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Louis Simpson, who died the other day at the age of eighty-nine, wasn’t the only good professor in Stony Brook’s English department when I was his student there in the 1970s and early 80s, but he was the one I found most exhilarating, the one who made me think, Yes, this is what I came to college for. Still, the way he taught left some students bitterly disappointed. I remember leaving a classroom one day, my hunger for wit and wisdom thoroughly quenched by what he’d served up during the previous hour, and hearing a couple of other students complaining, to my astonishment, that what he had been doing in that room didn’t qualify as teaching at all. What they meant by this, apparently, was that he didn’t lecture to us from a stack of crumpled old notes on which the ink had faded over the decades; he didn’t try to impress us with fancy lingo; he didn’t load us down with printouts of scholarly studies or critical analyses of the literary text under discussion; nor did he seek to use that text to push upon us some political or ideological point.
No, what he did, in one course after another (at least when he was teaching fiction – poetry was a slightly different matter), was this: he came into the classroom with a single book in his hand, namely the text we’d been assigned to read. And he’d sit at his desk, put the book down in front of him, wait for us to take our seats and for the noise of our chitchat to abate, and then clear his throat, maybe, or let out a sigh, and perhaps nudge the book a bit with his hand, and say something like: “Well…what are we to make of this thing, hmm?” And he’d start in on it. Very conversational, very relaxed. He’d begin by talking about his general impression of the book – the effect it had had on him as a reader. And then he’d get into the question of how the writer had gone about achieving that effect. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, his casual-seeming observations grew more subtle, sensitive, and sophisticated. By the end of the hour – boom! A master class in the anatomy of a great work of literature.
I know that there was plenty of classroom discussion in the several courses I took with Simpson, and I know I participated quite a bit. But I don’t remember a word any of us said. What I remember is Simpson, whose anatomy lessons held – for me, anyway – a remarkable, quiet power. They communicated the very essence of literary creation and the literary experience. No nonsense. No “theory.” No jargon. I like to think they made me a more alert and appreciative reader. I regret that their value was lost on many students who had come to the English department in search of something entirely different – something that had less to do with the love of books than with, say, the love of ostentatious terminology or the determination to find in every work of literature a piece of agitprop.
Then there’s his poetry. Before arriving at Stony Brook, I hadn’t been familiar with it. He’d been one of the major poets of the 1960s; his collection At the End of the Open Road had won a Pulitzer. Among poets and poetry readers all over the world, he was a famous name. But he wasn’t known to the general public in the way that somebody like his contemporary Allen Ginsberg was. This was – and remains – an injustice. And it’s an irony, too. For both Simpson and Ginsberg were poets – Simpson a magnificent one, Ginsberg a terrible one – who were consumed with the subject of America. Ginsberg, of course, was the Andy Warhol of twentieth-century American poetry, gifted only at self-promotion, and he promoted himself shamelessly as Walt Whitman’s latter-day heir. Like Whitman, he “sang himself” in poems consisting of long, stream-of-consciousness lines. Whereas Whitman had celebrated America, however, Ginsberg, ever alert to the Zeitgeist, professed to despise America, condemning every aspect of the American system and American life in the most shrill, vulgar, undiscriminating, and cliché-ridden manner imaginable, all the while celebrating his own sloth, slovenliness, mental instability, substance abuse, and pederasty.
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