Louis Simpson’s collected poems The Owner of the House was shortlisted for the Grifﬁn Prize in 2004. This was the judges’ citation:
Louis Simpson has been enriching the tradition of poetry in English for over 60 years, from his eloquent poems of the Second World War to the later understated, sometimes dyspeptic, tales of contemporary suburban life. He is one of the few poets of our time to have kept the art of narrative, of story-telling, alive in poetry, and yet he has done so without any sacriﬁce of lyric power: the work in The Owner of the House enchants and disenchants in equal measure. These conversations with America, held over many decades, are informed by a melancholy clear-sightedness, a generous, wry sense of humour, and a determination to celebrate the true lives and capacities of ordinary people. If Chekhov were reincarnated as a poet into the world where we live, this is surely what he would sound like.Much of Louis Simpson’s subject-matter is quintessential America. The language of his poetry draws on American speech and American speech rhythms. But he grew up in Jamaica, and one of the most recurrent themes in his work is that this most quintessential American poet felt himself to be a stranger in his own country. He found his territory where he lived. In the words of one of his book titles, ‘People Live Here’. But he also discovered America via Russia, learning from Chekhov and the other great Russian writers how to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and I think that’s what made his poetry so real and so universal:
It’s a classic American scene –
a car stopped off the road
and a man trying to repair it.
The woman who stays in the car
in the classic American scene
stares back at the freeway trafﬁc.
They look surprised, and ashamed
to be so helpless…
let down in the middle of the road!
To think that their car would do this!
They look like mountain people
whose son has gone against the law.
But every night they set out food
and the robber goes skulking back to the trees.
That’s how it is with the car…
it’s theirs, they’re stuck with it.
Now they know what it’s like to sit
and see the world go whizzing by.
In the fume of carbon monoxide and dust
they are not such good Americans
as they thought they were.
The feeling of being left out
through no fault of your own is common.
That’s why I say, an American classic.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 85]That last stanza could easily refer to Simpson himself: ‘The feeling of being left out / through no fault of your own is common. / That’s why I say, an American classic.’
Louis Simpson was one of that astonishing generation of American poets born in the 1920s:
1920: Howard Nemerov, Charles BukowskiAnd yet you won’t find him with them in many of the main anthologies of or covering modern and contemporary American poetry. He’s not in Helen Vendler’s Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, J.D. McClatchy’s Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Geoffrey Moore’s Penguin Book of American Verse or the Norton Anthology. He’s ‘not one of us’: Vendler being Harvard, McClatchy Yale, Moore the editor of Henry James and other classics.
1921: Richard Wilbur
1922: Anthony Hecht
1923: James Dickey, Denise Levertov, Richard Hugo, Louis Simpson
1926: Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, James Merrill, WD Snodgrass, AR Ammons, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara
1927: John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, WS Merwin, James Wright
1928: Philip Levine, Anne Sexton, Donald Hall
1929: Adrienne Rich, Ed Dorn
Simpson gave his opinion on the way Americans ‘go about poetry’ in his memoir The King My Father’s Wreck (Story Line Press, 1995):
I would like to show the difference between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s approach to poetry as a spiritual endeavor and the way Americans go about it. In the United States poetry is a business like any other. Writing workshops produce a great deal of verse that is made to order – none of it really matters to anyone. This useless industry is presided over by teachers of “creative writing” and others who make a career out of reviewing books of poetry and awarding grants and prizes. [p.138]
Helen Vendler’s anthology only covered 35 poets, so Simpson’s failure to make her top team is more understandable. But J.D. McClatchy’s book is supposed to represent ‘sixty-five of America’s greatest contemporary poets’. Sandy McClatchy doesn’t pick mavericks like Bly or Dorn either, but Simpson was not a maverick but an outsider, an outsider who viewed America and its people from the inside.
Recalling a visit to the poetry festival at Struga in the former Yugoslavia in 1971:
On the last evening they were giving a medal to W.H. Auden and he would be reading his poem. So I didn’t go. I disliked the poet who said that poetry was ‘fundamentally frivolous’ (one of his admirers, John Hollander, once told me that all good poetry was camp). At eleven people came straggling back to the hotel, looking subdued. They had been treated to the later Auden. [The King My Father’s Wreck, p.96]The poet John Hollander mentioned by Simpson is one of McClatchy’s approved poets, and he is in the Vintage anthology.
Literary mafias play their part in establishing and furthering the reputation of poets in America as everywhere else, and anthologies are amongst the most effective ways critics have of pushing whatever their preferred canon happens to be.
Louis Simpson admires the work of the great Modernist poets and established his reputation as a critic with a book called Three on the Tower (1975), a study of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. But he isn’t a Modernist poet himself – or a Postmodernist – and so isn’t in their anthologies either.
But he is included in Donald Hall’s Penguin Contemporary American Poetry. And he edited – with Donald Hall and Robert Pack – an anthology which was to make a significant impression on both sides of the Atlantic, The New Poets of England and America (1957), although later editions of this anthology remove his editorial credit.
He’s also in one of the standard American poetry textbooks, A. Poulin, Jr’s Houghton Mifflin anthology Contemporary American Poetry (eight editions from 1971 to 2005), which meant his work has been read in American schools and colleges.
Poulin (1938-96) taught at SUNY at Brockport where he founded BOA Editions in 1976, and went on to publish Simpson’s 1983 Selected Poems, People Live Here, which was later published in Britain by Anthony Thwaite, Secker & Warburg’s poetry editor, in 1985.
Three of his collections had earlier been published in Britain by Oxford University Press, from 1971 to 1980, including Searching for the Ox and Caviare at the Funeral, but after that Secker Selected in 1985 he had to wait another 25 years – until this year – before he was published in Britain again, with a new selection, Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems, published by Bloodaxe in 2010.
When I was making the selection for this edition, I could hardly help not noticing that I was selecting poems from 18 collections published from 1949 to 2009 by 12 different publishers, the first of them being the poet himself. Thom Ward, who took over the BOA list from the late A. Poulin, brought Simpson back to BOA with The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940–2001, which was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize in 2004, and BOA published Simpson’s final collection, Struggling Times, in 2009, but BOA isn’t one of the heavyweight New York publishers whose support carries weight with the poets, reviewers and academics who control critical opinion in the US.
With its list now edited by Peter Conners, BOA has picked up on many marginal or marginalised voices, and too often sees the poets whose reputations they can help establish get whipped from them by the likes of Norton. And looking through the list of Simpson’s previous US publishers, you don’t see names like Norton, Knopf, Farrar Straus, Viking Penguin. Many of the major American poetry lists have or have had editors who are part of or are connected with the American literary and academic establishment or other literary power bases. Simpson moved – or was moved on – from publisher to publisher, which can’t have helped his visibility.
Coming back now to ‘An American Classic’:
The feeling of being left out
through no fault of your own is common.
That’s why I say, an American classic.
Much of Simpson’s subject-matter is quintessential America. The language of his poetry draws on American speech and American speech rhythms.
He sets out the “requirements” for the American poem in this poem:
Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
Like the shark it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 48]The critic Bruce Bawer wrote in Hudson Review: ‘Simpson’s entire oeuvre can be seen as, among other things, a prolonged fight for America – a struggle for everything that it claims to stand for, and for the real goodness at the heart of many of its people, against all things that are mean, stupid, easy or tawdry…For all his mordant wit, he has never lost his ability to see through to the underlying reality of the human heart and the rolling years.’
Influenced by Walt Whitman, Simpson portrays a very different America, the contemporary America of highways, shopping malls and suburban life. And in ‘Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain’ (Voices in the Distance, pp. 49-50) he counters Whitman’s optimism for America: ‘Where are you, Walt? / The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.’
One of the most recurrent themes in Louis Simpson’s work is that this most quintessential American poet is a stranger in his own country, for reasons which will soon become clear. In ‘American Dreams’ for example…
In dreams my life came toward me,
my loves that were slender as gazelles.
But America also dreams….
Dream, you are flying over Russia,
dream, you are falling in Asia.
As I look down the street
on a typical sunny day in California
it is my house that is burning
and my dear ones that lie in the gutter
as the American army enters.
Every day I wake far away
from my life, in a foreign country.
These people are speaking a strange language.
It is strange to me
and strange, I think, even to themselves.
[Voices in the Distance, p.60]
And in The King My Father’s Wreck, he writes:
When I was seventeen I came to the States. Everything I saw was different and exciting: the great buildings, the men and women walking with such urgency, the lights at dusk. A New York Poet would take such things for granted, but to this day I have retained that sense of difference and exitement. I am still a stranger in America. [p. 106]
Louis Simpson was born in Jamaica in 1923. His father Aston Simpson was one of the leading lawyers in Kingston, of Scottish descent but with mixed blood in the family line. His mother Rosalind was Russian, born Rosalind de Marantz, of Polish Jewish ancestry, emigrated to America as a child, joining members of her family who were already there. When she was 17, she was living in Brooklyn, sewing shirts in a factory in Manhattan, when she managed to get a job as an extra on a film being made in Jamaica, where he met and was courted by Aston Simpson. When Louis was seven, they separated and later divorced, quite a scandal at the time in Jamaican Colonial society.
Then, one day, she disappeared. No one told me why. They said she had gone away… that was all. This was the great blow of my life, and it occurred in silence. I did not shed a tear…the thing was overwhelming. There is no way for a child to know that the grief he feels is not the whole of life but only part of it. This misery must be life… from the silence of those around me I took it to be so. It would have been wrong to complain.
I did not think of asking my father, who surely would have known why my mother was longer with us. The matter-of-fact air he put on, going to his office and returning, implied that questions were uncalled-for, and neither my brother nor I was to ask them… that our mother’s having gone away was none of our business.
I buried my anguish deep. and there it would remain, ‘A grief without a pang, vast void, and drear.’ [Simpson here quotes from Coleridge’s Dejection Ode] It would affect my life, especially my relations with women, but it harmed by imagination too, for your cannot suppress one part of feeling without suppressing others. […]
I would see my mother again. One afternoon I went with my father to a house near the sea, at Bournemouth [Jamaica]… [The King My Father’s Wreck, pp. 174-75]
Buying a House
We were living in a house
my father was thinking of buying.
A door suddenly opened
and who should come in
but my mother, Rosalind.
She was holding a revolver.
‘Now Rosalind,’ he said.
He walked across the room
and took the gun from her hand.
She fell to the floor,
foaming at the mouth.
I was seven years old.
I thought she was mad.
[from ‘Aston and Rosalind’, Voices in the Distance, p. 173]
There was no future in Jamaica for a woman who had left her husband. No lawyer would take her case – they were afraid of my father. She left the island and went to live in Toronto. My brother and I were to stay with our father’s relatives, the Fletchers, and I was to go to school in Kingston.
[The King My Father’s Wreck, p. 175]
CALIBAN AT SCHOOL
And then, as Simpson writes in his memoir:
When I was nine I was taken from my home in Kingston to a boarding school in the country. Munro was a hundred miles to the west, a considerable distance in those days. […] Munro College was said to be the best school on the Island, ‘the Eton of Jamaica’, but there was a cultural lag between the colony and the Mother Country, and the best school in Jamaica was no better than a second-rate English school, the kind George Orwell would described in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. The boys were at the mercy of the masters, whose onsets of bad temper found a vent in caning a boy or maybe half a dozen. You could be waked out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night to be caned because someone had been making a noise. There was a considerable amount of bullying of the small boys by the big boys, and of course no one told. […]
It was a strange idea of bringing up children, to send them away from home and let them be treated harshly, but this was done by the best families in England, so it must be right for us. The model was the same throughout the British Empire. [The King My Father’s Wreck, p. 175]
There was none of your stuff and nonsense about damaging a young person’s self-esteem – ours was damaged repeatedly. It was a lot better, we thought, than the damage that could be done to one’s person by six on the backside, or being made to write five hundred times, in neat handwriting, ‘I am a lazy and ignorant boy.’ [p.31]
Some years after leaving Jamaica I came to know an Englishman who had been a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War. The Japanese commandant had the amusing idea of beheading a prisoner now and then in front of the camp. This caused one Englishman to have nightmares during which he would cry out in terror. One night while he was having a particularly noisy dream, one man said to another, ‘What’s wrong with him anyway?’ ‘He thinks,’ the other replied, ‘that he’s back at Winchester.’ [p.30]Simpson’s memoir The King My Father’s Wreck takes its title from a line by Ferdinand in The Tempest. But it is with Caliban that Simpson identifies in analysing his British colonial upbringing:
At first Caliban thought of Prospero as a father. Why should he not? Why else would Prospero be treating him so kindly? But then Caliban came to understand that however well he behaved Prospero would never regard him as an equal, and however hard he studied he could never be Miranda’s husband. The language he had been learning said that all men were equal in the sight of God; it spoke of justice and truth and beauty. It drew pictures in the air of palaces and towers, and people in fine clothes riding in coaches. But this world was not for him. The European might educate the native but was not about to admit him to the circle of power. […]Simpson was sent to Munro at the age of nine, and he wasn’t to leave there until he was 17.
This fable goes to the heart of the colonial situation. In Jamaica when I was growing up you were taught to think like the English. You learned English history and literature, and that you owed everything to England, and owed her your loyalty in return. But you were not English – to be English you had to have been born in England. So there was a sense of inferiority built into the colonial psyche.
[The King My Father’s Wreck, p. 33]
My father died when I was sixteen. His will made no provision for sending me to a university. He would probably not have wanted me to go anyway: he thought that young men who went to university came to no good… in spite of his having Norman Manley for a friend. Manley had studied at Oxford. But my father was sure that English university life was a round of dissipation. Or did he think it made young men conceited and gave them extravagant ideas? In any case, he left no money that would take me to England. [The King My Father’s Wreck, p. 40]
When our father died and the will was read my brother and I had been disinherited. He had left us a few hundred pounds – the rest of his large estate went to our stepmother. She had arranged matters so, and the day after the funeral she sent us packing.
No one seemed to care what would become of us. [p. 167]
So when my mother wrote and asked if I would like to visit her in New York, I didn’t hesitate. I got on the mail-van at Munro that took you to the train at Balaclava. [p.40]
The next shock to Louis Simpson’s sense of identity came when he reached America:
When I came to New York I discovered that my mother was a Jew and therefore, according to Jewish law, so was I. My grandmother spoke English with a Yiddish accent. She was very religious. I can see her lighting the candles on Friday night, bringing her hands to her breast and praying in silence. A few years ago she had made a trip back to Russian, bringing clothing and money that she distributed, enabling some young people to marry.
But her daughters had shed their religion in mid-Atlantic. They had given up their Jewish traditions and been assimilated, but only on the most superficial level.
[The King My Father’s Wreck, p. 46]
Every Friday night members of the family fathered at my grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn: my mother’s younger sisters, Ruth and Annette, her niece Dorothy and brother Joe. My mother was usually absent; she was traveling, demonstrating cosmetics for Helena Rubenstein… at first in the States, then in South America.Simpson was about to go to college, to Columbia, when his mother returned from one of her trips, and gave him some motherly advice, which was…
When I was growing up in Jamaica my mother did not mention her Jewish background. She wanted to put behind her the poverty of her early years in Russia and her life as a working girl in New York, sewing tucks in shirts. She admired the English who were at the top of the social heap in Jamaica, their fine way of speaking and good manners. She learned to serve tea at four o’clock in the English fashion, and played golf at the Liguanea Club. [p.45]
…not to let anyone know that I came from Jamaica – I was to say that I came from England. She did not give a reason but it was obvious: if I said I was Jamaican people would think I was colored. It did not seem to occur to her that this advice might make me think there was something I should be ashamed of – which it did. For years I felt uneasy about having been born in Jamaica. It did not occur to my mother that it was wrong to tell me to lie. Fortunately all my training had been in the other direction: I grew up thinking that to lie was a sin…unforgivable. I did not take her advice – and it made me dislike her. I thought that in her business, cosmetics, she was continually lying about the products she sold, saying they would make women beautiful when, in fact, the face creams and “skin nourishers” were only grease. I thought she was always pretending to be something other than she was, and all her ideas were wrong.
In the early 1940s she was traveling far afield in Latin America. Her talk that had been punctuated with the word “dollars,” so that I had to resist the impulse to put my hands over my ears, was now punctuated with the word “bolivars.” I was happy to return to my room in the dormitory at Columbia and the reality of poems and stories.
[The King My Father’s Wreck, pp. 47-48]
That notion of the reality of poetry and fiction is behind Simpson’s antagonism towards anyone who has what he thinks is a false view of literature. His enemies would include:
• The New York Poets: ‘He wore a perpetual sneer; a reviewer had called his poems snotty and I could see why. I told him I didn’t think much of his idea of poetry, making jokes, and we parted with mutual detestation.’
• His bête noire, W.H. Auden, whose work he repeatedly criticises for treating poetry as a game. In one of his essays in Ships Going into the Blue (1995), he quotes Richard Ellman quoting Oscar Wilde: ‘“All bad poetry comes from genuine feeling,” he says, as Auden would say after him.’ And then Simpson declares: ‘Auden’s true ancestor was Oscar Wilde…’ and quotes Auden’s touchstones ‘for testing critics, not poets’, four long questions (basically championing artifice, evasion, rhetoric, the baroque in poetry) which Simpson says could be combined into one short question, which would be: ‘Do you like, I mean really like, camp. If so I shall trust your judgement implicitly on all literary matters…’ And he says: ‘This is from an Inaugural Lecture Auden delivered at the University of Oxford on June 11, 1956. I imagine it went over well with that audience.’
• Literary theorists. Simpson went on to teach literature at American universities for most of his life, and his memoir includes rants against the rise of theory in academia, and those ‘who teach that there is no direct connection between words and life, only between one word and another, one “sign” and another’. Most of the professors don’t read literature, he says, ‘they’re too busy reading literary theory to read literature…’ which can only be bad news for books, reading and literature.
• Those who treat poetry not as the literature of life but as a vehicle for ideas. As at Columbia:
The course, however, did not include poetry except as an adjunct to drama. This was typical of the tastes of the faculty at Columbia. With the exception of Mark Van Doren, who was a poet, they had very little respect for poetry. What they liked was an idea that could be argued about. The teacher I had in Humanities four times a week, Lionel Trilling, typified this attitude.
[The King My Father’s Wreck, p.48]
Van Doren was the opposite of Trilling. The core of his character was a love of literature. His teaching was spontaneous – he told you what came into his head, and there was a great deal in his head. Teaching such as this cannot be methodized – it depends, as T.S. Eliot said criticism must, on being very intelligent. [p.49]This love of literature, Simpson says, ‘is in disrepute at the present time in universities for not many students are very intelligent and literature makes demands on them they cannot meet, the first being an understanding and love of poetry.’
Elsewhere he writes: ‘Poetry is written out of the need one has to write it.’ And he quotes Fernando Pessoa:
‘There are images in the secret corners of books that live more clearly than many men and women. There are literary phrases that possess an absolutely human individuality.’
I don’t want to drive it into the ground, but fiction is more interesting, more alive, than most people’s lives.
[The King My Father’s Wreck, p.101]
WAR AND RECOVERY
But what does engage Simpson profoundly in his thinking and writing is people’s lives. His next formative experience in that area was the Second World War. And it didn’t just kick his poetry into life, it transformed his whole sense of identity:
I left Jamaica when I was seventeen and emigrated to the United States. Instead of going to Oxford I went to Columbia. There followed three years in the American army. After this I no longer thought of myself as a Jamaican, and my writing changed. Ads time passed it would change radically, so that I was regarded as an American, not a Jamaican, poet.Like Samuel Menashe, Louis Simpson was a ground soldier in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Like Menashe also, he was a runner who had to take messages across the battlefield, an experience he draws on in a long poem called ‘The Runner’ which I included in his Bloodaxe selection. In his memoir, after quoting from an account of the battle by a military historian, he comments:
When I was a boy, Europe presented a face like that which Prospero showed to Caliban at first: it was wise and just, and the voice in which it spoke was magic. The possessor of that voice was able to conjure up spirits to do his bidding. How could I not love him? But when I became a man this voice threatened to stifle my own. It was the voice of a ruling class, heard on the docks and in railway stations ordering the natives about.
It has taken me a lifetime to forget that voice and hear the sound of my own.
[The King My Father’s Wreck, p.187-88]
To read about the fighting at Bastogne is to remember how little those who were there knew what was happening. Our officers must have known where the regiment was situated, but they didn’t tell us – all that we needed to know was the ground in our immediate vicinity. I was a runner and carried messages through the woods from G Company to Battalion. The First sergeant would give me a message – verbally, so there was no change of its falling into the hands of the Germans. I repeated the message back to him, to show that I had it right. Then I set off, trudging through the trees. […]Like Menashe, he stayed on Europe after the war and studied in Paris for a while. Neither poet knew one another and both were suffering from post-traumatic illnesses. Simpson’s is described in biographical notes as a ‘serious illness’. It’s clear that the writing of ‘The Runner’ in Rome, as late as 1957, was part of an attempt to come to terms with his war experiences. He says in a note that the poem is for Donald Hall who encouraged him to write it. It’s a long narrative poem in 10 sections which takes up 25 pages in the Selected, written in the third person, telling the story of a man called Dodd, described in a note to the poem as
On December 22nd the 101st received an ultimatum, surrender or else. People in New York and Wichita Falls heard about it… we didn’t. I read about it weeks later in a hospital bed in Paris, with my feet hoisted in a sling, the treatment then given for trench foot. […]
In the days that followed we were shelled heavily. This, and being cold is what I remember most clearly about Bastogne. Shelling is what ground troops experience most frequently in combat – this is their war.
[The King My Father’s Wreck, pp. 59-61]
a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division of the Army of the United States. ‘The Runner’ is fiction; the episodes and characters are imaginary. But the fiction is based on the following history…The other characters in the poem may be conflations of fellow soldiers, but Dodd quite clearly is Simpson. What happens to Dodd in the poem happened to Simpson. No other poem I’ve read gives such a vivid sense of what it must have been like for ordinary ground troops fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, it’s much more real than any novel or non-fiction account plotted as a narrative or written with the benefit of hindsight. This is section 8 of the poem:
October, and the sky was turning gray.
The battle line had settled. Every night
The bombers flew, going to Germany
At a great height. And back the other way
The V-1’s came. The soldiers in their holes
Heard them droning and saw the rhythmic flames
Carrying woe to Antwerp and to England.
They dozed or watched. Then it began to rain,
And always rained. It seemed they were never dry.
Winter was in the air. Paths turned to mud.
By day and night the shells came shrieking in;
They got so they could tell a dying fall
And pay the rest no mind. They lived with mud.
They cooked and ate their rations in the can,
And tried to dry their socks between two rains.
Cold and sullen, under a raincoat roof,
They shivered in their holes.
One moonlit night
Dodd was returning on his way alone.
There was a wind; the haunted shadows stirred,
And rainpools glimmered in the moonlit ﬁelds.
There was a ﬁeld the runner loathed to cross.
A place of horrors. Here, on the ﬁrst day,
There’d been ﬁerce charges, combats at close range,
And the dead were mixed as they had fallen.
Here crouched the German soldier with his schmeisser
Close to the parachutist in his rage –
Putrid things, never to be forgotten.
The ﬁeld was swelling, shining with an aura
Of pale corruption.
To avoid it, Dodd
Went by another path he did not know,
Leading, it seemed, back to the company.
But in a while a fearful premonition
Stopped him. In a shadow, cold with dread,
He stood listening. The branches stirred,
And all at once there was a clash of arms,
The sounds of footsteps. Stealthily he turned
To slip away.
‘Wer geht da?’
He plunged into the darkness, blind with panic.
A storm of shots erupted at his back.
Brambles tore at his legs. He climbed a bank,
Clawing, and stumbled down the other side.
Then, as he ran, he shouted out the password.
‘Ohio!’ like a dog drenched with hot water.
His rifle fell. He left it where it was.
‘Ohio!’ He collided with a branch
And staggered. At his back the storm increased.
Red tracers streaked the air. Across a ditch
He leaped. And ran across the road beyond.
A hole was in his way; he cleared it with
A stride, and the dark ﬁgure starting up
Out of the hole. He kept on running, shouting
‘Ohio!’ A shape standing in the path
Snatched at him; he swerved out of its grasp.
There was a maze of holes. He stumbled, reeled,
And fell. His helmet flew off with a clang.
Feet were approaching. He lay still as death.
‘It’s Dodd,’ said a voice.
At last, he looked up
Into the faces of the third platoon.
Fisher. Others. They looked down in wonder.
[Voices in the Distance, pp. 28-30]
‘The Runner’ appeared in Simpson’s third collection, A Dream of Governors (1959). In the memoir he writes about how he came to write one of the best-known Second World War poems, ‘Carentan O Carentan’, published in his first collection, The Arrivistes, ten years earlier in 1949. This is a ballad prompted by his memory of being one of a column of American infantrymen ambushed by German soldiers. Seamus Heaney has described it as ‘a poem that tells and tolls all at once. It has soldiers going into battle in Normandy; but it also has this remote sweet melody and dreaminess, a bit like Housman hymning his Redcoats, except that Simpson’s matter is far more deadly. It’s not fifes but fusillades that his soldiers march to.’
A few years after the war I was living in Paris as a student […]. I had still not recovered from the sar. It was no trouble to see bodies lying about in my room, one with an arm held rigidly in the air, another with a knee drawn up. There was a German officer who kept reappearing on the furniture. I had first seen him lying on a mattress outside a house in Holland – he has been carried out of the house and left on the mattress to die in comfort. Since then he had swollen so that his belly was bursting his trousers and his arms and legs extended stiffly like balloons. Now he had got off the mattress somehow and would turn up in my room at odd times, perching on a chair and looking at me. I offered him a cigarette which he refused, producing a packet of small black cigars from a pocket. Turkish, he said, which he preferred.
One night I dreamed that I was walking with other shadowy figures along what seemed to be the bank of a canal, when bullets slashed the trees and shells were falling. I woke and wrote out the dream, and as I wrote remembered… it wasn’t a dream, it has actually happened. For one of the symptoms of the mental disorder that came after the war was amnesis… there were bright patches with darkness all around. How this scene came back clearly.
I wrote it as a poem. I had been reading Heine’s ballads, and the poem took the form of a ballad. As it was a poem, not just memory, I was free to invent.
[The King My Father’s Wreck, pp. 56-57]
Carentan O Carentan
Trees in the old days used to stand
And shape a shady lane
Where lovers wandered hand in hand
Who came from Carentan.
This was the shining green canal
Where we came two by two
Walking at combat-interval.
Such trees we never knew.
The day was early June, the ground
Was soft and bright with dew.
Far away the guns did sound,
But here the sky was blue.
The sky was blue, but there a smoke
Hung still above the sea
Where the ships together spoke
To towns we could not see.
Could you have seen us through a glass
You would have said a walk
Of farmers out to turn the grass,
Each with his own hay-fork.
The watchers in their leopard suits
Waited till it was time,
And aimed between the belt and boot
And let the barrel climb.
I must lie down at once, there is
A hammer at my knee.
And call it death or cowardice,
Don’t count again on me.
Everything’s all right, Mother,
Everyone gets the same
At one time or another.
It’s all in the game.
I never strolled, nor ever shall,
Down such a leafy lane.
I never drank in a canal,
Nor ever shall again.
There is a whistling in the leaves
And it is not the wind,
The twigs are falling from the knives
That cut men to the ground.
Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
The way to turn and shoot.
But the Sergeant’s silent
That taught me how to do it.
O Captain, show us quickly
Our place upon the map.
But the Captain’s sickly
And taking a long nap.
Lieutenant, what’s my duty,
My place in the platoon?
He too’s a sleeping beauty,
Charmed by that strange tune.
Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.
[Voices in the Distance, pp. 11-12]
THE OPEN ROAD
After 1959, the publication date of A Dream of Governors, Simpson’s poetry changed. Like many poets of that time – most notably W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich – he became a very different kind of poet. Like Merwin and Rich, his early poetry was formal verse strongly influenced by the English classics, but the direction he took was very different from theirs.
His next book, his fourth collection, At the End of the Open Road, published in 1963, won him a Pulitzer Prize. Edward Hirsch described it as ‘not only a major breakthrough in his own work; it is also one of the tours de force of American poetry in the 60s […] a sustained meditation on the American character […] 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.’ It was Hirsch who dubbed Simpson ‘the American Chekhov’.
In Stepping Stones (2008), Dennis O’Driscoll’s book of interviews with Seamus Heaney, O’Driscoll asks Heaney first about R.S. Thomas, then Louis Simpson:
DO’D: Another poet who was important to you in the late sixties was the Louis Simpson of books like At the End of the Open Road.
SH: Simpson had a quality of openness; he was able to give the high cultural and the colloquial equal credence, able to get at life and still keep up a literary play. Able to do that maybe because he had been in combat during the Second World War, or because he was Jamaican – somebody who had internalised a traditional British-type curriculum and then broke free of it as if it had been a chrysalis. I was also interested in the way the closed form/open form debate played itself out in his work. In fact, the drifty, soft-edgy aspect of those quatrain poems at the end of Door into the Dark probably owes something to Louis Simpson. Nothing as direct as imitation, more a tuning, an inclination to make the line a feeler-out rather than a foot-by-foot advance. I felt even closer to Louis after I went to Berkeley. He’d taught there and been a friend of Tom Flanagan’s; through Tom I eventually got to know him personally. When Tom went back east to teach in Stony Brook, they were colleagues again and I used to meet up with them in the late seventies and early eighties on Long Island. Karl Miller published a lot of Simpson’s poems also.
DO’D: Louis Simpson figures in one of your own poems.
SH: In ‘Making Strange’, yes. It started from a chance meeting between my father, myself and Louis. He was being driven by me from Belfast to a poetry reading in the University of Ulster at Coleraine, so I took a detour through my part of the country and stopped at the pub next to our old Mossbawn house. Next thing, my father appears on the scene, and is being included as more or less part of the tour. So there I was between the pair of them, at home and not at home, between the Toome Road and the open road. It wasn’t unlike those little poems Louis Simpson himself was writing in the 1960s, ‘In the Suburbs’, say, or ‘After Midnight’, where his own local American scene would also get itself defamiliarised.
I stood between them,
the one with his travelled intelligence
and tawny containment,
his speech like the twang of a bowstring,
and another, unshorn and bewildered
in the tubs of his wellingtons,
smiling at me for help,
faced with this stranger I’d brought him.
Then a cunning middle voice
came out of the field across the road
saying, ‘Be adept and be dialect,
tell of this wind coming past the zinc hut,
call me sweetbriar after the rain
or snowberries cooled in the fog.
But love the cut of this travelled one
and call me also the cornfield of Boaz.
Go beyond what’s reliable
in all that keeps pleading and pleading,
these eyes and puddles and stones,
and recollect how bold you were
when I visited you first
with departures you cannot go back on.’
A chaffinch flicked from an ash and next thing
I found myself driving the stranger
through my own country, adept
at dialect, reciting my pride
in all that I knew, that began to make strange
at the same recitation.
[Opened Ground, p. 221]
The two poets are chiming strangely: Heaney reciting all that he knew of his own country – and ‘began to make strange / at the same recitation’ – is also Simpson’s poetic strategy.
The open road leads to the used-car lot, Simpson wrote in ‘Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain’. It also leads to the suburbs. Here are the two short Simpson poems mentioned by Heaney in that interview:
In the Suburbs
There’s no way out.
You were born to waste your life.
You were born to this middleclass life
As others before you
Were born to walk in procession
To the temple, singing.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 42]
The dark streets are deserted,
With only a drugstore glowing
Softly, like a sleeping body;
With one white, naked bulb
In the back, that shines
On suicides and abortions.
Who lives in these dark houses?
I am suddenly aware
I might live here myself.
The garage man returns
And puts the change in my hand,
Counting the singles carefully.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 57]
Simpson found his territory where he lived. But he also discovered America via Russia. In his memoir he describes the ‘people who live here’ of his title:
They married and lived in houses; they had children, drove cars, went to work, shopped in supermarkets, and watched TV. Poetry hardly ever spoke of this… it did not speak of such lives except with irony and contempt. But I was one of those people… the only thing that made me different was being a writer. I wanted to speak of the life I had and tell stories about the men and women I knew. The stories would be in verse, for this was what I enjoyed… the rhythm of the line. […]
I was setting out on a lonely road. The people my poems were about, my next door neighbors, wouldn’t read them… they preferred television. Editors blamed poets for being obscure and not writing for the common reader, but when I sent one of those editors a poem with character and incident, written in language any reader could understand, it was promptly rejected… it wasn’t “poetic” enough. Over the years The New Yorker had published a number of my poems… I had contracted to let them see my work before I showed it to anyone else. The poems I sent them now were returned and I tore up the contract.
There was no precedent for the kind of poetry I wanted to write. Some years ago I had broken with rhyme and meter and learned to write in free form. Now I discarded the traditional ornaments of language, especially metaphors. I wanted to render the thing itself exactly as it happened.
I discovered what writers of novels and short stories knew: if you had a point of view everything seemed to fall into place and move. Therefore the hard work had to be done on myself, understanding what I felt and what I wanted to say. Then I could tell a story and it could be believed.
I received some help, but not from a poet. When I was a child my mother used to tell stories about the village in Russia. She talked about people in the family… the man who was some sort of revolutionist and who hid under the mattress on which his wife was lying; the police looked everywhere but under the mattress, and so he escaped. His wife was going to have a baby, and the police wouldn’t go near her… they thought it would bring bad luck. […]
Now I was reading Chekhov. He knew how to tell a story about ordinary people who turned out to be extraordinary. I invented characters and placed them in Russian settings.
[The King My Father’s Wreck, pp.80-82]
Caviare at the Funeral
This was the village where the deacon ate all the caviare at the funeral.On the way back from the cemetery
Chekhov, ‘In the Ravine’
they discussed the funeral arrangements
and the sermon, ‘such a comfort to the family’.
They crowded into the parlor.
It was hot, and voices were beginning to rise.
The deacon found himself beside a plate
heaped with caviare. He helped himself
to a spoonful. Then another.
Suddenly he became aware
that everyone’s eyes were upon him,
ruin staring him in the face.
He turned pale. Then tried to carry it off –
one may as well be hanged for a sheep
as a lamb, et cetera.
Meeting their eyes with a stern expression
he took another spoonful, and another.
He ﬁnished the plate.
Next morning he was seen at the station
buying a ticket for Kurovskoye,
a village much like ours, only smaller.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 91]
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
[Voices in the Distance, p. 92]
Then I applied what I had learned from Chekhov to writing poems with American settings, and of course it worked just as well as in the “Russian” poems.
[The King My Father's Wreck, p. 82]
The People Next Door
He isn’t a religious man.
So instead of going to church
on Sunday they go to sea.
They cruise up and down,
see the ferry coming from Bridgeport
to Green Harbor, and going back
from Green Harbor to Bridgeport…
and all the boats there are.
The occasional silent ﬁsherman…
When the kids start to get restless
he heads back to shore.
I hear them returning
worn out and glad to be home.
This is as close to being happy
as a family ever gets.
I envy their content. And yet
I’ve done that too, and know
that no hobby or activity
distracts one from thinking
forever. Every human being
is an intellectual more or less.
I too was a family man.
It was a phase I had to go through.
I remember tenting in the Sierras,
getting up at dawn to fly cast.
I remember my young son
almost being blown off the jetty
in Lochalsh. Only the suitcase
he was carrying held him down.
The same, at Viareggio,
followed me into the sea
and was almost swept away by the current.
These are the scenes I recall
rather than Christmas and Thanksgiving.
My life as the father of a family
seems to have been a series
of escapes, not to mention illnesses,
confrontations with teachers,
Flaubert said, ‘They’re in the right,’
looking at a bourgeois family,
and then went back happily
to his dressing gown and pipe.
Yes, I believe in the family…
next door. I rejoice
at their incomings and outgoings.
I am present when Betty
goes out on her ﬁrst date.
I hear about Joey’s being chosen
for the team. I survive the takeover
of the business, and the bad scare
at the doctor’s.
I laugh with them that laugh
and mourn with them that mourn.
I see their lights, and hear a murmur
of voices from house to house.
It gives me a strange feeling
to think how far they’ve come
from some far world to this,
bending their necks to the yoke
And that one day,
with a few simple words
and flowers to keep them company
they’ll return once more to the silence
out there, beyond the stars.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 120-21]
A Shearling Coat
Alexander Ortiz and Arlyne Gonzales
were walking home from a movie.
A car drew up, and two men
got out. One had a gun, the other
tugged at her shearling coat.
‘Don’t hurt her,’ Ortiz said, ‘she’s pregnant.’
The gunman shot him twice,
in the chest and throat.
‘What you do that for?’ said the other.
‘C’mon, c’mon, get the jacket,’
the gunman said, and they left,
with a parting shot at Gonzales.
She had thrown herself down
on top of the dying man.
And I shall be wanting to be rid
of this thing to the end of my days.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 153]
When I first read that poem – it’s one of Simpson’s later poems, from 1995 collection There You Are – I’d assumed it was based on a news report. But it wasn’t. Simpson is recounting a shooting he witnessed himself, on the street, in New York.
In 2008 I visited Simpson at his home in Setauket on Long Island with filmmaker Pamela Robertson-Pearce. We filmed him reading several poems, including the two included in the video embedded below this article, ‘A New Year’s Child’ and ‘Spot on the Kitchen Floor’, which would appear in his last published collection, Struggling Times (2009). That book was completed as his health was failing, and the frail man we met – now in his mid 80s – already seemed like a ghost of his former fiery self. While his readings of his best-known, earlier poems didn’t do them justice, he seemed to inhabit the newer poems much more fully, reading them with greater expression. Afterwards, when I asked him about the story behind ‘A Shearling Coat’, he became suddenly vehement in voicing the outrage he still felt at what he had witnessed and tried to contain in that poem. This was no fiction or fictionalised documentary, this was the real life, these were the real people he spoke for in his poetry.
The Silent Piano
We have lived like civilised people.
O ruins, traditions!
And we have seen the barbarians,
breakers of sculpture and glass.
And now we talk of ‘the inner life’,
and I ask myself, where is it?
Not here, in these streets and houses,
so I think it must be found
in indolence, pure indolence,
an ocean of darkness,
in silence, an arm of the moon,
a hand that enters slowly.
I am reminded of a story
Camus tells, of a man in prison camp.
He had carved a piano keyboard
with a nail on a piece of wood.
And sat there playing the piano.
This music was made entirely of silence.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 68]
* * * * * *
Louis Simpson reads two of his last poems, 'A New Year's Child' and 'Spot on the Kitchen Floor', published in both Struggling Times (BOA Editions, 2009) and Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2010). Pamela Robertson-Pearce filmed Louis Simpson at his home in Setauket, Long Island, in September 2008.
Louis Simpson reads 'A Clearing' from The Owner of the House, in Toronto, when that book was shortlisted for the 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize. This poem is also included in Voices in the Distance.
ANDREW MOTION on LOUIS SIMPSON
Very few poets pass my bathroom test, where their gently curling pages must submit to repeated rereadings. Louis Simpson is one of them. He's the least well-known and slightly younger member of the generation of great American poets that included Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, publishing his first books shortly after the second world war. (His poems have been unobtainable here for the last 25 years; mercifully, Bloodaxe have recently published his selected poems, Voices in the Distance.)
The early poems are generally pretty formal, dainty and slightly constrained – though often beautiful. Then he produced an extraordinary long poem about his time as a soldier. In the late 1960s, the smoke blew away. His forms loosened up, his narratives turned towards quick-cutting and surrealism, his tone became more confident and confidential. The result has been 40 years' worth of work that feels absolutely compelling in its mixture of intensity and relaxation. I first started reading him 30 years ago and now hardly a day goes by without my looking at him again, thinking: how does he do that?
('The artist's artist: Five poets nominate their favourite living writer in their field'), The Guardian.
Click in these links to read the tributes:
New York Times
Los Angeles Times
Louis Aston Marantz Simpson: born Kingston, Jamaica, 27 March 1923; married 1949, Jeanne Rogers (divorced 1954; one son), 1955, Dorothy Roochvarg (divorced 1979; one son, one daughter), 1985, Miriam Bachner (divorced 1998); died Setauket, Long Island, NY, 14 September 2012.
The King My Father's Wreck (Story Line Press, 1995).
The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940–2001 (BOA Editions, 2003).
Struggling Times (BOA Editions, 2009).
Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2010).
[Ordering link for Amazon: click here]
The above article is an expanded version of a talk I gave on Louis Simpson at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 2010, and thanks are due to the Poetry Trust for inviting me to compile it. The family photographs are all taken from Louis Simpson's memoir The King My Father's Wreck (Story Line Press, 1995), now out of print. The poems are from his US and UK editions listed above.