The Best Hour of the Night

There are numerous contemporary styles of poetry, and a relatively large number of them stress distortion of language and texture. Often this distortion is pushed as far from prose rhythms and syntax as possible. Ezra Pound, in a much-quoted statement, said that poetry should have the virtues of good prose—but this was many years ago, and contemporary taste has moved in the opposite direction, especially since the end of the 1950’s. Much of the identity of contemporary poetry is at the expense of prose, and both poets and critics frequently judge poetry according to a standard of opposition: The less like prose it is, the more chance it has to qualify as poetry, perhaps even genuine or good poetry. Originality of texture is often admired and rightly so. Prose has its own legitimate domain, and poetry its own legitimate and different domain. Many readers and poets would agree that there is, and should be, a distinct division of labor.

On the other hand, however, there are a variety of styles in contemporary poetry, and no single one has established itself above all others. The present period of the 1980’s is not the first in which contradictions have existed, as Louis Simpson has shown in his own critical studies, Three on the Tower: The Lives and Works of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams (1975), A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell (1978), and A Company of Poets (1981). Further, it can be argued that the major trend of twentieth century poetry—European and American—is not toward subjective distortion but objectivization. This was the goal of William Carlos Williams (who remained popular in the 1960’s), of the British “Movement,” and of much of modernism. Objectivity may not be “poetic,” but then the cult of the emotions at the expense of real life can be privatistic, “poetic” in a derogatory or nineteenth century manner, escapist or infantile. This contradiction lies at the core of modernism and twentieth century poetry.

It is in this context that Louis Simpson’s The Best Hour of the Night is intriguing and, in its special way, original. Its subject matter is in large part that of realistic social fiction; the title poem of the collection’s second section is the fifteen-page-long “The Previous Tenant,” the story of an affair, a broken marriage, a new affair. It might be called a novel in verse, but it is totally different from previous attempts to combine these two genres. “The Previous Tenant” resembles Simpson’s own “Vandergast and the Girl,” published in 1973, but in a very expanded version. Simpson’s development in this direction is highly conscious and is pushed further in this collection of poems than in any other. Here is an accomplished poet, a leading member of the generation of Richard Wilbur, David Wagoner, and Robert Bly that began publishing in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize who has already produced his second retrospective volume of selected poems (People Live Here, 1983)—and in this new collection one sees him incorporating the material of prose, of the short story and novel, into poetry with great deliberateness of purpose. It is almost audacious, a dare. The reader finds many poems about people (here Simpson’s significant predecessor is Edward Arlington Robinson), about the need to work, about relationships and society. The situations are closely observed, with an eye for significant detail. Always the pursuit of clarity is present and respect for reality.

There are two main problems related to this pursuit of clarity or objectivity: These bear on form and on ethics. First, with respect to form: It is fine, perhaps, to record the textures of everyday life, but what does one do with them? It is not for nothing that the presence of James Joyce hovers over this volume, and that in mentioning the names of real people Simpson should mention that of another:

Joe Hynes,Alf Bergan, Bob Doran,and the saint of the quotidianhimself, Leopold Bloom.(“Encounter on the 7:07”)

The textures of everyday reality have a certain tendency to resist form, whether that of prose or poetry; they are chaotic. The poem “How to Live on Long Island” begins:

Lilco, $75.17;Mastercard, $157.89;Sunmark Industries,...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)


Booklist. LXXX, October 15, 1983, p. 324.

The Georgia Review. XXXVII, Fall, 1983, p. 662.

Hudson Review. XXXVII, Spring, 1984, p. 120.

Library Journal. CVIII, November 15, 1983, p. 2163.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 18, 1984, p. 6.

The Nation. CCXXXVIII, February 11, 1984, p. 166.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, January 29, 1984, p. 26.

Poetry. CXCV, December, 1984, p. 161.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, September 30, 1983, p. 114.