In the Suburbs Summary
by Louis Simpson

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In the Suburbs Summary

(Poetry for Students)

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Lines 1–3
“In the Suburbs” is a small poem about a big topic. Its title announces its subject. For Americans, the idea and image of the suburbs is mixed. On the one hand, many consider it a welcome refuge from the congestion, noise, and crime of the city. On the other hand, it has the reputation as a place marked by conformity, conservative values, and stodginess. In the first stanza, the speaker adopts the latter point of view, presenting the suburbs as a prison of sorts. The tone is harsh and accusatory, as the speaker equates the suburbs with middle-class life, both of which he sees as meaningless. The important word in this stanza is “born.” Being born into a situation or identity suggests that one has little or no choice in the matter, that he or she acts according to a path already laid out. By using the second person “you,” Simpson suggests that he is addressing another part of himself. This is a standard use of the second person in contemporary poetry.

The idea that one is born into a way of life over which one has no control is embodied in naturalism, a way of representing the world that emerged in the nineteenth century, largely as a result of the theories of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. Naturalist writers, like realist writers, focus on the observable world, paying close attention to those forces that limit human desire or will, such as nature, one’s genetic inheritance, or economic conditions. American naturalist writers include Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser. In Simpson’s poem, these forces are implied rather than explicitly described.

Lines 4–6
This stanza completes the third sentence of the first stanza. By running the sentence over into the next paragraph, Simpson emphasizes the idea of “procession,” which he introduces in the fifth line. A procession is a group of people moving along in a systematic and orderly manner. The word also suggests ritual, which is embodied in the image of people walking to church.

This last image is key for understanding the poem. Linking suburban, middle-class life to churchgoing makes sense, as church life was a conventional and regular part of American life when Simpson wrote the poem in the early 1960s. However, Simpson’s tone is ironic. By using a religious image to describe suburban, middle-class life, he is saying that this group of people holds their way of life sacred, even though they are largely powerless to change it and, Simpson suggests, unconscious of its effect on them.