Louis Simpson R.I.P.

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and the author of “While Europe Slept” and “Surrender.” His book "The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind" is just out from Broadside / Harper Collins.


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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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  • 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