Louis Simpson’s life is especially important because of its relation to his poetic development. He was born Louis Aston Marantz Simpson in Kingston, Jamaica, on March 27, 1923. His father was a lawyer of Scottish descent, his mother a Jewish immigrant from southern Russia. His parents had met when Rosalind de Marantz went to Kingston from New York City to appear in a film. A brother had been born first, then Louis. Following the breakup of the marriage in 1930, Rosalind went to Toronto. Louis was sent with his brother to Munro College, a private school about eighty miles from Kingston. Louis was to remain at Munro College until he was seventeen years old. His father remarried, and another child was born. When Louis was near graduation, his father died, leaving most of his estate to his new family. Louis and his brother were made to leave their parental home immediately. On his own, Louis returned to school, where he excelled in literary studies and developed two goals: to be a writer and to leave Jamaica. At sixteen, he was already writing and publishing poetry and prose. This principle would guide him in writing about all the “real wars” he was to wage back in the United States.
In New York, Simpson entered Columbia University, where he studied under Mark Van Doren. In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Texas. Military life turned him into a dog soldier with little respect for officers. The Army also enabled him to see Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri. He took part in the Normandy invasion, fought at Bastogne, and visited London and Paris, leaving the service in 1947. By war’s end, he had gained United States citizenship, won the Bronze Star with cluster, twice earned the Purple Heart, and grown cynical. He was married to Jeanne Rogers (1949-1953) and to Dorothy Roochvarg (1955-1979). He received a B.S. (1948), an M.A. (1950), and a Ph.D. (1959) from Columbia University. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1959 to 1967, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook from 1967 to 1993. Making his permanent residence in Setauket, New York, he has traveled extensively, to Australia and Europe. After his retirement, Simpson continued to write literary essays and poetry and to translate French poetry.
Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was born in Jamaica, where his father was a lawyer. His parents were divorced when he was young, and his father remarried. When Simpson traveled to New York to attend Columbia University, he learned for the first time that his mother was Jewish—“and therefore, according to Jewish law, so was I.” He served in the army during World War II. When the war ended, he returned to Columbia to complete his studies. After working in publishing, he returned to Columbia to earn a doctorate and began an academic career that led him first to the University of California at Berkeley and then to the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he taught from 1967 to 1993.
Simpson’s early poems were metrical and rhymed. His style underwent two major changes, the first (in At the End of the Open Road, which won the Pulitzer Prize) a breaking away from elegant metrics into hard-edged, imagistic free verse, the second (begun in Searching for the Ox) a delving into narrative, in spare lines stripped of most artifice. Yet his interest in storytelling was there from the beginning, in poems such as “Carentan O Carentan,” which recounts a bloody ambush in ironic ballad stanzas, contrasting the pastoral beauty of a “shady lane” with the “watchers in leopard suits” who “aimed between the belt and boot/ And let the barrel climb.”
One of the sections of Simpson’s second volume of selected poems, People Live Here, is devoted to “The Fighting in Europe.” In “The Battle” the speaker recalls most vividly “how hands looked thin/ Around a cigarette, and the bright ember/ Would pulse with all the life there was within.” These lines suggest that even though Simpson’s manner changed dramatically, he remained interested in the telling detail (the ember) and the life within people. The other sections of People Live Here show the range of Simpson’s thematic interests:...
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