Louis Simpson R.I.P.


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Simpson, too, could be critical of America, but he always criticized it out of a deep, palpable love, in poems that make poignantly, stirringly clear his powerful lifelong attachment to the American idea.  Born on the island of Jamaica and educated at a British-style school where it was made obvious to him that the Brits would never consider him one of their own, he moved to New York to attend college at Columbia and never went back (though he always spoke with a hint of a British accent).  Joining the U.S. Army, he served his adopted country in World War II, fighting his way across France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, after which he spent several months laid up with a serious case of post-traumatic stress.  Some of his most unforgettable early poems are about the war.  And some are about Whitman.  As far as I’m concerned, it was Simpson, not Ginsberg, who was Whitman’s true heir.  In one of his most anthologized poems, he laments that the “open road” of Whitman’s verse turned out to lead “to the used-car lot.”  This wasn’t a glib, Ginsberg-type slam against the U.S.A.; it was a wistful acknowledgment of human imperfectability, an admission – by a man who, in person as in his poems, invariably evinced a melancholy, sardonic plainspokenness – that reality always falls short of dreams.

For Simpson had no time for guile or pretense.  The poet, like the teacher, was a straight-shooter – his work free of artifice or adornment, yet full of striking lines that memorably articulated enduring truths.  Above all he had no use for ideology – which, alas, increasingly made him an outlier in the American academy.  To leave a classroom in which he had just dissected a novel with impeccable, seemingly offhand delicacy and insight, and to walk into another classroom down the hall, where one of his hip, decades-younger colleagues was spitting out postmodern slogans and fashionable politics by the yard, was to journey from one universe to another.  Louis Simpson’s death represents a loss for American poetry, and is also one more sad symbol – for me at least – of the loss in our time of so much that was once denominated by words like civilization and education and culture. Ave atque vale. 

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  • Brian

    A beautiful reminiscence. Thank-you.

  • Edward Halperin

    I had Mr Simpson as a teacher at Columbia College in 1958. He liked the dialogue of a bad novel that I wrote. I never showed him my poetry, which I think is much better. I kept up with his writing particularly his interesting autobiography. About seven years ago I wrote this poem but never sent it off to him. I almost never send my poems off but with his death I think it is appropriate to share it.
    TO LOUIS SIMPSON
    You, who said I wrote good dialogue,
    Must have forgotten me along with all
    The other past students.
    Only in your autobiography
    Do I glimpse, through time that
    Your New York Jewish mother wedTo a distinguished Jamaican Jurist.
    It explains those poemsWhere serving in W.W.II as a cogOr a tooth on a giant wheel,
    You said, Brother to a corpseAt Belsen Bergen.
    When I first finished those poem,Not knowing your past, I, in prejudice wondered,
    If Brother was not just jive talk.
    Only today, you wrote aboutYour uncle Max who owned
    A cleaners on Kingston AvenueIn Crown Heights might have flirtedWith my shy aunt Sara.
    Now I give you a high five Brother.
    Edward N. Halperin enhmd@aol.com

  • Ray Olson

    Thanks for this remembrance, Bruce. And for the pointed contrast you make between Simpson and Ginsburg. When Simpson's The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001 was new, I said of his work that he began as one of the finest American poets with direct experience of World War II, about which he wrote excellent formal verse. Later, in unrhymed, often free-metered verse, "he wrote of gray comforts and desperate strivings (often just so much adultery) in the suburbs; of travel and travel observations; and of his Russian Jewish heritage, which somehow led to his own upbringing in Jamaica while too many relatives went to Auschwitz. Read chronologically, his poems constitute the record of a finely intelligent and democratic man’s journey from heroism to warm, common citizenship–a life one can envy."

  • Bruce Bawer

    Beautifully put, Ray. And true.

  • Ghostwriter

    I hate to say this but I've never heard of him.

  • poetcomic1

    Read THIS and then read Ginsberg.

    CHOCOLATES

    by Lewis Simpson

    Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
    While they made remarks about his genius
    the Master fidgeted. Finally
    he said, "Do you like chocolates?"

    They were astonished, and silent.
    He repeated the question,
    whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
    and murmured shyly, "Yes."

    "Tell me," he said, leaning forward,
    light glinting from his spectacles,
    "what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
    or the dark, bitter kind?"

    The conversation became general
    They spoke of cherry centers,
    of almonds and Brazil nuts.
    Losing their inhibitions
    they interrupted one another.
    For people may not know what they think
    about politics in the Balkans,
    or the vexed question of men and women,

    but everyone has a definite opinion
    about the flavor of shredded coconut.
    Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
    and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
    was at a loss for words.

    As they were leaving he stood by the door
    and took their hands.

    In the coach returning to Petersburg
    they agreed that it had been a most
    unusual conversation.

  • claire Nicolas White

    LOUIS SIMPSON, POET, FRIEND, TEACHER, TRANSLATOR< "SOMEONE WHCLAIREPOETOSE MIND I LOVED TO DELVE IN NOW AND THEN" Claire Nicolas White