Louis (Aston Marantz) Simpson 1923–
Jamaican-born American poet, critic, editor, novelist, dramatist, and nonfiction writer.
Simpson is an important figure in post-World War II American poetry. While the nature of his poetry has changed during the course of his career, he has been consistently praised as an insightful and resourceful poet whose work is accessible to a wide audience. Simpson has adopted a number of different approaches toward his subject matter, which has focused on such topics as war, love, and American society. In all of his works, Simpson relies heavily on imagery to evoke emotion and suggest meaning.
Critics have distinguished three stages of development in Simpson's work. The poems collected in his first three published volumes—The Arrivistes (1949), Good News of Death (1955), and A Dream of Governors (1959)—are characterized by his use of conventional poetic forms and are communicated through a detached voice. For the most part, these volumes contain finely crafted lyrics written with careful attention to meter and rhyme. Some of these poems recount Simpson's experiences as a soldier in World War II and express antiwar sentiments, while others deal with love. The war poems are generally considered Simpson's most effective early work, particularly "Carentan O Carentan" from The Arrivistes.
At the End of the Open Road (1963) is regarded as a transitional work. With this volume, Simpson adopted a more personal and direct expression and he began writing poems in free verse. Much of Simpson's poetry composed during the 1960s reproves contemporary American culture and society. During this period, Simpson often used surreal imagery to express his feelings of alienation, a practice that probably reflects the influence of Simpson's friend and fellow poet, Robert Bly. Most critics were impressed with those poems in At the End of the Open Road which invoke Walt Whitman's idealistic view of American democracy and society. Simpson expresses a sense of loss and regret by contrasting the idyllic future prophesied by Whitman with the materialistic culture of modern, urbanized America. At the End of the Open Road was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
In the 1970s, Simpson began to express empathy for America and its citizens. His poetry became plainer, unadorned, and almost prosaic, conveying meaning through fully developed images rather than through the surreal imagery of much of his verse of the 1960s. Many of these poems are lyric narratives that focus on the routine activities of modern Americans, especially ordinary, middle-class, suburban residents. Like Whitman and William Wordsworth, Simpson attempts to render such experiences in common, informal language. The volume Caviare at the Funeral (1981), which contains many poems written with this purpose, is viewed as one of Simpson's most important works. Some critics have compared his concerns and narrative approach to similar elements in the short stories of Anton Chekhov, whom Simpson has acknowledged as a strong influence. In The Best Hour of the Night (1983), Simpson continues to focus on the lives of ordinary Americans, finding significance in their everyday activities.
People Live Here: Poems 1949–1983 (1983) offers a retrospective of Simpson's career and shows the continuing development and sustained achievement of Simpson's poetry. On the basis of this collection and The Best Hour of the Night, critics have reaffirmed that Simpson is among the finest contemporary American poets.
(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 7, 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
In 1967, M. L. Rosenthal, in The New Poets, described a number of poets he found to have some tenuous connection with Robert Bly's The Sixties and said of them "… this group, which includes Robert Bly, Donald Hall,...
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Louis Simpson, James Wright, and James Dickey, is seeking to affect the aims of American poetry…." (p. 10)
More than two decades have passed since the first books of these poets appeared and though it is still unclear that any of their names will name the literary age to be described in anthologies years hence, no serious reader of poetry can be unaware that each has affected not only what American poetry is but also what it might be. If it is impossible to think of Bly, Hall, Simpson, Wright, and Dickey as conspirators of one mind, it is nevertheless true that together they have created poetry of a surfaced, examined, and revitalized inner life, a life not merely of the mind, but of the personalized mind. They have been noisy, exuberant, truculent, testy, and necessary—like many children in a house too small. Of Rosenthal's appointed group, perhaps the quietest and least public and even least affective on younger poets has been Louis Simpson.
A practising Christian would surely remind me here that the least shall enter Heaven first and a good case for that could be made on Simpson's behalf. In the end it is not going to be noise or influence that matters, but the durable quality and scope of achieved art. No one of that grouping seems to have so steadily and honestly gone on creating a credible and sharable vision of life in this world, in these times, more than Simpson has. It is, of course, not necessary to reduce the value and accomplishment of another poet to praise Simpson. I have no wish to do that. I only say that the poetry of Louis Simpson seems to me extraordinarily beautiful and complex, that it demonstrates an engagement with the vissicitudes and antinomies of American life in the sixties and seventies that is equal to the best we have, and that it may even possess a greater, quieter power of staying because it is extremely accessible. Accessible, yes, but scarcely without the deep resonance and luminosity of an imaginative intelligence whose reach is inward and outward, vertical and horizontal at the same time….
Louis Simpson's poetry is marked by its steady development in two directions. From the beginning he has wanted a synthetic vision, hence his attraction to Whitman, which would discover and fix the true nature of human existence and which, moreover, would reaffirm traditional and timeless values of the human as social and responsible creature who might, nevertheless, intuit some binding, beyond-human force. He has been, therefore, a consistently moral and ethical poet. Not, I insist quickly, a moralistic poet, one who writes a poetry whose bent bends our ears with a prefabricated polemic. He has not been a ferocious preacher in the manner of Bly, but he has been a kind of conscience in the way of Wright. And, like Wright, Simpson has always found himself equipped with an ironist voice, a disposition toward a poetry of steely intelligence which would play Mercutio to a poetry of Romantic and synthetic moaning in the dark bushes. It is this second strain in his poetry which accounts for his frequent humor, satire, social comment, good citizenry, and, ultimately, the evolution of his mature poetic style. Simpson has come far from that ideal music of the fifties—his language now, as Randall Jarrell would say, is clear enough even for cats and dogs; he has come to a certain unfashionable narrative base, to a poetry that unabashedly employs the devices of prose fiction. But not, it should be noted, to the fashionable prose-poem, for he appears to believe he can still detect a valuable difference between poetry and prose, a difference that is marked by the continued prominence of such tensions and ironies as are generated by the contending of mind and heart under equal pressure.
Louis Simpson has made a poetry out of ourselves who want mystical unity, harmony, and escape from the almost unendurable brutalities of the world; but he has also made it out of ourselves who are grinning realists, who know that escape from the difficulties of being human, especially in poetry—whose function is to help us be more human, serves the forces of brutalization and division. Simpson has never forgotten moralist and artist as he is, that a poem must have an audience before it is a true poem, that such a poem is a bridge to somewhere and someone. His poems, therefore, are always testing their own authority and reality—they are always having to prove their right to exist—for he has wanted what he has increasingly created, an art which speaks in plain language about subjects experienced in a social world of ordinary people. He says, "I have a sort of Wordsworthian vision: a picture of a very ordinary human being who is also highly intelligent and likes to read poetry; he is the one I write for. This man knows what a garage looks like, this man knows what a milk-bottle sounds like on the back porch in the morning." Simpson does not aspire to mass pablum, however, but to a total and authentic communication through art, a speaking that is both deeply personal and broadly human….
More than his contemporaries, then, Simpson has searched for a poetry which would not be content with either a fabric of associational images and an esoteric mysticism nor a poetry of received ideas and rational discourse. Though his early work demonstrated the traditional, literate, and neatly cadenced character of late Modernism, there was also a strain of fresh diction which was not decorative figuring but muscular nomination. He moved away from the poem bien fait, closer to that diction which James Wright called the "poetry of a grown man." Increasingly he has employed rhythms and organizational units which parallel actual human speech, knowing it was this speech which would allow the resonance of both personal and mythic, or psychic if you will, depths. This direction has meant a reliance on image juxtaposition that has seemed to some critics to keep him in lock-step with Robert Bly, but he has never been truly illogical or surreal. While others have gravitated toward hermetic languages of utter personality, toward European modes of the fabular, toward anecdotal journalism. Simpson, like Wordsworth, has sought a dialect of the actually spoken. He has told stories in a parabolic speech of local roots. It is as if he had believed everything in the phenomenal world might speak if the right plain language would be wrestled to the purpose. The risk, and he has sometimes succumbed to it, has been a loss of tension, a flattened music, a prose. The gain has been that widened world of human experience which is not merely personal, which is never parlor gamesmanship or cosmic buffoonery, which is recognizably diverse, contradictory, mature, and immediate. He has come to a poetry that, as he says, "addresses itself to the human condition, a poetry of truth, not dreams … [that] depicts human actions and the way we live…. Not a mere relation of events, but a narrative of significant actions." (p. 11)
Dave Smith, "A Child of the World," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, January-February, 1979, pp. 10-15.
The astonishing thing about Caviare at the Funeral is its radical presentation of American life. It has long seemed to me that Louis Simpson is among the most American of all American poets. Somehow the fact that he was born and raised in Jamaica and came to this country only in his eighteenth year has enabled him to see us, our land and our ways, with unusually clear vision.
His earlier work, especially in At the End of the Open Road, shows an understanding of America rarely seen…. In Caviare at the Funeral Simpson carries his insights several steps further in the creation of a poetry of everyday American life. I don't mean the life we see in most of our poetry, life as it is lived in the university classrooms and college towns, in the slick bars and elegant cafés, nor even on the unreal, atypical streets of New York. No, Simpson gives us something altogether more usual and unusual, the commonest life of all and the one least often found in our poetry—the suburban life of the average middle-class family.
The most remarkable poem in this regard, and one of the best poems in the book, is "The Beaded Pear." A family goes shopping—"Dad in Bermuda shorts, Mom her hair in curlers, / Jimmy, sixteen, and Darlene who is twelve, / are walking through the Smith Haven Mall,"—and later we see them at home…. The most important question about a poem like this concerns its tone—are the lines satiric, sarcastic, destructive, hateful? They are not, however much we may be tempted to read them that way. Nor are they celebratory; rather, Simpson is concerned to describe, carefully, emphatically, the nature of American life.
Of course a distinction must be drawn between the sensibility (the relative level of understanding and intelligence) of the poet and that of the people he writes about. His insights are more acute than theirs, for he sees with a double sight—his stance as writer places him both within the action and apart from it; he is both participant and observer…. The difference is that most of the people Simpson writes about live only on the surface of things, whereas he, the poet, wishes to know that level at the same time as he penetrates beyond it. (pp. 183-84)
The quality of the writing in this book is very high. So close is Simpson's mature style to prose, excluding the obvious musical devices of poetry, that great pressure is placed on his use of voice, structure, and imagery. In all three areas, these poems are near models of perfection…. Caviare at the Funeral is a courageous book, in content as well as in form. Simpson is going against the tides of fashion in his attempt to reestablish the narrative line and a version of the common man at the heart of American poetry. What looks so average and everyday on the surface actually represents a radical originality; Simpson's discoveries are akin in importance to those of Wordsworth and Whitman, who also tried, in their differing ways, to bring the common life into poetry. (pp. 184-85)
Peter Stitt, "Purity and Impurity in Poetry," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 182-89.∗
At a minimum, incisive poets may serve [their] era by suggesting some levels of personal good sense relative to certain senseless, impersonal realities. Further to the point, the right poet's eye can fire mysteries in both extreme and ordinary events. Such aspects of the art connect with the modern poet's secret goal to establish a private foothold of authority, what John Berryman called "imperial sway," or that which Wallace Stevens understood as "a sensible ecstasy." It would seem that this is the potential edge poetry makes available to any number of its most capable and intimate handlers.
Louis Simpson, of course, knows where and how this authoritative edge cuts. Indeed, just when it seems that Simpson has reached the comfortable height of his powers, as evidenced by six formidable earlier collections, including the Pulitzer Prize winning At the End of the Open Road, he penetrates forward with Caviare at the Funeral.
All of his best ruling qualities are displayed in this work: the introspective and observant eye, expressive detail, an easy mastery of line and stanza, the storyteller's craft and unassailable wisdom, a spirit of slightly cryptic conversation, his way of rendering anew the tactile world, usually in lamentable decline or disrepair. All this we have come to expect from Simpson.
But now there is more: this poet's ability to transmute elements of his poems into something even richer and more profound than before, to invest the poem with an unmistakable radiance that inspires the lines yet somehow remains outside them, like a nimbus around the head of a saint. One begins to suspect that he sanctions this effect, in part, through an extensive range of delivery systems—descriptive, lyrical, funny, somber, fantastic. So much of Simpson's maturity comes, ironically, from his ability to heed the challenges of experiment, to stay verbally energetic.
The longer storytelling poems remain his most compelling, in this instance particularly the title work, "Chocolates," "The Man She Loved," "Sway," "Typhus," and "Why Do You Write About Russia." Sometimes it is as if Simpson is the most cunning of sleuths, able to reconstruct the far-fetched story of a life from "the contents of your purse … / among Kleenex, aspirin, / chewing gum wrapper, combs, et cetera." Then other times the story merely emerges from air, the narrator staring out the kitchen door on a hot, bug-ridden night.
There is humor here, too, but what to call it? Not black humor, and not white humor either. Poetic humor, then, in the most delicate of circumstances. And the wisdom of the humor comes from the association created between the body of the poem's stated experience and Simpson's imposition of a conclusion, his valued judgment at the end, which understands that the "words you thought were a joke, / And applied to someone else, / were real, and applied to you."
As usual, Simpson also examines the underbelly of American landscape, our urban shams and sorrows, especially in the excellent three-part movement "The Beaded Pear." But he confronts more than the bitter shortcomings inherent in our roadside junkyards, shopping malls and real estate agencies. American life—in its abundance and flux—is his projected subject. Since he does encompass so much, in unpredictable patterns, unconcerned with climaxes (the usual poetical devices are unnecessary here), the lines at last just move. Then the pointillist's dots of individual images begin to shape into surprisingly complex yet familiar configurations. Once onto this mode, one is forced to conclude that it's the real world that is arbitrary, while these poems seem inevitable.
Such is the final authority Simpson commands in this edition of thirty-four new titles, most of which provide conclusive evidence of remarkable advances in suppleness, clarity, balance, scope of feeling and thought amid the strangeness of contemporary passions. (pp. 155-56)
G. E. Murray, "Seven Poets," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 155-60.∗
Louis Simpson's poems in Caviare at the Funeral are typically narrative; they are also typically brief, none going beyond a few pages. The poet hasn't made things easy for himself. Telling stories in verse is a demanding procedure because many of the features we appreciate in prose fiction—a sense of events spawning events, of characters developing or disintegrating, days passing into days—are seemingly at odds with the compactness of poetry. It has been often observed that poems relax in style as they grow in length. I would have expected that in composing such brief narratives Simpson's aim would be to avoid this stylistic dilution. But the style of the poems is, if not diluted, systematically understated. There is an odd mingling of effects, offering within tightly drawn boundaries a language that lacks the heightening which many poets would attempt to bring to such pieces.
Because the style is so determinedly unobstrusive the reader's attention focuses on content. The results vary. "New Lots" wanders randomly in and out of decades in the lives of an immigrant family transplanted from Russia to New York. The poet seems more concerned with evoking atmosphere and recording period detail than with rendering character or significant incident. This and some of the other poems employ the gestures of narrative without having, apparently, much of a story to convey. I found myself wondering: Shouldn't our past, rather than our nostalgia for it, be the chief object of interest?
In "Sway," a poem made up of memories of a summer friendship, far in the past, with a resort hotel waitress, the narrator recalls wryly his youthful ambition: "to write novels conveying the excitement / of life." The waitress herself, he tells us, went into an attempted novel…. It is not very exciting, as the speaker proceeds to admit with an admirable ingenuousness: "Then the trouble begins. I can never think of anything / to make the characters do." This is a blandly crafty apologia, in which the poet, by opting to beat the critic to the punch, exposes the most vulnerable aspect of his enterprise. I doubt whether any but a highly intelligent writer would be capable of imperiling a poem in this particular way, through such a sudden yet calculated eruption of self-consciousness.
Although I have found Simpson's aims and methods sometimes puzzling, I would not wish to say that the book is a bad one. There are examples in which the stance of the poet toward his material is not so much in question, and in such cases the poems are impressive. In "Working Late," the poet's memories of his lawyer father and of his own childhood in the West Indies are clearly on target…. "Caviare at the Funeral" and "Chocolates," based on Chekhov's life and writing, are poems which might have been mere versified anecdotes but which achieve a memorable tone, sad and probing, which approaches Chekhov's own. (If Simpson were as frequently effective in dealing with eventlessness as Chekhov is, my objections to some of his longer poems would be gladly abandoned.) "Typhus" is a quietly harrowing piece which the content is easily strong enough to carry; the dry, unemphatic presentation here seems absolutely right. Rhetoric would have ruined this piece drawn from a woman's memories of an epidemic she survived and the harsh childhood in old Russia which she survived into. It would be ill-served by anything but full quotation. Celebrating the unconscious heroism of one survivor, it remains in the mind as an emblem of human endurance. For poems such as this Simpson's book is well worth having. (pp. 171-73)
Robert B. Shaw, "Quartet," in Poetry, Vol. CXXXIX, No. 3, December, 1981, pp. 171-77.∗
Louis Simpson once wrote that 'The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.' It doesn't any more. It goes to a suburban cul-de-sac where:
Most people are content to make a decent living. They take pride in their homes and raising a family. The women attend meetings at the PTA … There aren't too many alternatives.
The prosaic nature of the language mirrors the life-style, as does its easy-going, good-natured tone of speech. Simpson's poems [in Caviare at the Funeral] are all 'up front'. He can talk about spiritual emptiness without being boring. He's never superior to his subject. It's a considerable and democratic art. If life is prosaic it still has to he understood. A couple stand by the freeway with their broken-down car. 'They look surprised, and ashamed / to be so helpless … let down in the middle of the road!'… The American Dream is beached by the roadside. Simpson's characters are like people in an Edward Hopper painting. They look up from their work-bench or office-desk to find themselves strangely exiled in the light and landscape that surrounds them. America is something 'other' than they thought and worked for. The gods killed at Wounded Knee now stare back above the sprinklers in Orange County. They are placated at the golf club and in the shopping mall, but still something is missing…. If America (like other Super Powers) is isolated in the world at large, then the individual American is also isolated within his own self-created world. Simpson has gradually moved from more general and symbolic statements about the American way of life ('At the end of the Open Road 1963') to a more detailed and disturbing—but essentially humane—analysis of everyday actualities….
[The sequence The Beaded Pear follows] an 'average' American suburban family through its day, using place-names, reported speech, narrative asides, and all manner of literary collage to re-create 'reality'. Simpson lets America speak for itself but, of course, the truest poetry is the most feigning, and the impression of reality so beautifully created is a considerable work of imagination, of skillfully imposed order. (p. 81)
Peter Bland, "Summer Cobwebs," in London Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 11, February, 1982, pp. 79-81.∗
The simultaneous publication of these two books—People Live Here: Selected Poems 1949–1983 and The Best Hour of the Night—offers the opportunity for both a retrospective view of the career of Louis Simpson and an assessment of his maturest and most characteristic work. People Live Here, which is based upon seven separate earlier volumes, makes clear that there are three major phases to be found in the body of Simpson's work, phases which are separated by major changes in style, subject matter, and approach.
The poems in Simpson's first three books—The Arrivestes (1949), Good News of Death (1955), and A Dream of Governors (1959)—are written in tight, traditional English lyric forms, forms that have the effect of dissociating the poet's sensibility from the very material he is attempting to write about. In many of these early efforts, Simpson sounds rather like the new metaphysical poets, who had their vogue in the 1940's and '50's. (p. 662)
It was after the publication of his third book that Simpson made the first major change in his work. To bring more of his own voice into his poetry, he abandoned traditional English forms and began to write in free verse…. Besides being more relaxed, the new style is more personal than the old, giving the reader a more direct impression of the sensibility that informs these poems. In fact, the feature which above all others gives unity to the poetry of Louis Simpson is his concern with the way this sensibility reacts to and interacts with the society that surrounds him.
We must not conclude from this, however, that Simpson is a confessional poet. Confessional poetry is personal because it takes for its subject matter the literal details of the poet's life and feelings, the truth of that life as lived in the real world; Simpson's poetry is personal because it emerges from and expresses a single, central, perceiving sensibility. Although the effect of this can be even more intimate than what the reader experiences in confessional poetry, it is achieved while the poet maintains a reticent posture with regard to the external details of his life. (p. 663)
At the same time that he was striving for a greater directness in his style, Simpson also effected a radical change in the subject matter of his poetry. Generally speaking, his early poems may be said to exist in the disembodied nowhere land of traditional lyric poetry. With the publication of his fourth volume, At the End of the Open Road (1963), Simpson turned emphatically to America for both his setting and his themes…. The sensibility which speaks and thinks in Simpson's poems is seriously alienated from America during the second phase of his work. America is seen as the country which not only had killed the Indians but was also participating, indefensibly, in an unjust war in Vietnam. The only recourse open to the sensitive individual was to retreat into a kind of protective isolation…. (pp. 663-64)
With the publication of Adventures of the Letter I (1971), Simpson's work began to develop away from the alienation expressed in phase two towards a stronger feeling of brotherly love….
Simpson is coming to empathize more directly with his fellow "footsoldiers" and their ordinary "human suffering." No longer will his protagonist feel so "cut off in his affections from the people around him"; he will not hold the citizenry at large responsible for such atrocities as the American participation in Vietnam—that rap will be pinned on those who earn it, the "officer class" generally. The most important change in Simpson's work at this point in his career, then, is the increased sense of empathy those poems express for other people. The change in attitude—and in method of operation—on the part of the Simpson protagonist is made clear in a poem like "The Mexican Woman," from Caviare at the Funeral . In the first section of this poem, the speaker is panhandled by an old man who claims to have been "in Mexico with Black Jack Pershing"…. (p. 664)
The second section tells the reaction of the speaker to this chance encounter; "the old man's tale still haunts me," he begins:
I know what it's like to serve in Mexico with Black Jack Pershing….
Through the use of his imagination, the speaker is able to become the old man, to experience a portion of his life. The poem is curiously both objective and subjective; objective because of its interest in the life and concerns of a character other than the speaker, but subjective in that it is also the speaker's story, the story of his imagination.
In its use of a narrative structure and reliance on significant, telling details for action, character, and meaning, this poem resembles prose fiction. Simpson is the author of one novel, Riverside Drive, published in 1962, and recently has talked about writing another. In fact—if such things can be judged by what the protagonist of his poems says—it would appear that as a young man Simpson may have aspired more to writing fiction than poetry. (pp. 664-65)
And yet, despite this ambition, despite his skill at manipulating narrative, detail, and imagery, Simpson did not become a good novelist…. The failure occurs in the area of plot—the individual scenes of Riverside Drive are pointed and affecting, excellent at conveying mood, but never add up to a cohesive overall statement. In short, Simpson's fiction embodies all the qualities that would be needed if one wished to write a narrative kind of lyric poetry—which is precisely the choice he ultimately made. (pp. 665-66)
Narrative is used in Simpson's best poems, then, not to channel action towards an exciting climax but to organize images and relatively minor incidents towards some revelation of personality and feeling. Because this poetry is more or less static in terms of external action, imagery is of considerable importance in the achievement of its effects. Simpson, in fact, considers himself a kind of latter-day Imagist poet…. In Simpson's use of imagery there is something of the idea behind Eliot's objective correlative: if the image is properly prepared for and invested with appropriate suggestions, it should call up in the reader the same emotions it evokes in the author or in the created character.
Most often, the feelings that are expressed in the poems of phase three are again those of the Simpson protagonist, the sensibility that has always been at the heart of his work. However, because of the greater degree of empathy that informs this phase, we find as well poems spoken by characters who are obviously different from this one; also, there are poems written from the third-person point of view, in which Simpson imagines from the outside and sympathetically presents the feelings of another…. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Simpson's recent work is just how different the people he writes about are—not just from the sensibility that inhabits his work, but from the characters who appear in contemporary American poetry generally.
Most contemporary poets, of course, write primarily about their own personalities; Simpson is no exception to this rule. When we get beyond this level, what we commonly find are characters who are very much like the poets—sensitive, intelligent, well-educated, of refined taste in food, music, literature, what have you. When we go beyond the poet as character in the poems of Simpson's phase three, by contrast, what we find are the ordinary citizens of America—not college professors and orchestra conductors, not manual laborers and nuclear protesters, but middle-class burghers, people who shop in shopping centers rather than in boutiques, people who watch "Love Boat" rather than "Masterpiece Theatre," people who worry about their mortgages, their false teeth, their teen-age children when they don't come home on time. Simpson's goal is to write not about an unusual, privileged way of life, but about the life most people are living in this country today. (pp. 666-67)
"Quiet Desperation," which appears in The Best Hour of the Night , is written from the third-person point of view and concerns a single day in the life of an unnamed citizen of suburbia. (p. 667)
"Quiet Desperation" establishes a common ground of ordinary human feelings where the guiding sensibility of Simpson's poems and his middle-class protagonist can meet to share what they have in common. There are many poems like this in this latest period, poems which express, on the part of that sensibility, an authentic degree of empathy for humankind generally. However, there are also many poems in this phase which express something that may seem contrary to this—the continuing recognition by the Simpson sensibility of a difference between himself and most other people. It is not the feelings themselves that make him different, nor their quality and depth; rather, it is the degree to which these feelings are speculated upon and understood. This realization does not lessen the empathy felt by the protagonist, but it does reinforce his sense of isolation, of an ultimate and irremediable aloneness. (p. 669)
The problem faced by the sensibility of Simpson's poems is that the society of which he is a part is so much more superficial in its interests than he is; it is committed to money, to the everyday problems of work, but ignores the depths of human emotion, the life of the soul….
The alienation of Simpson's protagonist results precisely from his devotion to the things which are unseen by the middle class generally: a full range of genuine emotions, the life of the soul. (p. 671)
[Crucial] differences between the Simpson protagonist and the average middle-class citizen remain; it is the expression of these differences that makes some readers think the poems are satirical. The tone of these poems is an extremely delicate one—in part due to the understatement and restraint that is built into their form. Simpson is attempting to balance very different opinions of two nearly identical things—his empathy for the people and his contempt for the values by which they sometimes live their lives. (p. 672)
At the end of The Best Hour of the Night, Simpson has placed an ars poetica devoted to the plight of the poet who chooses to live and work in suburbia. Entitled "The Unwritten Poem," it begins by asking where poetry is to be found; "Not in beautiful faces and distant scenery," he answers, but:
In your life here, on this street where the houses from the outside are all alike, and so are the people. Inside, the furniture is dreadful— floc on the walls and huge color television.
However much he may dislike the details of this way of life, its tastelessness, the absence of emotion, the poet still must also love the people he writes about; as Pound said more than fifty years ago, a poetry which is simply satirical will inevitably corrode and die from the inside out. Simpson knows, however, that his feelings will never be reciprocated by the community: "To love and write unrequited / is the poet's fate." The poem ends with a vision of the soullessness of American life, as the poet watches the morning commuters "grasping briefcases" as they "pass beyond your gaze / and hurl themselves into the flames." They are like the dead souls of Eliot's "The Waste Land," seen crossing London Bridge every morning. Ultimately, it is the soullessness of American life that places the individual in Simpson's poems at odds with this society.
Though he has not often been recognized as such, Louis Simpson is certainly one of America's more original poets. Most of today's poets occupy a middle ground, writing with great sincerity about their own feelings, using the literary forms most in vogue. Originality is to be found in poets willing to question the received truths about their art. For some, this has led directly to an interest in the possibilities of craft, the possibilities of pure imagination; the personal self is abandoned in favor of a world of make-believe, where anything the author can imagine can happen. Simpson's direction is different, but no less original. While he too abandons the egotistical self, he plunges not into a world of make-believe but into a relentlessly realistic world, a world most poets think is hopelessly prosaic. Even more remarkable is the high quality of the work produced from these raw materials—these poems are readable and aesthetically attractive, engaging both the intellect and the emotions with their imagistic density. Although Louis Simpson has been publishing poems for nearly forty years, his best work has come in the last ten. The simultaneous appearance of these two handsome volumes will go a long way towards solidifying his position among the best poets of today. (pp. 674-75)
Peter Stitt, "Louis Simpson's Best Hour," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Fall, 1983, pp. 662-75.
Over the years, one has often been tempted to ask, "Will the real Louis Simpson please stand up?" For there have been several. There was the correct but amazingly precocious young Briton from Jamaica, the coeditor of "New Poets of England and America," a few of whose poems are preserved in the opening sections of "People Live Here." There was the brief but shrill convert to the school of Robert Bly. There was the author of critical books like "A Revolution in Taste," which seems to me all too English in its breezy mixture of gossip and snap judgments. Finally, there is the wonderful poet of the last 10 years, whose bare, unadorned poems of the common life remind me of Randall Jarrell.
That Mr. Simpson knows where his best work is to be found is indicated by both the title of "People Live Here," a selection of poems written in the past 24 years, and its organization. He has arranged the poems chronologically within thematic sections, so each early poem, whether on war, Jewish life in Russia or modern lives, seems a kind of preliminary draft for a recent masterpiece, such as "On the Ledge," "Typhus" or "Sway," placed at or near the end.
"I am the man, I suffered, I was there," Walt Whitman wrote. Mr. Simpson, who has given us a very lovable, if deconstructive, portrait of our national bard in the poem "Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain," suffers and benefits from the same inability to distance himself from the pathos of other lives….
[In] "The Mexican Woman," the poet relives an old beggar's tales of war and infidelity…. Here "wise," the old beggar's word, expands marvelously to its full meaning, as if to participate in the pain and the victory of other lives were the essence of wisdom.
But wisdom has a less ecstatic dimension—the need to face up to hard moral facts and unresolvable contradictions in our lives. Mr. Simpson has been adamant about the place of such facts and contradictions in poetry and about the need to emphasize them by breaking rules at times….
But Mr. Simpson did not arrive at this difficult, equalizing wisdom easily. The one group of displeasing poems in "People Live Here" is in a section called "A Discovery of America" that gathers together poems from the 1960's. In them Surrealism is used to distance and dehumanize Americans, particularly Californians: "The businessmen of San Francisco / … rise from the ooze of the ocean floor." The compassion is merely condescending, and the contrasting praise of traditional societies is peculiarly simple-minded, even allowing for the general simple-mindedness of modern poets on this subject:
You were born to waste your life. You were born to this middleclass life As others before you Were born to walk in procession To the temple, singing.
Even Mr. Simpson's best previous book, "Caviare at the Funeral," did not allow quite the same degree of humanity to his Long Island neighbors as to soldiers, prostitutes, immigrant Jews, sad young proletarian girls and sad, corrupt editors. He does extend his compassion to those neighbors in his new book, "The Best Hour of the Night." But what makes his suburbanites most sympathetic, one finds, is their discontent. They know dimly that something is lost when life ceases to be raw and cruel, although they also know that rawness can brutalize. On a fishing trip to Alaska, one Jim Bandy (Simpson's comic names can be wonderful) has a brush with the uncompromisingness of life….
This poem says what most of Mr. Simpson's best poems seem to say—that, finally, no life is satisfactory but there is the paradoxically healing corollary that all lives are somehow the same life. Perhaps that is a kinder way of reading the unsuccessful early poem mentioned before—"You were born to this middleclass life." But the healing insight is expressed much more charmingly in "Physical Universe," the first poem in "The Best Hour of the Night." As the poet is ranting late at night about metaphysics—"Or should we stick to the Bible?"—his wife mutters in her sleep, "Did you take out the garbage?" The poet "thought about it," and her words become an answer, the only possible answer.
Like a koan … the kind of irrelevance a Zen master says to the disciple who is asking riddles of the universe.
Alan Williamson, "We're All in the Same Boat," in The New York Times Book Review, January 29, 1984, p. 26.
Having been from the beginning an admirably "impure" poet (to borrow Czeslaw Milosz's sly term for Whitman, Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, et al., as opposed to those modern poets who aspire to an art of "pure" imagination), Simpson has taken on the challenge of trying to make sense of contemporary life, from his soldiering experiences in World War II to American historical myths and realities—wherein "The Open Road goes to the used-car lot." Increasingly, he writes about ordinary characters and their everyday experiences. Simpson stoutly refuses the pressure from "purists" to force poetry into a limited and marginal role. The title of his selected poems, People Live Here, is an indication of this writer's determination to engage his imagination with characterization and plot. For him, as for Matthew Arnold, poetry has been a "criticism of life." Simpson has consistently chosen a large canvas, and this selection displays thirty-four years of work that is various, compassionate, committed and often astonishingly beautiful. He is adept enough—and I would say, humane enough (I take the will to communicate as a gauge of an artist's humanity)—to be clear and readable. If the rhetorical intensity of his poems slackens in the process, it should also be noted that their plainness of diction contributes to their directness.
Reading the more than 200 pages of People Live Here, one is struck both by the range of subject and treatment and by the unifying effect of Louis Simpson's voice and attitude on heterogeneous material. While capable of lyric rapture, the poet typically holds himself at some distance from his subjects and is by turns satirical, bemused, sorrowing, disdainful, sympathetic, wry. Yet to say that he holds himself at some distance is less accurate than to note that while sympathetic, Simpson seems by his very nature to be an outsider…. While he engages himself passionately with American life, at times it is as if the poet were an anthropologist from an alien culture observing American ways. (pp. 166-67)
The Best Hour of the Night reflects Simpson's increasing focus on life in the suburbs. "Suburbia" is a word that one rarely pronounces without sneering, but to dismiss or ignore it is to eliminate from consideration a significant slice of the American pie. As Robert Lowell put it, "History has to live with what was here." Someone who knew nothing of present-day America would get little idea of our life from most contemporary poetry. I often think of a student of mine some years ago who said, "I never feel completely at ease outside of Great Neck," and I can almost imagine her in a Simpson poem. His view of these briefcase-carriers, deal-strikers, Saturday-night poker players and village-meeting-goers combines detachment with a self-effacing sense of identification….
In staking out fresh material for his poetry, it is not surprising that Louis Simpson should feel the necessity of creating new or at least hybrid forms. This he has done notably in "The Previous Tenant," which is something like a short story in free verse. The form allows the writer to highlight certain details without being bound to the three-dimensional realism and continuity of traditional fiction….
The speaker rents a cottage where the previous tenant has left some of his belongings, and through conversations with the landlord and others, pieces together the story of an affair his predecessor had that caused him all sorts of trouble including the divorce that necessitated his moving into the cottage in the first place. It's a fascinating, skillfully spun tale in which we learn all sorts of different things about the characters involved, the speaker, the little suburban town in which the story is set and, finally, about American values.
If you cling to the impression that poetry is by nature obscure, forbidding and otherworldly, buy one of these books by Louis Simpson. You may be the only passenger on the 5:51 reading it, but you will feel a shock of recognition at poems that dare to come to terms with this country we live in…. (p. 167)
Richard Tillinghast, "The Poet of the 5:51," in The Nation, Vol. 238, No. 5, February 11, 1984, pp. 166-67.
Many years ago in my reading I was shopping for a good contemporary lyric poet. I had trouble finding what I was looking for until a friend recommended the poems of Louis Simpson. "The best we've got," he said. People Live Here includes more than 100 poems from the author's ten previous books and chapbooks, and from recent uncollected poems. Also included is an afterword by Simpson himself, "The Sake of Words for Their Own Sake."
This latter piece consists of a charming and honest description of Simpson's Jamaican childhood ("I am the other Jamaican, a child of the middle class, some of us white, some 'colored,' but all of us borrowing our manners and prejudices from the English"), his early inspiration to become a writer ("the stories my mother read to me"), his education and war experience, his political awakening and what he was reading at various times. Readers will be touched by the ease and good humor with which Simpson examines Simpson. An example of that humor occurs when he mentions his discovery of A. E. Housman: "… for a year or two [I] read his lyrics with the kind of sympathy that a young American now feels for rock."
The poems, too, should shake a lot of napping readers awake. The thematic continuity spanning the thirty-four years covered here is remarkable. Simpson has always focused on physical and spiritual love, reconciling the present with the past via the family, man's inhumanity to his fellow man, war, and spiritual poverty.
The book's first two sections display traditional, and beautiful, lyrics; Section Two contains poems inspired by his war years. These are some of the most powerful anti-war poems of our time. "The Heroes" is an example of this…. (p. 119)
Section Three chronicles the poet's relocation to America. A significant thread here is an ongoing debate with the spirit of Whitman. Having absorbed the latter, Simpson arrives with great expectations only to find himself striding, lonely, through a land "where malls are our churches."
"Modern Lives," the fourth section, is the most cantankerous and didactic expression of Simpson's social criticism. The poet settles into suburbia with its prefab specters and infidelities and bears a collective suffering.
Section Five explores his mother's (and his own) eastern European roots. Here is a fascinating contrast with Section Three, for Chekhov supplants Whitman as the narrator's aggressively remote foil.
"Armidale," the shortest section in the book, takes as its impetus an Australian journey, which inspires a number of weighty assertions concerning our misuse of nature, our misuse of ourselves.
The final section, "Recapitulations," recombines these various byways and offers a fitting coda.
Another offering, The Best Hour of the Night, proves that Louis Simpson's work and development, luckily for us, continues. Here the poet adds to his canon of poems about contemporary life by employing deft recombinations of, primarily, historical and mimetic impulses. In addition, he reminds us again that laughter can work in a poem and even be necessary. In "Physical Universe" a man comes downstairs at 5 A.M. and pours a cup of coffee. Finding his son's science text on the table, he begins to read. The text triggers a meditation on our civilization, on the fact that we find ourselves at-and-away-from home in it. The meditation comes full circle, back to the present day—"Tuesday, the day they pick up the garbage! / He leapt into action." This witty transition sets up the return to bed and one of the most tender moments I've seen in recent poetry. (pp. 119-20)
In ["The Previous Tenant"] the central character, sometimes detached, sometimes obsessed, pieces together the story of his predecessor. That fellow, a doctor, ruined his position by engaging in an ill-advised affair. Though he actually appears only once, in the poem's eighth section (to retrieve sullenly some of his belongings), we feel that we know him all too well by poem's end. And worse, we feel that we know the community's upstanding snobs who hounded him, too. Simpson's surgical social commentary is as devastating as ever…. Louis Simpson makes our collective fear beautiful, and helps us to believe that we can manage it. (p. 121)
Robert McDowell, "Recombinative Poetry," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 115-31.∗
In a recent Georgia Review [see excerpt above], Peter Stitt writes that Louis Simpson's People Live Here: Selected Poems 1949–1983 "makes clear that there are three major phases to be found in the body of Simpson's work, phases which are separated by major changes in style, subject matter, and approach." Simpson is certainly one of those poets (like James Wright, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop, to name only a few other such writers of recent vintage) the study of whose entire body of work is particularly rewarding, partly because it exhibits drastic, unpredictable, and yet characteristic change. Anyone who is at all familiar with Simpson's poetry knows that there are two major shifts in his work that divide his canon into three stylistically different parts…. No one who has written on Simpson in the past few years has failed to notice the differences: the highly traditional and polished but often stilted early work; the far more interesting middle phase, which embodies so many of the teachings of Simpson's friend Robert Bly; and the less easily definable recent work, which is at once straightforward and aphoristic, narrative and parabolic, passionate and prosaic, mysterious and clear.
Evaluations differ, but the descriptions agree adequately. It is not my purpose to repeat them, as descriptions, any more than I have already done. Certain perhaps unanswerable questions interest me far more; what do these transitions mean? What do they mean to Simpson, and what do they mean to us? The generality of such questions is appalling, but it is necessary to take a stab at answering them here, because Louis Simpson seems to me perhaps the most representative poet among us—representative in that he so clearly embodies the issues with which every poet worth the name unavoidably grapples. The publication of his new selected poems People Live Here reveals how true this has been for Simpson in the long course of his career; the new work in The Best Hour of the Night demonstrates how true it continues to be.
Clearly I agree with Stitt that Simpson's work, viewed linearly, divides neatly into three distinct stylistic stages; however, I strongly disagree that People Live Here makes that division clear. On the contrary, Simpson has chosen to give new book an unchronological arrangement which seems calculated to obscure that often-remarked-on developmental unfolding. Simpson explains in a headnote to the book:
This is not the usual chronological arrangement…. Instead I have selected poems from all my books and placed them in groups…. I believe that this arrangement shows the nature of my writing more clearly than has appeared up to now in separate books.
Simpson's final sentence invites us to a different kind of understanding of his body of work from the one a chronological reading yields, that linear change which Stitt, among others, is at pains to describe. Indeed, People Live Here seems particularly designed to undercut such description. "It follows," Simpson continues ingenuously in his headnote, "that poems in contrasting forms may stand side by side—an early poem in meter and rhyme next to a more recent poem written in free form." It also follows that, as far as Simpson is concerned, poems from one "phase" of his work can stand side by side with poems from another—not, perhaps, without tension, but certainly without contradiction—and that such a structuring should yield a different way of investigating the poems, one which is no longer concerned with the linear history of their composition, but now seeks to explain this representation (or perhaps I had better say this illusion of a representation) of the way the poems exist contemporaneously, side by side in the mind of the poet himself. (pp. 115-16)
Stitt's view is attractive, yielding as it does to discussion of Simpson's work in the context of the large movements of the poetry of this century: the poetry war which Pound championed, the famous "revolution in taste." And clearly that is pertinent. The problem with such an explanation is that, beyond a certain point, it loses Simpson in the pack. That line of approach only leads us to say that Simpson has done what everyone else has done, which is, to be fair, both true and untrue. The linear progression of Simpson's work bears it out; the power and unique quality of his work belies it.
The nonlinear structure of People Live Here suggests a more appealing angle of approach. First of all, we see right away that Simpson has no single "natural voice"; he has a multiplicity of voices. There is Simpson the dogface, sure enough; but there is also Simpson the "British" Jamaican, Simpson the New Yorker, Simpson the tourist, Simpson the Long Island suburbanite, Simpson the Russian Jew (!); there is Simpson the liberal, Simpson the conservative, Simpson the man on the street, Simpson the aesthete, Simpson the sophisticate, Simpson the naïf—the list could go on and on. At the same time, we see that every facet of Simpson's body of work reflects all the others. (p. 118)
People Live Here makes it clear not that Simpson's work is divisible into phases (though from one angle of view, of course, it is); this book makes it clear that Simpson wants us to see a different truth about his and any good poet's way of working: that there are never absolute divisions, and that no poet can ever afford to turn his back on any possibility, because just when he does, that which he has rejected or neglected will turn out to be precisely what is called for…. (p. 119)
It seems to me that Simpson has been working for his whole career to reach, more and more effectively, that silent, entrenched audience he first set out to address without embarrassment. As he has grown older, though, he has come to recognize that wars are not fought only on literal battlefields—that such wars (like arguments among critics) are impressive, but they are only the fringe skirmishes of the real war that goes on constantly in the human soul…. But the difference is not simply the result of a man's aesthetic desire to write a different kind of poem; it is a symptom of a vastly increased understanding and compassion. For Simpson, on the evidence of the text, to be conventional for the sake of convention is to be narrow, and to be narrow is to be unconscious, uncompassionate, inhumane. Unconventionality for its own sake leads to the same result. Only those who have been genuinely outside what most of us usually think of as either "real life" or "the life of the mind," where convention applies no more than anticonvention, see clearly; even for them, "vision" is unreliable and transient…. (pp. 119-20)
The "revisionary" structure of People Live Here is a new use of what in another context looks like outdated material in the service of the struggle. What resonates throughout is a tension of voices, all existing, as the book presents them, in a single mind, or a single world, meeting on any edge of things where "real life" meets the life of the mind, and where both those worlds meet the unknown. The linear view of his work—which of course has its own kind of truth—depicts Simpson constantly turning his back on his past practice. Certainly there are things he has turned his back on; no doubt he will never write a poem quite like "Carentan O Carentan" again. But—as Simpson's structuring of People Live Here suggests—to try to leave the past behind completely would be to abandon the very thing that set him in motion in the first place: the impulse to speak to people, to real people in the real world, straight out, without embarrassment. Simpson's search has been for the means of doing that, and his great discovery seems to be that there are no particular means; there is only what the poet can scratch together at the moment, with his bare hands, out of the life of the language and out of a constantly altering sense of what possibilities poetry as a medium offers. There are, of course, dangers in this method, and sometimes Simpson fails in ways that more elegant and cagey writers would never allow themselves. There are times when he becomes Zennish without sufficient justification, and other times when the flatness that so often serves to further either amazement or irony seems only flat. But in the main, Simpson's greatest virtue is his willingness to chip away, with marvelous control, at the monolithic cultural notion—in the shadow of which he began his career, and on which he continues to keep a wary eye—of what a poem is. The answer, I suppose, that emerges from his work is that a poem is nothing in particular: it is something that works, something unpredictable.
Of course there is a linearity in the structure of this book, but it is a revised linearity. The seven sections of People Live Here present, in part, an unfolding awareness of humanity and of significant human relationships. The first section, "Songs and Lyrics," brings together a selection of relatively inward-turning lyrics. Section two, "The Fighting in Europe," contains most of the poems concerned directly with World War II, and begins to depict—despite the striking multiplicity of voices in the poems here, which range through all Simpson's linear phases—the forced social awareness which any serious consideration of war entails. The third section, "A Discovery of America," is a more stylistically uniform selection, which, as Alan Williamson has recently pointed out, "gathers together poems from the 1960s." Many of these poems reflect, more directly than any of Simpson's other work, the influence of Robert Bly, not only in their strategies and diction but also in their particular mode of social awareness. Williamson [see excerpt above] finds these poems "displeasing," and it is true that many of them are more overt in their moral intent than Simpson usually allows himself to be. America is often directly depicted, in the Bly mode, as a spiritual disaster area. However, this section also seems to me a necessary pole of Simpson's vision. "One does not want to hate society," Simpson has written, "but society being what it is, how can one stomach it?" Simpson's placement of these poems after the war poems suggests a justification for the views he presents in this third section: section two concerns culturally sanctioned death by violence; section three presents the perhaps too familiar (but not therefore untrue) spectacle of American spiritual death by automobile and electric can opener. And section four, "Modern Lives," is still another facet of the same phenomenon. Here American suburbanites and insurance salesmen try to resurrect themselves by acts of passion which are often self-destructive…. (pp. 121-22)
The next two sections, "Tales of Volhynia" and "Armidale," center on Russia and Australia respectively and seem designed, in this structuring, to place the previous sections in a new perspective, as tales of exotic and peculiarly beautiful places. It may seem odd to say, but Simpson is our most accomplished poet of the exotic, and if the America he so often depicts does not seem weird and wonderful and dangerous and depraved to those of us who are accustomed to it, it is only because we are accustomed. Seen side by side with the poems of Russia and Australia, the poems about America take their place in a larger vision of the beautifully and perilously strange. The final section, "Recapitulations," returns us to America, but with a new aura of mysteriousness verging on the metaphysical. This structure adds up, I think, to an ever-expanding primary awareness not simply of poetry as an aesthetic mode but of the nature of the audience, a definition and redefinition carried on in virtually every poem: humanity as embattled dogface, for whom Simpson wants to write "poems that would be, in their laconic and simple manner, tolerable to men who had seen a good deal of combat and had no illusions."
If People Live Here, with its important structural revision of Simpson's ongoing poetry war, allows us to see his past and present work in a tense and effective suspension, The Best Hour of the Night plays off (perhaps) the present and the future. (This assertion is risky, I realize, but the fact that the last poem of People Live Here is also the first poem of The Best Hour gives credence to the notion that Simpson at least wants us to consider continuities.) The Best Hour is distinctly like Simpson's last two books in its narrative structures, its use of the rhythms of prose, and its focus on the exotic potential of the "ordinary." But Simpson is far from formulaic here; in fact, The Best Hour seems to me his best book yet, dense and rich. It performs, again and again, miraculously well, the thing we demand and have every right to demand of poetry: Simpson wrestles with the world for the world's own sake, to discover within it the necessary articulation, the artifice adequate to convince us of its effective truth. What makes him what I have called a representative poet is the honesty with which he reveals the contours of that struggle with the indeterminate but recognizably human voice every poet fights to claim as his own and to name by its truest possible name: without embarrassment, poetry. (pp. 122-23)
T. R. Hummer, "Revising the Poetry Wars: Louis Simpson's Assault on the Poetic," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. VI, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 114-23.