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Louis Simpson 1923-2012
(Full name Louis Aston Marantz Simpson) American poet, critic, essayist, autobiographer, memoirist, novelist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Simpson's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 7, 9, and 32.
One of the most distinguished American poets of the postwar era, Simpson is noted for his memorable examinations of his World War II combat experience, the disintegration of the American Dream, and the lives of ordinary middle-class Americans. An accomplished stylist whose early verse revealed his skill with traditional forms, Simpson began to experiment with free verse and conversational diction during the late 1950s to express the concerns and feelings of alienation common in mid- to late-twentieth-century American life. Though Simpson's style has evolved over time, his insistence on the role of the poet as a detached observer has remained constant. This aesthetic position has guided Simpson's discursive, often narrative approach and distanced him from the confessionalism of many poets who came of age during the 1960s. Simpson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for At the End of the Open Road (1963) which along with The Arrivistes (1949) and The Best Hour of the Night (1983), are considered to be among the most definitive poetic works of his generation.
Born in Jamaica, Simpson was raised near Kingston by his father Aston, a lawyer of Scotch heritage, and his mother Rosalind de Marantz, of Polish Jewish ancestry. His parents later separated. At age seventeen, Simpson joined his mother in New York City and began attending Columbia University. His education was temporarily interrupted by his service in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1945. As a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, Simpson saw combat overseas in the European campaign and participated in the Normandy D-Day invasion. By the end of World War II, he had earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and was naturalized as an American citizen. Simpson's military service provided him with exposure to European culture and instilled in him a deep and abiding respect for the United States. Returning to Columbia University after the war, he completed his B.S. degree in 1948. He would later earn an M.A. in 1950 and a Ph.D. in 1959. After completing his B.A., Simpson attended the Sorbonne in Paris before dropping out and finishing his first volume of poetry, The Arrivistes, which he self-published in 1949. During the same year, he returned to New York and married Jeanne Rogers, with whom he had a son. In the years between his graduate studies, Simpson worked as an editor for publisher Bobbs-Merrill and then as an instructor at Columbia University. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1954, and the next year he married Dorothy Roochvarg, with whom he had a son and a daughter. Upon completing his doctorate in 1959, Simpson taught at the University of California at Berkeley, where he produced a critical study of Scottish poet James Hogg, the poetry collection At the End of the Open Road, and his first volume of Selected Poems (1965). In 1967, he returned to New York as an English professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he remained until the 1990s. Simpson divorced a second time in 1979, and in 1985 married his third wife, Miriam Butensky Bachner. In addition to the 1964 Pulitzer prize, Simpson has received numerous honors, including the Prix de Rome in 1957, American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowship in 1957, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award in 1960, Guggenheim fellowships in 1962 and 1970, a grant from the American Council for Learned Societies in 1963, Columbia University's Medal for Excellence in 1965, the American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature in 1976, the Jewish Book Council's Award for Poetry in 1981, and the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in 1987.
Simpson's poetry reflects his wartime experiences, his cynicism over the debased values of contemporary America, and his appreciation of common Americans. In The Arrivistes, Simpson drew directly upon his World War II experiences to relate the terror and loneliness that afflicts the combat soldier. In “Carentan O Carentan,” a ballad about American infantrymen ambushed by German soldiers, Simpson describes the shattering loss of innocence wrought by war. These wartime poems are contrasted with poems that deal with sensual love, such as the Elizabethan inspired “Song: ‘Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds of May’” about the sexual awakening of an adolescent girl. Simpson's next collection, Good News of Death and Other Poems (1955) introduced what would become a central theme of his poetry—the examination of modern American life. In addition to war poems relating horror and humiliation, and love poems that pay tribute to past relationships, Simpson's “American culture” poems contrast the hope and promise of early America with the crowded, commercialized culture of the modern United States. Simpson developed his own uniquely American themes (citing Walt Whitman as a major influence), including recurring references to automobiles, highways, real estate development, television, salesmen, shopping malls, and other fixtures of suburban life. In A Dream of Governors (1959), Simpson further explored contemporary America life and the effects of World War II, while straying from traditional verse forms to experiment with free verse. More than half of the volume is dedicated to war poems, including “The Runner,” a long narrative poem about the experiences of an American soldier named Dodd who acts as a messenger during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
At the End of the Open Road marks an important stylistic departure for Simpson, as he abandoned conventional rhyme and meter in favor of free verse, colloquial language, and a “deep image” aesthetic influenced by Robert Bly. In “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain” (which is considered to be a milestone in his career), Simpson rails against Whitman's optimistic prophecies for America, writing, “Where are you, Walt? / The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.” Simpson also experimented with surreal imagery in several of his poems, such as “My Father in the Night Commanding No,” a rendering of a childhood memory, and “The Troika,” a nightmarish World War I vision. Additionally, Simpson condemns the banality and conformity of American society in the six-line poem “In the Suburbs,” which begins, “There's no way out. / You were born to waste your life. / You were born to this middle-class life.” In Adventures of the Letter I (1971) Simpson explores his maternal Russian ancestry—including an entire section on the people of the Volhynia province—and the notion of the poet as a personified transmitter of creative vision. Published near the end of the Vietnam War, the collection also reaffirms Simpson's criticism of American imperialism and consumer culture.
In Searching for the Ox (1976), whose title is derived from a series of Zen Buddhist illustrations, Simpson explored new territory, writing about his youth in Jamaica and New York and the significance of the poet in the modern world. While previously drawing upon Whitman as his model, Simpson drew on the works of William Wordsworth as inspiration for Searching for the Ox. In Caviare at the Funeral (1980), Simpson revisited the subject of his childhood and family heritage, notably in “Why Do You Write About Russia?,” as well as his interest in Russian author Anton Chekhov and his characteristic scorn for American materialism. The poem “American Classic,” for example, describes a couple whose broken-down car leaves them stranded and embarrassed on the roadside. The Best Hour of the Night (1983) focuses on the small dramas of suburban life, including marriages, divorces, and trivial daily events raised to the level of profundity, as in “Physical Universe” and “Quiet Desperation.” In the long poem “The Previous Tenant,” the narrator gradually learns through fragments of gossip and old letters about the former inhabitant of his apartment, an adulterous surgeon who had been ostracized by the community. Simpson took up similar domestic and quotidian subjects with In the Room We Share (1990), and continued to expand on his casual, unadorned verse. The concluding piece in the volume is a prose memoir about Simpson's visit to his ailing mother in Italy. He continued in this vein in There You Are (1995), a collection of poems that focus on describing the lives of ordinary, everyday characters.
Simpson has published several significant cumulative volumes, including Selected Poems, People Live Here (1983), a volume of new and selected poems spanning from 1949 to 1983, and his Collected Poems (1988). He has also published two volumes of prose collections, Selected Prose (1988), which includes letters, autobiographic sketches, journal entries, and literary essays, and Ships Going into the Blue (1995), an assemblage of critical writings, autobiographic sketches, speeches and prose fragments. In addition to poetry, Simpson has produced a novel, Riverside Drive (1962), the autobiographical works North of Jamaica (1972) and The King My Father's Wreck (1995), and literary criticism, including Three on the Tower (1975), a study of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams; A Revolution in Taste (1978), a study of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell; A Company of Poets (1981) and The Character of the Poet (1986).
Simpson's war poetry is regarded by critics as among the most important of his generation. In particular, the oft-anthologized poem “Carentan O Carentan” is frequently cited as one of the most powerful pieces of verse to be inspired by the Second World War. Likewise, Simpson's bitter denunciations of American expansionism and his dramatizations of suburban disillusionment—especially those found in The Best Hour of the Night—are viewed by many as among the finest poems on the subject. Regardless of theme, Simpson's poetry has been praised for its concise, lyrical, often understated expression of profound ideas and for Simpson's complex juxtapositions of irony and compassion. Simpson's later free verse has been noted for its formal structure and sly charm, especially his mastery of the line and phrasing that captures the cadences peculiar to American speech. Among Simpson's large number of individual collections, The Arrivistes, At the End of the Open Road, Searching for the Ox, and The Best Hour of the Night have been generally regarded as his most successful. While many critics have praised Simpson's early verse for its command of traditional forms and unusual ability to convey modern themes in conventional rhyme and meter, other critics, most notably Robert Bly, have found Simpson's use of traditional forms ill-suited to contemporary interests. Though Simpson's free verse experiments in A Dream of Governors have received mixed assessment, At the End of the Open Road was widely praised as a watershed in Simpson's career and cited as evidence that Simpson has achieved a satisfying balance between form and meaning that demonstrates his maturation and confidence. Simpson's later collection, In the Room We Share, has been praised by some reviewers as the culmination of Simpson's unadorned style and accessibility, though others have commented that Simpson took his understatement too far, resulting in slackness and banality. While Simpson's autobiographic works and critical studies are regarded as significant references for understanding his evolving poetic voice and style, they have not garnered the same critical stature as his poetry.
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The Arrivistes: Poems, 1940–1949 (poetry) 1949
Good News of Death and Other Poems (poetry) 1955
A Dream of Governors (poetry) 1959
James Hogg: A Critical Study (criticism) 1962
Riverside Drive (novel) 1962
At the End of the Open Road (poetry) 1963
Selected Poems (poetry) 1965
An Introduction to Poetry [editor; second edition] (criticism) 1967
Adventures of the Letter I (poetry) 1971
North of Jamaica [also published as Air with Armed Men] (autobiography) 1972
Three on the Tower: The Lives and Works of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams (criticism) 1975
The Invasion of Italy (poetry) 1976
Searching for the Ox (poetry) 1976
A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell [also published as Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell] (criticism) 1978
Armidale (poetry) 1979
Out of Season (poetry) 1979
Caviare at the Funeral (poetry) 1980
A Company of Poets (criticism) 1981
The Best Hour of the Night (poetry) 1983
People Live Here: Selected Poems, 1949–1983 (poetry) 1983
The Character of the Poet (criticism) 1986
Collected Poems (poetry) 1988
Selected Prose (prose) 1988
In the Room We Share (poetry) 1990
Wei Wei and Other Friends (poetry) 1990
Jamaica Poems (poetry) 1993
Ships Going into the Blue: Essays and Notes on Poetry (essays) 1994
The King My Father's Wreck (memoirs) 1995
There You Are (poetry) 1995
Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology [editor] (poetry) 1997
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SOURCE: “New Directions in Poetry: The Work of Louis Simpson,” in On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer, University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 63–65.
[In the following review, originally published in 1964, Locke addresses Simpson's change of style and focus in At the End of the Open Road.]
So much of modern art is concerned with the reaction or depiction of an endowed and cultivated sensibility in a civilization dedicated to a shallow hedonism: the worship of cigarettes, TV sets, bowling, beer, and real estate. Many of Louis Simpson's finest poems, in a distinctive and unique way, are centered on this concern. His work prior to At the End of the Open Road (Wesleyan) approaches the situation somewhat objectively and critically; but his Open Road poems display more of a sense of direct personal involvement and a subjective transcension.
In the Pre-Open Road poems, he presents through indirections such as emblematic shepherds and the pastoral tradition the tragic folly of those who have disavowed the inner life to pursue an existence sold by the movie and advertising men. The earlier poetic organization is often traditionally formal, making use of stanzas and rhymes; but the formal patterns function as essential parts of the communication. The metrically controlled movement establishes an ironic undertone to a surface depicting the brutality of innocence, as in “The Green Shepherd”:
The vessel they ignored still sails away So bravely on the water, Westward Ho! And murdering, in a religious way, Brings Jesus to the Gulf of Mexico.
Simpson's enameled aspersions toward these innocents, who in their gay lightness and in their pursuit of superficial sensuality become oblivious of human misery and the cruelties of progressive civilization, never is reduced to a monovoiced howl, or a lifeless editorial; but is achieved with an insight that perceives the situation in its totality, sensing both the amusing and tragic implications. Always present among the dispassionate and conventionalized flirtations is the greatest destroyer of pleasure, death. Perfect nakedness cannot entice death to forget its mission, and inevitably death will take the furniture away. “And grave by grave we civilize the ground.” Death is omnipresent, and often the earlier poems resemble rococo roses painted on a white skull.
Although basically objective, a subjective element, in the form of an “I,” does appear in some of the pre-Open Road poems. This “I” is usually a stranger, or someone apart, so much apart from the ordinary amusements of humanity that he can make the perspicacious observation, “And nothing is more melancholy / than to watch people enjoying themselves / as much as they can,” (“Côte d'Azur”). In “Hot Night on Water Street,” the stranger is confronted by a cigar-smoking innocent who is completely unaware of the brutal casualness of his remarks, “Since I've been in this town / I've seen one likely woman, and a car / As she was crossing Main Street, knocked her down.” Throughout the poems, the “I” is passive and never a real part of a situation. He goes to his room and reads the New York Times; but in Open Road there is often a transcendence of the scene through an inwardness, an outburst of inner life.
In Open Road the style loosens, the lines become uneven, and the movement of the natural voice and phrasal breaks replaces preconceived measurement. The imagery tends toward inwardness, and the result is a more phenomenal poetry, one in which the subjective imagination transforms by its own operations the objective into what constitutes genuine reality. Whether or not Simpson is developing toward a “deep image,” Spanish Surrealism, or some use of poetic language similar to Rene Char cannot be determined at this time, although I doubt if Simpson will ever become automatic, autotelic, or hermetic. One of Simpson's recent poems, published in Robert Bly's Sixties, is a brilliant satire on the current influence of Pablo Neruda; and demonstrates the clarity and aloofness of a perception that will never allow itself to be swallowed up by the mere fashionableness of a movement.
Simpson's poetry, in going beyond the mere literal, is becoming more inward, and is developing toward phenomenalism. This phenomenalism, found in Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Bly, James Wright, George Hitchcock, and W. S. Merwin, is one of the most exciting developments in American poetry since the ascendancy of the Williams-Olson-Zukofsky tradition and the vernacular experiments, but phenomenalism has been largely overlooked by the well-paid commentators who seek to please the public mind by dividing American poetry into two hostile and warring camps, the Academics and the Beats (or Wild Men, as they have recently been termed by Chad Walsh), as if poets were big businessmen trying to outsmart one another in order to gain a monopoly.
This new inwardness in Open Road is seen primarily in the imagery, as in the strange poem “The Cradle Trap,” when the reader is suddenly confronted with such exciting lines as “The light is telling / terrible stories,” and as in “The Troika” with “I have lost my father's horses” and “I held the bird.” Also, in the metaliteral scene in “On the Lawn at the Villa”:
We were all sitting there paralyzed In the hot Tuscan afternoon, And the bodies of the machine-gun crew were draped over the balcony. So we sat there all afternoon.
The imagery still has the clarity, keeps something of the literal, but it is more inward and less logical than much of the earlier Simpson. It foretells a new direction. The new looseness of style allows the drift into inwardness, and the charm and urbanity that is diminished with the discarding of the formal style is replaced by a new excitement and new significance.
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SOURCE: “Poetry and Its Genesis in the Twentieth Century,” in On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer, University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 112–16.
[In the following review, originally published in 1980, Nepo commends Simpson's analysis of Imagism in Three on the Tower.]
The little seed of the Imagist movement made a great tree with twigs and leaves spreading over the world.
—Three on the Tower
Simpson seems to view literary history as a chemist's funnel with a long plastic stem. The point at which the funnel fans out marks the beginning of the twentieth century. The rising legacy of that stem till 1912 is characterized as a narrow and tidy corridor from Classicism to Romanticism, which he earmarks with Rousseau. Simpson's definition of literature is implicit and nondissectible from his real interest; namely, the history and flux of ideas and how it shapes the men's lives who happen by it. The flux of ideas is the blood of the vein en route to the heart for Simpson, and literature is the indiscernible residue, part of the sheath formed and left behind to guide more stiffly the new blood which follows. And equally a credit to his dexterity of point of view is the emphasized truism that as inevitable as the rigor of old art must be, so too is it refreshingly sacred that life depends on the stumbling force of the new to break down the stiffness, to resist coagulation.
Though Simpson traces many divergent theories of causation with regard to poetry and its genesis in the twentieth century [in Three on the Tower], his essential view is chemical; that is, literature, and particularly poetry, tends to progress by the chemical reactions and amalgamations of artistic circumstance in solution with the ideas that govern and dominate their lives. The variables are endless and the ideas serve as catalysts, unaltered and undiminished. And literary history, within the chemist's funnel, appears to form and move in clusters. Imagism, for Simpson, is the catalyst, the vapor which makes the stem spread to a funnel. It serves as the all important mode which thrusts literature and especially poetry into modernism, and beyond, into an unprecedented proliferation of art forms and messiahs, a volatile pyrrhonism—ever changing and uncertain. The book, therefore, concentrates on what Simpson declares as the most affected and effecting prophets of the Imagist solution, namely, the lives and works of Pound, Eliot, and Williams.
Four aspects of this endeavor mark Simpson as courageous and diligent in his scholarship. First is his eclectic and coherent use of biography, social context, and political relevance, solidified by a cogent dialogue which informs the reader of the constantly changing philosophical climate which seems inherent to this era of art. The book circles the embryo of modernism: Pound's struggle with the scope of history, language, and art and his exploration of dramatic personae; Eliot's turning to an allusive Classicism in order to exorcise the numbness prevailing in a hollow postwar world; and Williams with his adherence to experience and his endless pursuit of the American verse. Simpson uses the lives of these poets as vehicles, as telescopes which attempt to focus for the reader three divergent perspectives, the roots of a modern literary trinity, three stalks which like milkweed have since dispersed, invisible in the air we still breathe.
I have attempted to enter into the process. To do this I have had to understand each man's life—his connections with other people, his attitudes and beliefs. My rule has been to give these matters as much importance as he himself gave them. Williams wrote continually about his life, therefore I have talked about it in detail. Eliot hardly ever writes about his, but when he does it seems confessional. Pound, for all his volubility, gives little away; he writes about himself in the CANTOS, but nothing personal, this is the way I have dealt with him.
(Preface, p. viii)
The success of this approach is that the book yields a steady course around the evolution of twentieth-century poetry as inadvertently shaped in these men's hands. And only when the enormity of events, personal or international, permeates the poet's artistic consciousness, only then are we privy to how Douglas's theory of social credit coupled with Pound's being shut off from the London coterie might have been part of the silent fuse which later set off his war in the Cantos against usury. Only when Eliot writes to Richard Aldington while convalescing at Margate of “an aboulia and emotional derangement which has been a lifelong affliction,” only then is biography given precedence over poetry in an attempt to illuminate the gestation of the poet's mind and soul and work. Simpson rotates his subject with dexterity so as to leave the important issue of the moment in full view of light.
Secondly, the work rests on a taut fabric of documentation. Simpson's own narrative throughout the book is minimal and integrating. His language is constantly and effectively interspersed with ripe selections of the poets’ work as well as peppered with a precise framework indicative of the surrounding eras, be they comments from Keats or curios of the Italian Futurist poet of 1910, Marinetti. It is through this documentation that Simpson uncovers a convincing argument which posits T. E. Hulme and Ford Madox Ford as the timely flints around which Pound warmed his mind to the brewing doctrine of Imagism. But the value of Simpson's paradigm is again its chemical and clustered nature. He accurately displays the artifacts leading to Imagism (intuition, sensory images, use of objective language, the need for the “direct treatment of the thing”) in reference to Aristotle, Longinus, Conrad, Henry James, Whistler for his tapping into Japanese art, and then to Hemingway, and Henri Bergson, and Remy de Gourmont. But the strength of his chemical view of literary history persists, not as a confidence in fate, but as a powerful observation of the endless possibilities of currents, of ideas in flux:
The truth is, no one invented Imagism, or everyone did. When an invention is needed and the time is right for it, people come upon it independently. Who invented radio? Ideas that were seized on by Pound and directed as the Imagist movement were discovered elsewhere by others and given other names. Pound, however, put the ideas to work. His way of taking an idea that had been neglected or not understood—at least not in English—stating it clearly, and showing how it can be applied, practically amounted to saying it for the first time. Pound was, like Thomas Alva Edison, a genius at practical mechanics. It is hard to draw a line between this and invention.
Thirdly, Simpson maintains an impassioned objectivity throughout the book. He ascribes his feelings to the poet in question, to the mood which prevails in the moment of his text. This is what provides the book with its authenticity of immediacy; so that when Pound during one of his famous broadcasts in July of 1941 makes note of: “As my friend Doc Williams of New Jersey would say …” we are allowed to feel both Pound's desperate need for company in his crusade while feeling Williams's anguish and chagrin at such a public notice with “two sons in the navy.” Again, the personal-political context serves as invaluable background to the work produced—in this case, the article Williams wrote in response, “Ezra Pound: Lord Ga-Ga!” But serious admiration must be given Simpson for his ability to address and deal with the varying degrees of anti-Semitism found in each of these men without jeopardizing his credibility as a literary historian. With the same investment of emotion, he enables us to feel Eliot's subtle and casual indifference to his anti-Semitism, comparable to a wealthy slave owner in the pre-Civil War South:
In later years Eliot denied that he was an anti-Semite and seemed not to understand why people thought him one. “It is a terrible slander on a man,” he told William Turner Levy. “And they do not know, as you and I do, that in the eyes of the Church, to be an anti-Semite is a sin.”
And Simpson responds with a deliberately felt point of view which avoids the overindulgence readily available to the author who finds himself reviewing material to which he is a victim:
Those who fail to see anti-Semitism in Eliot's writings—as with Pound, some of Eliot's admirers are wonderfully unobservant on this point—must themselves live where anti-Semitism is so much a part of the normal order of things as to be taken for granted.
To avoid the investment of one's humanity as a scholar is to record a sterile literary history. To let the dam break is to leave a map of distortion. I believe Simpson's treatment here to be a powerful example of impassioned and active objectivity, adhering to the idiosyncracies of his subject, responding when the issues point his way, as he must, but like a good friend who fights well, the fight is forgotten when we turn the page.
Finally, what makes this account of twentieth-century poetry unique and valuable is that Simpson himself is a poet who has a firm understanding of the confusions and exultations inherent in working in pursuit of a Muse. There is a drive for understanding, a motivation for a synthesis of ideas which will prove useful. From the onset, Simpson declares, “I had to write this book to clarify my ideas.” Simpson's function in the book can be found in a passage he cites from Williams: “If your interest is in theory … and your mind is alive and you're trying to improve your poems technically you will produce the work, and will never cease to produce it.” The work is vital because the everpresent tone is one of—how can I make use of this?
The modern poet has the ageless dilemmas to face: Romanticism versus Classicism, Technique versus Content, Experimentation versus Tradition. These decisions are made even more illusory by the mushroomed and chaotic field of choice now available to a poet of the seventies. This book, by an alert and thorough poet-scholar, is a fresh and valuable tool, useful as a catalyst in the chemical world of a developing poet.
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SOURCE: “Interview with Louis Simpson,” in The World's Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets, University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 140–58.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1980, Simpson discusses his formative influences, his approach to writing poetry, his artistic aims and thematic concern with ordinary experience, and his views on contemporary American poetry.]
The interview was originally conducted at Mr. Simpson's home in Port Jefferson, New York, in March of 1977. Searching for the Ox had been published in 1976 and Mr. Simpson was working on his third volume of criticism, A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell (1978). The interview was updated in Mr. Simpson's hotel room on the campus of the University of Houston in the spring of 1980, just before the publication of Caviare at the Funeral.
[Stitt:] When did you begin writing poetry?
[Simpson:] My first published poems came out in a school magazine when I was thirteen or fourteen. But in those days I mostly wanted to write prose. The first thing I published outside of school was not a poem, it was an essay on the coronation of King George V, which won first prize in a competition and was published in the Daily Gleaner. That was the big newspaper on Jamaica, and they gave me five pounds. The next year I won a second prize for a short story, which was also published in the Daily Gleaner. After that I began writing with a group that published in a newspaper-magazine called Public Opinion. That was a great deal of fun—we were all trying to win Jamaican independence. I published short stories there, and also some poems, when I was about sixteen. I was reading Faulkner and Saroyan and wanted to write like them.
What finally turned you to poetry?
Well, that was after the war. When I was seventeen. I went from Jamaica to New York and attended Columbia University. I wrote poems that were published in the Columbia Review, and also some prose. Then the war came, and I didn't write anything for three years. When I came back to Columbia, I wrote a short story that Esquire took. That was the first thing I ever published in an American magazine. Then I began working on the Review as an editor, and published some short stories there. I finally turned to poetry because I found that I could get out of my system certain things in a short space that I couldn't get in prose. And actually, the kinds of things I could do were much better suited to poems. I didn't have much knowledge of the world, the way things are done and run. Outside of my knowledge of the army, I didn't have any experience. What I did have was a great deal of emotional intensity, which was wrapped up with certain things I'd seen—and that shaped the poems, it made me write poems. That was about 1947. Some of my first poems were taken by Wake, the magazine edited by Seymour Lawrence up in Cambridge; Harper's took one, and Partisan Review took one or two.
By the end of 1949 I had enough poems for a book. I was living in Paris, where I stayed for a year, and found a very good publisher, a man who put out fine editions. He did a beautiful printing of The Arrivistes. He printed 500 copies, of which about 200 were distributed from New York by a man named Gustav Davidson. I tried to find out where the rest were, but all he said was that they'd been lost. I never did learn how you can lose 300 copies of a book. I paid for that book myself—＄500 for 500 copies, which is an incredible price. But I still didn't want to lose 300 copies. Recently they've been turning up, selling for ＄300 a copy. Anyhow, I returned to the states and took a job as an editor for Bobbs-Merrill, where I lasted five years.
I had another bad experience with my second book. I sent it in to a competition called the Borestone Mountain Award. I was delighted when, months later, they called to say I had won. But then a few days later they told me that there had been a recount of the votes and they had made a mistake, I had not won. The prize was going instead to someone called Leah Bodine Drake. The judge was Robert Lowell—I suppose he changed his mind for some reason. And what was the funniest thing, they asked me not to say anything about this because it would hurt the reputation of the Borestone Mountain Award. And would you believe it, I didn't say anything, not for four years. That was a blow. But finally John Hall Wheelock at Scribner's took the book and they published it in their Poets of Today series. They would put three manuscripts by three different writers into a single volume, and that is how Good News of Death finally appeared. It got some good reviews, but the critics insisted on treating it as one of three, as though we poets were in competition and the only point was to say which was best.
My third book, A Dream of Governors, was published in 1959. Between then and 1963, when I published At the End of the Open Road, I underwent a big change. I had been writing poetry that was quite formal; one reason for that, I think, was Randall Jarrell's review of The Arrivistes. He said very nice things—that I was a very good poet, a very promising poet, but that there wasn't a single really good poem in the book, nothing was quite finished. So I decided I'd better learn how to finish poems. I had a lot of fun in The Arrivistes kicking things around in all sorts of shapes and forms. Now I decided I should learn how to write the perfect poem. So over the next few years, I tried to write impeccable poems, poems you couldn't find fault with.
Then between 1959 and 1963 I broke all that up and tried to write poetry that would be more free, that would sound more like my real voice. At the End of the Open Road does have a few poems in traditional forms, but it also has a considerable amount of free verse. Ever since then I've written mostly a kind of informal poetry. I work very hard to get the shape and sound of a poem just right, to get the lines breaking right, but I'm not working in regular stanzas and meters. So that was a big upheaval and a big change for me. And of course you never please people. Someone will always say, “Oh, that early stuff was the best; we wish you'd never changed.” Then there are the others who say that everything before At the End of the Open Road was a terrible mistake. Neither point of view is true, of course. Some of the early poems, I think, hold up very well, especially those about World War II. But, you do what you feel you have to do, and sometimes that means changing very strongly. I know some poets don't. They keep writing the same kind of poem forever. But I've always been changing, and this has made problems for me as far as the public goes. They can't typecast me as easily as they'd like to.
How do you compose your poems? Do you work in longhand or at the typewriter? Do you work in bursts or long stretches?
I work in bursts and I work at the typewriter. When I've done a draft of a poem, I take the sheet out of the typewriter and work on it in longhand. Then I type up a clean sheet and start the process all over again. My pages end up completely filled with corrections. There are periods, sometimes for months, when I don't really feel like writing poetry. I haven't written a poem now for about two months because I've been writing prose. Writing poetry for me demands a kind of preoccupation, a slow process of being bothered by something, thinking about it and trying to pull it together. The last poem I wrote took only one day, but that was because I had been thinking about the subject for a long time.
Do you ever have a poem, the way some people say happens, just burst into your head so that the composition takes only as long as it takes to write the words?
I've had that happen two or three times in my life, but no more. Once was in Paris in 1949 when I wrote the poem called “Carentan O Carentan.” That was a dream—I dreamed the poem, then I sat down and wrote it. It came practically complete at the first writing. The same thing happened with another war poem, “I Dreamed That in a City Dark as Paris.” One or two others have come very fast, but in general, no. Usually I get a few lines easily, maybe half the poem, and the rest comes only through very hard work. Right now I have about five different clusters of things in my head that could be poems, but I haven't seen the way yet to make them poems. When I say cluster, I mean material that's new—scenes, sequences of ideas, or images. The poems themselves will probably take me a long time to get. I work very hard on poems. That's why I can't do prose and poetry at the same time, they both take a lot of rewriting and continuous effort.
So when you are about to start a poem, it's a cluster of images in your mind rather than some abstract idea that gets you going.
It's not an abstract idea. I don't think abstract ideas are a good beginning for poems, not for me anyhow. I wouldn't know what to do next—illustrate the idea with images, I guess. No, I start with a scene or with something that I don't think has been written about; there are always an incredible number of things that haven't been written about. I'll give you an example. I have an idea for a poem now that I don't know if I can write, but it would be a very good poem. It would be a new kind of story in which there are no characters, just things seen on a highway, a succession of signs and objects. It would be a love story, actually, but the two people might not even meet. It would just be the things that they pass through in order to meet each other. The point of the poem would be that our real experience in situations today has more to do with things like driving a car than with human relations. This is the general framework of the poem, the idea that would make a poem. I've already ridden the highway with a notebook on my knee taking down signs. I have three pages of notes, but making it come alive as a poem would depend on the movement of the lines, the feeling you'd get into the lines themselves, and I don't know if that'll ever come. These are things that have to sit and wait until I am, I suppose the word is “inspired.”
Would you say that your service in World War II had an important effect on your work as a poet?
Very important. First of all, surviving the war made me realize that, in a sense, my life was mine to do with as I pleased. I could be a poet or anything I liked. Also, the war created a big difference between me and some of my contemporaries, who were only slightly younger. For example, my attitudes are very different from those of someone like Allen Ginsberg, because he was not in the war and I was. Our attitudes toward America are completely different. I have a certain innate respect and love for the United States and its government that some younger people, for whom the war was an imposition, don't have. My feeling of affection for the country has been badly damaged at times, but I have never had that hostile attitude toward it which has been common among younger people. I felt the war was something that had to be done by my generation, and we did it.
This has some bearing, I'm sure, on my attitude toward some of the rioting of the sixties and seventies. I took part in the Berkeley protests against the war in Vietnam because I thought it was a very bad thing. On the other hand, the absolute sweeping denigration of the United States which was fashionable in the sixties, when they were looking for the meanest possible motive in ordinary people's attitudes, seemed to me to be equally disgusting—just as the attitude of the people who were making the war in Vietnam. The radicals seemed just as fascistic to me as the war makers, and it was the ordinary people, the citizens, who were suffering. Now this may be romantic, but I feel that the ordinary people are pretty decent, even though their attitudes may not be mine. I don't feel that they're at all contemptible. I mean the people you meet in a shoestore or pub or shopping mall. I have always felt that there is a lot of poetry in those people.
As a matter of fact, the poetry I'm trying to write these days—with great difficulty—is an attempt to talk about the ordinary life around us, not the rarified life of a thief or an intellectual. Maybe this cannot be done. It may be that a commercial, industrial civilization puts so many layers over things that there's no reality left. I'm not sure, but I would like to write a poetry of ordinary things. I began doing this in earnest in Searching for the Ox, and I got the impression from some of the reviews, especially the English reviews, that some readers didn't quite understand what it was all about. They couldn't see the poetry in lines that look so prosaic and ordinary. But I feel that I have two directions I must follow—one leads to this straightforward kind of poem about ordinary life as it really looks and smells, and the other leads to a poetry which is altogether more imagistic and more mysterious. I don't see why I can't do both.
You spent five years in publishing after World War II. Did you learn anything as a poet from that experience?
The only thing I learned as a poet was that sitting in that office was a complete waste of time. The books were not worthy of attention, and I discovered that you could spend entire days of your life doing nothing of any real satisfaction. I have never felt that way about teaching. The university is a much better place for a writer—at least you can read good books, and the people you meet, the students, are alive. Being a teacher also makes you work harder at ideas than you might otherwise, and this is valuable. Of course, any job that you might have is going to use up some of your valuable time, but for a writer, being a teacher is better than most other jobs. Your time is freer and that means you can write more.
You don't seem to be a regular participant in the creative-writing industry that is so prominent a part of so many universities. Why is that? Do you just prefer teaching more customary academic courses?
I think it is better to be writing your own stuff than telling other people how to write; it takes away from your own writing to be vicariously writing. It is also much more difficult to teach writing than it is to teach literature. You're more involved with the students’ personalities, and when their feelings get hurt, you have problems on your hands. Then there's the old question of whether writing can even be taught. You cannot teach a nonwriter or a mediocre writer to be a good writer. About the best you can do is show good writers where they're making mistakes, where something can be improved. But at least half of the students in creative-writing classes have no real talent. All you can do is pat them on the head and try not to hurt their feelings.
Even for the potentially good writers, the creative-writing programs present certain dangers. In my experience, these programs tend to make the students rather self-conscious in the wrong way. They learn too much about what is “going” at the moment, who's in and who's out, and this destroys their innocence. I think a real poet has to find out certain things for himself, grope his own way a lot of the time. That's what makes his poetry different and original. But these people are taught poetry as a career. They become very competitive, and this is the last thing a poet should be. A poet should stick to his writing and not worry about his competition or whether he's getting published or not. I'm a terrible romantic about poetry. I believe it is something that you do for your own pleasure, and if it pleases you then maybe someone else will get pleasure out of it. But I'm against the competitiveness and the self-consciousness; I don't like that atmosphere at all.
You have written two volumes of literary criticism—Three on the Tower and A Revolution in Taste. What made you want to invest that much time and energy in an activity peripheral to your central task of writing poetry?
Well, I don't write poetry all the time, I can't write poetry all the time, but I do have a lot of things going on in my head about poetry, and I want to be able to express them. And I like writing prose—it is hard as hell, but it also has a pleasure to it. Also, if I possibly can, I would like to affect the climate in which poetry is read today. I think that there is a need for clear speaking about poetry, that there is a lot of obfuscation taking place. There is a whole group of academic critics, men such as Harold Bloom, who seem to me to be completely mistaken or self-serving when they write about poetry. They have a theory which they insist on applying to all writers, even when it doesn't fit at all. I wouldn't mind if a man like Bloom limited himself to writing about Shelley, but he undertakes to talk about contemporary poetry, and it's quite clear to me that he knows very little about it. His values are completely cockeyed; he has a theory which he is trying to impose like a dead brick on contemporary poetry. The trouble is that people who are intimidated by the appearance of learning are likely to believe what he says. I remember meeting a woman who told me that she didn't understand him, but that he was very important. A lot of people feel that way. The reason she couldn't understand him is that he doesn't make sense. So, one reason I write criticism, is to cut through the nonsense and say something intelligible. I think we need good critics very badly—people who will talk about what is really there on the page and who will do so out of an emotional commitment to the poetry.
At one time Whitman was an important influence on your work. What was the source of that importance?
He was important to me in this opening up of the form, the line, which allows you to think of the poem, not as a structure of stanza and meter, but as a structure of cadences determined, really, by the content and the feeling of the poem. His freedom of form and his belief that the job of the American poet was to name things, to say things for the first time. I like to think, when I write a poem, that I'm saying something for the first time or creating a new situation or telling a kind of story that no one else would tell. I've been working lately on a kind of narrative of ordinary situations, and I don't know that many other people are doing that.
You are often referred to as an intensely American poet, perhaps the most consciously American of all current poets, and yet the first many years of your life were spent in Jamaica. Do you have any explanation for this seemingly paradoxical situation?
When I was growing up in Jamaica, I learned about America from my mother, who was American, and from movies we saw. I developed a somewhat romantic attitude about America—it was an exciting place to me, very different from the restrained English life we had in Jamaica in the thirties. I thought of America, as a place where people had a very exciting life and the freedom to behave as they pleased. Then too, when I came to America, I knew I was going to stay here and that I was going to be a writer. So I tried to find out about the country as hard as I could. This was my material as a writer, and I wanted to understand it. My attitude as a writer has always been to be concerned with the material, not with my own salvation. I think that many poets are concerned with working out their own personal salvation through their work, projecting an emotional outcry of their soul. This has never been part of my intention—my own personal identity seems very unimportant to me. In fact, some Englishman pointed out in a review of Searching for the Ox that the ego had disappeared almost totally from my work, and I hope that's true.
I try to see myself as a transmitter and the poem as a transmission—I stand between the material, which is out there, separate from myself, and the created work. My job is to select from the material what I think will make a poem, shape it, and pass it through. So I have tried to absorb America as hard as I could, because that is the material I've been given. I've tried hard to understand it, but I never had to try to like it—I always did like it. Even the horrible, ugly things to me were stuff that could make poetry. I have just tried to find and state the essential truth of things. I think this is why I am so fond of writers like Dreiser and Whitman. A few years ago I did quite a long review of a book on Dreiser for the London Times. What I like about such writers is not their philosophy—that is very awkward and naive. In fact, most writers are not very good philosophers. The excitement in Dreiser is that he's saying something for the first time; he's taking this absolutely rough and raw material, showing it to you, and paying careful attention to it.
And that's how I feel about America, and that's what I have been trying to do. But there are problems, undeniable problems. For one thing, I am an outsider—I grew up in Jamaica. And then, not long after I arrived in America, I left it to fight in the war—and that was a European experience. So I had to find my bearings all over again. Another problem is the material itself—can it be turned into poetry? Maybe it's just too flat, too dead. And the language which this material demands is not exciting either. I don't use colorful or fancy language because that would be an interruption of the truth I want to get across; I'm trying to get across the poem as a whole. The whole poem—one page, three pages—is a single word almost, one whole expression. It is as though the event were speaking to the reader. I want to write an almost transparent poem in which you can't find the writer and in which the language draws no attention to itself. I know this attitude toward the language of poetry is completely different from that held by a poet like Dylan Thomas, back then, or today by a poet like Charles Wright, where the words are so important, or John Ashbery, where the individual sentences call so much attention to themselves.
So—to get back to your original question—I just saw this as my material, my American material. In the beginning, I wrote about it in big generalizations—I wanted to eat the country up all at once. Now I'm doing a different kind of thing: I'm trying to get at it by writing about individual scenes and people. Of course, the irony of it is that the great American poem may well be written by a poet who doesn't think of himself as American at all, who writes American poems because he happens to live in America. He would be surprised to be called an American poet—just as Thomas Hardy would have been surprised to be called an English poet. He wrote that way because he lived there.
You've been quoted as having said: “The main fact about the American artist is his feeling of isolation.” Do you still have this feeling of isolation as a poet in America?
Oh, very much. American poets tend to find themselves separated from each other by geographical space—we don't meet in cafés; we rarely talk to each other; we see very little of each other. You may as a person have a life with other people, but as a poet you are isolated, you don't see the people you really have a lot in common with for a year or two at a time.
I also think the poets are isolated, spiritually and intellectually, from society at large. American society does not need its poets—and I'm not being cynical; I'm just stating facts. This observation is certainly not original with me. The American economy can go through a day completely oblivious of poetry without the slightest jar. And the people—there are very few readers of poetry in America. I figure that, at the most, there are ten thousand people in the United States capable of reading a book of modern poetry. I said “capable” of reading it, which doesn't mean that they will actually read it. A new book of poetry, by a good poet and with good reviews, is very lucky if it sells three thousand copies. The only way for a poet to bridge this gap is to cease being a poet and become something else—a novelist, a scriptwriter for television, something like that. As Randall Jarrell said, a poet can become famous in America if he writes a novel or does some other popular thing, but not by writing poetry.
I take it, then, that you don't expect your poetry of ordinary American life to gain a large audience of ordinary American readers?
Oh, the people I write about will never read it, even though they could. And this can make you angry. Let me give you an example. I recently talked to a woman who complained about some modern art that she found incomprehensible. So I said to her: “This is all very well and good, but when some of us do write or paint stuff that is comprehensible, you don't support that either.” Every now and then you will see a newspaper or magazine article about modern poetry in which it's claimed that the poets don't make enough effort to get to the common man or to write about common things. This is complete nonsense. There are many contemporary American poets who write perfectly understandable poems about things that interest everyone—about the most domestic subjects, if that's what the American public wants—about mothers and children and fathers and gardening and the day's work and the ordinary feelings people have. And the public doesn't care. They still complain that all this modern poetry is obscure. It's just nonsense; they don't care about it because there are other things that interest them more. I don't want to sound cynical, but I do feel that any serious American poet who keeps on writing past the age of forty has got to have an awful lot of motivation within himself because he's not going to get it from the public. No—you have to do it for yourself.
If there is a literary center in America, a community of writers, it is probably in New York. You live close to New York, but apparently don't find that community supportive.
There are writers in New York who support one another. Certain publishing firms and magazines that wouldn't flourish anywhere else flourish in New York. But for me as a poet, the city is a physically impossible place to live. The atmosphere is depressing, the enclosure by walls has almost a physical impact on my mind. In my view, the poet needs to have a sense of space, sense of innocence. In New York, you are constantly being bombarded by horror—in a single walk down the street you can see more horrors than you want to see for the rest of your life. And the so-called literary life in New York—people stand around and talk about what everyone is doing. Some people are working, of course, but many don't do anything, they talk about doing it. When I write about New York, I always present it in the grimmest, most forbidding terms: it appears in my poems as a sinister place.
Robert Bly has a reputation for having had a radical influence on certain poets, yourself included. Did he influence you to change your style back in the late fifties?
There's been a lot of talk about this sort of thing. One man who wrote a book on modern poetry—I've forgotten his name—said that my change of style was influenced by Robert Kelly and Robert Bly. Now I have scarcely even read Robert Kelly, much less been influenced by him. This astonishing remark was made in a book that was sold in stores and was no doubt read by students. Now Robert Bly did have an influence on me between about 1959 and 1963. But it is also quite possible that I had an influence on Robert Bly. Nobody ever thinks about this possibility, but I think the influence was mutual. When I was breaking out of traditional English forms, Robert helped me—he is an excellent critic of the individual poem. Later, I found that there are certain areas in which I did not want his criticism; he did not understand the ways of making a poem that I was becoming interested in. I also found what I consider a serious defect in him as a reader: he is unable to detach the writer from the subject. He is so eager to find the thought behind a poem that he cannot conceive that the writer is detaching himself from what he's writing about. Iago does not speak for Shakespeare any more than Othello does. They are independent creations of the poet. Bly seems to want to see every poem as a subjective outpouring, a revelation of the writer's secret and hidden wishes, which is nonsense. Quite often, a man will sit down and write a poem in which he himself is dramatized; he is looking at himself quite objectively. This Robert cannot understand. So I don't lean on his criticism of my poems anymore. In fact, I think he's a much better poet than critic. He has been very useful in bringing in foreign poetry, and this gave him a reputation as a critic. But I do think that he is one of the few poets in America that really can do something memorable. But we have gone, he and, I, in very different directions in our writing, so we don't agree on things much anymore. I believe I am being accurate when I say that Robert is very strongly influenced by the ideas of Carl Jung, and I certainly am not. The belief I have in a poetry of ordinary events would not interest Robert, and Robert's ideas about the supernatural don't interest me at all. They have no connection with any life I've ever seen or believe to be true. So we have gone in two very different directions—I am very much tied to things of this world, and Robert is looking for some sort of supernatural answer to existence.
You have spoken of a cult of sincerity in contemporary poetry. What do you mean by that?
This is an assumption which I think has dominated American poetry at least since the late 1950s. It says that if you tell the truth about your life and your feelings, if you will directly express your emotions, then by virtue of the sheer honesty of your expression, you will have written poetry. This reflects a very American preoccupation—what was it Whitman said in his “Preface?”—“I will not have anything to come between me and the reader,” he says. “I will not have any hanging of curtains.” You can find this sort of thing in writers like Henry Miller and William Carlos Williams, but where it really took over poetry was in Allen Ginsberg's Howl, back in the fifties. That book was quickly followed by Snodgrass's Heart's Needle and Lowell's Life Studies. Of course you have several subdivisions in American poetry over the last twenty years—there is the school of the “deep image,” there is the Black Mountain school, there is the confessional school—but if you look at all of them, what they have in common is a belief in sincerity of utterance.
This is true, I think, even of poets who pretend to objectivity. Charles Olson, for example, was hung up on science and geography and typography, and he had all these theories about poetry. What Williams said about place in a man's life and poetry—Olson took this literally, and he made all these maps of Gloucester, and he really believed that there was a relationship between all that and his life and his writing. But when you look into the poetry, you discover that this worked-up objectivity is just a mask for an underlying sincerity—it's all about Charles Olson.
Now this cult of sincerity seems to be a very liberating thing, and that is why it became so popular—half of the poems still being written today are by young people who think that, if you just say who you are, what you do, who your friends are, then you've got a poem. Now it may be very liberating, but there are a couple of things missing, things like drama and narrative and even imagination. Imagination is a big thing to eliminate from poetry; you are left with only the actual circumstances of your life, and that is extremely limiting. People who write this kind of poetry really seem to believe that any making up of anything—any form of artificial making up, any creation of story—is cheating somehow, and dishonest. And of course any form of irony is completely anathema, any double view of the subject is suspect, somehow evil. Without full use of the imagination, you are left with only the facts of your own life, and this can cause a serious confusion between art and life. You end up having to justify your art by your way of life, and vice versa.
The tragic thing about the confessional poets is that they took all this the most seriously. Poets like Berryman and Sexton and Plath simply were unable to draw a separation between poetry and life—they could not find any relief, they had to be “on” all the time. They could not write a poem and then knock off and go into life. To them, poetry was life and life was poetry, so they were always on stage. They thought that they could—they thought they had to—find their salvation through poetry. If there is one thing we can be sure of about poetry, it is that poetry is nobody's salvation. It is not a substitute for religion. It is poetry. As playing the violin is playing the violin, writing poetry is only writing poetry, an activity—it is not a way of life. These people became trapped by this view of poetry, and it ended up destroying them.
In the case of writers like Berryman and Plath and Sexton, you have a degree of psychological disturbance, a negative and depressive view of life. So they wrote about their lives as tragic and terrible, and this poetry fed back into their lives, and it created a trap. Way back in about 1900, Joseph Conrad wrote about this kind of writing. He said that, once you have told the terrible truth and made a sensation, what are you going to do next? You have to turn up the volume, write an even more terrible truth. And all the time the poetry and the life are feeding on each other, until pretty soon you cross a line and pass from emotion to hysteria. Ultimately there is only one way left to prove your sincerity, and that is to kill yourself. They had the wrong theory of art; their sincerity created a confusion between life and art. They were looking for salvation, but that is not what they found. It is time to go forward, to get away from this absorption in the individual life and find a more objective and healthy theory of art.
Doesn't the title Adventures of the Letter I take us in that personal direction? What distinctions would you make between your own voice and the voice that you adopt in that book?
Well, you see, the letter I is not me. The letter I is something that appears in a poem and says, “I do this and I do that,” but it is not me—it's the letter I. Of course, a lot of the stuff that I have written in the last few years has been autobiographical, but there is an enormous difference between what I'm doing and confessional poetry. I am merely an observer in my poems. I'm not trying to solve the problems of my own life through poetry. Nor am I asking the reader to think that I'm a wonderful, interesting person. The I appears in these poems as an observer, like Marlowe in the Conrad stories—a commentator, an observer, a small actor, but not someone who is engaged in a struggle for his soul.
You see, I am really pretty different from most poets today. I am not involved in the cult of sincerity. I think of myself as an objective observer—a transmitter of things that I am seeing. I think that what we need now in poetry is imagination, pleasure. I'm sick of the puritans and the moralists, who have held sway for twenty years. It is like the Victorian age all over, except that now they're preaching sincerity, drugs, self-indulgence, an absolute cultivation of the egocentric soul. I would like to see a return to what Rimbaud said—he said, “I is another.” Well, that's what I was trying to say with the letter I—“I is another”; it's not me, it's the letter I. These are essentially narrative poems, and narrative is something I would definitely like to see more of in poetry. It is the antithesis of the kind of subjective writing I've been talking against, which I see as so limiting. Narrative poetry means imagination, creation of character, creation of scene, creation of action, creation of objective ideas about life. I would like to see that very much.
Your recent poems emphasize narrative and use a plain kind of free verse. What is it that makes these poems poetry, specifically, rather than a brief form of short story, something like that?
The difference is that they are written in lines—the rhythmic part of the poem enfranchises it from prose completely. You could argue other things—for example, that there is a greater concentration in the poems than you get in prose, or that there are more images—but these arguments are fallacious because they can't be held logically to the ultimate. You could have a short story which is just as concentrated or intense as a poem, and you could have an example of prose which has more images. No, it's the old difference between verse and prose—it is the line. And I work very strongly in lines. It may not be evident on the page, but I think that when these poems are heard aloud, it is clear that they have a strong rhythm. I'm very insistent on this point, that the line of verse is the absolutely essential thing.
How do you feel about the concept of the prose poem then?
I'm one of the few public enemies of the prose poem. I think it is a mistake because it abandons the strong points of both prose and verse. The strong point of prose fiction for me is that it develops a narrative that goes somewhere. And it is a vehicle for information—even the most beautiful prose is a vehicle for information of some kind. Now the prose poem does not carry information, it does not usually develop a narrative, and it lacks the line of verse, obviously—it breaks down into sentences. The unit of attention in poetry is the line, and to do without it is to leave out the musical elements entirely. I think some of Baudelaire's prose pieces are magnificent—but they are called prose poems only out of whim. There are no rules governing the prose poem—it can be anything you like. Verse is like a dance that is occurring in front of you—the poet's words move in measure. Verse imposes certain laws upon the writer from outside. In a way it makes writing more difficult, but in another way it gives verse an objective reality that prose does not have. The prose writer has nothing to sustain him but appetite and reason—apart from the laws of grammar and syntax, usage and punctuation, there are no rules that the prose writer has to follow. Everything else can be determined by his will at the moment of composition.
You have said that you try to adhere to an organic notion of form in your poetry. Could you say a little more about that?
Yes, I believe that it is the cooperation between the writer and his material that should determine the form of the poem. You don't start with the idea that you are going to fill up two-hundred lines of blank verse, and then put anything in just to fill up the lines. You can write only as long as you have something to say, and then you stop. If what you are going to talk about is brief, simple, a momentary thing perceived, then the poem will be short. If your idea is complicated, then the poem will be longer and may break into separate blocks and developments. Emerson has a beautiful description of it, about the growth of a poem being like the growth of a plant, with different branches and blossoms and so on. The opposite of this idea would be something like the sonnet, which always has fourteen lines, no matter how large or how small the subject you're dealing with.
Ultimately, I suppose a poem is an emotion which uses certain facts and images in order to generate itself. But the emotion is what forms the poem, and when the emotion is dead, then the poem must stop. It is the emotion formed by the material that makes the form of the poem. When I am writing, I immense myself in the subject and try to remove from my vision of it anything distracting at all, including language, anything that distracts from the experience. My object is to get the original vision across to the reader, and when I have done that, I'm through. I think this makes me very different from a writer like James Merrill, for whom the language is always a distraction; it is always calling attention to itself, pulling the poet away from the original experience. That is the polar opposite of what I'm talking about.
You've also suggested that, by using free verse rather than some more rigid, restrictive form, a poet will be more likely to express the truth of his experience or vision. Could you say something more about that?
Well, in free verse you are much more likely to follow the cadences of your thinking voice. I'd rather use that term that the word speech, because we don't speak aloud in our heads. Now the voice in which you think is the voice in which you are most likely to tell the truth. We don't think in iambic pentameter or trochaic tetrameter. So by writing free verse, you are more likely to bring over into poetry the cadence of your real feelings as expressed in words.
Is your book Searching for the Ox based on ideas grounded in Zen Buddhism?
Yes. The title poem in fact had its origin in a Zen cartoon series, the Ox-herding Series. This herd boy is searching for the lost ox; he finds a footprint, then he finds the ox; he starts leading it home, then he rides on it; in the next panel you see a little cottage and the moon and a branch, and then the cottage and the moon and the branch vanish; everything is gone except a big circle in the sky, which is ultimate reality. It is a parable of the search for mastery of the self. The ox is the self, which is found, then mastered, then eliminated, so that the Zen objective can be reached. The Buddhist goal is to merge with the universe in Nirvana and to cease searching. That's what I had in the back of my mind while writing that poem, though it appears only obliquely. Mostly, the poem is a free-floating series of associations which somehow hold together.
Some time before I came to write that book, I spent two years in London, studying Zen Buddhism, among other things. I read many books on the subject, and I would go to the Buddhist Institute, where I learned meditation. The process of Buddhist meditation is an attempt to eliminate distractions and to attain objectivity by escaping a narrow vision of the self. You try to feel the life which is around you, throughout the universe, by concentrating on the process of your own breathing. In the poems, this shows up as a concentration on the object, not distracted by any intrusion of my own personality—it is a clear view of the thing. This is true even in the poems that begin with I—it's an attempt to be objective about myself as well as everything else. I am trying to get past the limitations of the personal ego and link up with an impersonal reality somewhere outside myself.
For example, in the book there is a poem called “The Middle-Aged Man.” It is an attempt to look at the man exactly as he is, in all of the triviality of his life. I keep staring at him, until finally, at the end of the poem, his eyeglasses become burned into my consciousness. Buddhism teaches that your physical existence and your mental existence are one thing; in the West, we tend automatically to split them apart, as in the Christian idea of the body and the soul. I prefer the medieval idea—they had a term for the body which recognized it as the form for the soul, which I take to mean that the body is the outward garment of the soul. Whitman says that too, that there is no split between the body and the soul. And this is what the Buddhists say also. This way of thinking leads to a poetry that is very physical in its orientation, a poetry that concentrates on ordinary life. The Buddhist says: “Your ordinary life, that is the way.” To believe that—really to believe it—is to have it made. Then you really could live life fully and be an intellectual at the same time. Otherwise, one tends to live an unsatisfactory daily life, and compensate for it by creating in dreams the life one would prefer to live.
To write poetry of ordinary life, especially of ordinary American life, seems to be the goal of your recent poetry.
I came to the United States when I was seventeen, almost forty years ago. I'd had a very rough time in Jamaica—my brother and I had just been swindled out of our inheritance from my father. I had a wonderful time at Columbia before the war—I was sort of born again. My intellectual allegiance since that time has been very strongly American—I have been constantly thinking about this country, even when I have been away from it for prolonged periods. I feel absolutely no affinity for Jamaica at all, because the culture is still so English—they are still under the shadow of the English, and I'm not. The English culture, which I've also seen recently in Australia, is lagging very far behind us in poetry. American poetry is really much, much more alive than English.
My latest book, Caviare at the Funeral, tries again to capture some of this. The poems in the first section attempt to recreate an atmosphere—they cover things I have seen and lived through since about 1940. The second section turns to contemporary American life, which I present mostly in domestic terms. In the third section, I have written about my Russian family background. This is a contrast to the first two sections, but it also shows our American ethnic diversity. The fourth section is more wide-ranging—there's something in there about what modern technological life is doing to man and his world. I use a lot of Australian material also.
The book as a whole I think has less of a unity of content than it has a unity of tone. I have tried very hard to eliminate insincerities of language and form in order to write narrative poems that bring out a quality of feeling in myself, in others, or in the scenes themselves. It is this feeling or tone that determines the detail and the unity of a given poem. There is a kind of poetry in America today in which we see the words playing with themselves. The language is looking at itself—it's a game within the poem itself. In the kind of poem I am writing, the language points outward from the poem to the things and people and scenes that are being described. I am trying to bring out the feelings inherent in that material.
There is a poem in the book which does not at first glance seem to belong—the one on Magritte.
That poem is quite a departure for me, but it is based on a feeling I have of kinship with Magritte. The more I look at his paintings the more I think we are trying to do something very similar. He takes images of very common objects and juxtaposes them in odd ways. What you end up with is something both very common and surrealistic, and it shows how weird the ordinary can actually be.
Would that impulse or desire have anything to do with the poem “The Beaded Pear”?
Yes. The poem is meant to be absolutely descriptive of the kind of domestic life we actually live in this country today. When the poem first came out—in the Long Island newspaper Newsday—it upset a lot of people. I got hate mail from people who thought I was being devastatingly sarcastic. But I don't see it that way. There is an element of ridicule in the poem, but it is directed at the culture which fosters these kinds of values, not at the people themselves. No—mostly it is a purely descriptive poem, an attempt at absolutely dead-on, accurate truth. There is even a touch of pathos at the end.
What really pleases me about that poem is the way it incorporates things like TV Guide—the real stuff of our everyday lives. There are too many poems today in which sophisticated, contemporary Americans—who watch TV and drive cars on freeways—pretend that they are Indians. Well, we are the tribe that chews gum and wears polyester and blow-dries our hair, and these things belong in our poems. You can do this in narrative or dramatic poems, work it naturally into the situation without giving sermons. The comparison may sound somewhat farfetched, but isn't this what Chaucer did for his own time? By incorporating the actual details of people's lives, he managed to portray the texture, the feel of life in his time. I mean, it is our life, it is what we use and do everyday. Shouldn't there be some connection between that and the poems we write?
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2510
SOURCE: “Caviare,” in On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer, University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 147–55.
[In the following review, originally published in 1981, Makuck offers a positive assessment of Caviare at the Funeral.]
Cette vie est un hôpital où chaque malade est possédé du désir de changer de lit. Celui-ci voudrait souffrir en face du poêle, et celui-là croit qu'il guérirait a côté de la fenêtre.
Since the Pulitzer Prize—winning volume At the End of the Open Road (1963) through Adventures of the Letter I (1971) and Searching for the Ox (1976), Louis Simpson has been quarreling with America and questioning the possibility of happiness, or looking for, as he says in this latest book, a “life in which there are depths / beyond happiness.” Simpson's poetry has been characterized by a strong narrative impulse, open form, a fine mix of the dramatic and the discursive, literary and colloquial diction, dream imagery, a mastery of the working line, and, with increasing frequency, personal subjects such as ancestral Russia, childhood in Jamaica, soldiering in World War II. His new book, perhaps his richest yet, is vintage Simpson and provides the reading we have come to relish: freshness of sensation, telling detail, an ability to accommodate the humorous, the terrible and the lyrical almost simultaneously. Simpson implicitly describes his own work in “Why Do You Write About Russia?”: “So it is with poetry: whatever numbing horrors / it may speak of, the voice itself / tells of love and infinite wonder.” Voice, an incredibly natural voice, is part of the triumph of Caviare at the Funeral.
There are thirty-three poems in this volume of four sections, and at least two—thirds are more than a page in length. Subject matter varies: the Australian outback, Chekhov, an icemaker, a Magritte, an old graveyard, a car stalled on the highway, New York suburbia, malls, trade publishing, Russia, guests at an out-of-season hotel, soldiers on furlough. Boredom and one of its other faces, restlessness, are major themes and from poem to poem we see people change houses, cars, wives; they vacation in Bermuda, shop for the sake of shopping; they watch TV while their children cruise about in the family car. These are human poems, seldom self-centered; they exhibit a strong interest in the lives of others and the vital signs of the nation generally.
Continuing the personal inquiry of the Russian poems appearing in his last two books, Simpson begins Caviare at the Funeral with a poem about Jamaica and his childhood there. “Working Late” is positive yet elegiac like the book's wonderful title (taken from Chekhov's “In the Ravine”); it also announces the themes of longing and restlessness. The recollected Jamaica of this poem is variously illuminated, first by light in the study where Simpson's father, a lawyer, worked late preparing cases. But we also see harbor lights, a lighthouse, “drifting offshore lights,” and the terrible longing light of the moon that has “come all the way from Russia,” his mother's homeland, “to gaze for a while in a mango tree / and light the wall of a veranda / before resuming her interrupted journey. …” Once the father and son sat silently and listened to the surf and the pleasant creak of coconut boughs. But there is also a darker memory, one of his father using a plaster head and brass curtain rod to show a jury “the angle of fire— / where the murderer must have stood.” Subsequently the son has recurring visions of a “dead man's head / with a black hole in the forehead.” But this poem is a luminous one and Simpson's act of recovery glows with acceptance. “Working Late” ends as it began—with light—and the whole memory is haloed:
And the light that used to shine at night in my father's study now shines as late in mine.
Typical of Simpson's less personal, more socially critical poetry is “The Beaded Pear,” a triptych of American boredom wherein middle-class comfort and soullessness (not simply shallow consciousness) is detailed with such subtle accuracy that a reader hesitates between laughter and tears. The first part, “Shopping,” is about a suburban family's excursion to a mall where “by actual count / there are twenty-two stores selling shoes”; Simpson provides an unholy Whitmanesque litany to underscore the absurdity and obscenity of such abundance. The family splits up to shop in different directions after agreeing to meet later at the “fountain”:
The Mall is laid out like a cathedral with two arcades that cross— Macy's at one end of the main arcade, Abraham and Straus at the other. At the junction of transept and nave there is a circular, sunken area with stairs where people sit, mostly teenagers, smoking and making dates to meet later. This is what is meant by “at the fountain.”
The middle part, “Why don't you get transferred, Dad?” finds the American family at home, momentarily, for teenage Jimmy and Darlene are about to go out with friends, Darlene pausing long enough to ask Dad why he, like her friend Marion's father, doesn't get the company to transfer him. His answer is appropriate for an American Dreamer: “I'd like to … / I'd also like a million dollars.” As he has previously, Simpson ponders the mad and bewildering movement that America has become. Here, answers to the family's frequent where-else-would-you-like-to-live game partially explain this disturbing movement.
Darlene likes California— “It has beautiful scenery and you get to meet all the stars.” Mom prefers Arizona, because of a picture she saw once, in Good Housekeeping. Jimmy doesn't care, and Dad likes it here. “You can find anything you want right where you are.” He reminds them of The Wizard of Oz, about happiness, how it is found right in your own backyard.
In the third part, “The Beaded Pear,” after dinner, after the children do the dishes and go out again, after Mom and Dad watch “Hollywood Star Time” and Dad is faced with the serious decision of whether to watch a horse race film or “an excellent melodrama of the Mafia,” Mom decides she has had “enough television for one night” and will work on
A “Special ＄1.88 do-it-yourself Beaded Pear. No glueing or sewing required. Beautiful beaded fruit is easily assembled using enclosed pins, beads, and decorative material.”
She says, “It's not going to be so easy.”
“No,” he says, “it never is.”
She speaks again. “There is a complete series. Apple, Pear, Banana, Lemon, Orange, Grapes, Strawberry, Plum, and Lime.”
The situation and dialogue stir memories of absurdist drama. There is little authorial control over reader reaction. Malicious laughter or sympathetic moans are both possible. It is hard to say what texts are behind this poem or many other Simpson poems where people are distracted from distraction by distraction but one might think of Dostoyevsky's Zossima and his fiery denunciation of materialism, or of Pascal's dread-producing pensée: “La seule chose qui nous console de nos misères est le divertissement, et cependant c'est la plus grande de nos misères.” Malls that may be twentieth-century man's only cathedrals, Mom/Dad clichés posing as thought, decisions that do not dignify the word, the mindless dream of California, wisdom in The Wizard of Oz—surely there is an existential dirty joke in all of this. In A Dream of Governors, when still working with meter and rhyme, Simpson wrote:
Some day, when this uncertain continent Is marble, and men ask what was the good We lived by, dust may whisper “Hollywood.”
(“Hot Night on Water Street”)
Though his vision of contemporary society is sharply critical, Simpson's satire is never pitiless. If we laugh at the situation and behavior of the family described above, we had best beware. The closure of another poem, “A Bower of Roses,” I think, easily applies to the reader of “The Beaded Pear”:
He supposed this was what life taught you, that words you thought were a joke, and applied to someone else, were real, and applied to you.
In a finely unified volume such as Caviare, one expects poems to comment on each other, and they do. “A River Running By,” for example, deals with a possibly adulterous situation in which the speaker contemplates marriage, fading passion, inevitable loneliness. His thoughts sharpen our perception of the couple in “The Beaded Pear”:
The trouble with love is that you have to believe in it. Like swimming … you have to keep it up.
And those who didn't, who remained on the sofa watching television, would live to wish that they had.
Hemingway, in a letter to Edward J. O'Brien, said that he was trying “to do country so you don't remember the words after you read it but actually have the Country.” Simpson, too, would like the words to disappear and one never finds in his work images or similes that are suspiciously stunning. What we have instead are wonderfully natural figures that never upstage the poem as a whole. Consider:
There stands my wife, in the garden gathering lilacs … reaching up, pulling a branch toward her, severing the flower with a knife decisively, like a surgeon.
The air was aglimmer, thousands of snowflakes falling the length of the street.
Five to eight inches, said the radio. But in the car it was warm; she had left the engine running and sat with both hands on the wheel, her breast and throat like marble rising from the pool of the dark.
(“A River Running By”)
Even the discursive moments of these poems have something pleasantly unforced about them, but are richly suggestive and resist the intelligence almost successfully:
Poetry, says Baudelaire, is melancholy: the more we desire, the more we shall have to grieve. Devour a corpse with your eyes; art consists in the cultivation of pain. … … … … … … … … … … Restlessness is a sign of intelligence; revulsion, the flight of a soul.
Although restlessness is a sign of intelligence, the often aimless movement Simpson describes in a number of these poems is more a sign of ennui, especially when the movement involves automobiles. “American Classic,” a bitingly humorous poem, begins the second section of the book and is about a couple who are ashamed and embarrassed because their car has broken down on the highway for all to see, making them outsiders to the automotive part of the American Dream that goes whizzing past.
In the fume of carbon monoxide and dust they are not such good Americans as they thought they were.
The feeling of being left out through no fault of your own, is common. That's why I say, an American classic.
Cars appear frequently throughout the rest of this section. The last poem, “Unfinished Life,” is about writing and publishing but it is not without screeching tires and the diminishing ring of a wobbling, postcrash hub cap. For Simpson, cars are most often emblems of boredom, and in and through them drivers are brought no nearer to the happiness they are seeking.
In “Lines Written near San Francisco,” last poem in At the End of the Open Road, Simpson wrote, “The land is within. / At the end of the open road we come to ourselves.” In our time few take the road of inwardness, and travel is often simply another form of distraction, of delivery from the empty self. But travel is desirable if one knows how to—as the epigraph to the last section of Caviare indicates—“voyager loin en aimant sa maison.” Travel, in this instance, is a sign of persistence at the highest human endeavors. Simpson has traveled to Australia and has given us a number of fine place poems, and a lyrical essay entitled “Armidale” which tries to understand why we often turn both from ourselves and from nature:
In American from the beginning when people were dissatisfied they were able to move to a better place. But there is no better place in Australia—the first was best, around the edge, where colonies were planted. Outback is desert and rocks. The Australian psyche answers to this geography. People don't want to venture inland—they don't want to explore the Unconscious, they know it will be a desert. They cling to the coastal rims and towns. They stand elbow to elbow in the public bar and stupefy their senses with beer. They are satisfied with betting on horses or watching football on TV. …
I am not accusing the Australian—he is the white man everywhere, flourishing on the outside and empty within. This continent is like a projection of our inner state. We are all clinging to the edge and asking for distractions. Australia is like a screen on which we see the deserts of the psyche in an age of mass-production.
Simpson points out, of course, that the Outback was not a desert to the aborigine who knew quite well how to live there, who was in touch with the spirits of his ancestors there, who knew where the water was and could harvest the growing things. But the fate of the aborigine is similar to that of the American Indian. In reading “Armidale,” one naturally thinks of D. H. Lawrence's Australian and American writings in which he strongly identifies with primitive peoples and urges a resurrection of the body and the reawakening of a fierce rapport with earth and stars. For Simpson, it is too late for that.
I don't want to live “against nature” like a Symbolist or a Surrealist. But as bureaucracy triumphs over every foot of the earth's surface, and men go to their labor like ants, and huddle in multi-level buildings above ground or in tunnels beneath it, they have to find their happiness in illusions. There will be generations that have never touched a leaf. Millions of people in the United States are already living this way.
But whereas the Symbolists and Surrealists created their illusions, in the future illusions will be provided. The masses will sit gazing at pictures of green hills and breaking waves, with appropriate sounds. They won't even have to applaud—they will hear the sound of applause. Access to the real thing will be prohibited to all but a few thousand members of the ruling political party.
No caviare at this funeral, only popcorn perhaps.
But Simpson's book does not end here. He is less interested in the future than the present, as in the beautiful “Maria Roberts”:
In the kingdom of heaven there is neither past nor future, but thinking, which is always present …
And after closing the book, we remember the scope, unity, wit, humor, and complexity of these poems. In this land of the devalued word and of so many “unreal occupations” (“New Lots”), we remember how important is a commitment to words, we remember that what often produces happiness, or the depths beyond it, is perception, imagination, language:
The things we see and the things we imagine, afterwards, when you think about them, are equally composed of words.
It is the words we use, finally, that matter, if anything does.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8728
SOURCE: “Louis Simpson and Walt Whitman,” in On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer, University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 275–302.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Lazer examines Simpson's assimilation of Whitman's poetic themes, style, and voice, and Simpson's subsequent effort to come to terms with Whitman's influence after rejecting his overly idealized vision of America.]
With regard to recent American poetry, it is easy and fruitful to trace the influence of Walt Whitman. Particularly with the revolution in style that began in the mid-fifties with Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems and that continued in the early sixties with Robert Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields, Whitman has been seen as a congenial poetic mentor and model for a wide range of American poets. Ginsberg, for example, was drawn to Whitman for a number of reasons: Whitman's metrics and use of the long line; Whitman's commitment to a bardic, prophetic function for poetry; Whitman's example of a national poet who can speak to (and about) all of America; Whitman's frank sexuality and homoeroticism; and Whitman's fresh use of biblical language and form. On the other hand, Bly's affinity with Whitman, though perhaps narrower than Ginsberg's, is every bit as central to Bly's own development. As Bly acknowledges in a recent essay, “one cannot imagine The Teeth Mother appearing without Whitman beforehand.”1 Bly seizes on the mystical and spiritual dimension in Whitman's poetry, as does Galway Kinnell, though Kinnell seems more drawn than Bly to the tangible, physical side of Whitman's poetry. The democratic impulse in Whitman, his love of individuals of all trades and classes, especially his love of the neglected and dispossessed, can be seen as a strong influence on recent poets such as Philip Levine, David Ignatow, and James Wright. And recently, in Lucky Life and The Red Coal, Whitman's long line has again been used with great success by Gerald Stern, who also makes substantial use of Whitman's catalog technique.
Because of the range, ambition, freedom, and magnitude of Whitman's work, as well as the attractive model of Whitman's persistence as a poet, it is to be expected that nearly every contemporary American poet of some stature will, at one time or another, bow respectfully in Walt Whitman's direction.2 Indeed, critics delight in finding Whitman's presence everywhere (as Whitman himself had hoped and predicted at the end of “Song of Myself”) until nearly each and every American poet bears some “essential” kinship to him. Harold Bloom, for example, after straining the connection between Stevens and Whitman, waxes hyperbolic by telling us that Stevens “may not be the culmination of Whitman's poetics either, since that begins to seem the peculiar distinction of John Ashbery.”3 The contemporary reader may begin to think that Whitman's Leaves is a large pinhead where all poetic angels live.
The relationship between Louis Simpson and Walt Whitman, however, is neither a tangential one nor a mere bow of respect. In Simpson's poetry the reader finds a complex, intelligent, skeptical playing out of affinities with and differences from Whitman's poetry. Though Simpson clearly is drawn to Whitman's work and example, Simpson does not set Whitman up as some remote, perfected poetic model. In a very recent essay, “Honoring Whitman,” Simpson begins with an epigraph from “Song of Myself”: “He most honors my style who learns under it how to destroy the teacher.” The epigraph summarizes the outcome of Simpson's study of Whitman, but their relationship proves more complex and instructive than the epigraph might suggest. By exploring Simpson's relationship to Whitman, we can begin to see certain paradigmatic features emerge, features which are common to any contemporary poet's relationship with Whitman. As Simpson's poetry will demonstrate, to speak to Whitman is to interpret and define who and what Whitman was; to explore what an American poet is; to struggle with a major American poetic influence (as in any engagement with a major precursor); to explore the role of “ordinary life” in poetry; to affirm a liberation of form (not, however, to affirm formless poetry); to evaluate America and the American enterprise; to form a picture of an ideal poet by accepting elements of Whitman and rejecting others; and to consider the peculiarly American problem of a poet's audience and a poet's relationship to the “common man.” By tracing Simpson's relationship to Whitman, or, to use Ed Folsom's term, the way that Simpson “talks back” to Whitman,4 the shape and development of Simpson's poetry can be described. His encounter with Whitman is pivotal in Simpson's development from an Audenesque, formal, ironic poet into a writer of free verse, dramatic narratives of ordinary life. By Simpson's encounter with Whitman, I do not mean his very first reading of Whitman. Instead, I refer to Simpson's direct dialogue (in poetry and prose) with Whitman, a sustained discussion and argument which begins with Simpson's fourth book of poems, At the End of the Open Road (1963), and which continues, on and off, for the next twenty years, including Simpson's most recent books, The Best Hour of the Night (1983) and People Live Here: Selected Poems, 1949–1983.
However, it would be inaccurate to say that Simpson's poetry required this kind of encounter with Whitman before it could begin to address and evaluate America. In A Dream of Governors (1959), Simpson's third book of poems, the second section is entitled “My America.” Indeed, Simpson's subsequent judgments of America have not changed fundamentally from the conclusion reached in “To the Western World”:
In this America, this wilderness Where the axe echoes with a lonely sound, The generations labor to possess And grave by grave we civilize the ground.(5)
The vision of an America which does death's bidding receives more detailed expression in Simpson's next book, At the End of the Open Road (1963), but the attitude expressed is essentially the same one found in “To the Western World.” The conclusion to “West,” from Simpson's second book of poems, Good News of Death and Other Poems (1955), also demonstrates the steadiness of the poet's attitudes:
Ranching in Bolinas, that's the life, If you call cattle life. To sit on a veranda with a glass And see the sprinklers watering your land And hear the peaches dropping from the trees And hear the ocean in the redwood trees,
The whales of time, Masts of the long voyages of earth, In whose tall branches day Hangs like a Christmas toy.
On their red columns drowse The eagles battered at the Western gate; These trees have held the eagles in their state When Rome was still a rumor in the boughs.
This critique of mellow California living eventually develops into the beginning of “A Friend of the Family”: “Once upon a time in California / the ignorant married the inane / and they lived happily ever after” (ADV, 53). The vision of American civilization slipping toward its own undistinguished death recurs directly and indirectly throughout Simpson's poetic career.
So what does change as a result of Simpson's encounter with Whitman? Tone, style, and the actual characters of Simpson's poetry. If we take “Orpheus in America” as representative of his earlier poetry, we find that Simpson entangles himself in an abstract, self-consciously literary language:
America begins antiquity. Confronted with pure space, my Arcady Has turned to stone. … … … … … … … … … … This gazing freedom is the basilisk. O for a mirror! The melancholy of the possible Unmeasures me.
What must change is Simpson's tone, for the narrator's voice is too lofty, a learned version of the know-it-all that Simpson will later condemn in Whitman, calling Whitman “the eternal sophomore.” Before he can give convincing consideration to the people and objects of ordinary life, Simpson must work himself free from the cultured Audenesque voice of American verse of the fifties. In part, his encounter with Whitman serves as a stylistic catalyst.
As one final example of Simpson's early style, the poem “Hot Night on Water Street” illustrates the stiff style and voice that undercut his early work. Simpson, as always, comes up with his characteristically incisive, deflating observation: “Some day, when this uncertain continent / Is marble, and men ask what was the good / We lived by, dust may whisper ‘Hollywood’” (DREAM, 16). In the poem the speaker, a type of Whitman traveler/wanderer, walks along Water Street, offering us a catalog of his observations. Sounding like Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown, the speaker concludes:
I didn't linger—sometimes when I travel I think I'm being followed by the Devil.
At the newsstand in the lobby, a cigar Was talkative: “Since I've been in this town I've seen one likely woman, and a car As she was crossing Main Street, knocked her down.” I was a stranger here myself, I said, And bought the New York Times, and went to bed.
But this poem makes us too aware of its “poetic” effects, including the rhyme scheme. We become aware of the all too literary posture of another tour “through certain half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights. …”
In Poet's Choice (1962), Simpson chooses to represent his work with the poem “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain.” He selects this particular poem, as he explains, “not because I think it is the best poem I have written, but because it marked a turning point in my work.”6 In part, Simpson has in mind the stylistic relaxation or, more accurately, the exploration of free verse, that he (and many other American poets) experienced in the early sixties. For Simpson, this turning point involves primarily style, but also a slight shift in subject matter:
What I did manage to arrive at in “Walt Whitman” was a poem that presented certain images and ideas in an almost colloquial manner, in lines whose rhythm was determined by my own habits of speech. … My groping toward a poetry of significant images and spoken lines enabled me to say certain things that I had not been able to say before. This poem was followed by others in which I was able to deal with material that interested me—poems about history, my own personal life, America.
The poem also marks the beginning of Simpson's direct confrontation with Whitman.
“Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain” figures prominently in At the End of the Open Road (1963), for which Simpson received the Pulitzer Prize. The book begins and ends with Whitman's presence and influence, the key Whitman poems being “In California,” “On the Lawn at the Villa,” “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” “Pacific Ideas—a Letter to Walt Whitman,” and “Lines Written near San Francisco.” The title of Simpson's book lets us know that we are getting an updating of Whitman's journey. We will learn where those who have tramped after Whitman, accepting his offer at the end of “Song of the Open Road”: “Camerado, I give you my hand!” have arrived. Simpson aims to show us where Whitman's dream of American expansion ends up. The bleak vision which follows is akin to what Ed Folsom observes in Allen Ginsberg's poetry of the mid-fifties: “Ginsberg here sets the tone of the contemporary American dialogue with Whitman, a dialogue that involves a deep concern with the loss of the Open Road, a loss of American direction, openness, and purpose, and a concomitant loss of love” (MS, xxxxv).
Simpson's opening poem in At the End of the Open Road, “In California,” places us at the literal end of that road, at the continent's end; the poem emphasizes fraud, trickery, and death. Simpson's version of California is closer to Thoreau's than to Whitman's. As F. O. Matthiessen observes, “Thoreau did not share Whitman's confidence in mass movements, and said that California was ‘3000 miles nearer to hell,’ since its gold was a touchstone that had betrayed ‘the rottenness, the baseness of mankind.’”7 Simpson's poem establishes the speaker's own gloomy vision; his accurate cynicism will serve as a corrective to Whitman's cheery “epical” optimism. But the speaker also feels a bit guilty for his gloomy vision:
Here I am, troubling the dream coast With my New York face, Bearing among the realtors And tennis-players my dark preoccupation.
California is seen as a false Mecca, a fool's paradise, and Whitman is viewed as one more huckster, one more confidence man: “Lie back, Walt Whitman, / There, on the fabulous raft with the King and the Duke!” Thus, Simpson lumps Whitman together with the King and the Duke, those Twainian precursors to their mid- and late-twentieth-century brothers, the real estate agents (of Simpson's poem) and our own TV salesmen. Simpson's speaker tells Whitman,
Lie back! We cannot bear The stars any more, those infinite spaces. Let the realtors divide the mountain, For they have already subdivided the valley.
At the end of the open road, the poet shows us “rectangular city blocks” planned by “the same old city-planner, death,” the architect for late-twentieth-century America.
The speaker of Simpson's American poems, particularly in At the End of the Open Road, sniffs out the rottenness at the heart of America's muscle-flexing pride. Even before America's spiritual sickness became an international spectacle during the late sixties and early seventies, Simpson, in his anti-Whitman capacity, sensed that illness. “The Inner Part” offers Simpson's assessment of the American spirit in a characteristically concise, merciless fashion:
When they had won the war And for the first time in history Americans were the most important people—
When the leading citizens no longer lived in their shirt sleeves, And their wives did not scratch in public; Just when they'd stopped saying “Gosh!”—
When their daughters seemed as sensitive As the tip of a fly rod, And their sons were as smooth as a V-8 engine—
Priests, examining the entrails of birds, Found the heart misplaced, and seeds As black as death, emitting a strange odor.
Nine years later in his autobiography, North of Jamaica, Simpson explains his disagreement with Whitman:
I found Whitman's ideas often intolerable; celebrating progress and industry as ends in themselves was understandable in 1870, for at that time material expansion was also a spiritual experience, but in the twentieth century the message seemed out of date. The mountains had been crossed, the land had been gobbled up, and industry was turning out more goods than people could consume. Also, the democracy Whitman celebrated, the instinctive rightness of the common man, was very much in doubt. Now we were governed by the rich, and the masses were hopelessly committed to an economy based on war. It was a curious thing that a man could write great poetry and still be mistaken in his ideas.8
It would seem that Simpson praises the quality of Whitman's verse while rejecting outright his precursor's vision. But before I overstate (and oversimplify) the nature of Simpson's encounter with Whitman, for he does not merely attack and dismiss Whitman's point of view, I would like to turn to some more general remarks about influence to provide a framework for viewing the interaction between these two poets. Harold Bloom begins his study of poetic influence, The Anxiety of Influence, by noting that “weaker talents idealize.”9 Clearly, Simpson does not (merely) idealize Whitman. But more important, Bloom suggests that “poetic influence, or as I shall more frequently term it, poetic misprision, is necessarily the study of the life-cycle of the poet-as-poet” (ANX, 7). Such an observation rescues influence studies from becoming dry, pseudo-objective tracings of calm affinities and genial borrowings. As we shall see, Simpson's relation to Whitman is indeed based, in part, on misprision. That is, Simpson proceeds to read Whitman partially, emphasizing an aspect of Whitman's poetic vision, reacting to and against it so as to develop his own vision. Thus the study of poetic influence, as Bloom correctly asserts, is not a static event, but an unfolding relationship which has very much to do with the poet's (Simpson's) life cycle or development as a poet. To study Simpson's interaction with Whitman is to bear out Bloom's generality:
We journey to abstract ourselves by fabrication. But where the fabric has already been woven, we journey to unravel.
In Bloom's theory of influence, the later poet, at some key moment, swerves from the earlier poet and revises or corrects the earlier poet's vision. When we consider Simpson's revision of Whitman's American prophecy, we would do well to bear in mind Bloom's warning:
As the poets swerve downward in time, they deceive themselves into believing they are tougher-minded than their precursors. This is akin to that critical absurdity which salutes each new generation of bards as being somehow closer to the common language of ordinary men than the last was.
Clearly, there is a tough-minded Whitman to be found. He is not merely a cheerleader shouting for American expansion and progress while always maintaining his own sweet optimism. In Democratic Vistas, for example, Whitman offers the following analysis of America:
I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ'd in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. … I say that our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and aesthetic results.10
Even if we do acknowledge, as does Whitman's most recent biographer, Justin Kaplan, that Whitman “believed that America, for all its troubles, alone possessed the prerequisites for a great moral and religious civilization” and that America's “failures were transitional, growing pains,”11 there is still a Whitman who sees the evil and failings of America. It is this critical, dark Whitman who often gets ignored in contemporary attacks on his views. Simpson is not alone, and indeed Bloom would claim that Simpson's actions typify “the anxiety of influence,” when he “misreads” Whitman, taking a major aspect of the poet's vision and acting as if that were all Whitman had to say on the subject. After looking further at Simpson's poems in At the End of the Open Road, an examination of Whitman's own “Song of the Open Road” will provide further evidence of Simpson's pattern of misprision.
In “On the Lawn at the Villa,” Simpson's narrator begins to feel a bit guilty for his gloomy vision. Not that he would exchange his own sarcasm for Whitman's gushy optimism; nevertheless, the narrator's irony is at times nearly too much for him to stand:
It's complicated, being an American, Having the money and the bad conscience, both at the same time. Perhaps, after all, this is not the right subject for a poem.
Of course, it is the right subject for a poem; but where does this irony and acuity of observation leave the speaker? In this poem, he (and the others) are characterized as “paralyzed.” At this point in Simpson's writing, Whitman seems to be an annoyance, a type: the optimistic American proclaiming the greatness of himself and the nation. As such, he is subject only to Simpson's scorn.
However, in spite of Simpson's withering ironies and deflating observations, part of Whitman's spiritual journey is a necessity for Simpson as well, even if his journey is to be, admittedly, through a bleaker world. Even in an ironic context, this stanza from “Love, My Machine” (which occurs shortly after “On the Lawn at the Villa”) inherits its breadth and phrasing from Whitman:
For every man and woman Is an immortal spirit Trapped and dazed on a star shoot.
The narrator's conclusion offers a variant of Whitman's own journey: “I am going into the night to find a world of my own.”
The last three poems in At the End of the Open Road, “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” “Pacific Ideas—a Letter to Walt Whitman,” and “Lines Written near San Francisco,” all involve Whitman, as to let the reader know that Simpson's earlier posture of sarcasm and scorn proved an insufficient dismissal of a figure who turns out to be more compelling than the poet might wish to admit.12
In “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” Simpson addresses his question to the friendly, but ignored, statue of Whitman. But in his criticisms of Whitman, I also detect a desire on Simpson's part of find or inspire a Whitman who could speak back to him and thus, perhaps, jar the narrator out of his own gloomy vision:
“Where are you, Walt? The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.
“Where is the nation you promised?”
Simpson wants to drag his predecessor out to see the “real” America of the 1960s, not the idealized America of Whitman's, at times, inflated rhetoric. Simpson continues, “As for the people—see how they neglect you! / Only a poet pauses to read the inscription,” and clearly that poet pauses with considerable skepticism. We should also bear in mind that these remarks are spoken to the poet who concluded the inspired introduction to the first edition of Leaves of Grass by stating, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” In “On Being a Poet in America,” an essay which begins with a epigraph from Whitman and which was written during the same period as his Whitman poems, Simpson extends his critique of Whitman's ideal of popular poetry:
“To have great poets we must have great audiences too.” This tag from Whitman, which adorns or used to adorn every issue of Poetry, is about as close to the opposite of the truth as you can get. To have great poetry all that is needed is great talent. There can be no such thing as a great audience for poetry. An audience for bad writing—yes!13
Not only has the Whitman in Simpson's poem failed to achieve the audience he had hoped for, but the reply that Whitman makes to his question in Simpson's poem is unsatisfactory. Simpson's Whitman is a diminished Whitman, a poet whose self may no longer be universal or representative, a poet who now explains that his prophecies were in fact merely “moods.” He is the huckster unmasked, which leaves Simpson alone to confront the great American ruin:
Then all the realtors, Pickpockets, salesmen, and the actors performing Official scenarios, Turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted American dreams.
The poet wishes for a Whitman who might somehow counter his contemporary vision of an America which, as At the End of the Open Road began by explaining in the opening poem “In California,” does death's bidding. In the final poem of the book, “Lines Written near San Francisco,” Simpson's bitter conclusion is:
We must remain, to serve the returning sun,
And to set tables for death. For we are the colonists of Death— Not, as some think, of the English.
And we are preparing thrones for him to sit, Poems to read, and beds In which it may please him to rest.
Ronald Moran claims that “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain” “is more than an engaging celebration; it is a serious indictment of the American condition and, at the same time, an exoneration of Whitman from the frequent charge that his poetry prophesies the fulfillment of the promises America held in the nineteenth century.”14 Moran correctly points out Simpson's indictment of America, but his claim for an exoneration of Whitman is mistaken. In Simpson's own essay on the poem, the poet explains,
… I think that most of his prophecies have been proved wrong. It is a strange fact, when you think about it—that a poet can be great and yet be mistaken in his ideas. The Whitman who heralds an inevitable march of democracy, who praises the intelligence of the masses, is nearly always mistaken. At least, if there ever was an America like that, it no longer exists. But the Whitman who uses his own eyes and ears, who describes things, who expresses his own sly humor or pathos, is unbeatable. I tried to show the two Whitmans in my poem. I used my ideas about Whitman as a way of getting at my own ideas about America.15
It is Simpson's struggle with these two Whitmans that makes his encounter with Whitman a dynamic one. At the End of the Open Road is dominated by Simpson's attack on Whitman-as-optimist; Simpson's subsequent poetry, to a degree, recuperates Whitman by viewing him as a starting point for Simpson's own poetry of ordinary, individual lives. In At the End of the Open Road, a rescuing or redeeming Whitman is not forthcoming. Simpson hammers away at Whitman-the-mistaken-optimist, for to be joyful in modern America is to be on death's side:
Every night, at the end of America We taste our wine, looking at the Pacific. How sad it is, the end of America!
While we were waiting for the land They'd finished it—with gas drums On the hilltops, cheap housing in the valleys
Where lives are mean and wretched. But the banks thrive and the realtors Rejoice—they have their America.
If Simpson's Whitman is at all redeemed, it is in the following acknowledgment (made near the end of “Lines Written near San Francisco”):
Whitman was wrong about the People, But right about himself. The land is within. At the end of the open road we come to ourselves.
Perhaps why Simpson feels compelled to struggle with Whitman is precisely because Simpson's own (unstated) task is very close to Whitman's often stated (and in Simpson's opinion, failed or falsified) project: to be a national bard. But Simpson does not wish to lie about either the nation or its people, and so he must set aside one of the two Whitmans, Whitman-the-false-prophet, if he, Simpson, is to accomplish his own task.
If we return to Whitman's own “Song of the Open Road,” we can locate aspects of Simpson's two Whitmans, and we can also begin to identify a further area of Simpson's critique of Whitman. The optimistic Whitman, the one attacked in At the End of the Open Road, dominates this poem from the opening lines:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
to observations such as this:
I think heroic deeds were all conceiv'd in the open air, and all free poems also, I think I could stop here myself and do miracles, I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me, I think whoever I see must be happy.
It is this Whitman, the one who writes about “the progress of souls” and who sounds like a cheerleader at a pep rally for the spirit—“forever forward, / … they go toward the best—toward something great”—who remains Simpson's whipping boy. But even in as overwhelmingly cheerful a poem as “Song of the Open Road,” traces of another Whitman, one nearly ignored by Simpson and many other readers, appear:
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens, I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go. I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them, I am fill'd with them, and I will fill them in return.)
There is a Whitman who admits his doubts, burdens, and failings. Too often the probable occasion for Whitman's poetry is forgotten: isn't the poet of brotherhood and the crowd also the poet struggling with his own isolation and loneliness? Isn't the poet of human perfection also one who is all too acutely aware of his own failings? “Song of the Open Road” can be read as an elaborate wish spoken by a man who hopes that “Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, / Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms.” Whitman's poems, such as “Song of the Open Road,” do not enact but hope for change: “From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines, / … divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.”
The Whitman who receives Simpson's praise is the one “who uses his own eyes and ears,” the poet who describes the world around him. In singling out this Whitman, Simpson agrees with F. O. Matthiessen's earlier assessment:
Yet the fact is that even though Whitman did not want to be personal, but to write poems “with reference to ensemble,” to make his voice that of the general bard of democracy, the evidence of the poems themselves shows that he was at his best, not when he was being sweeping, but when contemplating with delicacy and tenderness some object near at hand.16
In Adventures of the Letter I (1971), the book of poems which follows At the End of Open Road (and a Selected Poems, 1965), Simpson includes “Sacred Objects,” written for Whitman on the occasion of his sesquicentennial birthday celebration in 1969. The poem states succinctly the side of Whitman which attracts Simpson:
The light that shines through the Leaves is clear: “to form individuals.”
Indeed, this formation of individuals, the particularities of an ordinary life presented at key dramatic moments, is an apt description for much of Simpson's own poetry from Adventures of the Letter I through The Best Hour of the Night (1983).
But for Simpson, Whitman's attention to individual, ordinary lives constitutes only a beginning. In “Honoring Whitman,” Simpson's most recent prose assessment of Whitman, he asserts that when Whitman “looks at what he sees, he is certainly a great American poet.” However, Simpson, as always, qualifies and undercuts his praise for Whitman by pointing out what his predecessor fails to accomplish:
There are ranges of poetry that lie beyond Whitman. Of situations such as occur in people's lives he appears to have known very little, and these are our main concerns. He is good at describing shipwrecks, which are infrequent, but does not show affection, attachments, anxieties, shades of feeling, passions … the life we actually have.
In terms of Harold Bloom's theories of influence, Simpson's relationship to Whitman is of the tessera variety. Bloom explains that “in the tessera, the later poet provides what his imagination tells him would complete the otherwise ‘truncated’ precursor poem and poet” (ANX, 66). In exploring the origins of the word tessera, Bloom first quotes Jacques Lacan's translator, Anthony Wilden, then offers his own summary:
“The tessera was employed in the early mystery religions where fitting together again the two halves of a broken piece of pottery was used as a means of recognition by the initiates.” In this sense of a completing link, the tessera represents any later poet's attempt to persuade himself (and us) that the precursor's Word would be worn out if not redeemed as a newly fulfilled and enlarged word of the ephebe.
Simpson's “Sacred Objects” begins:
I am taking part in a great experiment— whether writers can live peacefully in the suburbs and not be bored to death.
As Whitman said, an American muse installed amid the kitchen ware.
He grasps a shard of Whitman's pottery—the portion which directs the poet's attention to ordinary life; then, Simpson completes the vessel by going much deeper than his predecessor into the stories of individual lives. The nature of Simpson's completion, as well as of his complaint about Whitman's incomplete attention to ordinary lives, can be seen in “Honoring Whitman” when Simpson describes his predecessor's failings:
He is a stroller, an onlooker, a gazer, and has nothing to say about what goes on in the houses he is passing, or behind office or factory windows, or in the life of a man turning a plough. He does not seem to know what people say to each other—especially what men say to women, or women to men.
More and more, Simpson's own poems, as he stated in an interview which appeared in 1976, are written “in the dramatically narrative form” (COMP, 300). Simpson concludes about Whitman, “There is hardly any drama or narration in his poetry—ideas aren't realized in action” (MS, 260).
If we return to Whitman's “Song of the Open Road,” we find that most of Simpson's criticisms are sustained:
You rows of houses! you window-pierc'd facades! you roofs! You porches and entrances! you copings and iron guards! You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much! You doors and ascending steps! you arches! You gray stones of interminable pavements! you trodden crossings! From all that has touch'd you I believe you have imparted to yourselves, and now would impart the same secretly to me, From the living and the dead you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me.
Rereading “Song of the Open Road” with Simpson's criticisms in mind, the reader finds Whitman's poem to be filled with plurals and generalizations. The poet listens to “others,” he imagines himself loved by “strangers,” “all seems beautiful to me,” and he will scatter himself “among men and women” as he goes. Oddly enough, even the erotic moments in the poem become generalized and plural. In the seventh section, Whitman, after generalizing, does present individuals:
What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers? What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side? What with some fisherman drawing his seine by the shore as I walk by and pause? What gives me to be free to a woman's and man's good-will? what gives them to be free to mine?
But his specificity is momentary. Simpson's own poetic project is to complete what Whitman began. Whitman pointed to the value and importance of common lives, but Simpson's effort is not to generalize but to get inside those lives through individual dramatic narratives. Indeed, that inside view is the strength of Simpson's most recent work, especially in the first and third sections of The Best Hour of the Night.
But before we accept Simpson's criticisms of Whitman as being totally accurate, we should also keep in mind Bloom's suggestion that misreading (or partial reading) is an essential part of the dynamics of poetic influence. I cannot produce scores of counterexamples from Whitman's poetry to demonstrate that he did get inside the lives of others, for on this point there is a great degree of truth to Simpson's criticism. But in “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman himself is painfully aware of the fact that he remains an outsider:
Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth! You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.
Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen! It is useless to protest, I know all and expose it.
Behold through you as bad as the rest, Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people, Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash'd and trimm'd faces, Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.
No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession, Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes, Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors, In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly, Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere, Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones, Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers, Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself, Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.
If Whitman observes externals, it is, as here, to urge us to shed those masks or to strip those surfaces away himself to expose the soul. Those who do not travel with him, who do not “know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.” are condemned to limitation, “a secret silent loathing and despair,” a life of quiet desperation. Such lives, in their particularity, struggle, and drama, do not seem to interest Whitman. Bloom goes so far as to conclude that all of Whitman's “wholly realized works” are “centered only on his isolate self, and on Emersonian seeing, which is not far from shamanistic practice, and has little to do with observation of externals” (ANX, 133). In his most recent essays, Bloom tells us that Whitman quite simply is the American Sublime.17
It is the sublime Whitman, following closely on the heels of the optimistic Whitman, who receives Simpson's attacks. In “Sacred Objects,” Simpson, still hoping that he and Whitman can find a common ground, asks, “Where then shall we meet?” But Simpson asks the question because he wants to know how Whitman would fare in our world. In this world, where the American muse is “installed amid the kitchen ware,” Simpson remarks, “and we have wonderful household appliances … / now tell me about the poets.”
In the development of Simpson's own poetic career, his encounter with Whitman in At the End of the Open Road is pivotal in two ways: stylistically, and, more important, in terms of the variety of truth-saying that will form the basis of Simpson's writing. Simpson follows Whitman's lead in exploring the texture and variety of individual lives, but with increasing emphasis he parts company with the mystical or sublime side of Whitman. By this process of exclusion and rejection, Simpson clarifies the direction of his own development. By rejecting the mystical Whitman, Simpson also symbolically resists the sixties’ fashion of “deep image” poetry. By virtue of this rejection, he parts company with poets such as Bly, Kinnell, Wright, and Merwin, each of whom continues (in a different manner) to explore the deep image for another decade. Simpson's poetry, increasingly, leaves behind the image-based mysticism of the sixties in favor of his own variety of concise narratives. To use Whitman's metaphor, Simpson's direction is a road which goes by Chekhov's house and, increasingly, away from Whitman's. In fact, the section which immediately precedes “Sacred Objects” in Adventures of the Letter I is entitled “Looking for Chekhov's House,” and the section concludes,
These idiots rule the world, Chekhov knew it, and yet I think he was happy, on his street. People live here … you'd be amazed.
“People live here” becomes the title for Simpson's Selected Poems, 1949–1983, and that is his primary concern: where and how people actually live their lives. The Whitman who declares the immortality and divinity of all men and women is subject to Simpson's suspicion and, finally, rejection.
Most recently, in “Honoring Whitman,” Simpson tells us,
There is the kind of reader who, having no knowledge of religion, is always looking in books for the secret of the universe. For such a one, Whitman will be mystic, together with Kahlil Gibran and the authors of pamphlets on astrology.
In so far as Whitman enthuses over “a great round wonder rolling in space” he is a rudimentary poet, the eternal sophomore enthusing over “the great ideas” and neglecting his physics lesson and his French. In so far as Whitman talks about the universe he is not worth the attention of a grown person.
Though ultimately Simpson replaces Whitman as a mentor or guide with the more compatible figure of Chekhov, it should still be noted that Simpson is one of Whitman's heirs, especially in terms of subject matter and the desire to be a national bard. Simpson refuses to idolize his benefactor, but, in his own combative way, he honors him. In fact, Simpson pays Whitman a higher honor than hero worship by doing battle with him, which is what the epigraph to “Honoring Whitman” indicates: “He most honors my style who learns under it how to destroy the teacher.” Whitman, in “Song of Myself,” seems to agree: “no friend of mine takes his ease in my chair.”
For Simpson, friendship with Whitman requires opposition. As we have already seen, that opposition means debunking and re-forming our vision of Whitman. To draw on one final example of Simpson's ever-shifting reinterpretation of Whitman, it is useful to consider Simpson's remarks in an interview conducted in 1974:
Now I'm not a terribly spiritual person. I'm not a mystic. In fact, I have some very cynical moods. Therefore, what is good for me is to read people who are slightly mystical and religious and deep in that way, to use some of the control for myself. It prevents me from becoming stupid, you see. I'm sure that I'm completely different from Whitman in my likes and dislikes as a man. But I love Whitman, because he explores those areas I know I should be conscious of.
Here, Simpson, as Bly, Ginsberg, and others have done, proclaims Whitman as a mystic. While Simpson declares his own difference from Whitman, he also claims, “In a way I have got to keep thinking and looking for spiritual guides” (COMP, 270). But as we shall soon find in “Searching for the Ox,” Simpson thoroughly distrusts spiritual guides. The only “spirituality” palatable to Simpson is an earthly, sensual spirituality. Thus in 1981, when Simpson republishes the interview quoted above, he adds the following footnote: “Reading this six years later I cannot understand why I thought Whitman either mystical or religious. He is a naturalist throughout” (COMP, 270). Yet, a year later, in “Honoring Whitman,” the mystic Whitman, “the eternal sophomore,” gets lumped with Kahlil Gibran.
In 1976 in “Rolling Up,” Simpson explains his objection to mysticism: “My objection to the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, shamanism and so on, is that it neglects the life right under your nose” (COMP, 313). The title poem to Searching for the Ox (1976) reaches a similar conclusion:
And still, I must confess, I fear those messieurs, like a peasant listening to the priests talk Latin. They will send me off to Heaven when all I want is to live in the world.
“Searching for the Ox,” Simpson's own spiritual journey, becomes an antispiritual story proclaiming the poet's renewed attachment to the earth. Though “Following in the Way / that ‘regards sensory experience as relatively unimportant,’ / and that aims to teach the follower / ‘to renounce what one is attached to,’” Simpson learns the opposite:
I find my awareness of the world—the cry of a bird, susurrus of tires, the wheezing of the man in the chair next to me— has increased.
In an interview published the same year, Simpson explains:
Poets are very different from religious people. Religious people don't need the here and now. Their object is to get away from it and to get beyond it into mystery directly. The artist is not a religious man. He may believe in religion; he may be motivated by it largely, but in the practice of his art he cannot operate the way a saint operates. The artist must cherish this world; this is what art is made of.
In Simpson's distinction between the artist and the religious man, we can locate as well his final swerving away from Whitman's example. In a recent essay, “Reflections on Narrative Poetry,” Simpson suggests that poets
may indeed learn more about writing narrative poems from the novelist than from other poets, for in the past two hundred years it has been the novelist whose labor it was to imitate life, while the poet prided himself on his originality, his remoteness from everyday life.
Thus, we should not be surprised to find that the primary muse or model for Simpson's Caviare at the Funeral (1980) is Chekhov. Indeed, in the book's central poem, “Why Do You Write About Russia?” the narrator, asked, “what are you reading now?” responds, “Chekhov.” In Simpson's most recent collection of poems, The Best Hour of the Night,18 while oblique references to Whitman do crop up, Simpson continues to be more attracted to European prose writers, especially Proust and Chekhov. “In Otto's Basement,” however, does echo the end of “Song of Myself”:
So we endure it. This is what Jefferson and Lincoln had to endure, sitting and listening to people argue … the cost of conversion from oil to coal and the statement by the tree-trimming committee. If you want to know what freedom cost look for us here, under the linoleum.
Simpson gauges our descent from Whitman by the difference in connotation, rhetoric, and tone between “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles” and “look for us here, under the linoleum.”
If it is true that Whitman helped to turn Simpson's attention to common lives and objects, then Simpson completes the work of his predecessor by getting inside those ordinary lives. In The Best Hour of the Night, in poems such as “Physical Universe,” “Quiet Desperation,” and “The Previous Tenant,” with Chekhovian coolness and clarity, Simpson takes the reader into painfully quotidian, suburban lives. And if his accomplishment represents a “surpassing” of Whitman, oddly enough, the central dilemma of Simpson's poetry, as he acknowledges indirectly in “The Champion Single Sculls” with its passing reference to “Song of Myself,” remains a Whitmanian one:
Stillness, said a picture, is not being immobile, but a clear separation of the self from its surroundings while taking part (we must take part how else are we to live?)
“Max Schmitt in a Single Scull” … A river with iron bridges … Schmitt is resting on his oars, looking toward the observer, “both in and out of the game.” Rowing! This is what I have to practice.
In writing about contemporary American life, suburban or otherwise, and its attendant “quiet desperation,” the observer (or poet) will inevitably be “both in and out of the game,” and rowing, or moving precisely and gracefully across the surface, is one approach to take. But that approach may be more “out of the game.” Another approach is Whitman's rhetoric of solidarity and brotherhood, a stance adopted by Pablo Neruda and others. But Simpson remains skeptical because such rhetoric may be merely a posture, dishonest because the proletarian bard in contemporary America is virtually unthinkable except as a kind of confidence man. Simpson's dilemma, as I see it, remains the problem of the observer's relationship to the world he describes. To be “both in and out of the game” indeed requires great practice, delicacy, and restraint, qualities which Simpson, at present, seems to be absorbing more from Chekhov than from Whitman.
I do not think that Simpson's combat with Whitman is atypical of the process of poetic influence. Nor does the preponderance of Simpson's criticisms and rejections of his predecessor mean that Whitman's impact on Simpson is slight. Though Bloom's studies of poetic influence do get out of hand—his battles between “strong poets” verge on descriptions of tag team wrestling—his essential point, that conflict (Blake: “In opposition is true friendship”) is crucial to the most important instances of influence, is correct and is borne out by a study of Simpson's relation to Whitman. As Bloom explains:
It does happen that one poet influences another, or more precisely, that one poet's poems influence the poems of the other, through a generosity of the spirit, even a shared generosity. But our easy idealism is out of place here. Where generosity is involved, the poets influenced are minor or weaker; the more generosity, and the more mutual it is, the poorer the poets involved.
Thus, Bloom, with approval, quotes Nietzsche: “Every talent must unfold itself in fighting” (ANX, 52). As Whitman has it, “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, / But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, / And filter and fibre your blood.” Whitman, who in poems such as “Poets to Come” foresaw his own words as but beginnings, offers health to succeeding poets not merely by positive example, but by rousing the blood and the spirit of conflict in his poetic heirs.
Robert Bly, “What Whitman Did Not Give Us,” in Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, ed. Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion (Minneapolis: Holy Cow! Press, 1981), 321. Since many additional references in my essay refer to essays collected in this volume, wherever possible subsequent references will be abbreviated parenthetically as MS, followed by the appropriate page number.
The best guide to recent reactions, salutes, arguments, and dialogues with Walt Whitman is Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, which includes poems and essays by Ginsberg, Bly, James Wright, Simpson, Ignatow, Kinnell, and others.
Harold Bloom, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 183.
Ed Folsom, “Talking Back to Walt Whitman: An Introduction,” in Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, xxi–xxii.
A Dream of Governors, 15. Since frequent references to Louis Simpson's poetry will occur throughout my essay, the following editions and abbreviations are used: Good News of Death and Other Poems in Poets of Today II (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955), 149–95 (GND). A Dream of Governors (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959) (DREAM). At the End of the Open Road (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1963) (END). Adventures of the Letter I (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) (ADV). Searching for the Ox (New York: William Morrow, 1976) (OX). Caviare at the Funeral (New York: Franklin Watts, 1980) (CAV).
A Company of Poets (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981), 32. Many of Simpson's essays, reviews, and interviews are collected in this volume. Subsequent references, wherever possible, will be abbreviated parenthetically as COMP, followed by the appropriate page number.
F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), 633.
North of Jamaica (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 222, as cited by George S. Lensing and Ronald Moran in Four Poets of the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 165.
Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 5. Subsequent references to this book will be abbreviated as ANX, followed by the appropriate page number.
Walt Whitman, Prose Works 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 1964), 2:369–70.
Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), 337.
As for the importance of these Whitman poems to Simpson's overall development, a strong, if somewhat indirect, argument can be made on the basis of Simpson's forthcoming People Live Here: Selected Poems, 1949–1983 (Brockport, N.Y.: BOA Editions) where “On the Lawn at the Villa,” “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” “In California,” “Lines Written near San Francisco,” and “Sacred Objects” are all included in the selections made by the author.
Company, 37. In a more recent essay (1977), Simpson again addresses the problem of audience, but this time in relation to his own work: “This brings us to the question, ‘Whom do you visualize as your reader?’ It's a touchy question. I certainly don't write for people who read Rod McKuen. Nor for people who want political poetry. In fact, as far as I can see, I have few readers. On the other hand, my poems have been translated into some nine foreign languages and have been taught in schools in Africa, in Macedonia, and other places. I guess I am writing for readers in the United States in the future” (COMP, 326).
Ronald Moran, Louis Simpson (New York: Twayne, 1972), 112.
Company, 34. In an interview printed in 1979, Simpson reiterates his theory of two Whitmans present in At the End of the Open Road: “What I was attacking in Whitman there was one side of Whitman. There are two Whitmans as I see it. And the side I attacked was his expansionist, materialist, 1880s Gilded Age side in which Whitman was hailing the advance of the railroad, the advance of the American prosperity. That was a public Whitman used by other people and that was the side I was attacking in him and in America generally” (COMP, 328).
Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 546–47.
Bloom, Agon, 182.
Subsequent references to The Best Hour of the Night (New Haven and New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983) will be abbreviated as BH, followed by the appropriate page number. I am grateful to Louis Simpson for sending me a manuscript copy of Best Hour well before the book's publication.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5259
SOURCE: “Child of This World,” in Parnassus, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall/Winter 1983–Spring/Summer 1984, pp. 302–17.
[In the following review of A Company of Poets, People Live Here, and The Best Hour of the Night, Flint discusses Simpson's place among postwar American poets and examines the defining characteristics and development of his thematic concerns and poetic style.]
The final test of a poet with legitimate claims to being a master of the speaking voice might be a verbatim transcription from his Index of First Lines. Let me turn to page 211 of People Live Here and see how this works for Louis Simpson.
A bell and rattle, After midnight when the presses were rolling A guitar and drum, A hot summer night on Water Street— A light is on in my father's study. All he needed was fifty cents A man stood in the laurel tree And I, who used to lie with the moon As birds are fitted to the boughs A siren sang, and Europe turned away. …
Here comes the subway grating fisher Here he came to a place where two creeks meet, He stood still by her bed He was one of the consorts of the moon, He woke at five, and unable How calm the torso of a woman I am taking part in a great experiment— …
Love, my machine Memory rising in the steppes Mountains are moving, rivers My father in the night commanding No My whole life coming to this place, Neither on horseback nor seated, Now we're at sea, like the Russians …
Not bad! My strictly dispassionate transcriptions have brought forth a mysterious Webernian music. However eccentric the punctuation, however disjointed and richly allusive these verses may be, they have a definite rhythmic contour and a secure intonation. They have other common properties—“deep images” as Simpson might have called them a few years ago: the moon; sexual intimations linked to movements of large bodies like Europe, mountains, and rivers; late hours, dreams, and an air of being vaguely balked, as by fathers needing fifty cents, fathers commanding No, or by being “unable” at five in the morning. A fisher, the dictionary says, is a “somewhat foxlike marten”; that this creature should be grating subways at the crossing of two creeks only confirms the subcutaneous letch for surrealism that this poet has often vainly tried to deny. If Simpson's first lines in straight alphabetical order fall together so fluently, what might not be achieved by the aleatoric method more rigorously applied, say by the I Ching or a blindfolded John Cage using star charts and trigonometric tables?
Kidding aside, Simpson does indeed have an unmistakable voice; a natural tessitura, or range, within which he moves easily. His might be called a high baritone of moderate volume and considerable carrying power—alert, self-aware, and carefully practiced. It moves outward with trust and affection towards its listeners, trying to enlist common sympathies, discover common rhythmic and semantic ground, pick up over- and undertones, amuse and entertain. It has a weakness for comic asides and inflections that once in a rare while runs out of control. At times it issues the most harrowing ukases in a spirit of tempered, level-headed enthusiasm that leaves the mind reeling. It has a “European” way with vowels, closer to Latin or the English classics than most American poetry of its era; vowels tend to be long or strong and to cluster: “A hot midsummer night in Water Street … A light is on in my father's study. … He was one of the consorts of the moon. …” The clarity he likes comes from a confident accentual inner ear, an ear trained as much by prose as by poetry—not any prose or poetry but the sonorous periods of a Burke, Johnson, or Gibbon, the grander harmonies of an Eliot, Pound, or Yeats—which he transposes downward into sentences less obviously designed to move, persuade, or transport than those of his masters. His best effects require much cooperation from other imaginations and demonstrate much confidence, sometimes too much, in the widespread existence of that faculty.
What impresses one most throughout People Live Here is exactly that trust in the reader, the sense of intimately addressing a good many sorts of people.
I am taking part in a great experiment— whether writers can live peacefully in the suburbs and not be bored to death.
(from “Sacred Objects”)
Whatever it is, it must have A stomach that can digest Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
Like the shark, it contains a shoe. It must swim for miles through the desert Uttering cries that are almost human.
Poetry, says Baudelaire, is melancholy; the more we desire, the more we shall have to grieve. Devour a corpse with your eyes; art consists in the cultivation of pain. Stupidity reassures you; you do not belong in a bourgeois establishment, it can never be your home. Restlessness is a sign of intelligence; revulsion, the flight of a soul.
In the kingdom of heaven there is neither past nor future, but thinking, which is always present:
(from “Maria Roberts”)
As a man walks he creates the road he walks on. All of my life in America I must have been reeling out of myself this red dirt, gravel road.
(from “As a Man Walks”)
He enjoys thinking and wants to make it contagious. He is in accord with the melancholy strain in modern Europe since the Enlightenment. His keen historical sense doesn't delude him into idealizing the past beyond the warrant of solid evidence. But the maxim one wants to dwell on most is “As a man walks he creates the road he walks on.” This was a late discovery in his poetry, from a collection of 1979, but has been implicit from the outset. European or not Simpson has always considered himself a vagrant; only in his most recent interviews has he come around to the opinion that so is every one else. His volume in the Ann Arbor Poets on Poetry series edited by Donald Hall, A Company of Poets, is one of the longest and most valuable in its fearless engagement with the reigning ideas and practitioners of each of the last three decades. An amiably pugilistic tone, not unlike Norman Mailer's, is dominant, and his taste for a blunt, hearty, intimate generality is unwavering.
No poet has been more aware of the difficulties that waited for his generation of postwar poets on graduation from the fostering arms of academe (Mark Van Doren, to be specific). Once recovered from the battle fatigue of three grueling wartime years in the Army—the source of the best old-fashioned poems written by an American about the Second World War—he eagerly took up another kind of arms. In “Dead Horses and Live Issues” published in 1967, after admitting the tactical errors he shared with the other editors of the anthology The New Poets of England and America (1956), he wrote: “Repulsions held in common—that's what we find when we look at the American poets today.” It was the right beginning of wisdom. He may have somewhat overlooked how the sectarian gene pool latent at all times in the USA, ready to nourish the spirit of revulsion and contention, came to life in the Sixties as it had just a century before. To a native-born poet the uproar may have seemed only one more seismic fission of the kind that generated countless Protestant sects during the nineteenth century. No doubt the peculiarly complex social makeup of the Jamaica of his first seventeen years somewhat blinded him to this chronic American divisiveness. At any rate, Simpson fully registered its results—no one more feelingly—and his relative obliviousness to its native sources gave his response a personal edge, a fighting anxiety, as if the whole debate had really been only about poetry and the first principles of composition.
A blend of shrewdness and healthy naiveté gives Simpson's prose an authority that several unlucky snap judgments and several labored prejudices do little to undermine. In his essay on Apollinaire one sees how wide the span can be between the two impulses:
In one respect Apollinaire is not typical of modern times. He is full of enthusiasm. He would not have felt at home in the Waste Land of the twenties, nor would he be happy in the present circles where paranoia reigns. Apollinaire was fundamentally innocent. Under the masks—melancholy being only another mask—there is a childlike confidence in love and art. I think that as we get bored with pessimistic poetry, novels, painting and theater—and surely the creators of boredom must be beginning to bore themselves, as well as the public—Apollinaire's writings will flourish and his influence will increase. …
Having cited the poem “Peter” where he says that “art consists / in the cultivation of pain,” I should try to square it with the above tirade against pessimistic poetry. Not the only such inconsistency in Simpson, it is nevertheless superficial. What angers him is boredom; that and not pessimism is his real nemesis, as it was for many contemporaries less willing than he to show their hand by inveighing against it.
Simpson's tonic Boswellian talent has been to pick up a number of elementary ideas and throw them at the reader in discomfiting combinations that make one think. Many critics have rapped his knuckles for asserting in several poems that the spiritual life of California is frayed, arid, and thin. This is no new idea; Nathanael West's novels are elaborate demonstrations of it. Simpson's California poems propose nothing new. They merely make a subtle comic chamber music out of ideas so strong that people expect nothing short of Straussian tone poems or Wagnerian overtures. That is, you are supposed to treat the place on its own grandiose terms, like Aldous Huxley in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. Simpson's California poems are collectively inferior to his East Coast and Russian poems, no question. But they are far from despicable, a necessary terminus for his project of American colonization.
The tension between his announced fondness for “the conditions of existence” and his estimate of his adopted country has been extreme.
I believe that my attachment to the surface of things will create in the reader a greater affection for life. In American writing we have had a number of weird creations: a woman who wears a scarlet letter, a white whale, a hero who cannot make love, and so on. But it seems to me we are short of people who love their lives. Do you know the saying of Goethe? “Prophets to the right, prophets to the left … the child of the world in the middle.” Well, I'm a child of the world. I want to write poetry for people who want to live in the world.
Hence his lifelong choice of “the dramatically narrative form.” Hence, too, his steady refusal to be thought a satirist pur sang. On the other hand, drama requires a moral frame of goods and bads.
Three intense years in the Army taught me an awful lot about being an American. But I regret that I don't understand the high school view. So there are a lot of instinctive relations between people that I don't understand. I see a lot of things from outside. And I don't understand them quite. … On the other hand, as far as probing it from outside goes, and looking into America from outside, and travelling around in it, I've spent nights in strange small towns, I've dug holes in fields, I've seen a lot of America. But there are certain instinctive things that you spend your youthful years doing that you'll never get again, And that I regret.
Indissolubly mixing lyric, comic, and dramatic narrative in the fashion Simpson chose for himself and doing so in the course of making a living in a “strange” land does suggest the fiction of Huxley and Isherwood in their American careers, suggests a helpless tinge of the didactic, the wish to reform and improve. (His opinion of Auden is another matter, too complicated to go into here.) His work exists always at the crossing of three roads; one leads from simple gusto, another from intense curiosity, a third from the memory of a boyhood tropical elysium where the habit of romantic idealization, romantic irony, came all too easily, where his badly assorted (and soon divorced) parents, a taciturn lawyer father of Scots descent and an emotional Russian-Jewish-American mother, rested in uneasy security at the top of the social heap.
In a 1961 review of William Stafford he not only showed his prescience but offered a program.
As we read Stafford we are aware of how much has been omitted from modern American poetry only because it is not literary, or because it springs from the life of ordinary, rather than “alienated” people. … He actually writes about the country he is living in; all sorts of ordinary places, people and animals appear in his poems, and not as subjects of satire, but with the full weight of their own existence.
Again, the inconsistency is only apparent in his having written quite differently about himself in 1975.
You can never be at home unless you are in the place where you were born. … Now I broke completely with my own birthplace. And that means that in a funny sense the rest of my life, as my wife pointed out to me, I am going to write the poems of searching and looking for guides. … And another reason I do that is because I believe, with Yeats, that you choose your opposite and work toward it, and that keeps you really alive: the antiself.
The seeming contradiction between these analyses shows his reluctance to apply to an admired native American the same scruples he applies to himself. What if the ordinariness in Stafford were also an antiself? But of course the difference between them is real enough and accounts for their very different careers.
The sense of coming from behind and finding something generally overlooked has, in any case, been fundamental. It accounts for a few wildly unjust opinions of other poets enshrined in A Company of Poets, poets he thought too well endorsed by the establishment; it may also account for abrupt switches like his early praise of James Dickey that turned to ridicule when Dickey became famous. But in a book that features admirably discriminating support of W. C. Williams, Apollinaire, Stafford, Ginsberg, Duncan, and others, the balance is distinctly positive. Dare I say that he sometimes resembles Yvor Winters in a readiness to go a long way with exotics like Ginsberg and Duncan but to pull sharply back when the shoals of irrationalism loom?
Occasionally his self-explorations beget sententiae of a touching obviousness: “I don't want to listen to a poet berating people for their shortcomings—for example, for not being ‘politically aware’ as he is. It would be better to give them some pleasure than to make them feel inferior.” Now, who could argue with that? Such remarks are spasmodic salutes to the flag in the unrelenting warfare between art and dullness.
One should never forget how good he could be in the ironic postgraduate lyric as written by the better Fifties poets.
Having put on new fashions, she demands New friends. She trades her beauty and her humor In anybody's eyes. If diamonds Were dark, they'd sparkle so. Her aura is The glance of scandal and the speed of rumor.
One day, as I recall, when we conversed In kisses, it amused her to transmit “What hath God wrought!”—the message that was first Sent under the Atlantic. Nonsense, yet It pleases me sometimes to think of it.
Noli me tangere was not her sign. Her pilgrim trembled with the softest awe. She was the only daughter of a line That sleeps in poetry and silences. She might have sat upon the Sphinx's paw.
Then is she simply false, and falsely fair? (The promise she would break she never made) I cannot say, but truly can compare, For when the stars move like a steady fire I think of her, and other faces fade.
That this poem should have been put under Recapitulations on page 164 of People Live Here when an equally fine, very similar rhymed lyric “The Custom of the World,” published several years later, is printed on page 15 is one of those puzzling vagaries to be expected when a poet decides to arrange his work by subject and genre rather than in order of appearance. But no matter. Only very small orthographic changes have been made in the poems themselves. On the whole the book's arrangement under the headings Songs and Lyrics, The Fighting in Europe, A Discovery of America, Modern Lives, Tales of Volhynia and Armidale (poems and prose about Australia) is entirely useful and fitting. This is poetry in which the choice of scene and subject makes a substantial difference. About two-thirds of The War in Europe section is from books of the Fifties; the most celebrated of these, “Carentan O Carentan” and “The Bird,” are in strictly rhymed, ballad-like quatrains, the first close in spirit to one of his earliest enthusiasms, A. E. Housman, the second probably indebted to Heine. But two other impressive war poems, “On the Lawn at the Villa” and “On the Ledge,” are from collections of 1963 and 1980 respectively.
If the war-poems section most dramatically reveals Simpson's growth in formal acumen, if the new arrangement greatly complicates any study of his stylistic evolution, the gains far outweigh the small effort of double-checking from a Chronology of the Poems included in the back of the book. As early as 1963 the book At the End of the Open Road, containing “American Poetry” already cited and the well-known “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” shows his emancipation from postgraduate formal constraints pretty well completed. From here forward stanza length or line groups express rational sequences, pulses of feeling, changes of scene. If American poetry was to contain “Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems,” a shark and a shoe, surely any one poem could also contain such seemingly disparate parts as the following:
Once upon a time in California the ignorant married the inane and they lived happily ever after. …
The dynamo howls but the psyche is still, like an Indian.
And those who are still distending the empire have vanished beyond our sight. Far from the sense of hearing and touch, they are merging with Asia. …
“Hey Chichikov, where are you going?” “I'm off to the moon,” says Chichikov. “What will you do when you get there?” “How do I know?” says Chichikov.
(from “A Friend of the Family”)
Perhaps the most useful distinction to be made would be between his more or less straightforward narratives like “Isidor” or “Chocolates” and the lyric-narrative-discursive catchalls like “A Friend of the Family” or “Why Do You Write About Russia.” Simpson could never, in any case, be accused of fanaticism or rigidity. His version of “dramatic narrative” is flexible indeed. You might say that in Simpson form follows function as closely as in any of the twentieth-century arts. His principal ambition has been to encompass, simultaneously, a life, other lives, and an evolving body of thought. That his formal skills have evolved in step with his thought is a fortunate bonus. But despite the scorn he eventually threw at his earliest work we can see from what he includes in People Live Here that he easily held his own with other “couth” contemporaries like Karl Shapiro, Delmore Schwartz, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, and John Berryman.
How successful, then, has he been in exercising the most stringent ironies and at the same time avoiding satire? And was it a reasonable ambition to begin with? Radical satire—Pope, Dryden, Voltaire, Byron—tries to draw its readers into a conspiracy of good sense and plain thinking. It depends on a high degree of spontaneous idiocy in its victims. After a long lapse of attention it rediscovers perennial strains of dullness or foolishness in the world's rulers or ruling ideas. His dramatic instincts notwithstanding, Simpson was presented with more ideas to ridicule—embodied in risibly dead language—than he was with plausible major fools. A mind as curious as his quickly grew suspicious of the press, right or left. The left, for instance, made an idiot out of Eisenhower; the right knew in its bones that Ike wanted for strategic reasons, half the time, to look like an idiot. It was still the century of the common man. That Stafford managed to convince Simpson that he was writing about ordinary people was more the achievement of consummate art than proof that such a breed exists. Stafford's people are ordinary by virtue of the poet's ordination of them, nothing less. That Simpson's civilized restraint while making fun of the ideas his people lived by and the language they used slips sometimes into condescension is undeniable. But the people were not rulers, not movers or shakers, so Simpson wanted to distinguish himself from a Pope or Byron. In poems dominated by thumping epigrams or aphorisms the human element sometimes failed to measure up to its possibilities. Here, from a collection of 1971, is the opening section of “Vandergast and the Girl.”
Vandergast to his neighbors— the grinding of a garage door and hiss of gravel in the driveway.
He worked for the insurance company whose talisman is a phoenix rising in flames … non omnis moriar. From his desk he had a view of the street—
translucent raincoats, and umbrellas, fluorescent plate-glass windows. A girl knelt down, arranging underwear on a female dummy—
sea waves and, on the gale, Venus, these busy days, poised in her garter-belt and stockings.
A touch of Eliot here, for sure; an echo of Rabelais in the name Vandergast (Latin gaster, stomach); a tag from Horace, non omnis moriar; a snatch of newspaper argot—“these busy days”—to nail down the erotic innuendo. It's hard to see how this might not pass for satire in the eyes of the unwary. Let's try, by way of contrast, “American Classic” of 1981.
It's classic American scene— a car stopped off the road and a man trying to repair it.
The woman who stays in the car in the classic American scene stares back at the freeway traffic.
They look surprised, and ashamed to be so helpless … let down in the middle of the road!
To think that their car would do this! They look like mountain people whose son has gone against the law.
But every night they set out food and the robber goes skulking back to the trees. That's how it is with the car …
it's theirs, they're stuck with it. Now they know what it's like to sit and see the world go whizzing by.
In the fume of carbon monoxide and dust they are not such good Americans as they thought they were.
The feeling of being left out through no fault of your own, is common. That's why I say, an American classic.
It seems likely that a home-grown American of Simpson's authority in this poem would not have conceived the analogy on which its force depends. Our popular notions of “mountain people,” derived from Tobacco Road, L'il Abner, and Snuffy Smith, would suggest a much more flexible attitude toward the law on the part of the boy's parents. To accept either scene, in the mountains or along the highway, as classic, requires an unusually strong act of distancing from the reader. The poem has a penumbra of undefined possibilities that virtually begs not to be too closely looked into. But Simpson's speed and assurance oblige one to waive one's prejudices to the extent of allowing the mountain parents their acute embarrassment at their son's compromising dependence on them, just as the car's shameful dependence on its owners, and theirs on it, produce a like effect. In both cases a code of stewardship, assumed by the poem to be deeply ingrained in American folklore, has been too rigidly, too carelessly applied. Parallels between the duties owed to children and to cars are suggested but left unexplored. The acute publicity of the car's behavior stands in the broadest contrast to the manic privacy of the son's. In no sense is it a simple or easily unravelled poem. But because it's so alive, so well written, so mysteriously assured, it is sustained by the sort of unspoken question that often lies in the background of Simpson's best work. For all the force that poetic convention and popular superstition contrive to lend it, is the dilemma the poem proposes a true dilemma? Am “I,” the poet, being taken in once again? Is “America” only taking me for yet another ride? Not to detect the presence of such questions is probably to miss half of Simpson's quality.
Simpson's newest book, The Best Hour of the Night, takes its title from a passage whose centrality would be hard to miss. It comes eight pages along in a sixteen-page serio-comic narrative called “The Previous Tenant.” It also occurs exactly halfway through the three numbered sections of a four-part book entirely given over to narratives of the same kind.
On nights when he couldn't sleep he'd watch the late late show. In the dark night of the soul, says F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is always three in the morning, Hemingway says, it isn't so bad … in fact, the best hour of the night once you've reconciled yourself to insomnia and stopped worrying about your sins. And I say that insomnia can be a positive joy if you're tuned in to Dames or Gold Diggers of 1933.
What a witch's brew! The “I” of the passage is a writer of unlisted accomplishments who has rented a small cottage on Long Island just vacated by a doctor recently caught in adultery with a strikingly beautiful woman of Italian descent whose husband is an invalid and patient of the doctor. The narrator manages somehow to worm the essence out of this ultra-familiar, this classic suburban idyll before the doctor makes a final appearance at the cottage to reclaim his gear, accompanied by an unidentified new helpmeet.
Though Simpson has again let down his guard in this book against the incursion of highbrow quotes or allusions, one sees in the above that those he uses are not especially subtle except in their mutual collisions. Steady readers of Redbook or Cosmopolitan would know by now what Fitzgerald had said about three o'clock in the morning. But they might not know Hemingway's reply, and if they did might well regard it as blatant nonsense. Nothing that the narrator reveals about himself in the course of the poem suggests that the Hemingway quote is anything but a piece of empty bravado. Yet it's just on doubts of this sort that the poem's success depends. The least one can say is that by making such a man his mouthpiece Simpson has added another layer of ambiguity to a tale already reeking with it. Not since some of the more recondite dramatic narratives of E. A. Robinson have apparently lucid mysteries of this kind clustered so thickly.
For a reader unacquainted with Simpson's career, coming on the book for the first time, the greatest mystery might lie in the choice of such exquisitely banal people, settings, circumstances and, above all, language, with which to celebrate the contemporary homme moyen moyen. This reader found the poems extremely entertaining and quite sufficiently profound. Their verbal materials have been as carefully culled and set as gems in a Tiffany tiara. But in their outward aspects they are the stuff of literature, especially the hardboiled school of the Twenties and Thirties, or of films and television. The poems reward the kind of attention one gives to an Ashbery, Ammons, Ignatow, or Zukofsky. But they also depend, far more vitally than the above, on an antiquarian sense of the vernacular. In which respect they may be equally esoteric and doomed to a small audience. They ask that one accept the possibility that everyone in “these spreading interconnected villages … the new world we are entering,” as he said in an interview of 1973, is engaged in the same mortal combat with ossified locutions, trying to squeeze his or her own poetry from them against terrifying odds. In 1979 Simpson told an Australian interviewer that “It's the timidity of suburban life that is so limiting.” Long ago he wrote a poem, “In the Suburbs”:
There's no way out. 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.
The ending is unsatisfactory. Does he mean there is a religious, temple-haunting dimension to suburbia? The John Cheever gospel? Or does he only mean that things have gone rapidly downhill, that homo medius americanus can but dimly understand what he has lost?
Simpson can be remorseless in a manner all his own.
Stabbed in the back by his partner. There was blood on a green-felt-covered table He lingered a few years, dying slowly, moving from place to place. At the end of a long corridor the room in which he sat was piled with books.
A window looked across the air shaft to a ledge where pigeons built their nests. Here the traffic was hushed, so that you heard the rou and rou of the pigeons. They fluttered, ruffled, and pecked. The shadows of their wings flashed across a sunlit wall.
He had been put in charge of a “cultural series”— books with a limited audience but “viable cultural interest.”
From “Elegy for Jake,” the lines are a super-cooled parody of the exasperated comedies about lost intellectuals and cultural brokers once written by Mary McCarthy, Wilfred Sheed, Elizabeth Hardwick, and others with the right qualifications. About a half dozen poets also once wrote poems in this vein, though few in number and with diminishing frequency as their careers advanced. That Simpson should be increasing his mastery of the genre, so that in 1983 he seems to be just discovering it, must mean that he senses a god-given chance to wind the whole process up. These people, these scenes—the poems say—will never come again. Then let us be as Chekhovian as we can, as remorseless as an ancient Highlander on the warpath.
Ed was in love with a cocktail waitress, but Ed's family, and his friends, didn't approve. So he broke it off.
He married a respectable woman who played the piano. She played well enough to have been a professional.
Ed's wife left him … Years later, at a family gathering
Ed got drunk and made a fool of himself. He said, “I should have married Doreen.” “Well,” they said, “why didn't you?”
For whatever reason, perhaps to appease his own vanity, a critic might be strongly tempted to offer a consolation prize to any poet still willing to write like this. It's brave, it's companionable (towards those of a certain age) and in one way or another it's intensely literary. But for all that, reality keeps breaking in, not only in homely details like the pigeons and the name Doreen but in an original proportion between the leisurely and the laconic, the hard and the soft, the sweet and the sour. A mensch of some hitherto indefinable kind is out there in the wilderness, wherever precisely that wilderness may be thought to lie, writing poems as if everyone's life depended on it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610
SOURCE: “Innocence and Experience,” in New Statesman, June 22, 1984, pp. 23–24.
[In the following excerpt, Lucas offers a positive assessment of People Live Here.]
The Second World War was in a sense America's first. How would their soldier-poets write about it? Randall Jarrell, who didn't go to the war but who had read Owen and Sassoon, took an expected route. The waste of war, the pity of war: these themes produced such classics as ‘Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,’ ‘Eighth Air-Force’ and ‘Pilots Man Your Planes.’ For Louis Simpson it was very different. He fought across Europe, from Normandy to Germany. ‘During the war I felt there was an intelligence watching and listening,’ he says in an endnote to this selection of his poems. It is not a remark that you could imagine coming from Owen, or from Jarrell, and it goes much of the way towards explaining why Simpson's war poems are so different from theirs. Their characteristic response to war is shocked sorrow at the hideousness of things; Simpson's is frequently awed wonder. He is the Yankee a long way from home, an innocent moving through an almost magically charged landscape, fearful but curious, astray but not lost in a haunted wood. And so he writes his great ballad, ‘Carentan O Carentan,’ [in People Live Here] about the fall of innocence into the experience of war which is also about the American dream of Europe:
Trees in the old days used to stand And shape a shady lane Where lovers wandered hand in hand Who came from Carentan.
This was the shining green canal Where we came two by two Walking at combat interval. Such trees we never knew …
Awed wonder is also there in ‘The Battle,’ which ends: ‘Most clearly of that battle I remember / The tiredness in eyes, how hands looked thin / Around a cigarette, and the bright number / Would pulse with all the life there was within.’ It's an almost Dante-like vision of a hand of men in a far, dark world of war, presences glimpsed through the tight focus of a paint of light. Simpson has a number of other poems about the war which are almost as fine, and to them should be added a masterly short lyric, ‘The Silent Generation,’ which is about the ‘enthusiasm’ (the poem's leitmotif) with which his generation put down Hitler, and then lost its way.
We lack enthusiasm. Life seems a mystery; It's like the play a lady Told me about: ‘It's not … It doesn't have a plot,’ she said, ‘it's history.’
Can you really believe an intelligence is present in a world where life is plotless? Just about. For Simpson is really an ironic fatalist. What is going to happen will happen no matter how much we construct or plan for alternatives. And so he re-reads Whitman, as all American poets must, and that great poet tells him: ‘I gave no prescriptions, / And those who have taken my moods for prophecies / Mistake the matter.’ To know this is to be liberated form the plot that Americans wish history to have: ‘All that grave weight of America / Cancelled!’ These lines come from ‘Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,’ another poem that seems certain to last. As does ‘A Story About Chicken Soup,’ the best of several lovely, quizzical-sombre poems about Simpson's Russian-Jewish origins. And at least a dozen others are here for keeps, including the justly famous and obviously great ‘My Father in the Night Commanding No.’ I haven't liked Simpson's more recent poems; they have become too relaxed, the mannerisms lapsing into cosiness. But anyone who cares about poetry will want to buy and wear out People Live Here.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496
SOURCE: A review of People Live Here, in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 4, Autumn, 1984, p. 602.
[In the following review, Irwin offers a positive assessment of People Live Here.]
People Live Here, the unassuming title of Louis Simpson's Selected Poems, provides a major body of work whose accessibility has always been determined by its truth, clarity and a profound simplicity reminiscent of the Russian storytellers, most notably Chekhov. Simpson's concerns are moral ones, and this expansive volume ironically portrays an American journey that moves from the bare and vital life of the infantryman to the hollow life of the contemporary suburban dweller. What is most amazing is that Simpson manages both dramas equally well. In “Carentan O Carentan” we are told:
Lieutenant, what's my duty, My place in the platoon? He too's a sleeping beauty, Charmed by that strange tune.
Carentan O Carentan Before we met with you We never yet had lost a man Or known what death could do.
Fifteen years later, in the poem “In the Suburbs” from At the End of the Open Road, a volume that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, we read:
There's no way out. 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.
“American Classic,” from Caviare at the Funeral (1980), exposes the sad contemporary truth that our highways have become our trenches, our cars the infantrymen.
It's the classic American scene— a car stopped off the road and a man trying to repair it.
They look surprised, and ashamed to be so helpless … let down in the middle of the road!
Simpson's ability to assess the extremes of American morality (the purposeful American faced with war, the disillusioned American lost in comfort) is reconciled and even raised to a higher power in “On the Lawn at the Villa,” a poem which depicts the bewilderment of an American traveling abroad: “It's complicated, being an American, / Having the money and the bad conscience, both at the same time.”
Later poems such as “Caviare at the Funeral” move toward a rare and limpid speech. Others, however, although urgent in tone, sometimes become too prosaic. There are many superb poems here: “A Story about Chicken Soup,” “Trasimeno,” “The Boarder,” “Dvonya,” “Summer Storm” and “Working Late,” to name just a few. This volume, like Donald Justice's Selected Poems, merits a major literary prize. What is most unique about Simpson's work, however, is his ability to raise truth to the higher power of myth and thus gain an overview of life. Like Auden, he is capable of an exalted yet simple speech, its indefatigable attempt to civilize through moral concerns. I quote from the last stanza of his incomparable “To the Western Word”:
The treasures of Cathay were never found. In this America, this wilderness Where the axe echoes with a lonely sound, The generations labor to possess And grave by grave we civilize the ground.
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SOURCE: A review of The Best Hour of the Night, in Poetry, Vol. CXLV, No. 3, December, 1984, pp. 161–63.
[In the following excerpt, Breslin offers a positive assessment of The Best Hour of the Night.]
The various experiments in making poetry more like prose over the last thirty years or so have often involved a suspicion of complexity or nuance; Frank Bidart and Louis Simpson stand out for their willingness to use the full range of educated speech. The uses to which they put that speech, however, differ widely. Bidart dwells continually on what Vaslav Nijinsky, the speaker of the long opening poem, calls “the Great Questions / like WAR and GUILT and GOD / and MADNESS.” The language of Bidart's poetry is almost scholastic in its stark moral analysis, and one poem, “Confessional,” imitates the question-and-answer mode of the catechism, the psychoanalytic hour, and the confession booth. Simpson, in contrast, is a poet of the middle way, of muted daily anxieties rather than crises. His language, accordingly, tends toward narrative and anecdote rather than brooding on the great questions; it is dense with detail like a good short story.
The first poem of The Best Hour of the Night, “Physical Universe,” sets the tone of the volume. Restless after waking up at five in the morning, a man begins reading about the origins of the universe. Then he realizes that the garbage will be collected that morning, so he takes it out and goes back to bed. His wife, still half asleep, asks, ‘“Did you take out the garbage?”’ ‘“Yes,”’ he replies, and returns to his loftier preoccupations:
He said to her, “Do you agree with Darwin that people and monkeys have a common ancestor? Or should we stick to the Bible?”
She said, “Did you take out the garbage?”
“Yes,” he said, for the second time. Then thought about it. Her answer had something in it of the sublime. Like a Koan … the kind of irrelevance a Zen master says to the disciple who is asking riddles of the universe.
Simpson acknowledges, as itself part of the quotidian, the recurrent yearning for something beyond the quotidian, but he does not abandon himself to its lure.
The best part of The Best Hour of the Night is probably the fifteen-page narrative, “The Previous Tenant,” which combines the inclusiveness of the short story with the greater compression of poetry. (Simpson's free verse, though not the most condensed idiom imaginable, is really verse, not prose broken into lines.) The speaker of the “The Previous Tenant,” upon renting a cottage in the rather prim community of Point Mercy, becomes fascinated with the scandal surrounding the last occupant, Dr. Hugh McNeil. Simpson reconstructs the story of the love affair that destroys Dr. McNeil's marriage and good name. The more the speaker of the poem learns about McNeil and his mistress, the more he comes to regard them as superior to the smugly moralistic community around them, and finally, his respect for them begins to jeopardize his own reputation. There are, in short, two stories intertwined: that of McNeil's fall and that of the speaker's growing insight into the narrow-mindedness of Point Mercy society. This poem and several others in The Best Hour of the Night show that, in the right hands, narrative poetry can still flourish.
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SOURCE: “Louis Simpson: In Search of the American Self,” in The World's Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets, University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 109–39.
[In the following essay, Stitt provides an overview of Simpson's poetic development, his American sensibility, his thematic preoccupation with ordinary American experience and social alienation, and his aesthetic and stylistic approach to poetry.]
The story American literature tells is so often that of a virtuous individual, who seeks complete freedom for self-expression, pitted against a community that is at best repressive and at worst unjust, perhaps even immoral. Consider Melville's White Jacket and Billy Budd, rebels against society's sanctioned injustices. Consider his Bartleby, who in response to every entreaty from his eminently reasonable, successful, middle-American boss, says “I would prefer not to.” Consider Huck Finn, who follows the promptings of his own heart, his innate sense of virtue, over what society tells him is right; “All right, then, I'll go to hell!,” he says, embracing the cause of his black friend, Jim. Consider Hester Prynne, whose devotion is to passion, human emotion—to natural virtue rather than civil virtue—against the moral repression of her Puritan society.
Consider too those writers who speak more or less for themselves rather than through a character, chiefly the American transcendentalists. There is Emerson, whose counsel was to follow always your own path, no matter if it has never been trod before. There is Thoreau, whose independence of mind exasperated even his friend and mentor Emerson—Thoreau, who was among the first to oppose the implicit support of slavery that he found in Massachusetts, and who opposed as well that proto-Vietnam adventure: the Mexican War of 1846–48. And there is Whitman, who sang of himself only as a means of encouraging others to be more themselves: “Not I—not any one else, can travel that road for you, / You must travel it for yourself.” These lists could be extended almost indefinitely—one thinks of Emily Dickinson, Isabel Archer, Edna Pontiellier, so many more. The point is clear: one of the most pervasive concerns of American literature has always been to support, promote, and encourage the individual vision, no matter how solid the opposition of the majority.
It is precisely this concern that we find at the heart of the poetry of Louis Simpson.1 In recent years he has taken to writing narrative verse that uses many of the techniques of prose fiction. Thus we find in his work third-person protagonists who bear slight spiritual similarities to Huck Finn, Edna Pontiellier, and the others. Even at its most narrative, however, Simpson's poetry remains lyrical in its basis—and this means that the position of the individual sensibility in his work is defined most centrally by the personality of the poet himself. In his autobiography, North of Jamaica, Simpson gives the most important of his many definitions of poetry: “Poetry is essentially mysterious. No one has ever been able to define it. Therefore we always find ourselves coming back to the poet. As Stevens said, ‘Poetry is a process of the personality of the poet.’ This personality is never finished. While he is writing the poet has in mind another self, more intelligent than he. The poet is reaching out to the person that he would be, and this is the poet's style—a sense of reaching, that can never be satisfied.”2
This sense of reaching always for a better self, which makes Simpson's individual poems so dynamic, is also what caused the profound changes that have occurred in his poetry generally since the beginning of his career. We can, in fact, identify three distinct phases within this body of work. The poems in Simpson's first three books—The Arrivistes (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 1940s and 1950s. The lyric “As Birds Are Fitted to the Boughs” is typical:
As birds are fitted to the boughs That blossom on the tree And whisper when the south wind blows— So was my love to me.
And still she blossoms in my mind And whispers softly, though The clouds are fitted to the wind, The wind is to the snow.(3)
However successful this poem is, there is nothing about it that is unique to the vision or voice of Louis Simpson—the subject is as conventional as the form, and we may be excused the feeling that it could have been written by almost anyone, including a poet (perhaps especially a poet) living three-hundred years ago.
In fact, “As Birds Are Fitted to the Boughs” is a “poem nearly anonymous” (as John Crowe Ransom might have said of it)—its form and sentiment both seem predetermined—inherited, not from the personal experience of the author, but from literary history. In addition to poems about love, these early books also contain most of Simpson's war poems. After coming to this country from his native Jamaica in 1940, at the age of seventeen, Simpson enlisted in the United States Army, serving first in the tank corps, then in the infantry; he was among the first to go ashore at Normandy and was awarded the Bronze Star for distinguished service and the Purple Heart for his injuries. One might expect his war poems to blister with immediate, felt experience; such is not the case, however. Again, the author's personality is buried beneath the demands of a form imposed from without rather than generated from within. Thus, even in the best of these poems, we feel, not the force of the poet's experience, but the force of his mastery of traditional English lyricism. “Carentan O Carentan,” for example, is a powerful war lyric; I quote stanzas from the beginning, the middle, and the end:
Trees in the old days used to stand And shape a shady lane Where lovers wandered hand in hand Who came from Carentan.
… … … … … … … … I must lie down at once, there is A hammer at my knee. And call it death or cowardice, Don't count again on me.
Everything's all right, Mother, Everyone gets the same At one time or another. It's all in the game.
I never strolled, nor ever shall, Down such a leafy lane. I never drank in a canal, Nor ever shall again.
… … … … … … Carentan O Carentan Before we met with you We never yet had lost a man Or known what death could do.
The lyricism is beautiful, the irony between that formal characteristic and the content of the poem profound, but again the personal voice of Louis Simpson is missing.
When Simpson agrees with Stevens that “Poetry is a process of the personality of the poet,” he is, among other things, also agreeing with Buffon's definition, “The style is the man.” As he himself has explained, it was because he wanted to express his own personality more directly that Simpson undertook, between the publication of his third and fourth books, to change his style: “I had been writing poetry that was quite formal. … Over the next few years, I tried to write impeccable poems, poems you couldn't find fault with. Then between 1959 and 1963 I broke all that up and tried to write poetry that would be more free, that would sound more like my own voice. … Ever since then I've written mostly a kind of informal poetry.”4 In the second and third phases of Simpson's career, then, we encounter an authentic poetry of personality. Moreover, once he had made this important transition, it appears that Simpson was able to look back and define more clearly the relationship between the missing sensibility of his early poems and the society in which that sensibility attempted to live; I will begin my larger discussion of Simpson's work with these more or less anachronistic poems, poems that, by virtue of their content, actually (though not chronologically) belong in the first phase of his career.
The middle phase of Simpson's work consists of all of the poems in his fourth book, At the End of the Open Road (1963), and many of those in Adventures of the Letter I (1971), a transitional volume. The individual portrayed in these poems feels himself seriously alienated from American society, which in his view had not only killed the American Indians but was also participating, indefensibly, in an unjust war in Vietnam. Then a curious thing happens, marking the transition from the second to the third phase of Simpson's work—through a dual interest in the work of Chekhov and in his own Jewish Russian ancestors, the sensibility of these poems recognizes his inherent kinship with the ordinary citizens of the society he had been hating. He realizes that it is not they but their leaders who are responsible for what is wrong and repressive in that society. Thus, the third phase of Simpson's work is the empathetic, even the spiritual phase—the phase in which he comes to do his most memorable and original work. It begins with the Russian poems in Adventures of the Letter I and continues with the poems of middle America in Searching for the Ox (1976), Caviar at the Funeral (1980), and The Best Hour of the Night (1983).
Before proceeding any farther, we must pause to make a crucial distinction. Although Louis Simpson writes a poetry of personality, and although the most important unifying feature of his work is the sensibility that lies at its heart, he is not a confessional poet. In fact, Simpson has been very hard on this type of poetry, which he sees as part of the “cult of sincerity” (“Interview with Louis Simpson”). 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. In fact, Simpson prefers to speak of the sensibility that inhabits his poems as a created character—based upon himself, to be sure, but made up nevertheless: “I have a very funny sense of myself in the poem—I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about how the poems make a self for me.”5 How that might come about is explained in greater detail in the Afterword to Simpson's book A Revolution in Taste, where he gives a summary definition of what he means by a poetry of personality: “In contrast to this, what I have called the personal voice is an expression of character. And character is something made. The self that appears in the novel or poem has been constructed according to certain aesthetic principles. This version of the self is not intended to direct attention upon the author but to serve the work of art. The purpose is to create a symbolic life, a portrait of the artist that will have meaning for others and so create a sense of community, if only among a few thousand.”6
The sensibility that unifies the poems of Louis Simpson, then, is this created “symbolic life,” this “portrait of the artist”; it is a sensibility intended to express not just the personal feelings of one person but those of at least a small minority community existing within society at large. It is not until the last phase of his work, however, that Simpson's poetry will truly begin to embody this sense of community. In the first two phases we see instead a sensibility largely alienated from the society that surrounds it. As I said earlier, our understanding of the position of the Simpson sensibility in the first phase will come not so much from the poems actually written then but from later poems that comment on that phase. These poems, in fact, mostly appear together in the first section of Simpson's recent book, People Live Here: Selected Poems, 1949–1983—a structuring that indicates that they do indeed belong, because of their content, with the first phase.
For example, the poem “The Cradle Trap” (PLH, 28), originally published in At the End of the Open Road, seems to define the alienation of the Simpson character at almost its first moment of consciousness. The experience and feelings of the poem are those of a baby and are presented in the first two stanzas:
A bell and rattle, a smell of roses, a leather Bible, and angry voices …
They say, I love you. They shout, You must! The light is telling terrible stories.
The forces of society are represented by the baby's parents, who are willing to use every means at their disposal, including both violence and love, to impose their will upon him. In Simpson's poems generally, as here, the depersonalizing forces of society are associated with an unforgiving light, while darkness represents individuality and self-fulfillment. Thus, it is the darkness that offers support and advice to the baby in the concluding stanza of this poem:
But night at the window whispers, Never mind. Be true, be true to your own strange kind.
What is presented here in embryonic form is the conflict between the individual and the community that will dominate so much of Simpson's poetry. Already this particular character is seen as different from most people, one of a “strange kind.” As we will learn in later poems, this strangeness results from a commitment not just to poetry but to a life of the mind generally.
While “The Cradle Trap” seems to set the Simpson character against all of society and both of his parents, another poem, “Working Late” (PLH, 168), indicates a potential for harmony that we will see fully manifested in phase three. The title of the poem refers to the speaker's father, a lawyer of precise and methodical character—“A light is on in my father's study”:
He is working late on cases. No impassioned speech! He argues from evidence, actually pacing out and measuring, while the fans revolving on the ceiling winnow the true from the false.
Within the context of the poem, the father represents society, as his association with the artificial light source indicates. That there is something of value even here, however, is implicit in the way the poem ends:
… the light that used to shine at night in my father's study now shines as late in mine.
However, the real sense of kinship in the poem is felt between the speaker and his mother, who is both associated with the darkness and seen in conflict with the father:
All the arguing in the world will not stay the moon. She has come all the way from Russia to gaze for a while in a mango tree and light the wall of a veranda, before resuming her interrupted journey.
The poem is autobiographical. Simpson's father was a lawyer; his mother, a passionate and restless woman of Russian ancestry, who happened to come with a dance troupe to Jamaica, was courted by and married the elder Simpson, and left him some years later, when the poet was nearly grown. She functions as a sort of muse within the poem, prefiguring those human qualities that will characterize Simpson's maturest work—chiefly, the feeling of love, a sense of independence, devotion to the freedom of the self and to the creative spirit; identifying her with the moon, Simpson says: “she is still the mother of us all.” For fullest expression, most of this will have to wait for phase three; until then, the sensibility that rules these poems contends instead with the negative, antagonistic feelings of betrayal expressed in “The Cradle Trap.”
At the end of the first section of his new selected poems, Simpson has placed three poems that also stand together at the end of Adventures of the Letter I—“Trasimeno,” “The Peat-Bog Man,” and “The Silent Piano.” The poems have much in common—each associates the light of day with a society that is somehow oppressive to the individual; each identifies as well a fugitive sense of spirituality, creativity, which is associated with the night and the moon and opposed to the forces of society. Perhaps we may take the middle poem (PLH, 33) as representative. Seamus Heaney, that fine Ulster poet, tells many stories of the peat bogs of Ireland, which have a way of preserving anything (including human bodies) that happens to fall into them. Centuries later, peat cutters will come upon these things, perfectly preserved. The title character of Simpson's poem “was one of the consorts of the moon” who “went with the goddess in a cart”: “Wherever he went there would be someone, / a few of the last of the old religion.” Once this brief characterization has been given, “the moon passes behind a cloud”; we don't see the peat-bog man again until, “Fifteen centuries” later, he is dug up—
… with the rope
that ends in a noose at the throat— a head squashed like a pumpkin.
Simpson implies that the man was executed; apparently his sensitive, religious, poetic nature came into conflict with a brutal and repressive society. At the end of the poem, Simpson associates him with the creative spirit of earth, allowing for an indirect triumph after all:
Yet, there is delicacy in the features and a peaceful expression …
that in Spring the flower comes forth with a music of pipes and dancing.
Because of its method, the poem seems to offer almost a blanket condemnation of how such individuals have been treated by societies throughout time. The poem is nearly allegorical, generalizing as it does from an incident that is both ancient and vague. “The Peat-Bog Man” thus reflects a quality common to most of the poems in Simpson's first three books: they do not often deal directly, personally, with the actual world inhabited at the time of composition by the poet himself. It was not until 1963, with the publication of his fourth book, At the End of the Open Road—significantly following the major change in style discussed above—that Simpson began to write specifically about America, where he had been living for better than twenty years.
If not a paradox, it is at least a curiosity that Louis Simpson—that native Jamaican—has become, since the beginning of the second phase of his career, the most consciously American of all contemporary American poets.7 This is true, not just because he has come to write mostly about American life and people, but because the sensibility that informs his poems from their creative heart thinks of himself as an American—for better (phase three) or for worse (phase two). In an essay written as early as 1962, Simpson recognized that his work was moving in this direction: “I think a great deal about the country I live in indeed, it seems an inexhaustible subject, one that has hardly been tapped. By America, I mean the infinitely complex life we have. Sometimes when I look at Main Street, I feel like a stranger looking at the via Aurelia, or the Pyramids.”8 It is interesting that James Wright commented on this aspect of Simpson's work in his own essay on Walt Whitman: “Louis Simpson's imagination is obsessed with the most painful details of current American life, which he reveals under a very powerfully developed sense of American history. … Mr. Simpson describes America and Americans in a vision totally free from advertising and propaganda.”9
As mentioned earlier, the poems in phase two are the bitterest of Simpson's career. It is almost as though, rebounding from the horrors of World War II, his protagonist felt danger lurking behind every bush, a murderous stench at large in the very atmosphere. He became an idealist, venting his anger most vigorously upon the hypocrites of this world, those who profess noble, moral aims while wallowing in the mire of man's inhumanity to man. The poem “On the Lawn at the Villa” (PLH, 54) is set in Tuscany just after World War II, and seems to take for its theme the contrast between American innocence and European sophistication, implying that the latter is cunning, given to evil, the former a sweetness yielding only to virtue.
Though the theme of the poem seems to come from Henry James, its voice sounds more like Augie March or Studs Lonigan—a wise guy who has read Whitman. He begins the poem by commenting on his title:
On the lawn at the villa— That's the way to start, eh, reader? We know where we stand—somewhere expensive— You and I imperturbes, as Walt would say, Before the diversions of wealth, you and I engagés.
The irony of the voice seems at this point to be directed against the hollowness, the falseness, of wealthy European society, an impression that is strengthened when the speaker introduces his companions—“a manufacturer of explosives,” his wife, and “a young man named Bruno”—and goes on to justify his own presence at this little tea party. He is, he says:
Willing to talk to these malefactors, The manufacturer of explosives, and so on, But somehow superior. By that I mean democratic. It's complicated, being an American, Having the money and the bad conscience, both at the same time.
On its surface level, the poem suggests that it is people like the manufacturer of explosives who make war possible, thus perpetuating the kind of thing that destroyed “The Peat-Bog Man.” The American is supposedly superior, if only because he can see the immorality inherent in this situation. However, there is another level of irony in the poem; being American is more “complicated” than it at first seems. While the speaker pretends to believe the American line, in fact he is directing his most serious criticism against it. He suggests that it is the Americans who are the greatest hypocrites in such situations. The arms maker pretends nothing; the American pretends to approve of the arms maker (no doubt for the “money” involved), meanwhile believing that he can preserve his own moral superiority through a “bad conscience.” That this is a delusion is made clear through an image Simpson uses in the poem's concluding stanza:
We were all sitting there paralyzed In the hot Tuscan afternoon, And the bodies of the machine-gun crew were draped over the balcony.
Everyone in the scene, that is, ignores this very basic reality, and all are equally guilty.
Poems from this phase that are set in America are, if anything, even more bitter than “On the Lawn at the Villa.” Basically, Simpson chooses to contrast the American Dream—of justice, equality, freedom, and peace—with the reality he was observing around him. Most of these poems were written during the early phase of America's involvement in the war in Vietnam, at a time when American opinion supported that involvement. In an essay first published—ironically—in William Heyen's bicentennial anthology, American Poets in 1976, Simpson comments on the reaction of American poets to Vietnam by speaking first of how William Wordsworth felt when his country sided with the government against the peasants during the French Revolution: “he was cut off in his affections from the people around him. It is hard to imagine a more desolate situation for a poet, and it is the situation American poets have found themselves in for some time. It would be bad enough if poets alone felt so, but what poets feel many other people are feeling too. The United States contains a large number of people who no longer like it.”10 The people who no longer like it, in fact, are those few of a “strange kind,” first mentioned in “The Cradle Trap.”
In a poem with the ironic title “American Dreams” (PLH, 79), Simpson defines the position occupied by such a person in this country at that time. The poem begins by contrasting the kind of dreams the Simpson protagonist would normally have with a redefined version of the American Dream:
In dreams my life came toward me, my loves that were slender as gazelles. But America also dreams. … Dream, you are flying over Russia, dream, you are falling in Asia.
We are reminded that the American Dream has not been limited to the basic definition given above. The English Puritans came here originally in pursuit of religious freedom—and immediately proceeded to outlaw all religious but their own. They also saw the American Indians as the Devil's minions, and set about to eradicate them from the face of the earth. This particular aspect of the American Dream is celebrated by Simpson in yet another poem, “Indian Country,” where he describes how “The white men burst in at sunrise, shooting and stabbing …, / the squaws running in every direction” (PLH, 68). Were we to view this as a kind of genocide, and were we to combine that with yet another aspect of the American Dream (the one that sees the open road leading ever westward to new horizons), then we might have found an explanation for the American bombs falling in Asia.
The second stanza of “American Dreams” expresses the feelings of the speaker through an image as violent and surreal as the one that concludes “On the Lawn at the Villa”: “on a typical sunny day in California,” he dreams:
it is my house that is burning and my dear ones that lie in the gutter as the American army enters.
The feeling is one of intense alienation; the speaker is committed to the original American Dream of peace and freedom for all, while his fellow citizens seem bent on forcing the entire world to conform to their way of life. The poem concludes:
Every day I wake far away from my life, in a foreign country. These people are speaking a strange language. It is strange to me and strange, I think, even to themselves.
The situation is strange to the speaker because he is of the minority, one of that “strange kind” that remembers the basic moral principles on which this country was founded. That the situation may have been strange as well “even to themselves”—that is, even to ordinary citizens—history has come to prove through the eventual turning of public opinion against the war in Vietnam. Thus at the time of the poem, their behavior was unnatural, an unaccustomed hypocrisy.
Another, somewhat earlier, poem on the American Dream is the famous “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain” (PLH, 64–65), originally published in At the End of the Open Road. It begins with a challenge to the statue of Whitman, asking “Where is the nation you promised?” and complaining that “The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.” Simpson refers to the degeneration of yet another aspect of the original Dream. Our ancestors only hoped for sufficient material goods to get by on, a chicken in every pot; we have progressed to the point where our insatiable hunger for wealth is scarring the countryside, polluting the air, and dropping either a porn emporium or a pizza shack on every village corner. Whitman is blamed because of the boundless opportunity that he seemed to promise and because his writings have been used by publicists and polemicists to forward just these debased goals. Simpson goes on to imagine an answer from Whitman, who points out that it was not the future of the country he was prophesying, “it was Myself / I advertised”—“I gave no prescriptions”—“I am wholly disreputable.” Suddenly, for the speaker, “All that grave weight of America” is “cancelled.” All those who have “contracted / American dreams”—“the realtors, / Pickpockets, salesmen”—can go their own ways, performing their “Official scenarios”; the individual has been freed to pursue his vision:
… the man who keeps a store on a lonely road, And the housewife who knows she's dumb, And the earth, are relieved.
The answer that the speaker has found for this stage of his life is to try to ignore what goes on around him, to cultivate his own “Myself” in a kind of protective isolation—to live, that is, what is described in the poem's epigraph (from Ortega y Gasset): a “life which does not give the preference to any other life, of any previous period, which therefore prefers its own existence.”
It is in another poem, “Sacred Objects” (originally published in Adventures of the Letter I), that Simpson gives a capsule version of the general lesson learned from Whitman; he says: “The light that shines through the Leaves / is clear: ‘to form individuals’” (PLH, 178). The attempt to be true to the singular, individual vision of the self is the quest that entered Simpson's work once he decided upon a personal theory of poetry. It is given eloquent testimony in yet another poem from this period, “Summer Morning.” Thinking back over fifteen years, the speaker recalls a morning spent with a woman in a hotel room, from which they watched workers across the way. The separation between him and them was more than just physical, as he now recognizes:
I'm fifteen years older myself— Bad years and good.
So I have spoiled my chances. For what? Sheer laziness,
The thrill of an assignation, My life that I hold in secret.
The tone of the poem is not one of regret but of triumph. The speaker's chances for a commercial life have been spoiled, it is true, but that is no loss; it is far preferable to have lived a life devoted to fugitive emotions, devoted to an individual vision, no matter how unpopular—a life devoted to that least commercial of all serious pursuits, poetry.11
Perhaps the strongest general impression one takes away from the poems written during this second phase of Simpson's career is of the alienation from society that his protagonist feels. Sometimes his attitude is bitter and sarcastic about that society; at other times he is sullen and withdrawn, almost sulking; at still other times he is strong, proud, defiant. In all cases, however, the alienation persists. Moreover, his distrust is not just of those who are obviously misguided (political leaders, pickpockets) but of common people as well—his fellow citizens, the workers in the window across the way. At the End of the Open Road, source of most of these poems and Simpson's most negative book, was published in 1963. Between then and 1971, when the transitional volume Adventures of the Letter I was published, his work began to develop away from this attitude towards a stronger feeling of brotherly love. An indirect but telling comment on what was happening can be found in his essay “Dogface Poetics,” first published in 1965: “In recent years the closemouthed, almost sullen, manner of my early poems has given way to qualities that are quite different. Like other men of the war generation, I began with middle age; youth came later. Nowadays in my poems I try to generate mystery and excitement; I have even dealt in general ideas. But I retain the dogface's suspicion of the officer class, with their abstract language and indifference to individual, human suffering. You might say that the war made me a foot-soldier for the rest of my life.”12
The difference as expressed here is slight but significant; Simpson is coming to empathize more emphatically 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 as he moves into the third phase of his career, then, is the increased sense of empathy those poems express for other people.13 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” (PLH, 103), originally published in 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”:
He lived with a Mexican woman. Then he followed her, and was wise.
“Baby,” he said, “you're a two-timer, I'm wise to you and the lieutenant.”
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.
And to walk in the dust and heat … for I can see her hurrying
to the clay wall where they meet, and I shall be wise to her and the lieutenant.
Through the use of his imagination, the speaker is able to become the old man, able to experience a portion of his life. The poem is curiously both objective and subjective; objective because of the interest in the life and concerns of a character other than the speaker, but subjective in that it is also his story, the story of his imagination.
In its use of a narrative structure and reliance on significant details that illuminate action, character, and meaning, this poem resembles prose fiction.14 Simpson is the author of one novel, Riverside Drive, published in 1962, and has recently 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. For example, the speaker in “Sway” remembers a summer spent courting the already engaged girl whose nickname gives the poem its title: “Sway was beautiful. My heart went out to her”; “I told her of my ambition: / to write novels conveying the excitement / of life” (PLH, 108). In another poem, “The Man She Loved,” the speaker remembers how, as a young student at Columbia, he would visit his relatives in Brooklyn on Sundays and spend at least part of the afternoon indulging in youthful, charmingly egotistical fantasies:
Little did they know as they spoke that one day they would be immortal in a novel that commanded the sweep of Tolstoy, a magnificent creation that would bring within its compass offices in Manhattan and jungles of the Amazon. A grasp of psychology and sense of the passing of time that can only be compared to, without exaggerating, Proust.
And yet, despite this ambition, despite his skill at manipulating narrative, detail, and imagery, Simpson did not become a good novelist. In fact, it is in the poem “Sway” that he himself gives what is probably the best critique of Riverside Drive, as of his talent as a fiction writer generally. During that summer long ago, the girl has asked:
… “When you're a famous novelist will you write about me?”
I promised … and tried to keep my promise.
Years later the speaker comes upon the resulting pages in an old box; the images are touching, the buildup to action promising, but: “Then the trouble begins. I can never think of anything / to make the characters do” (PLH, 110). The failure occurs in the area of plot—the individual scenes of Riverside Drive are pointed and affecting, excellent at conveying mood, but they never add up to a cohesive overall statement. In short, Simpson's fiction embodies all the qualities that would be needed should one wish to write a narrative kind of lyric poetry—which is precisely the choice he ultimately made. In an essay published in 1976, he explains in hypothetical terms the use to which such a poetry would put narrative: “As it deals with life, this poetry will frequently be in the form of a narrative. Not a mere relation of external events, but a narrative of significant actions. The poet will aim to convey states of feeling. In our time poets have stayed away from narrative because it has often been merely descriptive—there has been too much dead tissue. But this can be avoided if the poet reveals a situation with no more than a few words, and concentrates on the feeling.”15
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, which makes his definition of the goal of imagist writing important here: “There is a time lag, therefore a separation, between thought and experience. The more elaborate the comparison, as in Milton's epic similes, the harder it is to ‘feel’ the thought. An imagist poem, on the other hand, concentrates on giving you the experience—handing over sensations bodily, as Hulme said. Imagist writing aims to make you feel, rather than to tell you what feeling is like.”16 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 character he is writing about.
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 poems as well that are 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. Simpson is, in short, actively following advice he gave indirectly to Robert Lowell in a review written in 1977: “He ought to try getting inside the skin of a few people who aren't like himself.”17 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. In fact, without the example of Simpson, we might not be able to tell just how special, how atypical, that cast of characters generally is.
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 generally find is 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 protestors, 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 teenage children when they don't come home on time. Simpson's goal is to write, not about an unusual and privileged way of life, but about the life most real people are living in this country today. As he said in his address to the Jewish Book Council in 1981: “At the present time American poetry has very little to say about the world we live in. The American poet is content to have a style that sets him apart, to produce a unique sound, to create unusual images. But in my poems I have been attempting to explore ordinary, everyday life with the aim of showing that it can be deep, that though the life itself may not be poetic and, in fact, can be banal and sordid, yet it is the stuff of poetry, and the kind of poetry I believe to be most important—that which shows our common humanity.”18
“Quiet Desperation” (BHN, 15–17), which appears in Simpson's most recent individual book of poems, The Best Hour of the Night (1983), is written from the third-person point of view and concerns a single day in the life of an unnamed citizen of suburbia. The poem begins while this man is doing errands, probably on a Saturday afternoon:
At the post office he sees Joe McInnes. Joe says, “We're having some people over. It'll be informal. Come as you are.”
When our hero arrives home, he finds his wife preparing dinner, “an experiment”:
He relays Joe's invitation. “No,” she says, “not on your life. Muriel McInnes is no friend of mine.”
It appears that she told Muriel that the Goldins live above their means, and Muriel told Mary Goldin.
He listens carefully, to get things right. The feud between the Andersons and the Kellys began with Ruth Anderson calling Mike Kelly a reckless driver. Finally the Andersons had to sell their house and move.
Social life is no joke. It can be the only life there is.
At first reading, a passage like this sounds very much like prose. One thing that makes it poetry is the understatement, the restraint and precision, of the writing. The lines are mostly end-stopped, and many of them consist of single sentences; there is nothing here of the easy flow prose normally has. There is also no extravagance in the images and incidents; again, everything is kept to a careful and pointed minimum. Finally, as is characteristic of lyric poetry to a far greater degree than of prose, the passage depends for its coherence less on its details than on the sensibility that perceives and reflects on these details. The plainness of language is typical of Simpson in this phase; like Wordsworth (and others) before him, he wishes to write his poems essentially out of the mouths of his ordinary characters; as he has said in an essay: “In my attempts to write narrative poetry I have used the rhythms of speech. I bear in mind what it would be like to say the poem aloud to someone else. This helps me to form the lines. At the same time it eliminates confusion—I have to make my ideas clear. I eliminate words out of books, affected language, jargon of any kind.”19
In the second section of the poem, the protagonist goes into the living room where his son is watching a movie on television: “the battle of Iwo Jima / is in progress.” He watches for a moment; the Americans are pinned down by machine-gun fire; a man falls; “Sergeant Stryker / picks up the charge and starts running.” He watches until the pillbox is destroyed by Stryker, then gets up and goes out: “He's seen the movie. Stryker gets killed / just as they're raising the flag.” This man is restless and dissatisfied, and as the third section of the poem begins, we learn what he is feeling:
A feeling of pressure … There is something that needs to be done immediately.
But there is nothing, only himself. His life is passing, and afterwards there will be eternity, silence, and infinite space.
He thinks, “Firewood!”— and goes to the basement.
After cutting several logs into the proper size, arranging them carefully by the fireplace—but still restless, still feeling the pressure—he thinks of “The dog! / He will take the dog for a walk.”
It is autumn and the trees are turning yellow; approaching “the cove,” he admires the blue water and the swans. The poem ends:
But when you come closer the rocks above the shore are littered with daggers of broken glass where the boys sat on summer nights and broke beer bottles afterwards.
And the beach is littered, with cans, containers, heaps of garbage, newspaper wadded against the sea-wall. Someone has even dumped a mattress … a definite success! Some daring guy, some Stryker in the pickup speeding away.
He cannot bear the sun going over and going down … the trees and houses vanishing in quiet every day.
The story of an ordinary mid-life crisis perhaps, but told with sympathy and from the inside of the man who is suffering through it. He feels his age when he looks at his son, when he remembers how long ago it was that he first saw the movie; he feels the futility of his life in the encounters with his wife and Joe McInnes, the emptiness of human contact. All around him are images of mortality—the death of Stryker, the firewood, the yellow leaves on the trees—culminating in the image of the setting sun, how everything is “vanishing” into “eternity / silence, and infinite space.”
“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 the third phase of Simpson's work, poems that express, on the part of that sensibility, an authentic degree of empathy for humankind generally. However, there are also many poems in this phase that 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.
“Encounter on the 7:07,” also from The Best Hour of the Night (8–12), is spoken from the first-person point of view and puts the Simpson speaker in contact with a man something like the central character of “Quiet Desperation.” Again, the poem is long, in this case organized into six sections. The speaker is riding a commuter train when “a man of about forty, with a suntan” gets on and sits next to him. The man's doctor had advised a vacation, so he had gone to Florida. Meanwhile, on the train itself there is a “car card advertising / ‘Virginia Slims’”:
The man sitting next to me, whose name is Jerry—Jerry DiBello— observes that he doesn't smoke cigarettes, he smokes cigars. “Look at Winston Churchill. He smoked cigars every day of his life, and he lived to be over eighty.”
An ordinary guy who likes to talk—the advertisement provides enough of an excuse for this personal comment.
Later he says that “His family used to own a restaurant,” that his father had come “from Genoa / as a seaman, and jumped ship,” got a job washing dishes, and “Ten years later / he owned the restaurant.” Jerry goes on to say that he sells cars, etc.,
But I'm not listening—I'm on deck, looking at the lights of the harbor. A sea wind fans my cheek. I hear the waves chuckling against the side of the ship.
The passage illustrates that same empathy, that same imaginative absorption into the skin of another character, that we saw in “The Mexican Woman.”20
The thematic heart of this poem comes in its fifth section; the speaker says that he had brought along a copy of Ulysses to read on the train and begins by giving D. H. Lawrence's opinion of the book:
“An olla putrida … old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations,” said Lawrence. Drawing a circle about himself and Frieda … building an ark, envisioning the Flood.
But the Flood may be long coming. In the meantime there is life every day, and Ennui.
Ever since the middle class and money have ruled our world we have been desolate.
… … … … … … … A feeling of being alone and separate from the world … “alienation” psychiatrists call it. Religion would say, this turning away from life is the life of the soul.
This is why Joyce is such a great writer: he shows a life of fried bread and dripping “like a boghole,” an art that rises out of life and flies toward the sun,
transfiguring as it flies the reality.
The problem that the sensibility of Simpson's poems faces 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. Lawrence provides no answer, because he went to the opposite extreme; he wrote of the depths but ignored the superficial realities of life. Thus, it is left to James Joyce to be the literary hero of this poem, the one who could write about both things at the same time, transfiguring reality while flying it toward the sun. This is precisely the goal that the speaker of “The Man She Loved” had wanted to express to his relatives:
… how could he explain what it meant to be a writer … a world that was entirely different, and yet it would include the sofa and the smell of chicken cooking.
The alienation of Simpson's protagonist results precisely from his devotion to the things that are unseen by the middle class generally—a full range of genuine emotions, the life of the soul. In the final section of “Encounter on the 7:07,” we are returned to Jerry DiBello, who had encountered a hurricane during his stay in Florida; “For days afterwards they were still finding bodies”:
When he went for a walk the shore looked as though it had been swept with a broom. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, and the sea was calm.
He felt that he was alone with the universe. He, Jerry DiBello, was at one with God.
Although a casual reader might not at first think so, these lines are neither satirical nor sarcastic; they give a straightforward, even sympathetic, rendering of the feelings this automobile salesman had when confronted with a vision of the ultimate. We must remember that he only went on this trip because of a doctor's orders, thus bringing with him a newly discovered awareness of his own mortality. As the poem ends, the speaker recognizes both his difference from DiBello and the human bond that they share.
Reactions to poems like these vary, but a common one is the assumption that Simpson is being satirical.21 In the interview that follows, Simpson described both the original response to his poem “The Beaded Pear” and his motivation:
The poem is meant to be absolutely descriptive of the kind of domestic life we actually live in this country today. When the poem first came out—in the Long Island newspaper Newsday—it upset a lot of people. I got hate mail from people who thought I was being devastatingly sarcastic. But I don't see it that way. There is an element of ridicule in the poem, but it is directed at the culture which fosters these kinds of values, not at the people themselves. No—mostly it is a purely descriptive poem, an attempt at absolutely dead-on, accurate truth. There is even a touch of pathos at the end.
This attitude is given further amplification in yet another comment in the same interview: “Now this may be romantic, but I feel that the ordinary people are pretty decent, even though their attitudes may not be mine. I don't feel that they're at all contemptible. I mean the people you meet in a shoestore or pub or shopping mall. I have always felt that there is a lot of poetry in those people.”
And yet those 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 such poems are satirical. The tone of these poems is an extremely delicate one and results from 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. How delicate this tone is, how hard for some readers to understand, is indicated by the following, rather remarkably misguided, judgment: “Louis Simpson's work now suggests too much comfort: emotional, physical, intellectual. He has stopped struggling, it seems, for words, for rhythms, for his own deepest self. His is a middle-class, middle-brow poetry, the major value of which is to steer other poets from the same course, and to raise some questions about poets joining an Establishment, whether it be one of social class, national or literary identification.”22
How far Louis Simpson is from joining the middle-class “Establishment” is apparent in another new poem, the longest of his career. “The Previous Tenant” (BHN, 21–36) consists of ten sections and deals once again with the conflict between society and the individual. It is spoken from the first-person point of view by the Simpson sensibility and is primarily concerned with the story of his alienation from the suburban community in which he lives—ironically named Point Mercy. The speaker's awareness of his own alienation is brought to the surface through the story of Dr. Hugh McNeil, whose illicit love affair makes him the enemy of the forces of decency in the town. The speaker is renting a cottage—
Thoreau, who recommends sleeping in the box railroad workers keep their tools in, would have found this house commodious.
—that contains several cartons of goods left behind by the previous tenant, McNeil; he learns McNeil's story from his landlord, from some letters he finds, and from community gossip.
Probably the most important “character” in the poem is the collective force that acts as antagonist to both these men—the society itself. At first McNeil and his family are welcomed with open arms to the community; he is an ideal citizen,
… one of the fathers on Saturday dashing about. He drove a green Land Rover as though he were always on safari with the children and an Irish setter.
An early and very mild conflict involving him helps to define the community. He speaks at a village meeting in favor of “retaining / the Latin teacher at the high school”; despite his arguments, the community votes instead to
… remodel the gymnasium. McNeil accepted defeat gracefully. That was one of the things they liked about him.
In a summary comment, Simpson speaks ironically for the community, which is able to find a silver lining in this incident:
Contrary to what people say about the suburbs, they appreciate culture. Hugh McNeil was an example … doing the shopping, going to the club, a man in no way different from themselves, husband and family man and good neighbor, who nevertheless spoke Latin.
The passage reflects the “thinking” of Helen Knox, president of the Garden Club and the character whom Simpson uses as spokesperson for Point Mercy. She has a rare ability:
She knew how to put what they were feeling into words. This was why she was president—elected not once or twice … this was her third term in office.
Like her highly cultured community, Helen Knox is anti-Semitic and a racist. Thus, when McNeil begins his adulterous affair with Irene Davis, whose maiden name was the Italian Cristiano, Helen says:
“I met her once” … “Harry introduced her to me at the bank. A dark woman. … I think, a touch of the tar brush.”
Things start to get out of hand—McNeil appears one day with “broken ribs, black eyes, / and a missing tooth,” claiming that he was mugged. A service-station attendant comments:
“He was never mugged. It was Irene Davis's brothers, the Cristianos. They had him beat up.”
He knew about gansters. They would beat up a guy to warn him. The next time it was curtains.
Helen Knox leads a delegation that calls on the chief of staff at the hospital to demand McNeil's dismissal. Dr. Abrahams replies that “McNeil's private life / … / had nothing to do with his work”; “they were fortunate / to have a surgeon of Hugh McNeil's caliber.” Helen Knox sums up the feelings of the entire Garden Club:
“What can you expect?” … “It was bad enough letting them in, but to make one chief of staff!”
Eventually, McNeil is divorced and moves into the cottage now occupied by the speaker; he breaks up with Irene, begins seeing her again, breaks up again. Finally he comes back to pick up his things, “accompanied by a young woman / wearing jeans and a sweater”:
It appeared he was back on the track once more, after his derailment. With a woman of the right kind at his side to give him a nudge. “Say thanks!”
It is at this point in the poem that the story of the speaker's own conflict with the society of Point Mercy comes to the fore. He is eating lunch with his friend Maggie at the Colony Inn when he sees Irene Davis for the first time:
They said she was dark. What they hadn't said was that the darkness, jet-black hair, was set off by a skin like snow, like moonlight in a dark field glimmering.
In the final section of the poem, a minor incident causes an argument between the speaker and Maggie. A gazebo has been vandalized, and Maggie defends the youth of Point Mercy: “I'm sure … it wasn't anyone / from around here.” The speaker replies that “You don't have to go into New York City” to find “vandals,” “thieves,” and “illiterates.” His attack on the community convinces Maggie that the speaker is “cynical,” a disease that infects his whole “attitude”:
“Like what you said in the restaurant about Hugh McNeil and the Davis woman being better than the rest of us.”
Then she becomes “really angry”:
“I know, you prefer vulgar people. Anyone who tries to be decent and respectable is either a hypocrite or a fool.”
Certainly the speaker does hate hypocrisy, but the real basis for this disagreement is his admiration for people who are true to their emotions, whatever the cost in social respectability or status. This is the same attitude that made the speaker of “Summer Morning” “spoil his chances,” for “The thrill of an assignation, / My life that I hold in secret.” In the eyes of society, conformity is more important than self-fulfillment, complimentary fictions more comfortable than the truth about themselves. Thus, despite the affection that he has learned to feel for individuals, the Simpson protagonist still can never have more than an uneasy alliance with American society at large. His sensibility is that of the young poet “Peter,” as defined in the poem of that title originally published in Caviare at the Funeral:
Stupidity reassures you; you do not belong in a bourgeois establishment, it can never be your home. Restlessness is a sign of intelligence; revulsion, the flight of a soul.
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” (BHN, 69), 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 fifty years ago, unless poetry is based upon affectionate feelings, it 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 brief-cases,” as they “pass beyond your gaze / and hurl themselves into the flames.” They are like the dead souls of Eliot's “Waste Land,” seen crossing London Bridge every morning. It is, then, finally the soullessness of American life that places the individual in Simpson's poems at odds with this society.
The fugitive-agrarian poets—John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate—used to say that, because the South lost the Civil War, southerners were more in touch with the humble realities of life, with its tragic potentialities, than northerners. It is when he looks at American life as a whole that Simpson finds the emptiness that the earlier poets found in the North. Americans have been too successful, too insulated from want and deprivation.
“The Inner Part,” for example—a one-sentence poem first published in At the End of the Open Road—makes this point in a striking fashion:
When they had won the war And for the first time in history Americans were the most important people—
When the leading citizens no longer lived in their shirt sleeves, And their wives did not scratch in public; Just when they'd stopped saying “Gosh!”—
When their daughters seemed as sensitive As the tip of a fly rod, And their sons were as smooth as a V-8 engine—
Priests, examining the entrails of birds, Found the heart misplaced, and seeds As black as death, emitting a strange odor.
It is because of this moral emptiness, this lack of tragic experience, this absence of failure, in America that Simpson turned for the subject matter of many of his poems to Russia, home of his and his mother's ancestors. There he found a people who had suffered, a people who knew the full range of indignities life has to offer those who haven't won every battle.
The poem “Why Do You Write About Russia?” (PLH, 137–40) draws essentially this contrast between the two nations. It begins with the speaker sitting in his suburban American home, remembering how his mother used to tell him, a child in Jamaica, stories about the old country, “of freezing cold,” wolves, and cossacks. The poem is meditative; as he looks out of his window, the speaker contrasts the dreamlike stories he remembers with the life that now surrounds him:
This too is like a dream, the way we live with our cars and power-mowers … a life that shuns emotion and the violence that goes with it, the object being to live quietly and bring up children to be happy.
Because it exists in the absence of all other emotions, the speaker feels that such happiness can only be a delusion; this is a crazy way to bring up children. Thus dissatisfied with the life that surrounds him, he asks himself, “What the do I want?”:
A life in which there are depths beyond happiness. As one of my friends, Grigoryev, says, “Two things constantly cry out in creation, the sea and man's soul.”
Grigoryev is an imaginary friend, whom the speaker has created to tell him stories about the old country, identified later as “the same far place the soul comes from.”
The poem ends with an indirect definition of Russia that indicates what the speaker feels he has inherited from his ancestry:
When I think about Russia it's not that area of the earth's surface …
… … … … … … … … … … … It's a sound, such as you hear in a sea breaking along a shore.
My people came from Russia, bringing with them nothing but that sound.
It is that crying out, that longing, that loneliness, that hunger of the unfulfilled soul, that defines the sensibility of the poet and makes poetry what it is.
When pushed to an ultimate extreme, such an intense loneliness of the soul reflects a religious or a spiritual longing, and in the poems of Louis Simpson there is indeed posited a relationship between the poetic sensibility and the religious sensibility. “Baruch” (PLH, 134–36) is one of his best and most characteristic poems; through the stories of two other characters, Russian ancestors of the nineteenth century, it leads up to a central revelation about its speaker, the Simpson character we have been following throughout this chapter. The first section of the poem deals with the title character:
There is an old folk saying: “He wishes to study the Torah but he has a wife and family.” Baruch had a sincere love of learning but he owned a dress-hat factory.
When the factory burns down one night, Baruch takes this as a sign from God to “give myself to the Word.” He has only begun his studies, however, when death takes him: “For in Israel it is also written, / ‘Prophecy is too great a thing for Baruch.’”
The second section tells of
Cousin Deborah who, they said, had read everything … The question was, which would she marry, Tolstoy or Lermontov or Pushkin?
Her family makes the choice and marries her off to a timber merchant from Kiev; when they are locked in the bedroom after the ceremony, she cries and screams all night long:
As soon as it was daylight, Brodsky— that was his name—drove back to Kiev like a man pursued.
The third section is reflective and personal; the Simpson protagonist is traveling late at night:
The love of literature goes with us.
On a train approaching midnight everyone else has climbed into his sarcophagus except four men playing cards. There is nothing better than poker— not for the stakes but the companionship, trying to outsmart one another. Taking just one card …
I am sitting next to the window, looking at the lights on the prairie clicking by. From time to time two or three will come together then go wandering off again.
Then I see a face, pale and unearthly, that is flitting along with the train, passing over the fields and rooftops, and I hear a voice out of the past: “He wishes to study the Torah.”
All three characters feel the tension that exists between the world of physical reality and the world of the spirit or the imagination. Though he at first thinks otherwise, Baruch belongs in the shadowless world of everyday reality. Cousin Deborah suffers from no such delusion; she exists entirely at the opposite pole. It is left for the Simpson protagonist to live in both worlds at once, to love the physical and to venerate something spiritual at one and the same time.
Louis Simpson is by no means an overtly religious poet; and yet among the poems in the third phase of his career, the phase that locates the poet so firmly in the American suburbs, are several that quest for something spiritual: “I feel that I have two directions I must follow—one leads to this straightforward kind of poem about ordinary life as it really looks and smells, and the other leads to a poetry which is altogether more imagistic and more mysterious” (“Interview with Louis Simpson”).23 Insofar as this thinking is based upon traditional religious ideas, it grows out of Simpson's studies of Zen Buddhism, about which he has said:
Buddhism teaches that your physical existence and your mental existence are one thing; in the West, we tend automatically to split them apart, as in the Christian idea of the body and the soul. I prefer the medieval idea—they had a term for the body which recognized it as the form for the soul, which I take to mean that the body is the outward garment of the soul. Whitman says that too, that there is no split between the body and the soul. And this is what the Buddhists say also. This way of thinking leads to a poetry that is very physical in its orientation, a poetry that concentrates on ordinary life. (“Interview with Louis Simpson”)24
Simpson's most ambitious poem of a more “mysterious” sort—based very loosely on the ox-herding cartoon series by the Zen master—is “Searching for the Ox” (PLH, 183–87). The poem consists of a “free-floating series of associations,” all of which help express one idea. Section two speaks of those who wish to manipulate the world through an abstract understanding of it—“engineers from IBM,” for example. Their success at sending a rocket towards the moon is very impressive, the speaker says, but
… still, I must confess, I fear those messieurs, like a peasant listening to the priests talk Latin. They will send me off to Heaven when all I want is to live in the world.
Similarly, when he learns the practice of Zen meditation in section five and tries to follow “in the Way / that ‘regards sensory experience as relatively unimportant,’” the speaker finds instead that “I am far more aware / of the present, sensory life.” The poem ends with a central understanding that sends the Simpson protagonist back to where he started:
There is only earth: in winter laden with snow, in summer covered with leaves.
Simpson can, at times, sound almost like a mystic when discussing this aspect of his work; the poem “Adam Yankev,” for example, asserts: “Around us / things want to be understood” (PLH, 124)—and in the Afterword to People Live Here, he says: “I have always felt that there is a power and intelligence in things. I felt it as a boy when I watched the sun setting from the top of a mountain and rode a bicycle in the lanes on Kingston and walked along the shore, listening to the sea. I felt that power when I first saw Manhattan rise out of the Atlantic, the towers a poet describes as ‘moody water-loving giants.’”25
However, just as he is probably the most consciously American of the poets treated in this book, Simpson is also the most pragmatic of them. Simpson's orientation, even at its most religious, is not other-worldly; for him, the ultimate meaning of the world, of the earth, is to be found in “the things of this world” themselves and not in abstract ideas about them. In the poem “The Foggy Lane” (PLH, 182), Simpson's speaker encounters in succession three abstractionists: the first extols poets who deal only in a world of dreams; the second is a radical who wants “to live in a pure world”; the third is a salesman who thinks an insurance policy can protect one from harm. In the final stanza, the speaker replies to them all:
Walking in the foggy lane I try to keep my attention fixed on the uneven, muddy surface … the pools made by the rain, and wheel-ruts, and wet leaves, and the rustling of small animals.
What we see here is not just a theory of poetry but a philosophy of how the world should be understood and dealt with; it is real, it is uncertain, it is beautiful, and it deserves our complete attention.
The theme of the individual's sense of alienation from society has been noticed by other of Simpson's critics. C. B. Cox, for example, writes: “Always something of an alien, his criticisms reflect personal dissatisfaction because he can never completely associate his own cosmopolitan literary inheritance with the brash and expansive landscapes of America. For him, the real search is not for new lands, but for one's true identity and the meaning of one's death” (“The Poetry of Louis Simpson,” Critical Quarterly 8 : 77). Karl Malkoff has expressed much the same notion using slightly different terms: “Simpson has reconstructed the romantic myth of the conflict between innocence and experience, between the infinite possibilities of childhood and the narrow confines of adulthood, between romantic optimism and existential despair” (Crowell's Handbook of Contemporary American Poetry [New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973], p. 297).
Louis Simpson, North of Jamaica (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 199.
Simpson, “As Birds Are Fitted to the Boughs,” in People Live Here: Selected Poems, 1949–1983 (Brockport, N.Y.: BOA Editions, 1983), p. 14. Subsequent quotations from this volume will be documented parenthetically within the text, using the abbreviation PLH. The other abbreviation that will be used is BHN, for Simpson's The Best Hour of the Night (New Haven and New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983).
Many critics have commented on the change in Simpson's style. In fact, as early as 1958, before the change had occurred, Robert Bly was already calling for it: “the spectre appears of a war between content and form, with the form acting so as to render the content innocuous, or as a sort of protective camouflage to conceal exactly how revolutionary the content is. … he should avoid his fault, which is a tendency in form to do what has already been done. He should search for a form as fresh as his content” (“The Work of Louis Simpson,” The Fifties, no. 1 : 25). As for the change itself, Ronald Moran (in the only full-length critical study yet devoted to Simpson's work) ascribed it to Simpson's 1959 “move to California [that] marked the beginning of a significant stylistic change in which the conventions gave way to the freedom inherent in colloquial expression and in meterless lines” (Louis Simpson [New York: Twayne, 1972], p. 59). While William H. Roberson has taken note of the connection between the change in style and an increase in personal subject matter—“The increased flexibility of the poetry also marked a movement away from the impersonal toward a more personal quality” (Louis Simpson: A Reference Guide [Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980], p. x)—Richard Howard has explained the connection more fully: “At the End of the Open Road appeared to jettison all the scrimshaw-work which had been such a typical and such a reassuring aspect of Simpson's verse. … The poet [came to rely] more on personality, his own awareness of his voice … as a mortar to hold his lines together, dispensing him from certain evidences, certain cartilages in his text” (Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950 [New York: Atheneum, 1969], pp. 465–66). The new style itself has been accurately characterized by Duane Locke: “In Open Road, the style loosens, the lines become uneven, and the movement of the natural voice and phrasal breaks replace [sic] preconceived measurement. The imagery tends toward inwardness, and the result is a more phenomenal poetry, one in which the subjective imagination transforms by its own operations the objective into what constitutes genuine reality” (“New Directions in Poetry,” dust I : 68–69).
Simpson, “Capturing the World as It Is: An Interview with Wayne Dodd and Stanley Plumly,” in his A Company of Poets (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981), p. 225.
Simpson, A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell (New York: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 169–70. That the created Simpson protagonist has an inevitably subjective basis is made clear by Yohma Gray, who wrote in 1963 that Simpson's “point of view is more subjective than objective; the reader is aware of the intrusion of the poet's private, inner life in the poems rather than the insertion of an invented character from whom the poet is detached. He does not demonstrate what Keats called ‘negative capability,’ or what has been more recently called aesthetic distance. Although he sometimes writes in the third person, the reader senses a subjective ‘I’ in the poem” (“The Poetry of Louis Simpson,” in Poets in Progress, ed. Edward Hungerford [Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1967], p. 229).
Several critics have noticed Simpson's preoccupation with an American subject matter. Writing in 1965, James Dickey commented: “His Selected Poems shows Louis Simpson working, at first tentatively and then with increasing conviction, toward his own version of a national, an American poetry. … He demonstrates that the best service an American poet can do his country is to see it all: not just the promise, not just the loss and the ‘betrayal of the American ideal,’ the Whitmanian ideal—although nobody sees this last more penetratingly than Simpson does—but the whole ‘complex fate,’ the difficult and agonizing meaning of being an American, of living as an American at the time in which one chances to live” (From Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968], pp. 195–96).
Simpson, “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” in A Company of Poets, p. 34.
James Wright, “The Delicacy of Walt Whitman,” in Collected Prose (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), p. 19.
Simpson, “Rolling Up,” in A Company of Poets, p. 314.
Another opinion on this poem (one with which I obviously disagree) is expressed by Ronald Moran: “The last line, ‘My life that I hold in secret,’ is actually a lament for the speaker's inability to feel—for his inability now to become involved with any degree of commitment with a woman” (Louis Simpson, p. 104). This interpretation is repeated almost verbatim in a book that Moran later wrote with George S. Lensing: “‘Summer Morning' … ends with the line, ‘My life that I hold in secret.’ This is the speaker's lament for his own inability to feel any degree of commitment with a woman now” (Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976], p. 157).
Simpson, “Dogface Poetics,” in A Company of Poets, p. 17.
It is interesting that Robert Bly should have pointed out, as early as 1958, this same quality in Simpson's early poems: “The poet's strength is great love of humanity …” (“The Work of Louis Simpson,” p. 25). Early reviewers were more likely to see Simpson as misanthropic than humane.
Speaking specifically of the poems in Searching for the Ox (1976), Dave Smith noted that Simpson “has come to a certain unfashionable narrative base, to a poetry that unabashedly employs the devices of prose fiction” (“A Child of the World,” American Poetry Review 8, no. 1 : 11).
Simpson, “Rolling Up,” p. 316.
Simpson, Three on the Tower: The Lives and Works of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1975), p. 35.
Simpson, “Lowell's Indissoluble Bride,” in A Company of Poets, p. 199.
Simpson, “To the Jewish Book Council” (unpublished address: May 3, 1981), ms. p. 3.
Simpson, “Rolling Up,” p. 316.
On the role of personality in Simpson's poems, Dave Smith has commented: “Like Whitman, he contains many selves who go adventuring within the letter I” (“A Child of the World,” p. 12).
Indeed, a common reaction to much of Simpson's poetry has been that it is satirical. Certainly there is a bitter edge to many of the anti-America poems of phase two; however, as Robert Bly pointed out in the passage quoted above, in general it is Simpson's humanistic impulse that is dominant. Thus, when Karl Malkoff writes, of “Hot Night on Water Street,” that “It is a satire of small-town America” (Crowell's Handbook, p. 295), it seems to me that he is wrong. The poem instead intends to present the feelings of loneliness experienced by its speaker.
Nikki Stiller, “Shopping for Identity: Louis Simpson's Poetry,” Midstream, December 1976, p. 66.
Writing in 1966, C. B. Cox was already able to see Simpson moving towards mystery: “In his most recent work his rhythms have become more free, less tied to iambic norms, and he makes increasing use of mysterious imagery whose total effect is beyond rational appraisal” (“The Poetry of Louis Simpson,” p. 83).
The best critical discussion of the spiritual dimension in Simpson's recent work is that by Dave Smith in American Poetry Review, where he suggests: “Simpson, I believe, would argue that there is no division between inner and outer life except for those who have gone ‘astray’ and that what poetry must do is find a direct and clear way of making this life, its Oneness, fully visible as it was in whatever tropics we came from” (“A Child of the World,” p. 14).
Simpson, “The Sound of Words for Their Own Sake—an Afterword,” in People Live Here, p. 203.
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SOURCE: A review of The Best Hour of the Night, in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 1, Winter, 1985, pp. 95–96.
[In the following review, Ringold offers a positive assessment of The Best Hour of the Night.]
A lyrical writer of power and delicacy, Louis Simpson shines once again in The Best Hour of the Night. Simpson, author of nine books of poetry, including At the End of the Open Road, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, is not one to hedge from his commitment to even the most mundane and unpleasant elements of everyday life or to poetry.
“The Previous Tenant,” a narrative poem at the center of the book and of Simpson's esthetic, cajoles and calls out to the reader in a voice that seems the epitome of “moderation and common sense.” At a leisurely pace, the narrative evokes incident and character with seemingly effortless clarity and precision: Dr. Hugh McNeil, former tenant in the narrator's house, “a man in no way different … husband and family man / and good neighbor, who nevertheless spoke Latin,” a man who had disrupted his perfectly contained life in Point Mercy by having an affair with Irene, she with her jet-black hair, her “skin like snow, like moonlight in a dark field glimmering,” moved, after his wife Nancy sued for divorce, into a cottage (“Thoreau, who recommends sleeping in the box / railroad workers keep their tools in, / would have found this house commodious”). He ate his lamb chop and boiled his frozen vegetable and eventually found another woman of the proper sort “to give him a nudge.” Without overt comment but merely by cataloguing incident and detail, in sixteen pages of terse line, deft allusion, and memorable image we see a long line of tenants who fit “right in” with those in the Garden Club and Golf Club until, since there is “no accounting for tastes,” they have their “quarrel” or become “selective.”
In the third and title section of the book, Simpson manages to set off a few “rockets,” depicting once again the characters and situations that compose daily life in a modern suburb and pinning to the wall all those who evoke the “eleventh commandment: ‘Don't get caught.’” “Ethics,” as one character says, “are nice to have on a wall, in Latin, / but Latin won't meet a payroll.” After so vividly drawn but unpleasant a cast of characters, it is a relief, at first, to come upon the final group of “red-avoiding” poems. but too often in these pieces we are left with an image of a “balding middle-aged man, pedalling away,” growing smaller and disembodied.
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SOURCE: “Seeing and Believing,” in Encounter, Vol. LXVII, No. 4, November, 1986, pp. 54–63.
[In the following review, Mole offers a positive assessment of People Live Here.]
It is getting harder and harder to write a poem. That is, I can start one well enough—but how to finish.” Only a confident poet risks making a statement like that in the secret knowledge that he will get away with it and deserves to; knowledge also that as a direct witness to his commitment it is part of the greater risk of presuming to write poetry at all. In this case the poet is Louis Simpson, examining his craft in a marvellously candid working autobiography—Air with Armed Men, published in 1972 and long overdue for reissue. What he goes on to say is worth quoting at some length:
“I used to be able to begin and finish a poem. I found that the poem was directed by certain external forces towards a certain end. But one day I found that ideas were better expressed in prose. No, it was more than that. I found that I no longer wished to please.
The reader has certain stock responses to idea, and certain responses—not very strong, perhaps, but operative nevertheless—to metaphor, meter, and rhyme. A poem that satisfies his stock responses is ‘good’; a poem that does not is ‘bad.’ I find myself wanting to write bad poems—poems that do not depend on stock responses. I want to write poems that will not please. Recently I have been learning to write this new kind of poem. The most important change is in the content. …
Instead of statements which reassure the reader by their familiarity, or shock him by their strangeness—instead of opinions, there are only images and reverberations.
I can never finish these poems. I wrestle with them and leave off when I am exhausted. Frequently, all that remains is a handful of phrases.
The difficulty is that, to write this new kind of poem, which springs mainly from the subconscious, I must work not at technique, but at improving my character.”
The scope and outcome of this discovery, redirection of energies and experiment with the constituents of his character—the burden of memories, intuitions, and dream-bound responsibilities he brings with him as an American of Jamaican and Russian parentage—can now be clearly seen in his Selected Poems, 1949–83, chosen from all his books to date and placed in groups rather than a single chronology. In a “Note to the Reader,” speaking still as the discreet but determined director of attention, he announces: “… there is an opening section of ‘Songs and Lyrics'—in other sections the poems are centred around an idea. I believe that this arrangement shows the nature of my writing more clearly than has appeared up to now in separate books.”
It does. In each section there's a movement from well-wrought formalism, those external forces moving towards a certain end in strict, often ballad-based stanzas with their echoes of Yeats and the early Auden, into a wider, more inclusive and populated world of deceptively relaxed fictions where the imagery of dream is continuously merging with witty social observations. The shift is from the desk and its position of control, its single framed outlook on a narrow tradition which—as Simpson views it—has resulted in the poet sitting there, to the open road at the end of which “we come to ourselves.” To move out into the open, to enlarge the range and sympathies of one's poetry, is to find that “the land is within.” “Deep, deep in the interior / The temple of the God is hidden.”
As Simpson works away at this transformation, or release, the emphasis of poem after poem is on a celebration of the moment of setting out. He becomes his own imaginary traveller, and in “As a Man Walks,” for example, a visit to Australia serves to define all that is invigoratingly strange about his new sense of direction. It's a journey of the mind, an intuitive sense of trust in the adventure of what lies ahead:
As a man walks he creates the road he walks on. All of my life in America I must have been reeling out of myself This red dirt, gravel road. Three boys seated on motorcycles conferring …
A little further on, A beaten-up Holden parked off the road with two men inside passing the bottle. Dark-skinned … maybe they are aboriginal.
I might have been content to live In Belle Terre, among houses and lawns, but inside me are gum trees, and magpies, cackling and whistling, and a bush-roaming kangaroo.
People Live Here is the overall title of these Selected Poems, and increasingly Louis Simpson has striven to be in there among the people. As an epigraph to a section of his 1976 collection Searching for the Ox he quoted from Wordsworth, “I have wished to keep the reader in the company of flesh and blood.” He knows that as a close observer with that “nerve-tic irony” he must always be at a remove from the scenes he passes through, but he's engaged upon what he has called “The Adventure of the Letter I,” breaking down the self-absorbed identity of poet into fugitive fragments of experience and attempting to reconstitute them into something new and generously inclusive. He wants to create a Whitmanesque republic of the imagination in which he is both an invisible witness and the travelling representative of everything he can possibly get into a poem. The poet who could fuse lyric and argument in lines as powerful and beautiful as these from “The Goodnight”—
The lives of children are Dangerous to their parents With fire, water, air, And other accidents; And some, for a child's sake, Anticipating doom, Empty the world to make The world safe as a room
—decides they won't do for him any more. The tension in his work must cease to be set up by metre and rhyme. Instead, it must become the relationship between the poet and the voice of his ancestry in the process of becoming the Voice of America:
To their simple, affectionate questions he returned simple answers. For how could he explain what it meant to be a writer … a world that was entirely different, and yet it would include the sofa and the smell of chicken cooking.
It's that passion to include and to respond to the world's passion to be included that has made Louis Simpson the poet he is—“voices and shadows of desire / and the tears of things … Around us / Things want to be understood.” He's aware of the dangers of a romantic, hobo-ing sentimentality in this, and continually checks it. Sometimes it's fascinating to watch him mixing a limpid brew of simile and sententiousness, correcting himself and then making that correction the point of the poem;
The fallen snow gleamed in the dark like water. Everything is a flowing, you have only to flow with it.
If you did, you would live to regret it. After a while, passion would wear off and you would still be faced with life, the same old dull routine.
In fact, although he's finely tuned to “image and reverberation,” Simpson is addicted to a quotidian melancholy, and he gets many of his best effects by gathering a kind of numinous cloud around “the same old dull routine.” He fills a poem with people and objects, hints at the desolation lying always just beneath the commonplace, then dissolves it in a wistful evanescence—“The shadow of the word / flitting over the scene, / the street and motionless crowd.” His ironic urbanity is not always enough to allay the suspicion that the effects come a bit too easily at times.
What he has achieved is a distinctive cosmopolitan poésie de départ with an American accent, a carefully contrived conversational poetry which can be enjoyed at many levels—for the resonance of its dream-images, its engaging anecdotes, wry proverbial wisdom, and abundant delight in the patterns of inconsequence which make up the randomness of human behavior. It certainly does not rely on stock responses. It relishes the necessary, complicity agility of its readers. With its central metaphors of the unreeling road, the journey (“I am going into the night to find a world of my own”) and the poet surprised by unexpected, welcome shafts of sympathy (“Who lives in these dark houses? / I am suddenly aware / I might live here myself”), it is a poetry which lives in the imagination as a distinctive landscape of shifting perspectives and unfinished conversations, but not as firmly in the memory as those earlier “finished” poems based directly on Simpson's experience as a rifleman in the Second World War, his Jamaican childhood, and the shaping energies of metre and rhyme. In fact, that declarative last line of “Love, My Machine” (“I am going into the night to find a world of my own”) while it anticipates the direction his later work is to take, serves also as an echo (already fading) of the remarkable compassion and authority of “My Father in the Night Commanding No,” one of the finest poems written since the War and—for all his admirable openness to experiment and risk—representative of Simpson's truest gift.
That gift is for plain, heart-breaking candour and for conveying the helpless wisdom of a child's-eye-view through those very statements which he came to mistrust. Though a consistently fine poet who knows that “restlessness is a sign of intelligence,” his reputation is most likely to come to rest on lines like these:
And yet my father sits and reads in silence, My mother sheds a tear, the moon is still, And the dark wind Is murmuring that nothing ever happens.
Beyond his jurisdiction as I move Do I not prove him wrong? And yet, it's true They will not change There, on the stage of terror and of love.
The actors in that playhouse always sit In fixed positions—father, mother, child With painted eyes. How sad it is to be a little puppet!
Their heads are wooden. And you once pretended To understand them! Shake them as you will, They cannot speak. Do what you will, the comedy is ended.
Father, why did you work? Why did you weep, Mother? Was the story so important? “Listen” the wind Said to the children, and they fell asleep.
Anyone unmoved by these lines, as Randall Jarrell once wrote of a passage by Whitman, would boil his babies up for soap.
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SOURCE: A review of The Character of the Poet, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 289–90.
[In the following review, Pratt offers a positive assessment of The Character of the Poet.]
“I was born in Jamaica in the British West Indies of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father,” Louis Simpson writes [in The Character of the Poet], and from such a mixture of race and place he has made himself into an American poet—both an immigrant and an expatriate poet, since he tells us his first book of poems was published in Paris at his own expense, during a year when he was studying French to see if he could be influenced by French poetry. Apparently the experiment was successful, because he quotes a poem that he wrote about an American tourist in Paris; however, the point of the poem, as of many of the essays in the volume, is that contemporary poets are footloose cosmopolitans whose work lacks the substantiality of theme that made strongly rooted poets such as Wordsworth and Hardy and Frost great. “The slightest poem of Hardy's vibrates with the life that was in him,” says Simpson, and he argues that it is just this sturdy and humane character of the poet which is lacking in most of the verse being written today.
The diagnosis sounds sensible; what, then, is the remedy? Certainly it is not to be found in the fashionable confessional poets, who only demonstrate that “American poetry has been going round and round the self like a squirrel in a cage.” There must be something beyond the self important enough for the poet to express: “In order to write poetry one must believe in something,” but the question is, what? Simpson acknowledges that few poets still believe in divine inspiration, as classical poets did, or in a spiritual affinity with nature, which was the source of inspiration for romantic poets. Furthermore, “Poets are free men and women—they cannot serve an ideology,” and so all that is left as a source of genuine poetry in the present is “the community.” Because “only a small percentage of the U.S. population reads” (he estimates that the American audience for poetry is two or three thousand out of over two hundred million people) and because these readers do not form the sort of “limited, but very powerful, influential audience” that poets like Shakespeare and Wordsworth wrote for, it is not really a community the poet must write for but widely scattered individuals, many of whom are writers themselves. Simpson says, half jokingly, that what he seeks is “a kind of folk art for American intellectuals,” the kind of poetry which is best represented, in his view, by the work of William Carlos Williams.
Simpson's two essays on Williams are at the heart of the volume, for Simpson makes the high claim that “of all American poets who have written in this century he is the most influential.” He credits Williams with having shown “that poetry can exist in our own lives” by making poems out of everyday things, by writing in a rhythm as natural as speech, and by giving the effects of spontaneity and honesty to all that he wrote. Thus Williams succeeded in embodying the character of the American nation in his poetry, and although his audience remained small, because “in the United States poets have always been regarded as extraneous,” he nevertheless transformed the common life of his time into art. No doubt there is a peculiarly American strength of character reflected in Williams's verse, and though it is not as wholly original as Simpson makes it out to be, owing much to other American poets such as Whitman and Pound, his example does lend credence to Simpson's generally sound and commonsense reflections on the relatively diminished state of American poetry in the late twentieth century.
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SOURCE: “The Work of Louis Simpson,” in On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer, University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 245–57.
[In the following essay, originally published in three separate sections in 1958, 1960, and 1976, respectively, Bly praises the power and sensitivity of Simpson's verse, particularly in dealing with World War II, but cites shortcomings in his choice of traditional forms and attachment to certain quotidian subjects.]
[The three sections of the following essay, here presented collectively, were originally published separately in 1958, 1960, and 1976, respectively.]
Louis Simpson's poems are outstanding among those of the younger poets because of the experience that lies behind them. He has an advantage over other poets before he begins to write a poem because his experience seems strangely deeper: the poems suggest hopeless moods, profound voyages into water over his head, massive disappointments and failures. He is deeply aware, for instance, of living in one age and not in another. Everywhere in Louis Simpson's work there is the sense that an age of some sort has come to an end:
O the ash and the oak and willow tree And that's an end of the infantry!
Collect yourself. Observe, It's nearly day … Concrete and cactus are the real American tragedy. We should collect our souvenirs and leave.
Though for a turn or two we had a king … The naked wickedness of his designs Brought on Democracy, a steady thing.
No witnesses remain Of battles on the plain And the bright oar and the oar spray.
We remember that Whitman, whose theme was somewhat the same, namely the end of one age, and the coming of another, made the content and form say the same thing. When he spoke of a new age, his form was also new. But in Mr. Simpson's case, this is not true: the forms he uses are traditional. The question then is, why use forms of a previous age if, within the poems, you continually suggest that that age has come to an end? The content seems to say one thing, and the form another, and opposite things. The contrast is particularly noticeable, and effective, in Mr. Simpson's new ballad, “The Bird,” in the Autumn, 1957, Hudson Review. In this poem, a kind gentle German who always sings, “I wish I were a bird,” takes up duties at a concentration camp for Jews.
“You'll never be a beauty,” The doctor said, “You scamp! We'll give you special duty— A concentration camp.”
But Heinrich learned:
“Ich wünscht', ich wäre ein Vöglein,” Sang Heinrich, “I would fly …” They knew that when they heard him The next day they would die.
When the Russians arrive, and search for him, they find the Bird has flown the coop, and only a bird in a tree can be seen. The description of a modern German's vicious adventures written in a gay ballad meter emphasizes the viciousness and insanity of the whole thing, and suggests, more strongly than ever, that something has come to an end. Occasionally in Mr. Simpson's other poems this contrast works as well.
But we also remember Blackmur's comment on Robert Lowell, a very interesting comment to the effect that the content is hair-raisingly revolutionary, and the form fanatically conservative, so that there is a conflict between form and content within the poem, and a conflict that tends to be self-destructive. I feel that slightly in these poems also. In one sense, the form, by contrast, reinforces the content; but in another sense, the form doubts the poet, and everything he has to say, and continually tries to render it innocuous.
The people in his poems also interest me—John the Baptist, Antony, Mary Magdalene. Girls and women seem to take a larger part in his book than in many books of poems. Most of the poets of our generation are like Ulysses, tied to the mast to keep them from yielding too much to women, and they sail on to the Ithaca of their art, pure but somewhat stiff from being bound by ropes. Mr. Simpson is more at home in this world. He understands a man like Antony, who goes too deep. As Antony says to Cleopatra, when Caesar's armies near:
It's Too cold a morning To get out of bed.
(Goods News of Death and Other Poems)
His poetry has a wry and compassionate view of people, which does not exclude humor or tenderness. There is a magnificent poem in his first volume, Arrivistes (Fine Editions Press, New York, 1949), called “Song: ‘Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds of May.’” The second stanza reads:
She is sixteen sixteen and her young lust Is like a thorn hard thorn among the pink Of her soft nest. Upon this thorn she turns, for love's incessant sake.
Later he describes a woman with one line:
Noli me tangere was not her sign.
All through his work we are aware of two choices toward experience, and so of experience itself, deeper than these.
The third thing that interests me are his poems about the war. Surely “Carentan O Carentan” in The Arrivistes is the best poem written yet about World War II by any generation. It does not seem the poem of a spectator, but a participator. “Arm in Arm” and “Alain Alain” in that book are also extremely good, as well as “Memories of a Lost War” and the magnificent “The Ash and the Oak” in the later book. It is astonishing how aware one is whenever we read Louis Simpson of historical periods. The war described in his poems could never be any other war than the Second World War. It is not “war itself” but a specific battle, which in a mysterious way, seems already imagined in the long train of crusades, sieges, and battles over one thousand years, of which it is a part. As we read his poems, the events of the West appear, as if by Surrealist means, as a sort of mirage in our minds; we glimpse a battlefield here, a tower there, some crusaders, now a Roman legion, a fop of Louis XVI, now vast armies, now a man eating locust. In short, his subject matter is partially the history of the West.
It seems obvious that the most important event in Western History of the last three thousand years is the death of pagan religion and the acceptance of Christ, and all that implies. We are not surprised then to find that this is precisely the subject of the short play, “Good News of Death” at the end, which is the most brilliant single thing in the new book.
On stage, as you watch, the pagan religion dies, in the form of a sheep in which Orestes has taken his last habitation. The sheep, pursued, as he should be, by the Furies, expires on the stage; and all accept his death, and he is borne offstage.
Suddenly, in the next scene, Christ is mentioned, and the sheep, to everyone's astonishment, returns carrying his grave-clothes. He announces that after death, there was some singing, some talk, Christ was there, and he awoke. When the Furies become aware of this, they realize, of course, that they have been betrayed, and they know that the old order is over. Now for the first time in human history, the dead may awake. Death is conquered. As Peter says, “This is good news of death, if it is true.”
The meaning is conveyed entirely by these “images” and the delicacy of making Orestes a sheep, who, nevertheless, passes after death into the new order in which, of course, Christ is a Sacrificial Lamb, continues its suggestiveness, and cannot be praised enough. He also uses the images for humor, as when the resurrected sheep reports that “the wool was pulled from my eyes.” In the background are hurrying businessmen.
Strangely enough, this magnificence takes place in the midst of rather commonplace diction and very tired forms. The lines are mostly rather monotonous iambic pentameter. Again the specter appears of a war between content and form, with the form acting so as to render the content innocuous, or as a sort of protective camouflage to conceal exactly how revolutionary the content is.
This poet's strength is great love of humanity, elegance, openness to experience, great intelligence, and courage; but he should avoid his fault, which is a tendency in form to do well what has already been done. He should search for a form as fresh as his content.
Our intention is not only to publish essays on the work of some of the poets of the fifties and sixties, one essay in each issue, as we have already done with Louis Simpson, Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, and W. S. Merwin, but also to comment on the later work of these poets as it appears.
Mr. Simpson's new book, A Dream of Governors, is divided into five sections, one of which contains war poems. The longest of these is a narrative poem called “The Runner.” “The Runner” gives the impression of an experience of great depth, brought up into very awkward poetry. The effect is of an unfinished work. The poetic line is modeled roughly on the Shakespearean or Wordsworthian five-beat line. Such a line does not fit the experience with which the poem is concerned.
The iambic line is often said to be a valid line for poetry in English. This is true. Mr. Simpson has rejected, however, the usual content associated with that line—the hoary castles, the girls, the wan faces are after all valid content! Rejecting these, he has substituted his own original content—but strangely enough, he retains the old line. As a result “The Runner” seems only half-conceived.
Despite its awkwardness, the writing in this poem has great power. Judson Jerome, in a review in the Antioch Review, suggested that we are never far from hallucination in Mr. Simpson's poems—and it is true that his descriptions often have a hallucinatory power. I will quote a passage from “The Runner” which will perhaps show both its strength and its weaknesses. An American infantry company is on the front near Bastogne in 1944. It is winter. The Americans are retreating. There have been rumors all night that the company is being left to face the Germans alone. Suddenly near dawn, the German tanks appear.
At the foot of the slope The trees were shaking, parting. There emerged A cannon barrel with a muzzle-brake. It slid out like a snake's head, slowly swinging. It paused. A flash of light came from its head … … … … … … … … … … … … The tank was growing large. The cannon flashed. Machinegun tracers curved Toward it, and played sparkling on the steel. Still it came on, glittering in return From its machineguns. Then, a crashing flame Struck it, leaving a trail of smoke in air. The tank shuddered. It slewed broadside around. Inside the plates, as on an anvil, hammers Were laboring. It trembled with explosions, And smoke poured out of it.
The slope was still, Sprawling with hooded figures—and the rest Gone back into the trees. Then there began The sound of the wounded.
The writing is very strong, but its power is in the decision of the visual imagination, not in the rhythm or diction. It is as if one were sitting in a sunlit room with clouded windowpanes. The strength comes from the sun, but the light is dimmed. The rhythm reminding one of Wordsworth clouds the pane, and the diction, which is neither unusual nor inadequate, but more or less what one would expect, also dims the light. The poet is describing new experiences and inner sensations, for which there is no extensive precedent in English poetry, with a rhythm and diction developed in another century for totally different moods and events. Because the poem is divided against itself, a prosiness comes in. This division is a profound problem in American poetry: we have many new experiences and no real way to write about them. The older poetry of the sonnet, of the Prelude, is of very little help.
Embarking on a poem with such an intractable subject matter, a poet might decide not to do it at all—or to wait twenty years hoping he will have an appropriate line by then. Mr. Simpson chose to write it now, using whatever form seemed to him most appropriate. The poem fails, but this failure is worth many successes.
In Mr. Simpson's work generally one is surprised by the appearance of unpleasant public realities such as the Second World War, or the gas chambers, for instance. This is one reason I think so highly of A Dream of Governors; there is a great reluctance among poets recently to bring such subjects in poetry. Writers such as James Merrill, for example, would never think of it; his idea of poetry does not include long wars. The war or its concentration camps to not break the composure of W. D. Snodgrass's book, nor Robert Creeley's—and no sane man demands that they must. Still, to be able to hold in the mind these ghastly facts and poetry at the same time is a great achievement. I do not know another American writer who has attempted a serious poem on the Nazis, yet the Nazis are as clearly a part of our world as the old Italian campaigns were of Hemingway's, or the subways and bridges of Crane's.
In the fine poem called “The Bird,” a Nazi kills Jews mournfully to the tune of his favorite song, “I wish I were a little bird.” When the Russians liberate the camp, the Nazi is nowhere to be found. He has evidently turned into a bird, for the Russian colonel, writing his report, sees a small bird singing outside in a tree. I am very interested in these strange shifts of reality. In another poem, an American soldier dreams he is in Paris during the First World War. Looking up, he sees two old biplanes fighting, and realizes he is a French solider, and that some long-dead French solider fought through the Second World War in his uniform. Mr. Simpson's poetry at times is like a man who sits in a livingroom quietly talking, and gradually smoke begins to come out of his ears, and to gather over his head. This sudden shift from one kind of reality to another seems to me one of the major qualities of his poems.
I am also interested in the poetry about America. “America is old.” “We were the first to enter on the modern age.” “America begins antiquity.” Mr. Simpson treats America somewhat as the Russian writers treat Russia—they talk about their country, and give what ideas they have. Mr. Simpson offers the metaphor of “Pure space” for America—where there is nothing but an infinite freedom to look. Lacking any monuments of grief or suffering, the land remains wild or inhuman.
The country that Columbus thought he found Is called America. It looks unreal.
But man came:
And murdering, in a religious way, Brings Jesus to the Gulf of Mexico.
His poetry is in one sense the opposite of the poetry of Jiménez, who wanted his poems to be “all present and no history.” Mr. Simpson insists that the past be somehow in the poem.
The first poem in A Dream of Governors is a short history of the West from pastoral Greece to the present. The recent growth of the secular powers, such as America, greeted with such cries of joy from Hillyer, Ciardi, and the other poets of the Uplift, is described in this way:
Old Aristotle, having seen this pass, From where he studied in the giant's cave, Went in and shut his book and locked the brass, And lay down with a shudder in his grave.
The reviews of the book were strange. In the Saturday Review, Winfield Townley Scott has an incredibly stupid review of A Dream of Governors in which he dismisses it as light verse. On the contrary, Louis Simpson's poetry, unlike the optimistic verse of the forties, has a darkness and a suffering, without any schemes to avoid them.
In the first article on Mr. Simpson's work, in the Fifties, no. 1, I criticized Mr. Simpson for disharmony between form and content. He sometimes gives the effect of being simply lazy, and choosing any form that will do, just as people going to the Front commandeer any old car. At other times, he gives the effect of tremendous vigor and strength, pushing a subject to its limits. In his tragic feeling he is alone in his generation.
Louis Simpson has a considerable gift for the image with unconscious ingredients, “the drugstore glows softly, like a sleeping body.” In Searching for the Ox, he lets that gift lie. He's tired of that. He's going to let others do it; there are lots of imitators paddling on the waters of the unconscious in small kayaks. He's gone off on a tack this time, alone, and I'll try to describe that tack, as I understand it from this book.
Couldn't we say that images, when used by a genius, make up a kind of living face of the unknown? We are quietly watching that face as we read a poem; all at once the face opens an eye unexpectedly, and we shudder … for somewhere inside, our feelings respond to that. An eye in us opens. So a group of images can convey from one person to another the expression on the face of the unconscious as it turns.
How many other faces do we know for the unconscious? Well, the Sufis use funny stories as a face, and they work. By “work,” I mean they bypass the blocks of the overcivilized mind and penetrate to our living intelligence instantly. Music is a sort of mask or face … sometimes so well fitted that we weep hearing it, probably at the same places the composer wept. The occult theories of alchemy make a face. And there is another face few people think of—the ordinary details of daily life. I mean the details that actually happen! Simpson decided to stake his book on these. After all, if the unconscious is truly powerful, why shouldn't its secret face be utterly visible in the banal details of what happened? Do we think the unconscious is so weak it can only influence the minds of Surrealist poets? It must also influence the choice of records a drunk puts on just before he falls asleep; it must influence the sounds you hear after coming back from a date with a woman attached to her parents; it must influence what the movers do when they come to cart away furniture from a house after a divorce. (In the last instance, Simpson says, the movers tore up the poster of Adlai Stevenson and burned it in the fireplace, put African drums on the stereo and went stomping around.)
Every detail in the poem “Baruch” is ordinary. I think “Baruch” is a masterpiece, so I'll concentrate on it as an example of the best poems in the book. One of the greatest qualities human beings have is longing—longing for spiritual labor. “He wishes to study the Torah.” In the world of consciousness, a division so many humans have experienced is the conflict between the longing spirit and the banal details of working for a living, raising children, talking each day with a wife or a husband. “He wishes to study the Torah / But he has a wife and family.” Apparently the unconscious wants human beings to experience more of the unknown, whether it is the undiscovered ocean and its terrors—as in Melville—or the weirdness of the edges of the mind-area, as in parapsychology. But for such discovery we need training, or the unknown can kill us.
All of this is said in the first section of “Baruch.” Baruch could not give in to his longing to study the Torah because he owned a dress-hat factory. One night it burns down. That detail is right—as Melville and Hawthorne would say. An event in the physical world hides behind it a spiritual truth, namely, between heavy earth details and the intensity of spirit-air lies fire, the only way to move from one to the other. So, when fire takes his business, relieved, Baruch gives himself to the Word:
And he did from that day on, reading Rashi and Maimonides. He was halfway over the Four Mountains when one day, in the midst of his studying, Lev Baruch fell sick and died. For in Israel it is also written, “Prophecy is too great a thing for Baruch.”
In part 2 of “Baruch,” Simpson goes over the ground again of the conflict between logos longing and this world, showing how it can influence a woman's life. Cousin Deborah had read too much. Literature was her ghostly lover, she was engaged to Pushkin, the intellect was her ghostly husband. What chance did a man have competing with that?
On her wedding day she wept, and at night when they locked her in she kicked and beat on the door. She screamed. So much for the wedding! As soon as it was daylight, Brodsky— that was his name—drove back to Kiev like a man pursued, with his horses.
What is left to say in part 3? Well, Simpson could talk about Americans. He does:
Even here in this rich country Scripture enters and sits down and lives with us like a relative. Taking the best chair in the house …
He mentions that those who love literature often live among frayed carpets, walls with cracks in them. Then he restates the conflict again, brilliantly. This time we are on a train. Life on a train is banal. The wonderful banality of life that is so appealing, and makes such a genuine contrast to learning, is represented by a smoker car, with four or five men playing poker, happily, late at night. After the card playing, the male intelligence is alone, watching prairie lights; and the pale face from the unconscious appears, floating above the meadows and trees, reminding the man the love of the Torah is immortal. “He wishes to study the Torah.” What has living in another country got to do with it? The love of learning never dies.
We notice there are no wild images. Every detail is tied into this stolid, hopelessly banal world, and yet these “flat” details make up a true and living mask for the face of the unconscious. The unconscious gives us its haunting look, which means, “Oh, God, are you going to be loyal to Ramon Lull's book or to your family?” And we see that look. The eyes alive, looking at us.
What can we say about that? I have to say, terrific. What else can I say? In art, I want to see the “unknown” looking at me. I have a great thirst for that. I drink it in Conrad, in Chekhov, in The Sorrows of Young Werther, in Moby Dick, in Russel Edson, in some Persian paintings, in a hundred works of art and psychological speculation. I don't have time to think, “It's better than so and so and worse than the generation of Pound.” If a man or a woman in art slowly creates a face we do not expect, we know that if we look at it closely, we will see the face of the unknown looking back. The face of the unknown is capable of many expressions, some that are so ecstatic we close our eyes, others that make the chest thump, as when an ant looks at us, but I am learning to judge poetry by how many looks I get in a book. If I get one or two, I am grateful for years and keep the book near me.
My words are a clumsy description of Louis Simpson's venture in this book. The advantages are clear: the poem is rooted well in this world, and by leaving the image, it adapts itself to the narrative; by leaving the private realm, it opens itself to other characters besides the poet.
What are the disadvantages of it? Most of us are asleep, having absorbed some sleepiness from tables and chairs and stoplights. By sticking to our details, you are liable to describe people who are asleep. Secondly, objects get thick. We know the unconscious has elements in it that are eternal. When the poet concentrates on banal details, these details seem to take on something of the eternal. We get the sense that things are permanent. It seems as if things could not be otherwise than they are. Louis Simpson apparently has taken on this conviction. I'll quote his poem about Hannibal in its entirety:
At times I am visited by a donkey who was once the great solider Hannibal.
The reason he didn't take Rome, he says, was a fear of success.
Now that he has been psychoanalyzed he would, he is confident, rise to the occasion.
But then he wouldn't be Hannibal. People would say, “It's a donkey.”
So, once more, Hannibal has decided … Moreover, if he succeeded it wouldn't be Rome.
The conclusion of the poem seems to be that the substructure of events is impenetrable to unconscious or conscious will. If Hannibal had not turned back, he wouldn't be Hannibal. So, in this brave attempt to give the hard objects of the world attention, he gives them too much attention, and the inner transformative energies are lost sight of. We then experience the poem as circular and suffocating, in much the same way daily life is experienced as circular and suffocating. The book has a number of poems with the last mood. Banal details seem to block every way out.
And yet, a number of poems, among them, “The Stevenson Poster,” “The Middle-Aged Man,” “The Sanctuaries,” and “The Tree Seat” are rich and brilliant. They have the fragrance of the unknown in them, achieved by means of this difficult and unusual discipline.
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SOURCE: “Stalking the Barbaric Yawp,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 804–15.
[In the following excerpt, Wakoski addresses Simpson's detached intelligence and effort to embrace common American experience, as reflected in Collected Poems.]
The Modernists took on the twentieth century with bravery and gusto and (in Stevens’ word) nobility. … The source of their brave nobility was … the conviction shared by the Imagists and Symbolistes alike that their technical mastery of the medium would summon and demonstrate a power of imagination adequate to the task of wringing order out of the confusion around them. …
The Postmodernists of the second half of this century … have been unable and unwilling to make such empowering claims for the imagination despite ever graver threats of nuclear war and institutionalized oppression and psychological instability. But it seems to me too easy to conclude censoriously that the Modernists’ failure to save the world from catastrophe by art proves the presumptuousness of their ambitions and ideals. … Their abiding belief in the moral and psychological function of art, a conviction that the Romantics passed on and the Postmodernists find more and more dubious, challenged and sustained them through their own doubts and self-doubts, and their efforts to substantiate that belief as a hope for human survival made for the splendor of the coherence, however idiosyncratic and flawed, that they wrought against daunting odds.
—Albert Gelpi, A Coherent Splendor
In concluding his study of American poetry from 1910 to 1950, Gelpi points to a kind of irony embedded in the term “Postmodernists”—not an evolution from, but a denial of, the poetics of Williams, Pound, Stevens, Jeffers, and others. However, the five poets under review all demonstrate a kind of brilliant continuation of Modernist belief in the imagination “as a hope for human survival.” As different as these poets are from each other, they all have a vision of survival which involves the use of the imagination rather than a retreat into the linguistic abstraction or aesthetic fragmentation we commonly associate with Postmodernist writing. I would not like to argue that any of these poets is old-fashioned, nor that any one of them is not a part of the mainstream of American poetry, the Whitman tradition. What I would like to propose is an argument that the neo-Modernism they demonstrate in their poems is perhaps a purer evolution, and that it presents a wider set of possibilities resulting from Williams’ search for a new measure, or Stevens’ “idea of order” or Pound's “tale of the tribe,” than we might find in so-called Postmodernist poets.
Each poet demonstrates a different aspect of the Whitman heritage: Lawrence Ferlinghetti the unique, energetic “barbaric yawp” and Whitman's message of human love; Thomas McGrath the big political and cultural vision of people working together and respecting all work; W. S. Merwin the mysterious transcendental voice which whispers in “Song of Myself” that “to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier”; John Ciardi the elegiac voice of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed”; and Louis Simpson, despite his British voice and classical irony, a genuine democratic interest in the true common man of America, the middle-class dwellers of our suburbs.
It has taken Simpson the longest to find and level his voice. His explorations have been gloriously interesting, as this hefty volume of his Collected Poems reveals. Perhaps the very evolution of his language from his formal British (West Indies) Colonial voice is a kind of American metaphor for the immigrant who first distrusts, then worships his new culture. Until the sixties, Simpson sounded like a British poet. Crisp with Pope's invective, angelically lyrical at times, always somewhat cool and detached from the world he described. But with At the End of the Open Road (1963) and perhaps in conjunction with his brief but very important move to California, his voice began to awaken, quicken. This collection contains two poems dedicated to Whitman. One of them, “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” has long been regarded as Simpson's breakthrough poem. Though he assumes his usual ironic voice to chastise Whitman for lying about America's high idealism, he also begins to accept his own identification with the imperfect. Whitman replies,
did I not warn you that it was Myself I advertised? Were my words not sufficiently plain?
Indeed, for anyone educated as Simpson obviously has been, the words had not been sufficiently plain. Whitman's posture and myth must have sounded like outrageous egotism. Or fraud. But Simpson is American in spite of his Colonial origins and his slightly accented speech, and he has grappled over the years with the paradox of Whitman's message. How can we be the best and the least at the same time? His fine mind should have prepared him for this metaphysics, but hearing it in such crude terms was still unacceptable. It has taken him a long time to embrace that American bill of rights. But finally in his most recent collection, The Best Hour of the Night (1983), he is (triumphantly) unable to hold himself above the world any longer or separate himself from the everyday people of the trains and suburbs which he satirizes so well.
There has always been a kind of supercilious compassion in Simpson's most powerful work. His poem from the fifties about the Nazi prison-camp guard, “The Bird,” crackles with the irony of poetry and brutality, but there is always the feeling that, while Simpson intellectually knows “there but for the grace of God go I,” he can't really accept his commonness or that triviality or human failure could be his own. In recent poems, however, Simpson makes it obvious that he lives the life of an average man:
“The eleventh commandment,” he says, “is, ‘Don't get caught.’”
(“The Eleventh Commandment”)
“Am I hurting you?” says Eubie. I shake my head, no, for I've learned not to show pain.
And while he may see the irony of his common life in contrast with his still-heroic ideals, he has finally understood what Whitman meant when he extolled himself. This is all you/he/we have; let us celebrate it, sing it, with as much love as we can. For Simpson, who feels such disdain for others’ foibles, there cannot be much self-love, either. But in a fine poem from The Best Hour of the Night he admits, “Without fiction, life would be hell,” and he concludes the poem, “Reflections in a Spa” (looking at himself in the mirror and pedaling his exercise bike), this way: “Strange, the back of one's own head / and body growing small.” Finally, the smallest and the greatest come together. In perspective, Simpson acknowledges Whitman's “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” This seems hard for Simpson to admit; perhaps only his Modernist supreme belief in the imagination as a tool of survival empowers him.
In “Physical Universe,” he bemusedly understands the marriage between the trivial and the cosmic:
He said to her, “Do you agree with Darwin that people and monkeys have a common ancestor? Or should we stick to the Bible?”
She said, “Did you take out the garbage?”
“Yes,” he said, for the second time. Then thought about it. Her answer had something in it of the sublime.
In this later work, Simpson has become a poet who can no longer separate himself from common plights. He wants the sublime, but gets talk of garbage. In such a leap he allows Whitman's message to help him redefine, and accept:
Wordsworth said that the passions of people who live in the country are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. In the suburbs they are incorporated with the things you see from the train …
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SOURCE: “A Sky Lit with Artillery: The Poems of Louis Simpson,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 158–64.
[In the following review, McDowell offers a positive assessment of Simpson's Collected Poems and praises Simpson's contribution to American poetry.]
Of the eight individual and two selected volumes that Louis Simpson has written and published since 1949, four are definitive books in the development of twentieth-century American poetry. They include The Arrivistes: Poems, 1940–1949, At the End of the Open Road (1963), Searching for the Ox (1976), and The Best Hour of the Night (1983). Though all ten volumes, which are handsomely represented in the new book [Collected Poems], contain individual poems of lasting value, these four most command our retrospective attention. They do so because their poems introduce and perfect Simpson's unique characteristics in manipulating form and content, characteristics that poets who came after him have had to contend with and learn from in the struggle to carve out their own styles. There is no simpler proof of a poet's importance to his literature than his work becoming one standard by which all future efforts are measured.
The poetic forms of Simpson's first book, The Arrivistes, and the two collections that followed it, Good News of Death and Other Poems (1955) and A Dream of Governors (1959), were strictly traditional; their content was haunted by the Second World War. As a member of the 101st Airborne Division, Simpson had suffered and endured firsthand the dehumanizing conflict and survived to bear witness to it. “Arm in Arm,” “Resistance,” and “Carentan O Carentan” from the first book, “Memories of a Lost War,” “The Battle,” “The Runner,” and others from the two books that followed provide us with the most powerful poems about war ever written by an American:
Most clearly of that battle I remember The tiredness in eyes, how hands looked thin Around a cigarette, and the bright ember Would pulse with all the life there was within.
Criticized by Robert Bly and other early reviewers for employing traditional forms to express grim modern subjects (criticism that given today's resurgence of form sounds naive), Simpson was aware of something the critics missed. Traditional forms proved essential to the true representation of such horror. The forms themselves, impeccably executed, created a tense and fragile vessel for the content, establishing the sense of irony and the rush of discovery that comes of form incessantly scratching against content. These poems enable us to face our own capacity for suffering. They restore our humanity by coherently giving us the incoherent voice of the masses gone mad, the voice of wholesale killing and destruction.
Simpson's first book, and the two that followed, made up the definitive statement in poetry about a terrible period in our history. His second seminal volume, At the End of the Open Road, seems now more than ever the poetry volume of the sixties.
Most obvious to its reader then was the poet's departure from traditional form. Reflecting the then current preoccupation with the image, Simpson's relaxed and suggestive free verse line still retained the echo of a formal cadence. What Thom Gunn called Simpson's “mastery over the single line” was actually his command of phrasing. It set him apart from the other popular imagist poets. Richard Howard noted this when he wrote that Simpson “had achieved a cadence when he merely spoke, barely raising his voice above the unquestioned prose of the quotidian.”
“The secret,” Athridat tells young Peter in the title poem of Simpson's first book, “is to overhear the world … enough to tell a story.” Though nearly every poet claims to be sensitive to the poetry in the way we speak, Simpson has heard and reproduced that poetry more consistently than anyone else. He has been so successful at it that the free verse poems from At the End of the Open Road on through his body of work often possess more formal virtues than many contemporary poems in traditional forms.
Complementing this new direction in the use of form was a timely expansion of place, subject, and point of view. The poet's preoccupation with the aftershocks of global war affected his intense encounter with his European family history and his adopted country's headlong rush to subjugate its natural environment. In an earlier poem the music of Orpheus “grieves the moon” and “tells the water of his loss.” In the poem that begins At the End of the Open Road, “In California,” “The great cloud-wagons move / outward still, dreaming of a Pacific.” The profound shift here is away from Orpheus interacting with the natural world to nameless, faceless wanderers only dreaming of it. In poem after poem of this fourth book Simpson's characters represent us, the compromised modern tribe, wholly American, full of hope but just waking to the hard news that our national promise has been played out.
This is a sad message, and Simpson can be a sinister spokesman. The tone, however, generally rises above bitterness, finding balance in tenderness, irony, and grim humor. On the larger scale of the book itself, we observe the poet's discovery of the perfect balance between the public and private springs of poetry. We see a poet joining the commons exterior reality of war and the settlement and development of the North American continent gone wild with the grainy interior psychology of family history and the process of coming to terms with one's self.
Given the assured and flawless expression of so many essential discoveries in these poems, it is not hard to conclude that no other book of poetry spoke so clearly for its time while leading the way to concerns that would dominate the ensuing decades.
A transitional stop on Simpson's journey can be observed in his 1971 book, Adventures of the Letter I. Here the poet's Russian ancestry moves to center stage. This long look at personal origins is in sympathy with many poet’ return to their own past. Although Simpson is more convincing than most, the great value of these poems can be best appreciated when taking into account the book that followed this one five years later. For by setting poems in Russia and dealing with characters whose experiences were remote from his own, Simpson was perfecting his restraint, the emotional yet passionate distance that dramatic poetry requires. With the specter of family history all about them, these poems also forced him to look more deeply into himself.
Searching for the Ox (1976) proves that Simpson learned those lessons well. I could argue that all seventeen poems reprinted from the original book are masterpieces, and many are the kind of poem we had not seen before. We had met their precursors in earlier poems by Louis Simpson, of course, but here the dramatic element, in concert with the poet's native lyric gift, was heightened and elongated as never before. In poems like “Venus in the Tropics,” “Dinner at the Sea-View Inn,” and “The Psyche of Riverside Drive,” painful personal experience opens up to become a collective emotional tableau:
She always wore gloves and a broad hat. To protect her complexion, She told us. She was extremely sensitive. All redheaded people were.
“She's a redhead, like Clara Bow,” our father wrote in his letter.
“The Red Death,” said my grandmother twenty years later, on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. We were talking about my father. She thought he must have been ill— not in his right mind—to marry a typist and leave her practically everything.
How else to explain it, such an intelligent man?
“Venus in the Tropics”
The she in this excerpt from the poem's second part is the narrator's stepmother. Earlier in the poem, we observe that her relationship with her stepson is strained, and in the passage above we find that the father's natural family will be disinherited for her sake. Given this scenario, we would expect the conventional bitter poem of the wronged, sensitive narrator. But his presentation of the scene and its characters is remarkably expansive and even. We are made to understand the stepmother's difficult position, both in the family and as an outsider to its environment through the reference to her complexion; the father comparing her to the movie actress Clara Bow makes more tangible his attraction for this “typist”; we grasp the grandmother's bitterness coupled with the lovely example of her wistful sympathy as she ascribes the father's poor judgement to illness; the section ending with the question, with the narrator maintaining silence, also suggests the narrator's point of view. By giving us the scene in this way, the narrator resists the temptation to rise above the situation by pronouncing judgement on its actors. His silence suggests his understated compassion for the world as it is.
As Simpson's humanity and dramatic grandeur assume new dimensions, Searching for the Ox also brings into sharp focus another key strength this poet had been developing all along. No less than nine of these poems are sequences. This device, which Simpson has liberally used since his first book, has been popular with many American poets. Usually, the sequence makes a bridge between a traditional narrative and a more personal meditation. Increasingly influenced by the cinematic montage's sense of fractured reality, the sequence includes more material than a short poem. Extending the poem's length, it also releases the material from the need to adhere to a conventional pattern of time passing.
Unfortunately, most poets who practice the sequence regard its sections as independent platforms on which they may indulge tedious self-probing exercises. Too often meditation and wandering prose overwhelm the whole. In Simpson's sequences, the assembled snapshots consist of dramatic situations in which personal revelations are implied, not baldly stated. When Simpson's narrator does make an assertion, it grows naturally out of the action contained in the scene.
A major element of the scene's action is the language of the poem, and Simpson's phrasing is usually appropriate for each individual scene. To read carefully a series of his lines in these poems is to become convinced that they could not be worded, broken, or grouped in any other way. This is true of Simpson's poems in general, but it is especially appreciated in the sequence where the poet must keep in mind—and so few do—that individual segments must be connected by form and content. As Simpson's lines negotiate the tightrope between verse and prose, the dramatic tension that results enriches the dramatic sweep of the complete poem. Simpson knows that to miss the drama of human transactions is to drain them of humanity itself. By aggressively avoiding this common error, he has defined our dramatic lyric sequence.
These great gains in form and content were carried over into Caviare at the Funeral (1980) and the new poems of People Live Here: Selected Poems, 1949–1983 (1983). But a companion publication to the latter title, The Best Hour of the Night (1983), contained Simpson's fourth ground-breaking group of poems.
Appearing early in the decade that has seen narrative restore to poetry subjects and vitality, The Best Hour of the Night represents the finest dramatic narratives of the American middle class yet written. In language and in line the poems are similar to Simpson's practice since Searching for the Ox, but the tone and point of view are ever more expansive and compassionate. Significantly, the narrator now often plays a more active part in the scene, though he does so without becoming the dominant actor. For this reason he is more believable than the narrators of most of Simpson's peers and the younger poets working in narrative.
The best example occurs in the long centerpiece, “The Previous Tenant,” which is arguably Simpson's finest poem. The first-person narrator moves into a cottage in an upscale community ironically called Point Mercy. Over the course of a snowy winter, through his landlord's accounts, gossip, and a packet of letters he finds “Behind the Perry Masons and Agatha Christies,” he pieces together the arrival and fall of his predecessor, a surgeon at Mercy Hospital. As he himself labors to adjust to the community, the narrator goes over the details of the surgeon's attempts to fit in by speaking at village meetings and joining the Yacht Club, the Golf Club, the Garden Club. He thinks of the surgeon's affair with the wife of a patient, the beating her brothers gave him, his wife filing for divorce, the staid community's unforgiving reaction to the scandal. Then he imagines the nights the surgeon must have spent in the cottage, not unlike the nights he now spends there himself. In time he comes to see through the community's shallow cheerfulness masking racial prejudice and intolerance, and this leads him to comment brazenly at a luncheon that the surgeon and his lover “are better than the rest of us.” In the end he sympathizes with the poem's original outcasts.
This maturing, ambitious personal journey occurs repeatedly in the poems of this book, creating a world most of us know but may not have looked at as deeply as we should. With a new, profound humility, Simpson is able to range widely from one life to another, dismissing no character, giving each his due.
A final example should support this point. In “How to Live on Long Island,” Jim sits down to pay his bills. As he writes out checks and seals envelopes, he thinks of families like his with “husbands writing checks, / wives studying fund-raising,” concluding that they remind him of “fireflies / that shine for a night and die.” He thinks of how nothing, “Not even stones” of contemporary American life will survive. Then the poet executes one of the great transitions in our poetry:
Jim has a hobby: fishing. Last year he flew to Alaska. Cold the salmon stream, dark the Douglas firs, and the pure stars are cold.
In one line the content of the poem has expanded, perfectly integrating the incongruous setting of Jim's hobby in the next three stanzas with his everyday life, which we have so thoroughly entered in the preceding six. The reliance on a more traditional, rhetorical cadence in the last three lines of the stanza quoted above evokes the exotic landscape of Alaska and the freedom of the fishing trip. We hear about Jim's success on one trip in particular, but the narrator suddenly concludes that “They do a lot of drinking in Alaska.” They do so because they cannot stand to live there, just as Jim “cannot stand Long Island / without flying to Alaska.” So we endlessly circle one another, much as our planet circles the sun. We need one another, in similar ways, too. Simpson's poems show us how that need is acted out, discouraged, and satisfied. …
Finally, my comments on these two books [Simpson's Collected Poems and On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer] provide an appropriate occasion to hazard an opinion about Louis Simpson's ultimate contribution to American poetry. It is clear to me that he means more to our literature than any of the writers of the Lowell-Berryman generation; in a body of work (though perhaps not in one individual poem), he shows a wider range of experience and more consistent, less ambiguous morality than Eliot; in creating a distinctly American idiom he often surpasses Dr. Williams. The great American poets, both living and dead, must count him as one of their company.
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SOURCE: A review of Selected Prose, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1990, p. 316.
[In the following review, Brown offers a positive assessment of Simpson's Selected Prose.]
Louis Simpson's Selected Prose is a companion volume to his recent Collected Poems (1988). Although he has long been established as an important American poet of his generation, born in the same year (1923) as James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, and several others, he came to the States from a somewhat exotic milieu in Jamaica. His father was a lawyer of Scottish descent; his mother was born in Russia. He immediately sets these facts before the reader in his foreword to the new volume, a miscellany of letters, memoirs, journal entries, and literary essays and reviews, which compose a sort of enveloping action for his poems. Since he has increasingly brought the autobiographical element into his verse, the prose pieces, fragmentary though some of them are, prove useful in assessing Simpson's qualities as a poet. The language of his prose always resembles the language of his poems—what one might call the middle style—and indeed he sometimes prints random prose excerpts that he has turned into poems.
Simpson represents the voice of common sense; he is suspicious of much contemporary critical theory, just as he is contemptuous of such terms as counterproductive, vulnerable, and the cutting edge that turn up much too frequently in contemporary discourse. His attitude concerning language often resembles George Orwell's. It is thus rather interesting to find him disappointed with a writer like Trollope, who represents “common sense” for many readers. In the end his great writers are visionaries, and perhaps his finest critical performance is an essay on poetic theory in Wordsworth and Proust. Here he traces a fascinating connection between The Prelude and A la recherche by way of Ruskin, whom at one point Proust translated into French. This essay gives Simpson the occasion to make a defense of poetry that is truly eloquent.
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SOURCE: A review of In the Room We Share, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 1, Winter, 1991, p. 117.
[In the following review, Brown offers a positive assessment of In the Room We Share.]
Louis Simpson has become one of the most prolific poets on the American scene. Only two years after his substantial Collected Poems (1988) he brings out In the Room We Share, a volume of forty-nine new poems that also includes a prose memoir of his mother in Italy during the summer of 1988. Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and others have included prose pieces in books of verse, so there is ample precedent for such a varied offering.
In a sense Simpson's mother has provided the enveloping action for his life as well as a subject for his poetry. Born in Russia, she made her way to the New World and eventually had a great success in selling cosmetics for Helena Rubenstein, who had preceded her in this trade by many years. Simpson's affectionate account of her old age with her Italian husband lies back of several of the poems in this collection. Her childhood memories, often told to her son in later years, give him access to an imagined Russia that complicates his vision of the United States. He was born in Jamaica and is also an immigrant, albeit very much an American poet.
Simpson long ago evolved a style, remarkable in its lack of artifice, that is influenced to some extent by William Carlos Williams. He has a better ear than Williams, however; he seems to move from one tone of voice to another with ease. Also, the best of his poems are very well organized; they tend to be miniature dramas. A memorable example is “The Flaubert Pavilion,” which concerns the poet's visit to Croisset and his expectations about Flaubert as they are subjected to the reality of present-day industrial France. (The novelist's house has given way to a paper factory.) The reader who cherishes Flaubert will find much to ponder in this beautiful quest poem.
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SOURCE: “Mumbling and Clanging,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 10, 1991, p. 22.
[In the following excerpt, Mackinnon offers an unfavorable assessment of In the Room We Share.]
Louis Simpson's new book [In the Room We Share] contains forty-nine poems and a prose journal about a visit to his ailing mother in Italy. In the course of the latter, Simpson reads Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground. It “isn't a story, it reads like philosophy. I seem to recall that Saul Bellow was much taken with it at one time,” he observes. The tired slackness masks a barb, but that may not be intended: the difficulty of telling is not earned by the putative point, though, which is trivial. Too often in this volume, a similar failure to judge the distances between writer, subject and reader damages the work.
For instance, in “A Bramble Bush,” the poet sets out after a straying dog. Catching her, he cannot move on, “caught in brambles.” He imagines dying there, holding the dog who would run away if put down. One spring, people will see, “tangled in thorns, the skeleton of a man / still holding the skeleton of a dog.” The poem jumps back to its original time, when “There was a roll of thunder. / But this was not my kind of story” and the poet backed out of his predicament. The point of the story seems to be that it generates and judges a fiction, but when the speaker is first caught in the brambles he “stood there, feeling the irony.” “Feeling the irony” shouldn't be necessary, and that it is is a confession of poetic weakness.
“What is our nation?” Simpson asks in “Silence,” “The place where we were born / or the one that permits us to live?” This question arises naturally from his disturbed cosmopolitan upbringing, but the best poems in this book are much lower in key, like “Riverside Drive,” which ends
I am thinking of Rilke and “Who if I cried would hear me among the angelic orders?”
It seems that we are here to say names like “Spry” and “Riverside Drive” … to carry the names of places and things with us, into the night
glimmering with stars and constellations.
This muted transcendence goes as far as any of the poems this negligible book by a good poet offers. In In the Room We Share understatement has dwindled into mumbling.
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SOURCE: “Putting Down Smoke,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 30, 1995, p. 25.
[In the following review, Burt offers a negative assessment of Ships Going into the Blue.]
Like the fifty-odd other books in the University of Michigan's Poets on Poetry series, Louis Simpson's Ships Going into the Blue is a miscellany of its author's prose: one-paragraph fragments, memoirs, travel writing, book reviews, speeches, and semi-academic essays. Many of Simpson's own poems are anecdotes or narratives in as concrete and unadorned a language as he can manage. His pronouncements on poetry-in-general sound like this:
Poetry returns us to seeing and hearing. What we see and hear may not be pretty but it's true. This is, in the words of a poet, “where all the ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” … The carpenter who comes to fix the roof, the man who fills your gas-tank, is not likely to be confused by ideas. But we, the so-called educators, receive ideas from every direction and are in danger of not knowing what to believe. This is where poetry comes in: it brings us back to our perceptions and sense of the real.
Besides condescending to gas station attendants, this mission-statement ignores the confusing abstractions—from the Immaculate Conception to the free market—which have influenced everybody's behaviour, often without our realising it. But Simpson has no time for abstractions, and very little for argument; his many dismissive asides aimed at Theory, and at Creative Writing Workshops, have the feel of a car idling—smoke emerges, there's a growling sound, but nothing is moving, and no new ground is covered.
Simpson's essays on individual poets are refreshingly candid, and maddeningly impercipient: he can't stand (or understand) Mark Strand or Ashbery, and is hostile to Auden, whom he condemns as “camp.” A failure to do his homework, to find out what others have said before him, or to ask what the people who disagree with him could possibly have been thinking and why, mars almost every one of his longer pieces. He explicates Heaney's “Station Island” without consulting Field Work, and thus mistakes Heaney's cousin Colum McCartney for the slain shopkeeper from earlier in the poem. An essay on Whitman's “strategies of sex” introduces a familiar thesis (straight nineteenth-century readers would not have known that Whitman was homosexual), as if it were entirely novel.
The autobiographical prose mixes fun facts with patronizing generalities: “in Ireland present and past are inseparable. To walk on a road in Ireland or sit by the water is to be conscious of the past. Their ever-present consciousness of the past makes for poetry …” If this is what Simpson's own ideas are like, no wonder he wants to banish them from poems. James Wright deserves the encomium Simpson gives him, and Les Murray gets a welcome hearing; but most of this book is for people who love Simpson's poems so much that they want to own every scrap of his prose, or else for future sociologists of literature, who will want to know what a fairly successful twentieth-century poet of average intelligence thought of his contemporaries, and what his contemporaries thought of him.
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SOURCE: A review of Ships Going into the Blue, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 3, Summer, 1995, p. 594.
[In the following review, Pratt offers a mixed assessment of Ships Going into the Blue, finding the collection “uneven, sometimes whimsical, but often provocative.”]
In an earlier book, The Character of the Poet, Louis Simpson contended that poetry suffers when poets lack character; in Ships Going into the Blue he contends that for art to be great, “it must proceed from a man or woman who is great.” So, against those who deplore the lack of readers for poetry, he soundly advises that “the way to overcome the present neglect of poetry is to write great poems.”
Such a demand will seem unreasonable to the egalitarians of today, who want poets and poetry to be as common as everything else; but they are, as Simpson says, either literary theorists who don't care about literature, or the kind of people who teach creative-writing courses, for “A teacher of creative writing is expected to encourage students—a very different thing from giving honest criticism.” Here for a change is honest criticism from a recognized poet who has often taught creative writing, and who deplores the fact that “many people would like to be writers and will pay good money to be told that they are.”
Louis Simpson does not claim to be a great poet himself, but his honesty tells him that to be a poet at all, he must read great poetry, the subject of the best essays in his collection. About Shakespeare, for example, Simpson responds as a Jew to Shylock, admitting that there is anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice but maintaining that the play is nevertheless “unexhausted” and the character of Shylock “commanding and impenetrable.” He praises worthy, unpopular American poets like Robinson Jeffers and Laura Riding, one for the grandeur of his California coast with its hawks and vultures “and other creatures of the wild,” and the other for writing poems “in the language of her inmost thought,” with “sparseness of sensuous detail, and “powerful rhythms” that are “definitely not for the poetry-writing workshop.” The essays and reviews collected here are uneven, sometimes whimsical, but often provocative, meant for the few serious readers who still agree with Simpson that “there is nothing as real and lasting as a poem.”
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SOURCE: “Louis Simpson's Singular Charm,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1995, pp. 499–507.
[In the following review, Mason praises Simpson's war poems and his memoir, The King My Father's Wreck, but finds shortcomings in Ships Going into the Blue and Simpson's later poetry.]
They will send me off to Heaven when all I want is to live in the world.
—“Searching for the Ox”
Louis Simpson was born in Jamaica in 1923, the son of a prominent lawyer and an aspiring opera singer whose family were Russian émigrés. Their marriage ended while Simpson was still in school. The boy who would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet discovered only when he joined his mother in New York that her family were assimilated Jews. This is the rich and confusing identity Simpson has explored throughout his career. His childhood was that of a British colonial and public school boy, but he has adapted in adult life to cosmopolitan New York. His mobility and mixed heritage seem especially New World phenomena. At least one anthology of Caribbean poetry claims him for Jamaica, yet he is well known in the United States as the author of “American Poetry”:
Whatever it is, it must have A stomach that can digest Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
Like the shark, it contains a shoe. It must swim for miles through the desert Uttering cries that are almost human.
Perhaps this little poem is as Pan-American as its author. In his long and productive career, Simpson has touched a main current of contemporary life, and just as often he has spoken of our evolving poetry.
Indeed, the outline of Simpson's life has something both archetypal and singular about it. His was the generation of poets tempered by World War II—an experience that may have helped them see through the cant of much contemporary criticism. They came of age as writers when postwar trauma had given way to—or had simply been overwhelmed by—suburban boom. They expressed poetry's alienation from that environment even as they moved into the university, creating a new kind of social assimilation for poets that was profound in its benefits and drawbacks. Many of these poets experienced the further alienation of divorce, the angry disruptions of the sixties, etc., and many of them abandoned meter and rhyme as they endured these social changes. Among poets, the deep effects of such developments are still debated.
But these facts cannot fully explain the peculiar charm of Simpson's best work. He continually frustrates literary categorization, standing with clear-eyed bemusement at the fringes of contradictory movements. A brief comparison of Simpson to his contemporaries reveals that he has marked out his own literary territory. Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, poets close to Simpson's age who share his war experience, never abandoned traditional verse, and have made some of the finest postwar poems in English. They are now American poetry's elder statesmen, whereas two younger poets, Allen Ginsberg and John Ashbery, seem by contrast never to have grown up. Their prolific self-indulgence has resulted in poems that are alike mainly in their dullness. Listening to a recording of Ginsberg reading “Howl,” I suddenly realized that he sounded as monotonous as a Conehead from the old “Saturday Night Live.” Ashbery is capable of charm, but so often displays his indifference to the audience that any sensible reader would respond with a like indifference. The one time I heard Ashbery read (to a weirdly adoring hometown crowd in Rochester, New York), I wondered whether the poet would nod off before I did. The grossly inflated reputations of Ashbery and Ginsberg loom over contemporary American poetry; one can only hope that withering time will reduce their trunkloads of published work to chapbooks worthy of the art.
Simpson is unlike any of these poets because he writes coherent narratives in free verse. Neither a seer nor, finally, a traditional maker, Simpson writes out of a prose sensibility much like Chekhov's, noting the comic absurdity and pathos of ordinary lives. Comparing him to still more poets born in the 1920s—Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, etc.—only illustrates again how Simpson, while very much of his time, remains apart. To write about his life, one must also address his work, and the most significant aspect of that has been the development of his own contradictory attitudes toward forms of expression.
Simpson's rejection of meter must be placed in this historical context. While Wilbur, Hecht and others continued to make durable poems as best they knew how, a whole range of writers found meter incompatible with their vision of modern life. Meter is measure, a kind of compression which, in the right hands, lends language a supercharged memorability. In the wrong hands it sounds as mechanical as a player piano. Poets like Bly and Kinnell rejected meter before they had demonstrated any ability to make genuine use of it. No doubt their goals were in some way laudable, but legions of their followers have narrowed their poetics even further. I remember editors telling me in the 1980s that alliteration was “too rich” for contemporary poetry, as if we were all henceforth sentenced to a diet of bread and water. Of course generalizations are always unjust, but I can't help agreeing with Donald Hall when he finds much contemporary poetry lacking in ambition. In too many cases, the abandonment of a full range of auditory possibilities represents an abandonment of real standards.
I don't think this is true of Louis Simpson, however. Like Hall, he has consistently been a responsible and candid critic, keeping the idea of ambition alive while others fed slops to the bairns. Reading through Simpson's Collected Poems (1988), one finds a poet who has never written merely for critics or in self-congratulation, a poet who cares enough about readers to give them memorable moments. Among his early metrical poems, I like “Carentan O Carentan,” “The Battle,” “The Man Who Married Magdalene” and especially “To the Western World”:
A siren sang, and Europe turned away From the high castle and the shepherd's crook. Three caravels went sailing to Cathay On the strange ocean, and the captains shook Their banners out across the Mexique Bay.
And in our early days we did the same. Remembering our fathers in their wreck We crossed the sea from Palos where they came And saw, enormous to the little deck, A shore in silence waiting for a name.
The treasures of Cathay were never found. In this America, this wilderness Where the axe echoes with a lonely sound, The generations labor to possess And grave by grave we civilize the ground.
Simpson quotes that memorable final stanza in his new memoir, The King My Father's Wreck, a book that movingly revisits his life and art. The poet of “To the Western World” and the blank verse narrative “The Runner” (so influential to younger narrative poets working now) has undergone a metamorphosis. One might say the butterfly has chosen to become a caterpillar:
There was no precedent for the kind of poetry I wanted to write. Some years ago I had broken with rhyme and meter and learned to write in free form. Now I discarded the traditional ornaments of language, especially metaphors. I wanted to render the thing itself exactly as it happened.
Simpson received the Pulitzer precisely at that moment when the transformation of his verse had begun, with his ironic take on Walt Whitman: “The Open Road goes to the used car lot.” Though he has produced intriguing poetry in the years since, he has also courted danger, choosing a slighter technical range that often highlights his lackadaisical diction.
The pursuit of directness in poetry is not new, of course. Wordsworth famously announced that “Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men.” Simpson describes the audience he sought as follows:
They married and lived in houses; they had children, drove cars, went to work, shopped in supermarkets, and watched TV. Poetry hardly ever spoke of this … it did not speak of such lives except with irony and contempt. But I was one of those people … the only thing that made me different was being a writer. I wanted to speak of the life I had and tell stories about the men and women I knew. The stories would be in verse, for this was what I enjoyed … the rhythm of the line.
Here is Wordsworth again:
If it be affirmed that rhyme and metrical arrangement of themselves constitute a distinction which overturns what has just been said on the strict affinity of metrical language with that of prose, and paves the way for other artificial distinctions which the mind voluntarily admits, I answer that the language of such Poetry as is here recommended is, as far as possible, a selection of the language really spoken by men; that this selection, wherever it is made with true taste and feeling, will of itself form a distinction far greater than would at first be imagined, and will entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life; and, if metre be superadded thereto, I believe that a dissimilitude will be produced altogether sufficient for the gratification of a rational mind.
Both Wordsworth and Simpson know that real poets give pleasure. Both believe in using a “selection” of the language of men, and both know the importance of taste and feeling, though they would differ where vulgarity is concerned. Simpson often avoids meter, and he approaches realms of experience Wordsworth never dreamed could be suitable for a poem. Witness the opening two stanzas of “How to Live on Long Island”:
Lilco, ＄75.17; Mastercard, ＄157.89; Sunmark Industries, ＄94.03 … Jim is paying his bills. He writes out a check and edges it into the envelope provided by the company. They always make them too small.
This deliberate banality signals, as Simpson has said of other poets, a revolution in taste. My question remains a simple one: Has this revolution been good for poetry? Despite my affection for poems like “Physical Universe,” a brilliant suburban collage, I have to say that Simpson's technique leaves disturbing implications for the art.
In fact, though Simpson wrote some fine poems in meter, he now seems almost wilfully to misunderstand it. He loves Chaucer and many other English, Irish, Scots and American poets who have worked in fixed forms, but he comes close to that tired solecism that meter is un-American. His new book of essays, Ships Going into the Blue, contains an example of this. “An American View of Pasternak” offers the following averment from the Russian poet:
I have never understood those dreams of a new language, of a completely original form of expression. Because of this dream, much of the work of the twenties was merely stylistic experimentalism and has ceased to exist. The most extraordinary discoveries are made when the artist is overwhelmed by what he has to say. In his urgency he uses the old language, and the old language is transformed from within.
Pasternak's statement seems to me the soul of wisdom, but Simpson responds that “The mainstream of American writing, as of American life, is ‘formal experiment.’” Well, others before me have pointed out that mainstream American poetry is hardly experimental in its domestication of free verse. A few sentences later, Simpson makes the all-too-common mistake of assuming that Emerson's famous call for a “metre-making argument” connotes approval of free verse. In fact, Emerson's meaning is much closer to Pasternak's; good work in meter is driven by the urgency of argument and emotion.
Moments like this recur in Simpson's prose, and I find irritating passages in the verse as well. Because of his stance toward poetry, he can fall into facile phrasings that spoil whole poems. One needn't be banal in expressing banality. A poem like “The Pawnshop” is true in its way, but its conclusion is no more memorable than the average New Age handbook: “Each has its place in the universe.” Simpson has worked terribly hard, it would seem, to create an aurally impoverished poetry.
These criticisms are important if we want to understand how and when Simpson's poems succeed. In his best free verse, one has the feeling of deliberately chosen language, a trained ear measuring lines by intuition and long practice:
There is something in disorder that calls to me. Out there beyond the harbor where, every night, the lighthouse probes the sea with its feathery beam, something is rising to the surface.
Still, his delight in disorder lacks the precision of Robert Herrick—note how he repeats the filler word “something” in the above passage from the sequence called “Searching for the Ox.” Both grammar and attitude become passive; the reporter nearly subdues the poet.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, Simpson's successes and failures are particularly his, yet also unthinkable at any other point in literary history. Both public trends and private life have driven this restless search for a new form. In “Working Late,” one of his best poems, I sense the shaping hand of an artist closing in on his true subjects:
A light is on in my father's study. “Still up?” he says, and we are silent, looking at the harbor lights, listening to the surf and the creak of coconut boughs.
He is working late on cases. No impassioned speech! He argues from evidence, actually pacing out and measuring, while the fans revolving on the ceiling winnow the true from the false.
Once he passed a brass curtain rod through a head made out of plaster and showed the jury the angle of fire— where the murderer must have stood.
For years, all through my childhood, if I opened a closet … bang! There would be the dead man's head with a black hole in the forehead.
All the arguing in the world will not stay the moon. She has come all the way from Russia to gaze for a while in a mango tree and light the wall of a veranda, before resuming her interrupted journey beyond the harbor and the lighthouse at Port Royal, turning away from land to the open sea.
Yet, nothing in nature changes, from that day to this, she is still the mother of us all. I can see the drifting offshore lights, black posts where the pelicans brood.
And the light that used to shine at night in my father's study now shines as late in mine.
Though he finds universal feeling in this personal experience—and in a language of beautiful simplicity—I can't help noticing how good free verse often settles into metered lines at key points, as in the concluding trimeters of the poem.
Simpson quotes “Working Late” to conclude an especially sad chapter in The King My Father's Wreck. Just as the poem shifts subtly in time and space, associating the father's measured work and the mother's mystery with the speaker's own labors, the new memoir feels out a direction, its time scheme intuitive and nonlinear. The charm of both works derives from the confidence of the writer, the shaping sensibility almost invisible in the text. This excellent book circles its subjects—parents, past events, lost friends, a new marriage—suddenly revealing key pieces of information that illuminate everything that has come before them.
The chapter in which Simpson quotes “Working Late” begins with a startling revelation: “When our father died and the will was read my brother and I had been disinherited. He had left us a few hundred pounds—the rest of his large estate went to our stepmother. She had arranged matters so, and the day after the funeral she sent us packing.” The pain of disinheritance haunts Simpson's work, and in the memoir his technique is particularly effective. Describing his parents’ separation and his mother's departure for New York, he adds, “This was the great blow of my life, and it occurred in silence.” He sees clearly how this trauma contributed to the kind of artist he became:
I buried my anguish deep, and there it would remain, “A grief without a pang, vast, void, and drear.” It would affect my life, especially my relations with women, but it harmed my imagination too, for you cannot suppress one part of feeling without suppressing others.
The flat, declarative nature of much of his writing may have originated in a kind of shell shock that predates the war:
I would see my mother again. One afternoon I went with my father to a house near the sea, at Bournemouth, that he was thinking of buying. It wasn't finished, it was littered with sawdust and wood. We were standing in the middle of an empty room when my mother appeared in the doorway. She was holding a pistol and pointing it at him. “Rosalind,” he said, and walked across the room and took it from her hand. She fell to the floor and shrieked, frothing at the mouth.
Memory of family life often resembles memory of war, and The King My Father's Wreck contains many losing battles; its opening anecdote locates the ironic place of Waterloo in his boyhood imagination: “Like Thackeray I'm at a bit of a loss to know what it adds up to, fact and fiction, things that have happened and things I've read about or seen in movies.” A lifelong stand-off with his father's imposing ghost underlies everything else he tells us about his Jamaican youth, the war, struggles to establish a career and recent travels. In his longest chapter, “The Vigil,” Simpson visits his dying mother in Italy; he obsessively catalogues daily activities like sports and sight-seeing, and we soon realize that they are diversions to keep him from focussing on the impending death. He struggles to live in the world, to enjoy himself, and sometimes he seems actually to succeed, but this avoidance of emotion surely suggests the old childhood wounds—exacerbated, perhaps, by the psychological toll of later combat. He allows his readers to discover for themselves what he is up to; the book's understatement lets us feel time's passage and the shape-changing presences that dominate memory. The King My Father's Wreck is, ultimately, a profound record of tenacity and love.
His new book of essays, Ships Going into the Blue, seems more haphazard, with the catchall quality most essay collections have, but it still makes absorbing reading. Simpson has published two earlier collections in the University of Michigan's “Poets on Poetry” series: A Company of Poets (1981) and The Character of the Poet (1986). In all three collections (unlike earlier prose books, Three on the Tower and A Revolution in Taste), occasional pieces rub shoulders with a few more substantial essays. Simpson's criticism is often refreshingly personal, as if we were overhearing after-dinner opinions on a variety of subjects. I've already said that I disagree with some of his ideas, and Ships Going into the Blue offers still more occasions for such disagreement, usually over trivial matters like the effect of word processing on literary composition (Simpson fails to see that the word processor has not made writing any easier at all—only typing), but the book also contains many fine and readable pieces I expect I will return to.
Even in brief reviews one finds good insights, like this one about Robinson Jeffers:
Grandeur has gone out of our view of things. Other qualities have taken their place—humor for one. But the note we heard in the Old Testament? In Milton and Lear? Jeffers had it in him, and when he was touched, and wasn't pontificating, he could write poetry of a kind, towering—the word suggests itself—that we have not had in America since.
This passage describes elements lacking in Simpson's own verse. Such catholicity of taste, the ability to appreciate writers unlike oneself, is the mark of a truly humane reader. Brief memoirs published here, “Humane Letters” and “Theatre Business,” illuminate Simpson's times, and essays like “‘The Precinct Station’—Structure and Idea” have sensible things to say about revision. His notebook entry on Postmodernism is one of the best short discussions of that baffling phenomenon I know, and his concluding lecture, “Thoughts about a Doubtful Enterprise,” proves an important document concerning poetry's relation to a civil culture. Here Simpson demonstrates that he does not believe merely in recording the world as it is, but also in the transformative power of the imagination. He would probably make no apologies for the contradictions of his career, however, and future anthologists will have to determine the effect of such contradictions on the poems he leaves behind.
These books have one chapter in common, the tiny piece called “A Window,” apparently set in the poet's study on Long Island. It is so brief that I may as well quote it whole:
Breezy and cold, a sun like a diamond blazing so that you can't look at it … the trees and hedge in front of my window are dark shapes. When I think that every day of my life I look at the sky and earth directly, it's blessing.
It says to me, Write! But it doesn't say what about. That is where nature leaves off, cuts the towline … where work starts and those who can't do it fall astern. Up ahead are great ships going into the blue.
Miriam comes back from the walk she takes every afternoon and stops by my study to press her face to the glass and make a mouth like a goldfish. These are the whims that make life worth living. There are people who know this, and then there are the others who provide us with our daily quota of bad news.
Aristotle said that humanity is the animal that lives in a polis. How about, the animal that makes faces?
That deflating humor, that earthbound understatement with its paradoxical belief in directness and imagination, seems to me the essence of Louis Simpson's singular charm.
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SOURCE: “Foot Soldier for Life,” in Parnassus, Vol. 21, Nos. 1–2, 1996, pp. 138–45.
[In the following review, Beaver discusses the evolution of Simpson's distinct poetic voice and aesthetic approach—as evident in Collected Poems and Selected Prose—and offers a favorable assessment of Simpson's mature work in There You Are and The King My Father's Wreck.]
With almost every volume of collected poems the question arises: Are we to read it from front to back or from back to front? That is, should the poet's completed opus be assessed from the perspective of its mature and final achievement or from the first careless rapture of its earliest aspiration? The Collected Poems of Louis Simpson, it can be safely said, are climactic. There are some indubitable successes scored in the quarter of a century between 1940 and 1963, but the volume gathers strength only in the quarter of a century that follows. The lyrical ballast is jettisoned; echo diminished; rhyme abandoned; a persona, and a personal poetics, developed. With impish detachment he salutes the presiding genius of the mid-century:
O amiable prospect! O kingdom of heaven on earth! I saw Mr. Eliot leaning over a fence Like a cheerful embalmer,
while irrevocably drawn to Walt Whitman's omnivorous “stomach that can digest / Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems” without himself being absorbed.
A turning point was the celebrated and much anthologized “On the Lawn at the Villa”:
On the lawn at the villa— That's the way to start, eh, reader? We know where we stand—somewhere expensive— You and I imperturbes, as Walt would say, Before the diversions of wealth, you and I engagés.
On the lawn at the villa Sat a manufacturer of explosives, His wife from Paris, And a young man named Bruno …
Here, in embryo, are many of Simpson's subsequent rhetorical tactics: the conversational address, as if at a public reading; the sly, personal disengagement; the mysterious drama (itself explosive, capable of infinite expansion) distilled to a vignette. The narrative theme would in time balloon beyond such précis, but the irony at the heart of the text (“Perhaps, after all, this is not the right subject for a poem”) would continue to sound. What then is “the right subject”? That was the nagging question.
It may be that he first formulated this question—and this quest—in discovering his Russian-Jewish relations as an adolescent in New York. Growing up with his father in Jamaica, he had had no suspicion that he might be half-Jewish. It was his mother's reminiscences of Odessa and family talk of Meyer and Isidor, Adam Yankev and Baruch, and “Avram the cello-mender, / the only Jewish sergeant / in the army of the Tsar”—wholly wonderful and disorienting to an English, colonial lad—that must have first jogged him to an awareness of the disorienting otherness of his most familiar-seeming acquaintances. In literary terms, it was his discovery of Chekhov. Some fine poems, “Chocolates,” for example, are wholly devoted to Chekhov. But his influence runs far deeper than that; he was to become the recurrent presence and inspiration of all Simpson's poetry in its humor and pathos, its circumstantial concision and narrative drive. As Simpson himself put it: “I have tried to bring into poetry the sense of life, the gestures that Chekhov got in prose. And I have tried to bring in humor. I do not believe that this is common; there is plenty of satire, but this is not what I mean by humor” (“Rolling Up,” 1976). Chekhov remained the touchstone and the American became an apt mimic of his master's voice:
They were lovers of reading in the family. For instance, Cousin Deborah who, they said, had read everything … The question was, which would she marry, Tolstoy or Lermontov or Pushkin?
His imagination had already been marked—or permanently branded, rather—by his experience of battling as an infantryman across France and Holland in the Second World War. That and the nervous breakdown, with attendant amnesia, which followed: “Before the war I had written a few poems and some prose. Now I found that poetry was the only kind of writing in which I could express my thoughts. Through poems I could release the irrational, grotesque images I had accumulated during the war; and imposing order on these images enabled me to recover my identity” (“Dogface Poetics,” 1965). War poems surface throughout his working career. That ordeal was as decisive for Simpson, who survived his war, as for Wilfred Owen, who died in his. Not so much as a subject, primarily as an attitude to writing: “words to me were pale in comparison with experience,” he recently wrote in The King My Father's Wreck, “mattered only in so far as they transmitted experience.” That is why he has resolutely set his face against theorists who argue “that there is no direct connection between words and life.” That, too, is why he nurses a grudge against W. H. Auden for pretending that poetry was “fundamentally frivolous.” The frivolity of poetry, if that is the word, resides only in its ultimate helplessness in the face of horror. What the miracle of spontaneous life demands of poets is truth. Simpson articulated his ars poetica early on: “Ideas were only so many words, they had nothing to do with reality … a man spilling his intestines in the road.” Or as he put it in his only novel, Riverside Drive (1962): “But I, by a quirk of chance, belong with those whose task it is to describe the surface of things, to record the gestures of men and women. If I must, then so be it—but I will speak only with reluctance. I will resist any expression that is not the truth. And, rather than say what is not true, I will be silent.” His is a soldier's testament:
That is why some men, when they think about war, fall silent. Language seems to falsify physical life and to betray those who have experienced it absolutely—the dead. As Hemingway remarked, to such men the names on a map are more significant than works of imagination …
Like other men of the war generation, I began with middle age; youth came later. Nowadays in my poems I try to generate mystery and excitement: I have even dealt in general ideas. But I retain the dogface's suspicion of the officer class, with their abstract language and indifference to individual, human suffering. You might say that the war made me a footsoldier for the rest of my life.
Here is another reason perhaps for reading his Collected Poems backwards. Simpson concludes that testament, his contribution to The Poetry of War (ed. Ian Hamilton, 1965):
Now I see that I was writing a memorial of those years for the men I had known, who were silent. I was trying to write poems that I would not be ashamed to have them read—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.
Thus no magic, no suppressed secrets, no bardic intonations. No pathos, no attitudinizing, no heart-on-the-sleeve revelations. Only the barebones of daily existence, an anecdotal essence, are allowed to survive “a life beginning with ‘Hi!’ and ending with ‘So long!.’” The poetic ideals could be summed up as: a “Muse install'd amid the kitchenware” (Whitman); “The natural object is always the adequate symbol” (Pound); “those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses” (Williams), blessed by that “saint of the quotidian / himself, Leopold Bloom.” “To write poetry,” he concluded, “one has to be at a distance from one's feelings and be able to play with the facts.”
The first step, therefore, was to get my controlling mind out of the poem and treat the subject impersonally. So I embodied my ideas in a narrative—there would be a character to do the observing, and one or two others.
(from “The Terms of Life Itself: Writing ‘Quiet Desperation,’” 1985)
He adopted the pseudonym “Peter” as alter ego to detach the merely autobiographical, while remaining “both in and out of the game.”
The problem of poetry, then, became the problem of narrative poetry in the most commonplace circumstances. “How to Live on Long Island,” for example:
There's no way out. 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.
(“In the Suburbs”)
As if Louis Simpson had been called to become the poet of suburbia, or exurbia, at any rate small-town America where “lines of little colored flags” advertise “Foreign Motor Sales” and the shopping mall “is laid out like a cathedral”:
I am taking part in a great experiment— whether writers can live peacefully in the suburbs and not be bored to death.
Far from being bored to death, he has flourished on the Long Island shore among his querulous and quirky neighbours. The experiment consisted of seeing whether he could make them sing; or, if not sing exactly, at least resound without grace notes or frills, devoid of image or metaphor even. For where he lives “there are no legends, only gossip”:
As I said, lots of stories, and some strange ones. But few occasions for song, as far as I know.
A transformation of some kind is what he seems ultimately to be after. But he knows there is no standing on tiptoe to grab it. It has to be patiently and unpretentiously and quizzically accumulated:
Wordsworth said that the passions of people who live in the country are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. In the suburbs they are incorporated with the things you see from the train …
Methodically, then, without a hint of cuteness or nudging send-up, Simpson has turned himself into the pop laureate of commuterland. “An Affair in the Country” is a mature example:
As he lived on East 82nd Street and she in Wappingers Falls he saw more of the road than of her:
Kaufman Carpet Outlook Realty Scelfo Realty Amoco Color TV
Now and then there would be something out of the ordinary: X-Rated Dancer Fabric Gardens Discount Dog Food
They would meet for a couple of hours at the Holiday Inn. Then she would have to leave, and he had to start back.
Speed Zone Ahead Signal Ahead Road Narrows Bridge Out Yield
This is like a revved up version of e.e. cummings, but without any of his tricks and trills. It is as if John Cheever or John Updike had been reduced to their ultimate essence. Or, better still, Raymond Carver recuperated for verse. The poetry is all in the concision, the antithetical swing of fragments. He risks verging on the commonplace, it strikes me, when the theme of adultery is extended, as in “The Previous Tenant,” to a fourteen-page novelette. Whatever the length, however, Simpson has perfected the very style he had once mocked as that of Mr. Eliot the “cheerful embalmer”:
O City of God! Let us be thoroughly dry. Let us sing a new song unto the Lord, A song of exclusion. For it is not so much a matter of being chosen As of not being excluded. I will sing unto the Lord In a voice that is cheerfully dry.
It was T. E. Hulme who had prophesied that “the particular verse we are going to get will be cheerful, dry and sophisticated.” Which Simpson turned into his own distinctive, acid-free type of dry-point engraving:
What do definitions and divorce-court proceedings have to do with the breathless reality?
O little lamp at the bedside with views of Venice and the Bay of Naples, you understood! Lactona toothbrush and suitcase bought in a hurry, you were the witnesses of the love we made in bed together. Schraffi's Chocolate Cherries, surely you remember when she said she'd be true forever,
and, watching “Dark Storm,” we decided there is something to be said, after all, for soap opera, “if it makes people happy.”
Born in the Caribbean, the product of a very British education, Simpson on Long Island still feels permanently estranged. “Sometimes when I look at Main Street,” he recorded, “I feel like a stranger looking at the Via Aurelia, or the Pyramids” (1962). More recently: “to this day I have retained that sense of difference and excitement. I am still a stranger in America” (1995). But estrangement has not turned him into an exotic poet, a kind of British Martian. Since dropping the ballad form, decades ago, nothing British clings to him at all—not even when venturing on Larkin's territory, as in “The Boarder” say, or crossing Heaney's tracks, as in “The Peat-Bog Man.” His life studies may suggest the example of Lowell, but all such comparisons are inept. He has become sui generis, moving gracefully from memoirs in prose to memorials in verse:
The poetry of life … how impossible it seems! Wouldn't it be nice to be mindless and just write, like a “language poet.”
Unlike such “mindless” poets, however, he welcomes “life.” He welcomes the paradox that “the object of writing is to make words disappear.” Or if not quite disappear, become fitfully transparent. His ideal is age-old as Chaucer (invoked in There You Are):
Speketh so pleyn at this time, we yow preye, That we may understonde what ye seye.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 979
SOURCE: “Proseurs,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. CIV, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 142–49.
[In the following excerpt, Gwynn offers a positive assessment of Ships Going into the Blue.]
What happens when poets turn their hands to prose? We might expect that they would have an easy go of it, wouldn't we? Prose, after all, is easier to forge than poetry. Prose writers are spared having to learn phrases like medial caesura or substitute foot: all that each of them has to know is how to put a semicolon in its place and make subjects and verbs agree. Poets, on the other hand, go mad worrying about such silly matters as when to end their lines; now that everyone uses a computer, prose writers have even that minimal decision made automatically for them, courtesy of Bill Gates. Any hack can write a sentence like “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens,” but it takes a true genius, a poet, to break it into eight lines that have kept English majors bemused for the better part of a century. Yes, when poets shed all that nasty baggage of rhyme, meter, and terminology they have been forced to lug across the Landscape from Hell (“All out for Onomatopoeia. Next stop Synecdoche”) you'd expect them to soar. For the most part they do, though some soar distinctly higher than others.
The works of critical prose under review here, which represent several years’ accumulation, range widely from the lordly (or ladily, in this case) work of scholarship to the more informal collections of reviews, occasional pieces, and the interview, that mainstay of the contemporary poet's repertoire. No works of fiction by poets have crossed my desk recently, though at least three of the authors discussed here have produced widely admired specimens; but much that lies in the autobiographies and memoirs that I can mention only briefly here might pass for such (and, yes, the pun was intended). One of the poet-critics under discussion has even produced a genuine best-seller, a spirited apologia for homosexuality that takes a tack different from the shrill invective of the gay-rights activists.
One of the monuments of this century's literature is the distinguished body of criticism by American poets. I recently edited an anthology of American poet-critics born between 1888 and 1916, and I was consistently taken with the quality of the writing, beginning with Pound, Eliot, and Ransom and ending with Jarrell, Hayden, and Ciardi; they look even better when their prose is compared with the unreadable mumbling that passes for much contemporary academic criticism. We may have no poet-critics of comparable stature today, but there are many doing distinguished work, most of them as practical critics, a class largely overlooked in this age of theory. …
The other five volumes in hand are slimmer than [Daniel] Hoffman's but still provide many treasures for the browser. [Donald] Hall and Louis Simpson have been the [University of Michigan's Poets on Poets] series’ most frequent contributors; their books represent their fourth and third volumes, respectively, and, indeed, the published prose of both writers—novels, memoirs, sports and personal essays—has been eclectic and prolific, outweighing their considerable production of poetry by a good measure. Simpson's Ships Going into the Blue, which follows his Collected Prose, contains short reviews, talks, and essays which, like most of Simpson's criticism, have a strong personal flavor that can quickly turn from frank to crank. In the more mellow vein I enjoyed “A Leave of Absence,” an account of a year's sabbatical in England. A side trip to Ireland yields a good Heaney story: “Seamus was driving, … he pulled over and stopped. ‘It's my father,’ he said. On the far side of a field a man was leaving a pub. Seamus went over and talked to him. He returned to the car. ‘I haven't seen him in months.’” The trip has its darker moments. In a Protestant enclave Simpson stops reading before an unresponsive audience and instead questions them about the political situation: “When I discussed the shooting of Catholics by the British army on the day that had been named ‘Black Sunday,’ a man in the audience corrected me. ‘We don't call it that,’ he said, “we call it ‘Good Sunday.’” “Theater Business” provides an account of how the poet ran a Poetry Center at his university. Those who have sponsored university readings will sympathize with Simpson's accounts of his anxiety attacks. I did. For years I worried that the poet would not arrive in time for the reading; after a few stinkers I began to worry that he or she would.
“On the Neglect of Poetry in the United States” reveals Simpson's inner Grinch: “Universities offer courses and degrees in creative writing because they are profitable … to the university. Many people would like to be writers and will pay good money to be told that they are. A teacher of creative writing is expected to encourage students—a very different thing from giving honest criticism. … A remark by Edward Gibbon should be placed above the entrance to every writing program in the United States: “The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.’” I wonder if Simpson would recommend that the same slogan adorn medical schools as well. Simpson has also recently produced The King My Father's Wreck, a collection of autobiographical essays stretching from his Jamaican boyhood to the death of his formidable mother a few years ago at nearly a hundred years of age. He has mined much of the material here before—in poems, a novel, and an autobiography; but Simpson's life, which embraces scenes as various as the Battle of the Bulge and Berkeley during the free-speech movement, has been fuller than that of most poets and thus seems virtually inexhaustible as a source of fascinating reminiscences.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630
Allen, Dick. “Signs of How We Must Seek.” Hudson Review XLIII, No. 3 (Autumn 1990): 509–20.
Allen offers a positive assessment of In the Room We Share.
Connolly, Cyril. “From ‘Academe and Open Air.’” In On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer, pp. 91–93. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
In this review, originally published in 1972 upon the publication of North of Jamaica, Connolly discusses Simpson's personal background and his place among postwar American poets.
Cramer, Steven. “Four True Voices of Feeling.” Poetry CLVII, No. 2 (November 1990): 96–114.
Cramer commends Simpson's effort to push the limits of his casual, understated poetry in In the Room We Share, but notes that the volume contains “marginal efforts and swollen, ambitious misfires.”
Dobyns, Stephen. “Will You Listen for a Minute?” New York Times Book Review (2 September 1990): 5.
Dobyns offers a positive assessment of In the Room We Share, praising the practiced voice present in Simpson's poetry, and commenting on Simpson's ability to infuse events of everyday life with import and significance.
Gray, Yohma. “The Poetry of Louis Simpson.” TriQuarterly 5, No. 3 (Spring 1963): 33–39.
Gray discusses the lyrical style and the mixture of traditional forms with contemporary themes in Simpson's poetry.
Gwynn, R. S. “A Literary Warrior.” Sewanee Review XCVIII, No. 2 (Spring 1990): xlvii-xlix.
Gwynn offers a positive assessment of Simpson's Selected Prose.
Hall, Donald. “From ‘Uncharted Waters.’” In On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer, pp. 73–74. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
In this review, originally published in 1964, Hall offers a positive assessment of Selected Poems.
Heyward, Michael. “Elegy and Outrage.” Washington Post Book World (22 July 1990): 4.
Heyward offers an unfavorable assessment of In the Room We Share.
Howard, Richard. “The Hunger in My Vitals is For Some Credible Extravaganza.” In On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer, pp. 209–32. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
In this essay, originally published in 1969, Howard offers an analysis of Simpson's early verse, from The Arrivistes to At the End of the Open Road, focusing on the development of Simpson's formal style and his thematic concerns with mythology, history, and American life.
Jarman, Mark. “On Either Side of the Water.” Hudson Review XLIX, No. 3 (Autumn 1996): 513–20.
Jarman offers a positive assessment of There You Are.
Lensing, George S., and Ronald Moran. “Louis Simpson.” In Four Poets of the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford, pp. 133–75. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.
Lensing and Moran provide an overview of Simpson's literary career and the development of his aesthetic concerns, poetic style, and major themes.
Rudolf, Anthony. “One of Life's Foot-Soldiers.” In On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer, pp. 101–05. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
In this review, originally published in 1973, Rudolf discusses Simpson's identity as a poet and his personal history, particularly his Jewish identity, as presented in North of Jamaica.
Scammell, William. “Everyday Experiments.” Times Literary Supplement (5–11 May 1989): 495.
Scammell offers a positive assessment of Simpson's Collected Poems.
Stevenson, Anne. “Testing Ideas on His Pulse.” New York Times Book Review (7 May 1989): 28.
Stevenson praises Selected Prose for its lucid narrative and competent commentary on Simpson's life.
Wojahn, David. “I Might Live Here Myself: On Louis Simpson.” In On Louis Simpson: Depths Beyond Happiness, edited by Hank Lazer, pp. 320–33. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
In this essay, originally published in 1984, Wojahn examines Simpson's preoccupation with ordinary American life, his disdain for suburbia, and the development of his distinct poetic voice and mature narrative approach.
Additional coverage of Simpson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1–4R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1 and 61; Contemporary Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Edition 1; and Poetry for Students, Vols. 7 and 11.
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