Comparison of Simpson's Vision to Whitman's

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“In the Suburbs” is a sour little poem, full of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations. It is, like many of Simpson’s poems in his collection At the End of the Open Road, a confrontation with the self as much as it is with an America who does not measure up to the writer’s expectations. To see America as Simpson does, however, it is necessary to imagine it as he initially did through the eyes of Walt Whitman, whose poem “Song of the Open Road” “In the Suburbs” responds to. Writing a hundred years before Simpson, Whitman saw America as a land of opportunity and untapped potential, which he expresses in his poem, itself a long, loose catalogue of America’s promise. Using the open road as a symbol of life’s journey, Whitman focuses on the individual, the single person’s experience. His is a romantic vision of the individual’s relationship to society and nature. He begins the poem:

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.

In contrast, Simpson focuses on the group, categorized by social class. Unlike Whitman, whose vision of the American people transcends class, Simpson sees America in the middle of the twentieth century hemmed in by class, by the dictates of a society that provides ready-made dreams that can’t possibly be fulfilled. Whereas Whitman begins his journey on the open road “healthy” and “free, the world before me,” Simpson opens his poem on a dead end street with “no way out.” Simpson’s vision of the middle class draws on stereotypes of a class-bound society marked by its pursuit of material wealth. The middle-class life, for Simpson, is marked by “waste,” because it neglects the spirit. Whitman’s vision, on the other hand, is of a people whose very nature is spiritual. Speaking of life on America’s open road, Whitman writes:

I believe that much unseen is also here.
Here the profound lesson of reception, nor
preference nor denial,
The black with his wooly head, the felon, the
diseas’d, the illiterate
person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the
beggar’s tramp, the
drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of
The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the
fop, the eloping
couple, . . .
None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to

Whitman cultivated his reputation as a man of the people. His vision of inclusion, of a society where everyone, regardless of race, gender, class, or profession is accepted, defines the very essence of a progressive politics where worth is determined by one’s very existence, not by one’s work or possessions. This is the vision of America to which Simpson’s poem cynically replies. It inverts Whitman’s world. In his autobiography, North of Jamaica, Simpson writes about his response to Whitman’s poetry when he emigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1940:

I found Whitman’s poetry almost intolerable; celebrating progress and industry as ends in themselves was understandable in 1879, 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...

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be mistaken in his ideas.

Because Simpson expected so much from America, it’s understandable that when he arrived he would be disappointed. The optimism Whitman expressed for the country’s future no longer seemed possible or, rather, seemed possible only in a limited, economic sense. The vision of America in the 1950s when Simpson wrote most of the poems in At the End of the Open Road is one of a country that had traded its soul for material success. Suburbs had sprouted everywhere, as developers rushed to build cheap housing for World War II veterans and their families. These cookie-cutter neighborhoods gave the impression (which was often right) of a people who were not as interested in defining their own individuality as they were of acquiring things that would make their lives easier and provide them with the social status they sought. The 1950s was also the age of the “corporation worker.” After the war, the country turned to private corporations to help rebuild the economy. Big business successfully lobbied the government to lift wartime regulations. They bought up government wartime plants and shouldered out many smaller businesses. Millions of people went to work for transnational corporations, which were redefining not only the American economy but the world economy as well. Living in the suburbs, these newly minted “corporate drones” commuted to their 9 to 5 jobs. To do this comfortably, they needed comfortable cars, which they also had to buy, thereby cementing their relationship to their work even more strongly. Simpson’s friend, Allen Ginsberg, a Beat poet who had also been strongly influenced by Whitman, similarly lamented America’s sad state of affairs at mid-century in his poem “A Supermarket in California.” Like Simpson, Ginsberg questioned the deterioration of American values, its obsession with money and security, its neglect of the greater good and of self-enlightenment. But whereas Ginsberg questioned the country as a whole and the direction in which it was headed, Simpson singles out the middle class as his target of disdain, claiming that “There’s no way out” of the endless cycle of consumption and production the middle class had brought into the country. For Simpson, America’s future had arrived; there was no going back. Simpson echoes Ginsberg’s concern about America’s lack of spirituality, but he does so ironically by comparing middle-class life to ritualized religion itself. Addressing himself as much as he is those among whom he lives, Simpson writes:

You were born to this middle-class life
As others before you
Were born to walk in procession
To the temple, singing.

The comparison is odd, but right. It also tells readers that for Simpson ritualized religion is as imprisoning as a middle-class life. Where, then, one might ask, does Simpson see hope? The answer is nowhere. In this poem and others in the collection, middle-class life is accepted at the same time it is scorned. The characters and speakers of Simpson’s poems not only inhabit the middle class, but they are aware of what this means—to their relationships, to their desires, to their tastes. They are imprisoned not only by their class but by their awareness that there is no hope. At the end of Whitman’s and America’s open road in the middle of the twentieth century, Simpson sees a vapid land of wasted potential, a land for which there is no redemption. The only “choice” left is to make a religion of it, to embrace one’s misery. Simpson has made a career out of just such an embrace. Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on “In the Suburbs,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition and publishes frequently on American literature and culture.

Use of Free Verse not Fixed Verse

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Louis Simpson’s “In the Suburbs” is a criticism of American suburban life—an expression of the poet’s feelings of hopelessness about a country of people who “are too slow for death, and change / to stone.” Simpson expresses this same sentiment about more specific Americans in another poem included in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, At The End of the Open Road, which also contains “In the Suburbs.” In its criticism of middle-class America, “In the Suburbs” is akin to many poems of the 1950s and 1960s, recalling the opinions of other poets of Simpson’s generation who struggled valiantly to discover new poetic forms in an effort to more accurately record the country’s changing attitudes and moods.

James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock in William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island Minnesota,” which was published five years after Simpson’s At the End of the Open Road, is among the most famous of poems expressing the view that man leads a pointless life, though its main rhetorical device is a comparison between the natural world and the self rather than the present period in cultural history and a more ancient one. Wright also implicates himself in “Lying in a Hammock,” whereas Simpson implicates American culture in “In the Suburbs.” In this poem, Simpson is certain he is powerless to change and alter his own circumstances. Unlike Wright, who ironically claims to have “wasted his [own] life,” Simpson tells us that he “was born to waste [his] life,” suggesting that he was—as by implication we all are—destined to live meaningless lives. The similarity of feeling in a good many poems written by poets of Simpson’s generation reveals the cultural unease many American poets of the period experienced and articulated. This unease ultimately served to transform American poetry formally, as a close look at the composition of “In the Suburbs” will reveal.

In “In the Suburbs,” Simpson moves from making a series of statements to a single image, while Wright moves “Lying in a Hammock” from a whole series of images to his famous last statement, “I have wasted my life.” The movement or tension in Simpson’s poem between the first stanza—which is very direct and plainspoken—and the second stanza—which is almost pure image— reenacts the comparison that is being made between what the speaker feels he was “born” to do and what “others before” him did. By investigating the devices at work in this poem, we can uncover the way the poem’s form mimics or gives birth to its meaning. Since Simpson moves away in At the End of the Open Road from the more traditional forms and meters he used in his earlier books to free verse, investigating the way “In the Suburbs” reveals what it says, by looking at how it says what it says, might be the best method of testing the vitality of Simpson’s use of free verse or open (as opposed to fixed) form.

“In the Suburbs” is, first of all, a comparison. That is, its rhetorical stance is a comparison between the way the speaker lives (and feels he has no choice but to live) and the way people used to live. The use of the second person “you,” which is the point of view of direct address, suggests that the speaker of the poem is addressing a specific person unknown to us, or, following the conventions of self-address, is speaking to himself. Although it is impossible to know for sure who the speaker in “In the Suburbs” is addressing, the mystery makes little difference to the poem’s effect, since the immutability of the statements Simpson makes controls the poem’s tone. That is, the emphatic nature of “There’s no way out” and “You were born to this middle-class life” takes precedence over the issue of who’s speaking to whom because it is so solidly closed to options: it does not matter if Simpson is addressing himself, the entire world, or a friend: by implication, it is clear that Simpson is suggesting in this poem that those “born to” the middle class have no way out.

One of the poem’s mysteries, though, is Simpson’s use of the same phrase—“born to”—in the poem’s second stanza. Since this phrase suggests that the people who came before present generations were also predestined to live the lives they lived, it’s possible to read the second stanza as a statement much like the first: perhaps Simpson is suggesting that “others before” him were “born to waste” their lives, as well. Simpson’s use of the word “procession” leans toward this meaning as it undercuts the sense of individual purpose that most Americans (and poets) value. Yet the way the poem opens up formally in its second stanza suggests a more positive reading of the poem. This opening or expansion toward the poem’s closure is what the poem’s form contributes to how the poem is read in this essay and reveals the famous inseparability of form and content.

The second stanza in “Suburbs” is partly achieved because the poem’s first stanza is so plainspoken and unadorned. That is, the poem’s first lines are so closed (rhetorically) that any change of pattern or mode in the second stanza would be pleasurable. Here again we see a comparison at work, but this time the comparison is not rhetorical but musical. That is, Simpson’s use of line and linebreak contributes to the way the poem gradually opens up. The poem’s first two lines are completely end-stopped—“There’s no way out. / You were born to waste your life.” That these two lines come to complete stops reinforces how emphatic Simpson’s statements are. They enact the feeling of being trapped—of being born to something like waste. In comparison to these lines, the lines in the poem’s second stanza are enjambed, or break at more unexpected places. The lines “As others before you / Were born to walk in procession / To the temple, singing” explain formally or musically the difference between life in the American suburbs and life in more spiritual times. The hesitation created by the end-stopped lines at the ending of the first two lines in the last stanza actually produce space, implying in this formal way the emotional differences between the feelings of entrapment expressed in the first stanza and the far more divine feeling of walking to a temple with others “singing” in the second.

It’s also worth noting that the poem’s onestanza break is not end-stopped. That is, the shift from end-stopped line to enjambed line begins at the end of the first stanza rather than at the beginning of the second. The use of the enjambed line in this section of the poem also contributes to the feeling of expansion in the second stanza. We might also notice that Simpson’s use of syntax in this poem contributes to the feeling of expansion. The poem’s first two sentences are very short: the first is only four words long while the second is seven. The poem’s last sentence is much longer, however—it’s twenty-one words long. That gradual syntactical expansion of phrase also helps the poem spread out in its last three lines.

The way the poem expands in its second stanza is also partly achieved because of the way Simpson has used the image. That is, Simpson’s imagerestraint in his first stanza contributes to the differences he wishes to express between life in suburban America and life in simpler, more spiritual times. In his second stanza, Simpson is using the comparison, too: he tells readers what he wants them to think in his first stanza and shows them what he wants them to feel in his second. The sense of community in this image—the idea of a community of people who “were born to walk in procession / to the temple, singing”—produces pleasure partly because it’s a shift from the imageless pattern established in Simpson’s first stanza and partly because it actually acts out a kind of walking toward something. In comparison to the first stanza made up of ideas that are not even substantiated with examples, the second stanza produces the physical sense of movement with the word “walking” and of sound with the word “singing.” The only comma in Simpson’s poem shows up in his last line. This comma, or little halfstop, produces a break in the middle of the poem’s last line and contributes to the feeling of joy in the last stanza because it suspends that final word— “singing”—for a brief moment. That feeling of joy chimes at the end of the poem because it is so noticeably unlike the feeling produced in the poem’s first stanza. But it also contributes to the poem’s sense of closure, finalizing Simpson’s argument in a way that is as musically unchallengeable as was the poem’s use of rhetoric in its first stanza.

And yet there is an undercurrent of irony in Simpson’s poem in that he has even expressed his disappointment in American culture in this short poem. In How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, the American poet Edward Hirsche says:

The lyric poem is a highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers— an immediate, intense, and unsettling form of literary discourse. Reading poetry is a way of connecting— through the medium of language—more deeply with yourself even as you connect more deeply with another.

The major irony of Simpson’s argument against middle-class suburban life is that there is this poem in the world—this statement on record of one poet’s take on life in the suburbs of America, circa 1963. Thus, despite how solidly the poem expresses the feeling of hopelessness and entrapment, there is an odd feeling of hope seeping out of it, inspiring us to behave and believe as though we were born to infuse our lives with some kind of meaning and purpose. Perhaps it’s Simpson’s use of free verse or open form that really lets this hope release, since by its various techniques of comparison it points ironically toward the alternative to waste, which is song.

Source: Adrian Blevins, Critical Essay on “In the Suburbs,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Blevins is a writer and poet who has taught at Hollins University, Sweet Briar College, and in the Virginia Community College System. She has published poems, essays, and stories in many magazines, journals, and anthologies.


Critical Overview