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.)