At the head of this wonderful book’s table of contents, Louis Simpson tells the reader, “These are not all my poems—they are the poems I would like to be remembered by.” Fortunately, however, Simpson has been more generous here in selecting from his early work than he was in his previous retrospective collections, Selected Poems (1965) and People Live Here: Selected Poems 1949-1983 (1983). Collected Poems contains 179 poems that not only provide ample evidence of the poet’s changing concerns and ways of doing things but also give more pleasure, poem by poem, than do most lifetime collections. Even a reader who has read Simpson steadily and admiringly for years may be surprised at the swiftness with which any sense of duty—that vague feeling, compounded of obligation and self-conscious virtue, which often accompanies the approach to a large book of poems—simply evaporates.
In addition to the two selected volumes, Simpson published eight books of poems before the present collection. According to certain milestones of a poetic career, they fall into two groups of four. Simpson was born in Jamaica, in the British West Indies, and came to the United States when he was seventeen. He did not become an American citizen until he had been through several major engagements as an American soldier during World War II. The discovery of America, then, is a theme which recurs frequently in Simpson’s poetry; the treatments of that theme become increasingly complex and rewarding as the poet himself becomes more thoroughly American.
Simpson’s first three books displayed an ease with the more or less traditional forms which characterized one strain of American poetry in the 1950’s and 1960’s; in his fourth, At the End of the Open Road (1963), there is a relatively sudden shift to poems in more relaxed and open forms. For various reasons, most of them private, a number of other poets of roughly the same generation—James Wright, W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, and Adrienne Rich, for example—were making similar shifts at about the same time. The various cultural forces that contributed to this phenomenon need not be considered here, especially since the work of each of these poets provides, in itself, specific reasons for that poet’s having sought a new way of working and specific instances of formal continuity.
According to the preface of this collection, Simpson’s first book, The Arrivistes (1949), was published in Paris at his own expense. It contains poems about the landscape of Jamaica, about the oddity and emptiness that can characterize life in New York, and about episodes recalled from the war. These are all matters which have often engaged the poet since; even some relatively minor images have a noticeable persistence in his work. In The Arrivistes, for example, there is this stanza, from “Lazarus Convalescent”:
The water laps, the seagulls plunge and squawkAnd lovers lock in wind that makes him shiver.“I’ll have to learn to use a knife and forkAgain. Look there above us!Spry’s for Baking . . . starry spectacle.For Frying. More, a miracle.”
In The Best Hour of the Night (1983), the most recent of the individual collections, the blinking advertisement for Spry turns up again, in “Periodontics.” This is a four-page poem in which the speaker’s thoughts make apparently casual leaps of association, which the poet has been careful to link with consummate subtlety. Trying to ignore the pain of having his teeth cleaned, the speaker studies the initials on the dental unit; they are also those of Paula Chapman, a high school sweetheart who lived across the street from the Spry sign. A recollection of their humiliating night at the prom ends with the speaker “drinking quantities/ of pink lemonade out of paper cups.” On the next page, back in the present and the dentist’s chair, he accepts from the hygienist “a paper cup/ with the liquid that’s bright red/ and bitter.” The poem ends with an account of a brief and...
(The entire section is 2,045 words.)