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.