The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“In California” consists of six unrhymed stanzas of four lines each, with irregular line lengths, in which the speaker reflects on his geographical and historical situation. Louis Simpson, though born in Jamaica, settled in New York City in 1940—hence, the reference to his protagonist’s “New York face” in line 2 of the poem. He begins the poem on the California coast (“the dream coast”), having come from New York and finding himself among business and outdoor types (“realtors/ And tennis-players”). He feels out of place on this western edge of the nation. What he has seen, and how he feels, has left him with a “dark preoccupation.”

The second stanza recalls the westward movement, the “epical clatter” (line 5) of the pioneers making their way through Tennessee and Ohio, toward where the speaker stands, reflecting on the music and spirit (“Voices and banjos”) of their quest to settle the new land. Then, heaven regarded this westward advance favorably. Now, the “angel in the gate” (line 8) above the Western coast witnesses the “dream” unfolding, not becoming involved in human affairs.

Stanza 3 opens with an address to Walt Whitman, who celebrated the American pioneering spirit in the nineteenth century and wrote exuberantly of the westward expansion. The “King and the Duke” (line 10) are characters in Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); these clownish charlatans call...

(The entire section is 524 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem’s structure combines convention with free form. A quick glance reveals evenly spaced and numbered stanzas, each line begun with a capital letter, each stanza consisting of exactly four lines. On closer examination, however, the form opens: The lines do not rhyme, have no regular length, and lack conventional metric form. The poet clearly wants phrasing to determine line length and keeps the rhythms near natural speech. The regular stanzaic structures provide secure parameters in which the reflective spirit can move back and forth geographically and historically. Visually, the poem advances evenly and surely, while the emotions stir in phrasal eddies.

Attention is thereby divided between conventional structure and the poet’s voice and mood, between ideas and conventional techniques. By fencing the open linear form with regular stanzas, the poet exactly suits his mood and theme, which dwell on the abandonment of an ideal, of a defunct dream that could not—or did not—hold up under the advance of the pioneer spirit.

The poem’s allusions give symbolic weight to the poet’s argument. California, its realtors, yacht clubs, and subdivisions, all symbolize the failure of the dream, a vulgar distortion of the epic vision of which Walt Whitman sang and which he symbolizes here. The poet’s vision sweeps over thousands of years of history, with specific allusions to Babylon and the ancient Aztec city. In this way, the poet’s ideas...

(The entire section is 506 words.)