Farewell to a great poet of America.
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.
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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