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.)