Simpson, Louis 1923–
Simpson is a Jamaican-born American poet, critic, and editor. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1964. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Simpson] demonstrates that the best service an American poet can do his country is to see it all: not just the promise, not just the loss and the "betrayal of the American ideal," the Whitmanian ideal—although nobody sees this last more penetratingly than Simpson does—but the whole "complex fate," the difficult and agonizing meaning of being an American, of living as an American at the time in which one chances to live. If it comes out sad, as it does with Simpson despite all his wit and compassion, it is a whole and not a deliberately partial sadness, and this gives the pervasive desperate sadness of [Selected Poems] a terrific weight of honesty and truth….
Through the used-car lots, through the suburbs, through the wars that are only the intensification and temporary catharsis of the life we lead now, Simpson moves in this book, and moves memorably and skillfully. Principally there is the feeling of the great occasions of a man's life being veiled, being kept from him by the soft insulations of his civilization, he being all his life comfortable and miserable, taken care of and baffled. Since there is no primitive singleness of response anywhere, since one cannot hope for spontaneity, one takes it out in wit. Simpson's tone is often much like Randall Jarrell's, although more nervous, irritable, and biting. Jarrell's poems deal with the slow wonder of loss; Simpson's less resigned ones are more bewilderedly angry. If I had any objections to Simpson's work they would tend to group around a knowledgeable glibness, an easy literary propensity to knock off certain obvious sitting ducks, But [Selected Poems] is a very good book, a good spread of Simpson's work, and the intensity of his intelligent despair throughout it is harrowing.
James Dickey, "Louis Simpson" (1965), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 195-97.
A poet of liberal persuasion, [Simpson] is interested in public issues, in social and philosophical questions relating to the destiny of Europe and America…. In … At the End of the Open Road, [he] asks us to forget the Adamic innocence of the American past and recognize the seriousness of life in the present; we must cultivate our gardens in full awareness of the imminence of death.
Although he wrote some free verse as a young man, Simpson was deeply committed to traditional technique until 1959; he counted his accented and unaccented syllables carefully and built structures of pleasing but conventional sound, nailed with rhyme. After 1959, largely under the influence of the subjective-image poets, he changed his style drastically. The prosaism of his early work—which required metrics and rhyme in order to give it character as verse—now gave way to rich, fresh, haunting imagery. His philosophical and political speculations achieved a distinction and brilliance that they had lacked before.
Stephen Stepanchev, "Louis Simpson," in his American Poetry Since 1945: A Critical Survey (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 198-200.
Simpson, especially since his Pulitzer Prize volume, At the End of the Open Road, 1963, has come to rely largely upon the emotive imagination.
Thematically, Louis Simpson is a powerfully guilt ridden poet and the most recent poems [in Selected Poems] intensify this strain. There are several explicit motivations for this: disillusionment with the enthusiasm of his own generation's war torn hopes to build a better society ("The Silent Generation") or a grudging resignation to middle class inertia in "In the Suburbs"…. Simpson's disgust with postwar America occasionally lapses into acrimony and outrage which thwarts his native lyric tongue; it is a tendency I hope that he will be able to overcome. The theme of guilt emotively explored, particularly the tension between his self-conscious middle class respectability and the variously impoverished figures who confront him, is the basic idiom of his poetry now. Stripped of its excesses, it can provide a firm foundation for his growth.
George Lensing, in The Southern Review, Vol. III, No. 1, Winter, 1967, pp. 205-06.
Mr. Simpson's first three volumes are better [than the new work in Selected Poems]. They convey the same themes more excitingly, more satisfyingly, and no little part of the earlier successes is an adherence to tight and demanding forms, which Mr. Simpson handles with great skill. The new freedoms he has allowed himself have not made it possible to do the old things better.
I know at last that the Pulitzer award was not for past works as well as present. It was bestowed for the more open and direct acknowledgment of the poet's master Whitman, which had always been there, but which in the earlier poems had been filtered through Hart Crane….
One hopes that Mr. Simpson will return to a more formal utterance; one hopes that verse in English will recover strength, order, grace—its former sanity.
Harry Morris, in Sewanee Review (© 1969 by The University of the South; reprinted by permission of the editor), Spring, 1969, p. 325.
Mr Simpson seems embarrassed by his blessings. In a world full of naked pain and cruelty, he is almost ashamed to be sane, competent, free. He is also embarrassed by his fellow-countrymen, saddened by the false finale of the American idyll. Implicit in his irony and humour are many of the judgments passed by [Robert] Duncan. But his understatements linger in one's ear; his elegies for an overripe civilization lure and surprise one with their delicate changes of tone, their witty plaintiveness. Surely Mr Simpson's road would be a good one for more poets to travel.
"Dubious Seer," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), July 23, 1971, p. 855.
Louis Simpson's work is unbuttoned, genial, the kind of particularly American poetry that approaches a reader with an easy confidence in a shared language and an ironic civilization of attitude…. Simpson's achievement is to keep a total casualness of manner while paring and heightening the language so that it conveys a great deal poetically.
Julian Symons, "Unbuttoned," in London Magazine, December, 1971/January, 1972, p. 128.
[Simpson's] war poems are not witty, clever, gay, or humorous, but they are indeed moving and ironic. The other qualities, including irony, abound in the love poems, which, like the war poems, constitute about a third of the lyrics in The Arrivistes. In these love poems, Simpson resorts at times to inversions and to other archaic conventions in order to achieve rhyme. He often sounds, in fact, like an Elizabethan song-maker or like a Cavalier poet. Several of the love poems succeed better than others in infusing modern situations with the standard techniques of some time ago. (p. 41)
From the war poems included in The Arrivistes and in Good News of Death and Other Poems, certain consistent attitudes emerge…. Men in war, particularly those who serve in the infantry, are led to combat like children in a schoolyard to play a game with which they are unfamiliar. The men are, for the most part, unable to understand for what or why they are fighting. War is a dehumanizing force…. Yet men in war strive to maintain their basic dignity as human beings, and for this attempt they deserve sympathy. There is neither glory nor glamor in modern war, yet there are heroes and heroic acts. After war, the heroes, or their memories, are mistreated by a society that does not know what to do with them and that wants to forget anything to do with war as quickly and as conveniently as possible. (pp. 55-6)
Forty-one of the seventy-five pages of A Dream of Governors are devoted to the subject of war, thirty-one of which make up "The Runner," Louis Simpson's longest poem. This subject … is such a consistent one that there is little doubt, as we have observed before, that Simpson is the major American poet of World War II. In fact, he is probably the major American war poet, a position won not because he has written considerably on the subject, but because of the qualities that distinguish his war poems. (p. 76)
Although "The Runner" contains instances of fine descriptive and dramatic writing, it is nevertheless quite a conventional narrative. Thus it is not surprising that most reviewers of A Dream of Governors and the Selected Poems in which the long poem appeared find it unsatisfactory, by and large….
I must disagree with the critical consensus; "The Runner" satisfies the basic requirements of the long narrative poem. The plot moves well to its exciting climax. As the protagonist, Dodd is well defined; we are led to feel with his emotional turmoil over man's archetypal need to be strong, brave, and accepted. And we can understand the forces working outside of and within him that bring about his alleged act of cowardice. Dodd is no hero, and herein lies a major point: there are no heroes, and there is no glory in war. War is inimical to the human condition; and it is especially alien to a man like Dodd who is sensitive and who thinks. "The Runner" succeeds in what it sets out to do, and what it sets out to do is significant. (p. 84)
Simpson, along with William Stafford, James Wright, and Robert Bly, best represents the Emotive Imagination, though there are of course, other American poets whose work fits into this category. (p. 94)
Although my intent is not to label Simpson or to put him squarely within the definitive boundaries of a movement, I believe that an awareness that other poets share similitudes of techniques, subject matter, and attitudes helps to place his poetry within a meaningful context that is all the more significant because Simpson is pioneering these efforts. Of course, he is an individual poet, especially in his vision of America; but his poems since 1959 do resemble those of others, and this resemblance is important to notice.
The poems of the Emotive Imagination are, for the most part, not directed by concerns for rhyme, meter, or specific stanza divisions. The diction and rhythms are colloquial; images juxtaposed to create fresh and invigorating perceptions abound in poems of this movement. Since most of the poems of the Emotive Imagination are short, exact timing in the placing of these images is an important consideration. The images in these generally nonviolent (but not always) poems create a muted shock effect insofar as the reader's expectations are concerned. For example, some of Simpson's shortest poems begin with seemingly dull and uninspired lines; then, as the poems progress, the imaginative leaps through images take place; and, in the closing lines, the reader is confronted with images that seem irrationally arrived at but that contain the emotional messages of the poems. The reader is led to understanding, therefore, through feeling rather than through a logically charted progression of symbols. Assuredly, intellect is involved in the progression and images in the poem of the Emotive Imagination, but understanding depends frequently on what appears to be an irrationally oriented imagination. Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" is asked of the reader, who, if he is willing to comply, is rewarded.
The imaginative leaps the reader is asked to accept are founded on metaphors, and Simpson believes that metaphor in poetry makes us "experience thought as sense-perception, and so understand it." Often the metaphoric qualities in the images that characterize poems of the Emotive Imagination work through personifications. Stafford, Wright, and Bly employ the personification method with more consistency than Simpson, but his use of it is extremely effective. (pp. 95-6)
[Although the] other poets of the Emotive Imagination work within the context of defining America, Simpson alone has come directly to terms with America's failure to fulfill promises it seemed once to hold. Although this thematic consideration is apparent to an extent in his earlier poems, [At the End of the Open Road] contains the substance of his vision. (p. 96)
The influence, rather the force, of Whitman on Simpson lies primarily in the subject choice and attitude—and, more exactly, in providing Simpson with a way of looking at America, its spirit, character, philosophy, and direction. Nonetheless, the attitudes are entirely Simpson's; they are not extensions or refinements of those Whitman seems to hold. Since, more than any other American poet, Whitman tries to embrace and embody all of America, it is only reasonable that he provides a point of departure for Simpson, a set of attitudes about the country from which Simpson departs; for, assuredly, Simpson is not the optimistic celebrator of America that Whitman is; moreover, the poetry of Simpson is original in thought and in execution. (p. 109)
The last four lines of "Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,"… have frequently been cited by Simpson's critics and reviewers as a brilliantly imagistic ending to an outstanding poem. But no one has yet offered an explanation for the rational sense of these lines. The fact that they are striking and, at the same time, seemingly inexplicable is strong testimony to the efficacy of the Emotive Imagination. (p. 114)
[Regarding "Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,"] I can think of no other recent poem about America which so incisively and artistically probes at the core of the American spirit. Even in a literary sense, Simpson has provided a valuable service by placing Whitman's so-called prophecies in a sensible and meaningful perspective. In addition and more importantly, Simpson has questioned the validity of "American dreams." Our headlong plunge into self-aggrandizement is the primary object of his indictment. His prescription is offered in the perhaps too confusing closing lines of the poem. (p. 115)
The first three volumes of Simpson's poetry abound in poems shining with ironic humor. The irony remains in the fourth volume, At the End of the Open Road, and in the poems following to date; but the humor, largely a matter of dry, understated wit, is not as apparent. Like the early poetry, Riverside Drive can be humorous….
Riverside Drive is a good novel. To serious students of Louis Simpson, it is an important novel…. The novel confirms, among other things, the thematic judgments his poems on war make; and its style is superior. (p. 171)
Ronald Moran, in his Louis Simpson (copyright 1972 by Twayne Publishers, Inc,; reprinted with permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co.), Twayne, 1972.
[Adventures of the Letter I] is the first full-length collection of new poems by Louis Simpson since "At the End of the Open Road," which startled readers with its radical departures from Simpson's earlier, more traditional manner. Simpson's shift in style was something like James Wright's: from rhyme, meter, and traditional subject matter to free-verse explorations of the subjective image and of what must be called, loosely, politics. He continues in his new vein in this book, but with what a difference! He has abandoned the owlishness that characterized "At the End of the Open Road"; the sense of serious play so important to his earlier work has given his new poetry a strength and serenity that it had lacked. The book begins with a series of poems which try to recapture an imagined land, the Russia in which the poet's mother grew up. From there he moves to explorations of politics as a human reality, in poems concerned with Indians, Walt Whitman, and Kafkaesque visions of contemporary bureaucracy, always with control and even with love. This is perhaps Simpson's best book so far.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Winter, 1973), pp. xii-xiii.
A poet has written ["North of Jamaica"]. No praise is higher than that—that is, if the poet has succeeded in mastering the words for it, the "handful of words" it takes to write the poem one intended or the book one had in mind. "North of Jamaica," a story of Louis Simpson's life, is told in prose with the clarity, precision, condensation of poetry. Through its six parts, he speaks in many voices, yet amazingly each voice is his own: quiet, dispassionate, amusing, disturbing—separate voices. By listening to the tone, one hears them all.
Helen Bevington, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1973, p. 3.