choosen carefully to get the right mood. “Simic has become one of those writers for whom there is no word but the individuality of their work. Just as we can always tell a Dickinson poem, a Cornell box, or a Keaton in profile, you can always tell a Simic (Poets&Writers).”
Chicago Review, Spring-Summer 1995 v41 n2-3 p13
Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group. 1999
Gwynn, R.S. (1998). Poetry (2nd Ed.) New York: Addison-Wesley Educational
Microsoft. (1998). Encarta Encyclopedia 99. Charles Simic [CD-ROM]
Mid-America Review, Vol. VIII, No 1, 1998, pp. 89-96
New Republic, Vol. 144, No., January 24, 1976, pp. 25
Poets & Writers, Vol. 24, No 3, May/June, 1996, pp. 30
Publishers Weekly, Nov 2, 1990 v237 n44 p56
The Economist (US), July 8, 1995 v 366 n7922 p82
The Explicator, Vol. No 4, Summer, 1993, pp. 257