Louis Simpson’s development as a poet encompasses virtually the entire second half of the twentieth century. At a time when the Academic poets warred with the Beat poets, Simpson marched to his own poetic rhythms. He passed through the waters of the Deep Image without being caught in its currents. Wordsworthian influences have been noted in his poetry, and Simpson gives important attention to Walt Whitman in both his poetry and prose, but Whitman’s influence is perhaps more psychological and theoretical than overt. Using forms and devices that were necessary to express his poetic vision and to speak in a voice that was his own, Simpson has stood apart from literary traditions and popular trends, finding a unique voice and vantage point to illuminate a common humanity.
Simpson’s first volume, The Arrivistes, includes poems of mixed forms and subjects. A sestina, a ballad, and a versified dialogue are found among lyrics on war, love, and death. In the book’s mixture of classical and modern materials, one finds Simpson’s major interests—the city, love, war, and art—all explored with irony and wit. His images have sharpness and emotive force: for example, “the sun was drawn bleeding across the hills” (“Jamaica”). Simpson’s interest in the wanderer is evident in “The Warrior’s Return” (the warrior being Odysseus) and in “Lazarus Convalescent,” in which the biblical Lazarus faintly suggests the poet coming from the “hell” of war to speak to the living. Succinct to the point of aphoristic, many lines cut through literary self-consciousness. “Room and Board” creates a somber city scene; set in France, it expresses genuine feelings through vivid imagery.
Good News of Death, and Other Poems
In Good News of Death, and Other Poems, Simpson continues to show interest in romantic love, war, death, the loss of hope, and the ironic contrast between classical and modern values. Here the rhythms are less regular, and the rhymes have loosened. Simpson’s characteristic irony and wit are well represented, along with a sensitivity to the seasons, a softening of war’s disillusionment, and a corresponding emphasis on lyrical love tinged by a sense of loss or mild sorrow. “The Man Who Married Magdalene” demonstrates the confident handling of voice, tone, and manner that is found increasingly in the poems: “But when he woke and woke alone/ He wept and would deny/ The loose behavior of the bone/ And the immodest thigh.” In “Memories of a Lost War,” Simpson has discovered a way to shape experience into a form that releases sharp meaning: “The scene jags like a strip of celluloid,/ A mortar fires,/ Cinzano falls, Michelin is destroyed,/ The man of tires.” Simpson’s gift for juxtaposition has given him a way to mix disparate bits of information into a vivid, moving collage.
Literary portraiture, another of Simpson’s strengths, often combines with his interest in objective reality. In “American Preludes,” America’s past comes under scrutiny, and “West,” in open stanza and irregular line, shows a growing interest in modern America. The social commentary in many of the poems hints at a growing interest in the direction American society is taking and an interest in the lives of those who inhabit the land. He finds that boredom is widespread and that many people have founded their lives on values that are false or fragile. “Good News of Death,” a pastoral, returns to the bucolic past in rhyme and regular lines to express the idea that the classical past is reborn in the birth of Christ. The “good news” is that Christ offers salvation to humankind.
A Dream of Governors
A Dream of Governors is Simpson’s first collection to be divided into sections, each titled, reflecting the poet’s concern with the arrangement of the poems. In the first group, poems are cast mainly in regular lines and rhymed stanzas, and there is a mixture of classical and modern. The classical lovers in “The Green Shepherd” remain unaffected by the great westward thrust of empire, while the “dragon rises crackling in the air” over the Western Hemisphere. The dragon as symbol of ensuing devastation of the land appears again in the title poem, “A Dream of Governors,” the dream being “The City,” which the Knight rescues from the dragon, only to become king and grow “old/ and ludicrous and fat.” The poem ends as the dragon rises again. Demoniac characters and gloomy overtones are to be found in other poems in this collection as well. “To the Western World” concludes grimly: “And grave by grave we civilize the ground.” “The country that Columbus thought he found . . . looks unreal,” the poet muses in “Landscape with Barns.” “Only death looks real.” Even America’s vaunted freedom “is the basilisk,” and the poet’s reaction to the Land of Opportunity is to realize that “the melancholy of the possible/ Unmeasures me” (“Orpheus in America”).
The idyllic past, only a fantasy, sends the poet to the Old World, where he finds a graveyard. The poetry is becoming more autobiographical as the lines and stanzas continue to open. The poet’s voice sounds more like natural speech: “But I am American, and bargain . . . where the junk of culture/ Lies in the dust” (“An American in the Thieves’ Market”). In “The Runner,” which occupies roughly a third of the entire volume, war is seen through the eyes of a soldier whose journey takes the reader through war as Simpson saw it himself. Following it, “The Bird” injects a fairy-tale quality into the grim aspect of war. Simpson’s interest in the surreal may have suggested the vision of a young German soldier who is sent to work in a concentration camp, all the while singing the refrain, “I wish I were a bird.” The rhymed quatrains with their three-stress lines create an otherworldly atmosphere. There are Russian tanks, and there is “a little bird . . . flitting”—the transformed soldier. The same stanzaic pattern is used in one of Simpson’s most celebrated war poems, “Carentan, O Carentan,” which reads somewhat like a ballad and focuses on the poignancy of death in war with ironic overtones.
The love poems in the final section continue the mixture of pastoral and classical with modern characters and scenes rendered in regular rhymed stanzas. The volume ends with “Tom Pringle,” a poem spoken in the voice of a young man who “will watch the comets’ flight . . . And wonder what they mean.” Tom Pringle could watch the comets’ flight, but Simpson had to return to America.
At the End of the Open Road
At the End of the Open Road looks squarely at modern America and its recent past. The voice is often conversational, classical allusions have been dropped, and the lines and stanzas are unrhymed and irregular. Simpson’s penchant for focusing on the objects of his world and its people is clearly evident. The mood is serious, and the irony is restrained. “In California” begins with the poet speaking in his own voice—“Here I am”—but by the end, the “I” has become “we.” He has joined those who travel the open road and come to the western gate, where they must “turn round the wagons.” He discovers that “there’s no way out” (“In the Suburbs”). The suburbs trap the body and spirit, and the seeking continues: “I tread the burning pavement. . . . I seek the word. The word is not forthcoming” (“There Is”).
Turning to his own past, the poet remembers his grandmother’s house, where “there was always chicken soup/ And talk of the old country” (“A Story About Chicken Soup”). He has learned “not to walk in the painted sunshine/ . . . But to live in the tragic world forever.” Simpson employs again the narrative form to reveal his vision of the world, blending the open form with a voice closer to his own, as in “Moving the Walls,” in which a modern voyager, collecting gewgaws, misses the deeper mystery of the world. The men who sought the golden fleece sought the grand and beautiful mysteries. Looking around, the poet doubts that he sees “any at sea.”
Many of the poems reflect the poet’s journey from Europe to Japan as if in search of fulfillment, a deeper perception. Searching is thematic and culminates thus: “I am going into the night to find a world of my own” (“Love, My Machine”). Simpson has found that Whitman’s open road “goes to the used-car lot”; in “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” the angel from “In California” appears again, dancing “like Italy, imagining red,” still ambiguous. The search is for a way out of a spiritual cul-de-sac. In the final poem, “Lines Written near San Francisco,” the American dream turns out to be “cheap housing in the valleys// Where lives are mean and wretched.”
A dozen new pieces in Selected Poems revive thoughts of impending disaster, rendered in striking imagery. In “The Union Barge on Staten Island,” the poet sees a threat in nature itself: “Under your feet, the wood seems deeply alive./ It’s the running sea you feel.” The animals “felt the same currents,” and ominous clouds drift “over the Wilderness, over the still farms.” The poet discovers in “Things” that “machines are the animals of the Americans.” Nevertheless, he finally feels a kinship with those whom he has been observing from a distance: “Who lives in these dark houses?/ I am suddenly aware/ I might live here myself” (“After Midnight”).
Adventures in the Letter I
The eye turned inward becomes the basis of Adventures in the Letter I, in which Simpson looks beyond contemporary America and finds the Russia his mother used to describe. The poems are often autobiographical, freed of rhymed stanzas and regular lines. The lines do not invariably begin with capital letters. Simpson wants his poetic language to look more like the speech it is becoming. “Adam Yankev” creates a portrait of the artist looking at himself, realizing that, though his head is “full of ancient life,” he sees “houses,/ streets, bridges, traffic, crowds,” people whose “faces are strangely familiar.” No longer alienated by what he sees, the poet finds that “things want to be understood.”
Though still somewhat disengaged from the world, the poet feels a kinship. In “The Photographer,” a still life gives ideas “a connection.” Simply to look is to find meaning, a kinship. In a longer poem telling of a man having an affair that ends in the grim reality of paying alimony and child support, the poet’s sympathy is evident in the final vision of the man’s life: “Maybe/ he talks to his pillow, and it whispers,/ moving red hair” (“Vandergast and the Girl”). Kinship is also evident in the poet’s speaking as the ghost of a dead man: “And I, who used to lie with the moon,/ am here in a peat-bog” (“On a Disappearance of the Moon”). In “An American Peasant,” the poet shares the peasant’s trust in “silence” and distrust of “ideas.”
Some of the poems read like letters to the reader: “My whole life coming to this place,/ and understanding it better” (“Port Jefferson”). In the poet’s ancestral past lies the meaning he has been seeking. In “A Friend of the Family,” the technology that...
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