Louis Simpson Essay - Simpson, Louis (Vol. 9)

Simpson, Louis (Vol. 9)

Simpson, Louis 1923–

Simpson is a Jamaican-born American poet, novelist, and playwright. In his poetry he strives to create a tone of irony and mystery. He is considered a poet of imagination, his verse expressing the imagery of dreams. Simpson received the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Simpson—Jamaican-born, American-educated, Jewish—finds his inspiration, and his melancholy, faintly ironic happiness, in getting his back under the burden of things as they always have been….

I find the mood of these poems [in Searching for the Ox], and their reflective music, the slow, heavy plucking of strings, exceptionally attractive. One very moving poem, 'Baruch', places them in the background against which Simpson himself sees them. It is the tale of an ancestor, a Jewish hat-factory owner in Russia, who rejoices when the factory burns down, because at last he can 'give himself to the Word'. 'The love of literature goes with us,' Simpson reflects; and the poem ends with him sitting in a train, crossing the American prairie at night, while other men in the carriage play cards:

            Then I see a face, pale and unearthly,
            that is flitting along with the train,
            passing over the fields and rooftops,
            and I hear a voice out of the past:
            'He wishes to study the Torah.'
                                   (p. 686)

Derwent May, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Derwent May), November 25, 1976.

Much of Searching for the Ox presents Simpson as so terribly, terribly suburban, so thoroughly mundane, that I cannot get past a picture of him mowing the lawn and preparing a Fourth of July cook-out…. Simpson sneers at his own class and his own comfy way of life while, at the same time, attempting to make poetry out of it…. He does not quite have the talent for disgust that might have carried these pieces off….

In Three on the Tower, Simpson writes several times over that a poet needs a world-view or belief in order to make "major" poetry, and that it does not matter if that belief fails to satisfy others. This is a literary truism, a twentieth-century one, which may, indeed, be true. But the poet's philosophical scheme must satisfy the poet, at least, in resolving strenuous inner conflict. To come to poetic and philosophical resolutions as easily as Louis Simpson does indicates that he really has not attained a world-view of his own in which the various components of his experience cohere. In Searching for the Ox, Simpson has gone shopping for a faith and/or identity, and that is impossible, even on Long Island. It either is or is not there. (p. 65)

[In] his early work, Simpson was able to imagine himself a poilu, for example, and to present the eerie nightmare of history through his own particular poetic prism…. ["I Dreamed That in a City Dark as Paris"] was neither a long poem, a "Jewish poem," nor a poem in anybody's particular tradition. But it was an individual and highly memorable poem. It was written before Louis Simpson, like his "actors performing/Official scenarios" had himself "contracted American dreams" ("Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain"). Louis Simpson's work now suggests too much comfort: emotional, physical, intellectual. He has stopped struggling, it seems, for words, for rhythms, for his own deepest self. His is a middle-class, middle-brow poetry, the major value of which is to steer other poets from the same course, and to raise some questions about poets joining an Establishment, whether it be one of social class, national or literary identification. (pp. 65-6)

Nikki Stiller, "Shopping for Identity: Louis Simpson's Poetry," in Midstream (copyright © 1976 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), December, 1976, pp. 63-6.

I can't think of a poet other than Louis Simpson who says so well of life that there is nothing to be said for it. It is as if he believes poetry is the medium through which life's ironies are enabled to speak for themselves. Dead words, like dead stars, continue to send out reminders of their passing. It is no accident that Simpson in To The Western World provided the most striking image of the funeral which lies at the heart of the colonial man: 'The generations labour to possess/and grave by grave we civilize the ground'. The seance continues.

Oxen made an early appearance in his poems. In a poem of long ago they were pictured observing a couple whose passionate absorption broke with nature. 'The envious oxen in still rings would stand/Ruminating.' In the title poem of his new collection [Searching For the Ox], the ox is another beast entirely. 'Searching for the ox/I come upon a single hoofprint./I find the ox and tame it,/and lead it home. In the next scene/the moon has risen, a cool light./Both the ox and herdsman vanished.'

Simpson's bleak lyricism celebrates only what edges into his line of vision and even as he remarks on it he shows it to be fading…. (p. 83)

[His] fascination with place names and family names … made Adventures Of The Letter I, a work of pure, brilliant invention, seem so realistic. Of that letter in which there is no trace of ego, the wealth of geographical information so helpfully tendered made the Adventures Of The Letter I read like the A/Z. Place names have this great virtue: they speak up for themselves. While it is honourable, Simpson seems to feel, to put something in the place of nothing, it won't do to make too much of anything. To the paranoic his paranoia, to the poet his poems…. Simpson pads around the edges of his poems, apologetic at having been found on the scene at all, the illusionist who would guard against illusion. He is so fastidiously honest in showing up his own tricks that it amounts at times to a kind of offhandedness. So self-effacing, we wait for him to arrange his mirrors and vanish. (pp. 83-4)

Christopher Hope, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1977), February-March, 1977.