Louis Simpson Simpson, Louis (Aston Marantz) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Dave Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, 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...

(The entire section is 1241 words.)

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

G. E. Murray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Robert B. Shaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Peter Bland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 2131 words.)

Alan Williamson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Richard Tillinghast

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 683 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

T. R. Hummer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2262 words.)