Belated Farewell to an American Poet

This is a bit late, but as they say, better late than never . . .

Louis Simpson, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, died this September 14 at the age of 89. According to his daughter, he had Alzheimer’s disease.

Simpson published 20 volumes of poetry, one novel (Riverside Drive), and numerous non-fiction books. For more than half a century, he was a respected figure in American Poetry. Whether writing in traditional verse or free verse, his work is characterized by the simple, spare style in which he fashioned his observations on war (he was a combat infantryman in WWII), the American Dream, and the complexities of modern life. “I write about feelings people share, in language that can be understood,” he wrote in The Character of the Poet (Poets on Poetry), published in 1986.

Russian author Anton Chekhov was a major influence. When Simpson’s name appeared on the International Shortlist for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2004, the judges in their citation wrote, “If Chekhov were reincarnated as a poet into the world where we live, this is surely what he would sound like.” Walt Whitman was an important influence on Simpson as well. Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” inspired the title of the collection At the End of the Open Road, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1964. In a later poem, “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” Simpson laments how the earlier poet’s American dream had been detoured:

Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.

Buddhism was another influence. I don’t believe Simpson was a Buddhist per se, but he studied Zen Buddhism, and Zen concepts and imagery seeped into his poetry. His 1976 volume, Searching for the Ox, takes its title from the famous Zen Ox Herding pictures. Once in an interview [1. Hank Lazer, Ed., On Louis Simpson:Depths Beyond Happiness, (University of Michigan Press, 1988)], Simpson talked a bit about Buddhism, and his remarks help explain why Buddhism appealed to him, for as a poet, his primary subject was the everyday things of this saha, this mundane, world:

Buddhism teaches that your physical existence and your mental existence are one thing; in the West, we tend automatically to split them apart, as in the Christian idea of the body and the soul. I prefer the medieval idea – they had a term for the body which recognized it as a form for the soul, which I take to mean that the body is the outward garment of the soul. Whitman says that, too, that there is no split between the body and the soul. And this is what the Buddhists say also. This way of thinking leads to a poetry that is very physical in its orientation, a poetry that concentrates on ordinary life.”

Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1923. His mother was Russian and his father, a lawyer with Scottish ancestry. He came to the United States when he was seventeen. He was an American poet who wrote of contemporary American life, relying on strong, stark imagery to convey his themes:

After Midnight

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.

Louis Simpson, “After Midnight” from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001. Copyright © 2003 by Louis Simpson.

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