Louis Simpson Simpson, Louis (Vol. 7) - Essay

Simpson, Louis (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Simpson, Louis 1923–

Simpson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Jamaican-born American poet and novelist. His poetry is considered rich, brilliant, delicate, ironic—and genial, "unbuttoned." He has been called a poet of the emotive imagination. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

A Dream of Governors is in many ways a brilliant book. What one first notices about Simpson is his power over the single line—it is harmoniously filled-out in the manner of some such musical Elizabethan as Sir John Davies. (p. 298)

This power is symptomatic, however, of his chief temptation, which is toward decoration for its own sake—decoration which may finally take the strength of the poem away, as it does in the first poem, "The Green Shepherd." A converse danger, though it is less extreme, is toward the didactic, as in poems like "Tom Pringle." (And here I ought to mention a long poem, "The Runner," though it is neither decorative nor didactic. I cannot help thinking that such a narrative would be more effective in prose.)

His strength lies between these extremes, in poems where neither rhetoric nor intention takes force from the other. Some of these are remarkably successful. If one jots down a list of the best poems in the book—"Orpheus in the Underworld," "I Dreamed that in a City Dark as Paris," "Old Soldier," "Hot Night on Water Street," "Carentan O Carentan"—one is struck by the fact that they are almost all about either hallucination or something pretty close to it. Description of hallucination can be mere fooling, but the way in which Simpson does it is serious and with a purpose. Behind the real situation a ghost situation suddenly appears, grows clearer, and, without obliterating it, becomes as vivid as the original situation: so that each acts not only as a contrast but as a kind of verification to the other. The possibilities of this kind of poem are shown most strikingly by the structure of "Orpheus in the Underworld." The first nine stanzas, about Orpheus, seem part of a very accomplished but slightly academic exercise; then suddenly the narrator uses the first person (Simpson is an old hand at springing the first person on the reader with good effect: he did it in "The Battle," in his earlier book), and the narrator merges with Orpheus. As a result, the coolness of the description that has gone before now becomes in retrospect the restraint of a man who has gone through the same sort of experience as Orpheus. The story continues about Orpheus and the narrator simultaneously, each acting as a metaphor to the other, but each stronger in itself than a mere metaphor. The advantage of such a structure is obvious: the author has set himself at a remove from his subject, but not at such a remove that he is tempted to use fanciful embellishments…. [In "I Dreamed that in a City Dark as Paris"] a modern man (one suspects a soldier) dreams that he is a French soldier in an earlier war…. He watches two planes at a dog-fight, "till one streamed down on fire to the earth," and at the end, returned to his modern self, comments:

                              My confrere
      In whose thick boots I stood, were you amazed
      To wander through my brain four decades later
      As I have wandered in a dream through yours?
      The violence of waking life disrupts
      The order of our death. Strange dreams occur,
      For dreams are licensed as they never were.

In a sense, this is his justification for the dream and hallucination as subject-matter. But the poems themselves, honest without being tame, are justification enough. (pp. 298-99)

Thom Gunn, in The Yale Review (© 1959 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1959.

[It] is hurtfully ironic to find that Louis Simpson (who knows America deeply, and proves it in his "The Legend of Success, the Salesman's Story") should be moved to reprint [in "A Dream of Governors"] his thirty-one-page poem of the 101st Airborne, "The Runner," which walks in plodding pentameters and is a narrative (as well as wartime) disaster. But his risk is real here, as it still is not in those skilled poems that intellectually engage old myths with the machinery of modern living, but fail (in their flat formalism) to reflect his emotional commitment to experience.

If his familiars were only Orpheus, various dragons, and assorted knights, the result might be total anonymity, poems nameless poets might have written. But where he owns to the full responsibility of his most important themes, as in his address "To the Western World," in such angry work as "Against the Age," or in his sweating out a "Hot Night on Water Street," Louis Simpson can rightfully be judged by his huge sense of America, and is, already, the poet he continues to become. (p. 22)

Philip Booth, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1959.

Louis Simpson's "A Dream of Governors" seems to break in half—the first half dazzling with its wit and finish, the second mostly the ineffective gropings of a young poet. There are among the latter pages two or three love poems which can go happily with the best of the beginning, but his war-narrative poem, "The Runner," is prosily written in the dullest way and the short war poems flat almost as badly.

In view of his best performances this is strange unless we assume that Simpson's real talent flowers not in high seriousness but in a high type of light verse. He can be trenchant: "And grave by grave we civilize the ground"; he can be memorably depressant, as in the poem "The Boarder"; he can be impudently gay: "The planets and the speeding stars / Arrive like little foreign cars." He loves to spin his best poems through time and space, and he exercises in the contrast of weighted words and light touch a most ingratiating, wise humor. (p. 40)

Winfield Townley Scott, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1960 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 21, 1960.

Simpson, from his earliest work, has been attracted by the ornate style—and if the word ornate sounds Elizabethan, the association is appropriate. At times, as in "John the Baptist" (from Good News of Death), he has been in danger of succumbing to its sweet seduction; but the peculiar strength of much of his best work has arisen from his awareness of the seduction, and the co-presence of a hard resistance to it: a kind of vigorous restlessness, of a most exciting sort, has been brought about by his ability to be simultaneously inside and outside of the Bower of Bliss. At best the restlessness acts as a check to the sensuousness, and the sensuousness acts as a check to the restlessness. The quality resulting from such lack of repose is found at its most developed in "My Father in the Night Commanding No" [from At the End of the Open Road], a lovely and at the same time sinister and uneasy poem, in which we are continually being put at momentary ease, in familiar surroundings as it were, and continually being made to realize immediately afterwards that we weren't where we thought we were at all. I find this possibly Simpson's best poem, but it is too long to quote in full and too tightly made to quote in part. Similarly excellent poems are "A Dream in the Woods of Virginia," which is the final section of a group that is otherwise lacking in energy, and "The Riders Held Back." (One English reviewer has damned this last as an "academic poem." It would probably be more accurate to call it an "unacademic poem," but whatever it is classed as, it is very good.)

There is also in this book an attempt—a development from a section of his last book—to define America, or the feeling of being in America, or the feeling of writing poems in America. Some of the results of the attempt seem to me a bit dated. The poem "American Poetry" looks almost as if it were written without knowledge of Williams or Hart Crane. Much of the time, however, Simpson's conclusions are exploratory and individual: "there is something unsettled in the air," he says, and "at the end of the open road we come to ourselves." He is most successful when he is defining a quality that turns out not to be particularly American…. Certainly, [nationality] is something his best work has always transcended and continues to transcend. (pp. 457-58)

Thom Gunn, in The Yale Review (© 1964 by Yale University: reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1964.

Our continent, tilted west for long, begins to level itself; the nation that journeyed with Walt Whitman, afoot and lighthearted, finds that it too has become established, perhaps by now itself an over-paid account. In California the westering Americans—with money, with success, with power, with redwoods, with San Francisco, with a sky like a perpetual Guggenheim—come to the end of the open road, which, Louis Simpson finds, "goes to the used car lot".

At the End of the Open Road plays against this pattern of Westward movement, tagging it with Whitman references but darkening it toward disquieting terminations. For instance, even on from California, in passage toward India, America is seen as on the move, but with its power represented by such front men as Realtors and Marines. Again and again the poems confront new, grim aspects of America's formative traditions. It is as if treasured documents like The Declaration of Independence should glow under a certain light and reveal odd skeletons.

This is a wonderfully sustained and consistent book—even an insistent book, with excitements and discoveries…. The poems in At the End of the Open Road lead again and again to an implied big story; the reader has a sense of living in a sustained pattern which works along behind the poems and makes of them a succession of glimpses into something ever larger. Maybe all I mean is that some poems today—and among them most of these in this book—carry a reader close to participation in a drama continually implied by the circumstances of our lives but never fully realized in the actual world. In our time, this implied story is never embodied in a complete work—a Paradise Lost or a Divine Comedy—, and apparently such an established story cannot be at this time convincingly delivered to us. But some writers do entertain hints that back of the shifting present there impends a meaning. At the End of the Open Road bears that kind of extra effect; the thread of the poems recurrently demonstrates the power to be derived from working near the potential of an imminent revelation.

Tentatively, a further characteristic of this book is that the poems avail themselves frequently of two forms hitherto often opposed but now more and more blended—or marbled—together. Where Mr. Simpson finds himself following a pattern of sound and stress he rides with it; but where he finds it an advantage to break the pattern, he does so. The result is that for varying intervals he enjoys formal reinforcements, but he retains a readiness to modulate at will from restraint. Ordinarily, we assume that writers take on a pattern, or they write freely, or make some regular adjustment. I see no net disadvantage in Mr. Simpson's kind of having and eating; in fact, I believe that what he does is much done, and that for some time we have been enjoying joint membership in the formal and the informal traditions. The success of this book gives occasion to take explicit note.

Though these poems are here collected for the first time, a number of them have been so effective in periodicals or so aptly used for touchstones that they are already more than magazine pieces; such poems are Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain, The Marriage of Pocohantas, My Father in the Dark…. The authority of such poems helps to make this a resounding book, a solid achievement. (pp. 104-05)

William Stafford, in Poetry (© 1964 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1964.

One can posit two poles between which the poetic imagination veers continually: there is that which draws the consciousness towards surrender to phenomena and that which subjugates phenomena to an internal vision. Most poets are constantly crossing the line and changing their latitudes in this imaginative cosmos. Louis Simpson, for example, navigates the full distance from the Antarctica of narrative ("The Runner") to the Arctic of symbolism ("The Riders Held Back"), although most of the time is spent in the temperate, tempered region between. After all he is an American and he himself writes of American poetry:

           Whatever it is, it must have
           A stomach that can digest
           Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.

Mr. Simpson has an extremely delicate sense of the traditional singing line of the English lyric but manages in his work to transform his notes to locks that hold the actual stuff of experience: he can digest the coal and the poems, in fact….

Characteristically also, as Mr. Simpson achieves an American identity, the cadences and patterns of his music depend less on the traditional iambic metre and begin to explore the possibilities of stress and sparseness…. If Henry James represented the so-called Paleface tradition, writing out of a sensibility formed in the European mould, while Whitman was the archetype of the Redskin, reacting directly to raw experience, Louis Simpson's position might be termed "blood brother", a complex and interesting position to maintain. He gives the natural world its due, but remakes it compulsively and confidently. His book is a valuable one, a touchstone for real poetry. (p. 512)

"Blood Brothers," in Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 9, 1966, p. 512.

I was particularly interested in Louis Simpson's narrative poem, The Runner, included in his Selected Poems. Written in a kind of flat, understated blank verse, it chronicles a series of battle experiences and the part a message-carrier plays in them, the theme tending toward meaninglessness (in the Existential sense) and the narrative excellently paced so as to arrive at that moment when a man is cut off from "meaning" and set free in the great, weightless world of his existence….

There are included in this volume all of the poems that most of us have admired over the years, but it seemed to me on rereading them along with The Runner that Louis Simpson has real ability in handling a narrative form which he ought to be applying more. Some of his poems in fact seem to be truncated narratives, like Moving the Walls, but his technique in using images and placing them in a context of some sort does not allow him the leeway he ought to have in a real narration.

The twelve wholly new poems included in this volume are neither as formalistic as some of his earlier ones, nor are they as restricted in subject matter; Tonight the Famous Psychiatrist is particularly well focused, as well as The Tailor's Wedding. But there is also a kind of tiredness to these new poems—that is, as if he were tired. I hope he will strike out in a new direction, toward the narrative again. (p. 270)

Bruce Cutler, in Poetry (© 1966 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1966.

Part of Louis Simpson's value as a poet is his indefinable quality. He is invariably formal and fastidious; but he has rarely been just the facile academic versifier. His range of subject-matter is large, but he handles it with a containment and a reticence which ensure that his energies are never squandered or dispersed in mere gesture. Refined, then; and to the point of unobtrusiveness? No: the lyrical calm, the mild, offhand humour, often conceal considerable gravity and true disturbance. So it's characteristic—and also helpful for new readers of this most attractive and elusive of middle-generation American poets—that this first individual volume to be published in England [Adventures of the Letter I] … should show us Simpson varying and concealing his identity in different guises, many of them accomplished and a few of them both alarming and moving.

His title is his self-granted roving commission to take in an imagined country of his fathers, in 'Volhynia Province'; present-day America seen from 'Indian Country'; a group of 'Individuals'; a quest for personal security among life's turbulence and irony ('Looking for Chekhov's House'); and a definition of his own role as a poet, in 'The Foggy Lane'. Each of these is a section-title, and explains little. The sections in fact group together, with fair coherence, batches of poems roughly related to an overall theme. His Russian forebears in Volhynia come out least well, in weird, if skilful, anecdotes; and the topical American pieces tend to present a familiar geography of doubt….

Generally, it's a lighter collection than is usual from Simpson; but as always, the resonances—and the terrors—work with a delayed action. (p. 854)

Alan Brownjohn, in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 18, 1971.

With the title of his 1963 collection, At The End of The Open Road, and the book's several poems which speak either directly or by allusion to the ghost of Whitman, Louis Simpson made it very clear where he was bent on going. One has only to look at the Selected Poems and compare the last piece from his previous volume with the first from The Road (Here I am, troubling the dream coast/With my New York face') to realise that it is not just New York he has moved from. 'The Goodnight', which closes A Dream of Governors, is a traditionally formal prayer for the poet's daughter, sharing with other edgy yet carefully wrought work like Anthony Hecht's 'It's Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It' an acute sense of peril—'The lives of children are/Dangerous to their parents'—communicated through resonant generalities made immediate by metric and the sudden bleak image: it is a beautiful poem, hugging what little warmth it can, and is unmistakably Simpson at the height of his 'old style'. (p. 60)

However, it is not just a simple case of forward and backward looks; I don't think it ever is with a poet of Simpson's quality…. At The End of The Open Road contains 'My Father in the Night Commanding No',… formally elegaic…, extremely accomplished in rhyme and metre, no sense of impatience or constriction. (pp. 60-1)

[For] some time Simpson has been shifting between two impulses; or, to put it another way, his development has been that of a writer of lyrical temperament agitated by the urge to grapple with the Big Country, to become a Voice of America. In retrospect it can be seen that Whitman had to be a large part of the answer, with his lilacs and vasty panoramas, but something of a modest Whitman inevitably. Simpson is not Ginsberg and nobody knows that better than Simpson. He could never present himself as 'one of the roughs' and besides, in contemporary American, one can't do that without becoming an exhibition. What he has been working towards in his recent poetry, through a filter of understatement and irony, is an expression of consciousness—American poetry 'must have/A stomach that can digest/Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.'—not a flaunting of it, and his communion is marked by caution and a strong sense of the extreme difference between himself and the old self-dramatising 'Cosmos' as well as between the vista down Whitman's road and the one with which he is familiar…. Whitman was a native of America while Simpson has undergone the overwhelming experience of arriving in it. Whitman's imagination—the scope of 'Song of Myself'—emerges from a continent experienced as entire in itself. Simpson, on the other hand, brings with him his West Indian childhood and—above all—his strong imaginative links with Russia which form an important part of the design of his new book Adventures of the Letter I—a title, incidentally, to set revealingly beside 'Song of Myself' in that it suggests a far more picaresque progress than Whitman's (adventures, not song—things happen to the poet) and offers, in 'The Letter I' a view of the writer as detached from himself rather than, as in Whitman's case, celebrating himself:

          I seem to be disconnected
          from the voice that is speaking
          and the sound of the voice that answers.    (p. 61)

Whitman was Adam Yank. One of Simpson's selves is 'Adam Yankev' (a key poem in the volume) caught between 'I' the immigrant and 'I' the native….

[Adventures of the Letter I] is full of moments like [those in 'Adam Yankev'], synthesising memory and immediate perception in a collection of poems which centre on landscapes (dream and actual), situation sketches, character vignettes and the various 'voices' which address the poet—as in 'The Foggy Lane' (a quiet turning off The Road for introspection and stock-taking)….

Simpson has moved away from the strict prosody of his earlier work. This is his first book to jettison rhyme almost entirely, and he has opened up his stanza forms to allow for whatever fragmentations the subject demands. He has also (a small point, perhaps, but in keeping with the rest) dropped the convention of beginning his lines with capitals—so that 'Black Kettle Raises the Stars and Stripes' (from 'New Poems' in the Selected) loses its capitals but remains otherwise the same on becoming section two of 'Indian Country'. These changes contribute to the new style, the 'open look' which gives Simpson the latitude he wants and can give the appearance of latitude (even a spurious 'significance', I'm afraid) at points where he spreads rather thinly as in 'Cynthia' (cf. Hecht's handling of a similar theme in 'Third Avenue in Sunlight').

Other influences seem to stand out in the recent work, excellent ones which should be more fully assimilated as Simpson gains confidence in his new clothes. Notable amongst these is Wallace Stevens whose imagery and cadence (via Bly and the Deep Image practitioners?) began to echo in At the End of The Open Road, particularly in the conclusion of 'Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain'. (p. 62)

Echoes, too, of the Pound of 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley' and 'Moeurs Contemporaines' can be found in the social satire, the frequent side glances at Civilisation … and above all the manner in which the poet ventriloquises, introducing voice after voice from various social or ethnic placings and from the sayings of great men:

       'As Maimonides says', said Meyer.
       'Speaking of the Flood', said Baruch.
       'Etsev', said Chaim, 'an equivocal term…'. (p. 63)

I am certain, given the obviously highly conscious organisation of Adventures of the Letter I, that Simpson is aware of these ghosts and that they are, in fact, as essentially a part of his developing fabric as the presence of the great Europeans were in the work of Pound and Eliot. I have to confess that I miss the resonance of many of the earlier poems, and gesture is no compensation for resonance (O ruins, traditions! etc.), but when the more anecdotal method works forcefully, as in 'Vandergast and the Girl', 'Isidor', 'A Friend of the Family' and several others, we are given strong indications of a rich potential in this new approach. It is as if, with this book, Simpson has felt a sudden freedom—long anticipated—and has seen the possibility of doing all sorts of things at once; the voices, all the 'I's crowd in and jostle for order. That they get on with each other as well as they do is, in itself, a considerable achievement. (pp. 63-4)

John Mole, "Where Are You, Walt?," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), July 1973, pp. 60-4.

In Louis Simpson's new collection of poems, The Adventures of the Letter I, the adventurer turns out to be the self on the move through the logic of dreams, a lyrical narrator who journeys into and out of experience, time, history, myth, and fantasy on a heroic quest for an idealized America. Along the way the "Letter I" leads us to what we have come to expect from Simpson: the destructive forces of the cities, the seductiveness of "things," the perversion of the psyche, California as contemporary sodom. But, in this, his most consistently impressive book, he also seems to be moving toward a looser structure in which narrative has replaced the lonely suggestiveness of sequential images. There is also less of the old caustic satire, less rage. But what is most unexpected is the self's urge to harmony through an intensified awareness of the "individual," a concern not for Life, but lives, a remarkable conciliation with the jangling machine of America. (p. 92)

Dave Smith, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Winter, 1974.

In his magnificent autobiography, North of Jamaica, Louis Simpson says, "It is only second-rate minds that are always ranking poets as first, second, third, and so on." Uh … that does make it difficult for me to state that he's our first poet, but there it is…. Searching for the Ox … is his seventh collection of poetry. The poems are anecdotal, lyrical, mysterious, witty. (p. 32)

William Cole, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 3, 1976.

["Searching for the Ox"] is a tremendously refreshing book, as entertaining and enlightening to read as a collection of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer or a short novel by Saul Bellow. So many modern poets, even some of the best, seem to want nothing more than to write in what Eliot called the first voice of poetry—"the voice of the poet talking to himself—or to nobody." Simpson, by contrast, prefers Eliot's second voice, that of "the poet addressing an audience." His poems are meant to be read; indeed, the reader is welcomed with a warm embrace. The style in which they are written presents us with no barriers—it is plain, direct and relaxed. Moreover, the poems tell a story, or several stories, in which we can take a real interest.

"Searching for the Ox" is an autobiographical work loosely organized into four sections. The protagonist of the poems—whom Simpson prefers to call a "man with a background similar to my own"—feels the lure of two distinct, even contradictory ways of life. He is both sensual and intellectual, drawn alike to the life of the mind and the life of the body. The problem is that neither position alone is satisfying. Thus he searches for a way to unite the two. (p. 4)

Peter Stitt, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1976.