Simpson, Louis (Aston Marantz) 1923-
SIMPSON, Louis (Aston Marantz) 1923-
PERSONAL: Born March 27, 1923, in Kingston, Jamaica, British West Indies; United States citizen; son of Aston and Rosalind (Marantz) Simpson; married Jeanne Rogers, 1949 (divorced, 1954); married Dorothy Roochvarg, 1955 (divorced, 1979); married Miriam Butensky Bachner, 1985; children: (first marriage) Matthew; (second marriage) Anne, Anthony. Education: Columbia University, B.S., 1948, A.M., 1950, Ph.D., 1959.
ADDRESSES: Home—186 Old Field Rd., Setauket, New York, NY 11733-1636.
CAREER: Bobbs-Merrill Publishing Co., New York, NY, editor, 1950-55; Columbia University, New York, NY, instructor in English, 1953-59; New School for Social Research, instructor in English, 1955-59; University of California, Berkeley, 1959-67, began as assistant professor, became professor of English; State University of New York at Stony Brook, professor of English and comparative literature, 1967-91, distinguished professor, 1991-93, professor emeritus, 1993—. Has given poetry readings at colleges and poetry centers throughout the United States and Europe and on television and radio programs in New York, San Francisco, and London. Military service: U.S. Army, 1943-46; became sergeant; awarded Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster, Purple Heart (twice), Presidential Unit Citation.
MEMBER: American Academy in Rome.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fellowship in literature (Prix de Rome) at American Academy in Rome, 1957; Hudson Review fellowship, 1957; Columbia University, distinguished alumni award, 1960, Medal for Excellence, 1965; Edna St. Vincent Millay Award, 1960; Guggenheim fellowship, 1962, 1970; American Council of Learned Societies grant, 1963; Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1964, for At the End of the Open Road; Medal for Excellence, Columbia University, 1965; Commonwealth Club of California poetry award, 1965; American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature, 1976; D.H.L., Eastern Michigan University, 1977; Institute of Jamaica, Centenary Medal, 1980; Jewish Book Council, Award for Poetry, 1981; Elmer Holmes Bobst Award, 1987; Academy of American Poets, Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, 1998, for Modern Poets of France; Hampden Sydney College, D.Litt., 1990; nominated for the National Book Award for poetry, 2003, for The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems; Griffin Poetry Prize, 2004 for The Owner of the House.
The Arrivistes: Poems, 1940-49, Fine Editions, 1949.
Good News of Death and Other Poems, Scribner (New York, NY), 1955.
(Editor, with Donald Hall and Robert Pack) The New Poets of England and America, Meridian, 1957.
A Dream of Governors (poems), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1959.
Riverside Drive (novel), Atheneum, 1962.
James Hogg: A Critical Study, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1962.
At the End of the Open Road (poems), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1963.
(Contributor) Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, editors, Five American Poets, Faber (London, England), 1963.
Selected Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1965.
(Editor) An Introduction to Poetry, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1967, 2nd edition, 1972.
Adventures of the Letter I (poems), Harper (New York, NY), 1971.
North of Jamaica (autobiography), Harper (New York, NY), 1972, published as Air with Armed Men, London Magazine Editions, 1972.
Three on the Tower: The Lives and Works of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams (literary criticism), Morrow, 1975.
Searching for the Ox (poems), Morrow, 1976.
A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell (literary criticism), Macmillan, 1978, published in England as Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1979.
Armidale (poems), BOA Editions, 1979.
Out of Season (poems), Deerfield Press, 1979.
Caviare at the Funeral (poems), Franklin Watts, 1980.
A Company of Poets (literary criticism), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI), 1981.
The Best Hour of the Night (poems), Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
People Live Here: Selected Poems, 1949-1983, BOA Editions, 1983.
The Character of the Poet (literary criticism), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI), 1986.
An Introduction to Poetry, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Collected Poems, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1988.
Selected Prose, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1988.
Selected Prose, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1989.
Wei Wei and Other Friends (poems), Typographeum, 1990.
In the Room We Share (poems), Paragon House (New York, NY), 1990.
Jamaica Poems, Press of Appletree Alley, 1993.
Ships Going into the Blue: Essays and Notes on Poetry, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1994.
The King My Father's Wreck (memoir), Story Line Press, 1994.
There You Are: Poems, Story Line (Brownsville, OR), 1995.
Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology (poems), Story Line Press, 1997.
(Translator) The Legacy & The Testament, Story Line Press, 2000.
The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, BOA Editions, 2003.
Contributor of poems, plays, and articles to literary periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Listener, Hudson Review, Paris Review, and Critical Quarterly. Sound recordings include: Louis Simpson Reading His Poems with Comment in New York City, Mar. 19, 1959, 1959; Louis Aston Marantz Simpson and James Wright Reading and Discussing Their Poetry in the Coolidge Auditorium, Dec. 5, 1966, 1966.
SIDELIGHTS: Jamaican-born poet and educator Louis Simpson, author of poetry collections that include the Pulitzer Prize-winning At the End of the Open Road, Searching for the Ox, and There You Are, is noted for simple, controlled verses that reveal hidden layers of meaning. Critic Yohma Gray wrote in praise of the poet's ability to make his readers heed that which usually passes undiscerned. "Even in the most mundane experience there is a vast area of unperceived reality," the critic noted, "and it is Louis Simpson's kind of poetry which brings it to our notice. It enables us to see things which are ordinarily all about us but which we do not ordinarily see; it adds a new dimension to our sensational perception, making us hear with our eyes and see with our ears." Gray maintained in "The Poetry of Louis Simpson" in Poets in Progress that poetry seeks the same goal as religious belief: "to formulate a coherent and significant meaning for life. The poetry of Louis Simpson offers us that meaning."
In a discussion of Simpson's early poetry, Gray commented that the author "never departs from traditional form and structure and yet he never departs from contemporary themes and concerns." Gray described one poem, for example, in which Simpson "handles a modern psychological situation in the delicate cadence of seventeenth-century verse." Ronald Moran in Louis Simpson made a similar comment in regard to The Arrivistes, Simpson's first book. Moran found that Simpson often sounds "like an Elizabethan song-maker or like a Cavalier poet." Gray argued that this juxtaposition of traditional form (ordered meter and rhyme) and modern subjects emphasizes, particularly in the poems about the world wars, the chaotic quality and the tensions of contemporary life. Gray found that Simpson neither complains nor moralizes about modern problems; rather he clarifies difficulties and presents rational insights.
After 1959, the publication date of A Dream of Governors, there was a perceived change in Simpson's work; reviewer Stephen Stepanchev contended inAmerican Poetry since 1945 that it changed for the better. Notes Stepanchev: "The prosaism of his early work—which required metrics and rhyme in order to give it character as verse—now gave way to rich, fresh, haunting imagery. His philosophical and political speculations achieved a distinction and brilliance that they had lacked before." A Chicago Review critic had more cautious praise for the shift in Simpson's poetry, writing that, "A Dream of Governors has wit, sophistication, perceptiveness, intelligence, variety, and knowingness, but it comes perilously close to being a poetry of chic." The reviewer went on to say that this early work lacks a depth of feeling.
However, he continued, "At the End of the Open Road . . . is a different story entirely. Simpson has found the secret of releasing the meaning and power of his themes. . . . It is not that his stanzas . . . are becoming more flexible and experimental: this in itself does not mean very much. . . . What is more fundamental, it seems to me, is that greater stylistic flexibility should be the sign of growth in the character and thought of the speaker. Simpson is becoming more able to be a part of what he writes about, and to make what he writes about more a part of him." New York Time Book Review's Edward Hirsch agreed that the Pulitzer Prizewinning At the End of the Open Road indicates a growth and finesse in Simpson's poetry, opining, "It is not only a major breakthrough in his own work; it is also one of the tours de force of American poetry in the 60's." Hirsch described At the End of the Open Road as "a sustained meditation on the American character," noting, "The moral genius of this book is that it traverses the open road of American mythology and brings us back to ourselves; it sees us not as we wish to be but as we are."
Not all critics appreciated the change in Simpson's verse. In a review of 1965's Selected Poems, which contains twelve new poems in addition to selections of earlier work, Harry Morris stated that "Simpson's first three volumes are better" than his new poetry. Morris believed that Simpson's "new freedoms" have not helped him convey his themes more effectively. T. O'Hara, in a critique of Adventures of the Letter I, also questioned Simpson's new manner: "What has happened to Louis Simpson's energy? . . . It almost appears that success has mellowed the tough poetic instinct that once propelled him, for this present collection barely flexes a muscle." Yet Marie Borroff, speaking of the same book, avowed, "When the remaining decades of the twentieth century have passed ignominiously into history along with the 1960's, these stanzas and other gifts will remain to us." And Christopher Hope deemed Adventures "a work of pure, brilliant invention."
A mix of criticism continued in reviews of Searching for the Ox. Derwent May found the quiet, reflective mood of the poems attractive. Nikki Stiller, on the other hand, felt that "Louis Simpson's work now suggests too much comfort: emotional, physical, intellectual. He has stopped struggling, it seems, for words, for rhythms, for his own deepest self." Yet in contrast to this, Peter Stitt remarked that Searching for the Ox "is a tremendously refreshing book. . . . The style in which [the poems] are written presents us with no barriers—it is plain, direct and relaxed. Moreover, the poems tell a story, or stories, in which we can take a real interest."
Simpson's ability to have his poems relate stories of interest is evident as well in Collected Poems. Selections from his poetry created from 1940 through the 1980s, Collected Poems focuses on the lives of everday citizens. "For the last two decades [Simpson's] appetite has increasingly been for re-creating quintessentially American stories of ordinary people . . . living out lives of quiet desperation," found Hirsch, noting, "He has turned his ardor and ingenuity to uncovering the secret and public lives of people stripped of their expectations and bewildered by their fates." "Simpson takes part in the existence of other people, and pecks or picks about the shopping mall with them, or the redwoods and the Golden Gate, or Paris, or the battlefields of the Second World War which so nearly unmade him," observed the Times Literary Supplement's William Scammell, adding, "And he manages to do this without relinquishing his own firm sense of identity, or slumping into a reverent pantheistic incoherence." Scammell concluded with praise for Collected Poems as "a master-class for reader and writer alike, alive on every page." "But mastery is not the right metaphor to end on," he surmised, "for Simpson is someone who stands outside aestheticism, outside schools and movements."
In There You Are: Poems, the poet again "send[s] us into the lives of people and their stories," commented Mark Jarman in the Hudson Review. A Publishers Weekly contributor stated that in There You Are while "combining straightforward diction with oblique insights, Simpson limns people and stories with an irony tempered by compassion." Jarman hailed Simpson as "a poet of the American character and vernacular." Praising Simpson's storytelling skill and style, Jarman claimed "that no one writing today has a better understanding of narrative as a figure of speech. Each of his stories is like a piece standing for life as a whole, existing in a kind of chaste simplicity and yet, to paraphrase Simpson himself, giving off vibrations."
Simpson occasionally ventures from verse into other genres: novel, autobiography, and literary critical study. Robert Massie wrote of the poet's 1962 novel Riverside Drive in the New York Times Book Review: "Into fragments of dialogue, [Simpson] packs more meaning and drama than many novelists can bring off in a chapter. . . . As novels go, Riverside Drive is not a tragedy to shake the Gods—but it should stir most of its readers. From the first chapter to the last, it has the ring of truth." Concerning Simpson's literary critical study A Revolution in Taste, Paul Zweig commented that the author "has provided a series of engaging portraits of poets whom he presents less as cultural exemplars than as individuals struggling, as Baudelaire wrote, to absolve the pain of their lives with the grace of an enduring poem. It is the life narrowing intensely and heatedly into the act of writing that interests Simpson, the life pared to the poem. And this has enabled him to write a series of compact literary biographies that have the pithiness of a seventeenth-century 'character' and a literary good sense that reminds me of [Samuel] Johnson's Lives of the Poets."
Simpson has also written several volumes of autobiography, including 1972's North of Jamaica and The King My Father's Wreck, published in 1994. The latter work recounts the poet's early years in Jamaica and his transition to adulthood and literary maturity through a selection of essays. Focusing on specific images from his past—his mother's disappearance from home when he was a young boy, his excitement at the prospect of becoming a U.S. citizen, a dissatisfying job working as an editor for a publishing house, the experiences he encountered in the armed forces during World War II that led to later protestations over the conflict in Vietnam, returning a book to his Jamaican school sixty years after borrowing it—The King My Father's Wreck is written in the same spare style that is characteristic of Simpson's verse. The poet's "insistent voice" imbues his reminiscences with "more dramatic emotional topography than most," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer, thereby "rewarding adventurous readers."
His much-acclaimed anthology The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems represents a sixty-year career, in which Simpson has chosen to represent himself as a sociologist of suburbia's banalities. Although in poems like "Shoe-Fly Pie," he revisits the West Indies of his childhood, he always keeps one foot in his adopted country, never slipping into sentimentality. The outsider's perspective allows him to confront "the terror and beauty of life with a wry sense of humor and a mysterious sense of fate," wrote Edward Hirsch of the Washington Post. In his recent poems, there is a sense of an acceptance of life "here, on this street / where the houses from the outside / are all alike, and so are the people." In his review, David Orr of the New York Times stated, "If there's little Louis Simpson 'could learn from anyone' at this point, that's only because he's worked so hard and so long—and successfully—to learn it for himself."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4, 1975, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 32, 1985.
Hungerford, Edward, editor, Poets in Progress: Critical Prefaces to Thirteen Modern American Poets, Northwestern University Press, 1967.
Lazer, Hank, editor, On Louis Simpson: Depths beyond Happiness, University of Michigan, 1988.
Lensing, George S., and Ronald Moran, Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1976.
Moran, Ronald, Louis Simpson, Twayne, 1972.
Roberson, William H., Louis Simpson: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall, 1980.
Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry since 1945, Harper (New York, NY), 1965.
Stitt, Peter, The World's Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets, University of Georgia, 1985.
American Poetry Review, January-February, 1979.
Best Sellers, June 15, 1972.
Chicago Review, Volume XIX, number 1, 1966.
Christian Science Monitor, November 18, 2003, p. 17.
Harper's, October, 1965.
Hudson Review, autumn, 1996.
Listener, November 25, 1976.
London Magazine, February-March, 1977.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 30, 1995, p. 13.
Midstream, December, 1976.
New Statesman, January 31, 1964.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, November 15, 1959; May 13, 1962.
New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1959; May 13, 1962; May 9, 1976; December 17, 1978; January 29, 1984; November 13, 1988; September 21, 2003, p. 17.
New York Times Magazine, May 2, 1965.
Parnassus, Volume 21, pp. 138-145.
Poetry, April, 1960.
Publishers Weekly, October 24, 1994, p. 58; July 31, 1995.
Saturday Review, May 21, 1960.
Saturday Review/World, April 3, 1976.
Sewanee Review, spring, 1969.
Time, May 18, 1962.
Times Literary Supplement, June 9, 1966; January 4, 1980; July 4, 1986; May 5, 1989.
Washington Post Book World, March 5, 1995, p. 12; October 26, 2003, article by Edward Hirsch, p. T12.
Yale Review, March, 1964; October, 1972.