Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2031
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 unsatisfactory reunion between Paula and the speaker; after twenty years,
The magic, as they say, was gone,like a song that used to be on the hit parade.But there is always a new song,and some things never change.Not long ago, visiting a friendwho lives on Riverside DriveI saw that the sign for Spryis still there, shining away.“Spry for Baking.” It blinks offand on again . . . “For Frying.”Then the lights run around in a circle.
The absence of regular rhyme and meter in Simpson’s later work is certainly noticeable, but it is not total. Throughout The Best Hour of the Night there are brief passages, like the third and fourth lines above, in which something like common measure makes a fleeting but effective appearance. In conversation once, Simpson appeared surprised and doubtful that this is so; one reason for his surprise may be that in his early work the meter of the ballad is often an occasion for slightly archaic or literary diction, which almost never appears in his later poems.
One of Simpson’s most famous poems in the ballad rhythm is also among his earliest. “Carentan O Carentan” is a bitter recollection of the young soldier’s introduction to battle; the form lends a haunting wistfulness to the gruesome narrative details:
There is a whistling in the leavesAnd it is not the wind,The twigs are falling from the knivesThat cut men to the ground.
The war, the poetry of young love, and the mastery of strict form run like a current from The Arrivistes through Good News of Death and Other Poems (1955) and A Dream of Governors (1959). In his third book, Simpson handles these elements with an authority that seems to lift the best of his poems out of time, as in “To the Western World,” a poem of fifteen lines which recapitulates the discovery of America by European explorers and, later, by immigrants. The third stanza memorably characterizes an age and a way of life:
The treasures of Cathay were never found.In this America, this wildernessWhere the axe echoes with a lonely sound,The generations labor to possessAnd grave by grave we civilize the ground.
In At the End of the Open Road, for which Simpson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, there are few examples of this mode. “My Father in the Night Commanding No” and “The Riders Held Back” are both fine poems in four-line rhymed stanzas, though in the context of the whole collection they at first seem a bit overdressed. Yet their presence gives the reader a chance to hear both the early voice and the new voice in one volume, thereby demonstrating the strength with which Simpson handles a more open style and form.
Five of the poems Simpson has collected from At the End of the Open Road refer to Walt Whitman, or address him directly. Whitman’s assertions—about poetry, people, and America—are tested in poems which acknowledge their indebtedness to him without echoing his voice. In “Lines Written near San Francisco,” Simpson presents a landscape that seems to have skipped some of the history behind other civilizations. This country seems to have gone from the promise of wilderness directly into late decline:
While we were waiting for the landThey’d finished it—with gas drumsOn the hilltops, cheap housing in the valleysWhere lives are mean and wretched.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Whitman was wrong about the People,But right about himself. The land is within.At the end of the open road we come to ourselves.
Whitman reminded his readers that writing poetry was not always a matter of keeping a sharp eye out for the extraneous and then excising it; he demonstrated, and preached, that poems could be inclusive in difficult, ill-mannered ways. From this notion Simpson fashioned a six-line poem which has perhaps been more often quoted than any other poem in At the End of the Open Road. “American Poetry” must be able to digest all kinds of things, and “it must swim for miles through the desert/ Uttering cries that are almost human.”
For Simpson, the suburbs seemed at that time a useful analogy to the desert. “In the Suburbs,” another well-known six-line poem, seems hopeless enough:
There’s no way out.You were born to waste your life.You were born to this middle-class lifeAs others before youWere born to walk in processionTo the temple, singing.
The preface to Collected Poems ends with a few words about making poems in an unpoetic age:In recent years I have written about occurrences, sometimes very ordinary ones, in which there is a meaning hidden beneath the surface. Bringing out such meanings, it seems to me, is a road poetry can take in a world that, as it grows more industrial, seems less beautiful in the old sense. The more banal and “anti-poetic” the material, the more there is for the poet to do. For this work a sense of humor is as necessary as an awareness of the drama, the terror and beauty of life.
Simpson has always made occasional use of an odd, surrealistic humor; it is not absent from At the End of the Open Road, the most baleful of his collections, but he is right to note that it becomes more useful in the four books which followed his prize-winner.
Two of the themes that most often recur in Simpson’s later work are the triviality and despair of much suburban life and the mystery of a lost, imagined past. Simpson’s mother, he explains in the preface, was born in Russia and told him stories of that land. These Simpson has remembered and has used to shape an imaginary Russia, populated with his relatives and with characters created by such writers as Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Most of the poems about Russia appear in Adventures of the Letter I (1971), though there are a few in both Searching for the Ox (1976) and Caviare at the Funeral (1980). In these, anecdote and character, the need for a story, seem central—so much so, in fact, that the “actual” and “fictional” characters are equally alive, just as Huckleberry Finn and Abraham Lincoln are equally “real” in most American imaginations.
The poems about suburbia range from the despairing through the wickedly satirical to the hopeful. Simpson includes himself, or a character who must be seen as standing in for him, in many of these poems. “Sacred Objects,” from Adventures of the Letter I, begins with a mildly zany self-deprecation:
I am taking part in a great experiment—whetherwriters can live peacefully in the suburbsand not be bored to death.As Whitman said, an American museinstalled amid the kitchen ware.
This passage makes it hard to take seriously the notion of the “great experiment,” but in fact a large number of Simpson’s later poems represent its amazingly successful results. Mundane activities such as putting out the garbage, paying bills, riding the commuter train, and stripping paint from woodwork would seem to put a poet in danger of stultifying repetitiveness, but the equipment which Simpson has been selecting and honing for more than forty years continues to stand him in good stead. These poems are astonishing not only for the daring banality of their surfaces but even more for the range of their tones and the depth of their emotional resonances.
On the one hand, there is the sharp satire of “The Unwritten Poem,” which characterizes “a life beginning with ’Hi!’ and ending with ’So long!’” On the other, there is the extraordinary complexity of “The Previous Tenant,” a fourteen-page poem presenting more people and events than are described in many novels. It winds confidently among various attitudes, from regret through affection to contempt, toward characters at least one of whom seems roughly equivalent to the author. Writing, and the reactions of one’s neighbors to one’s being a writer, come in for a fair drubbing in a few of these poems, though the effect is never to suggest that the writer should do anything but what he does. Simpson sometimes seems to wonder how he can go on, but the work itself provides all the necessary answers to that question.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14
Library Journal. CXIII, December, 1988, p. 116.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, November 13, 1988, p. 32.
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