People live here: selected poems 1949-1983.
"It has come true,' reads the first Louis Simpson poem that I encountered some twenty years ago,
The journey and the danger of the world,
All that there is
To bear and to enjoy, endure and do.
("My Father in the Night Commanding No')
A fitting summary of Simpson's poetry. After reading his new book, The Best Hour of the Night, I want to add--sticking to the rhyme scheme--"suburbia too.'
Having been from the beginning an admirably "impure' poet (to borrow Czeslaw Milosz's sly term for Whitman, Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, et al., as opposed to those modern poets who aspire to an art of "pure' imagination), Simpson has taken on the challenge of trying to make sense of contemporary life, from his soldiering experiences in World War II to American historical myths and realities--wherein "The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.' Increasingly, he writes about ordinary characters and their everyday experiences. Simpson stoutly refuses the pressure from "purists' to force poetry into a limited and marginal role. The title of his selected poems, People Live Here, is an indication of this writer's determination to engage his imagination with characterization and plot. For him, as for Matthew Arnold, poetry has been a "criticism of life.' Simpson has consistently chosen a large canvas, and this selection displays thirty-four years of work that is various, compassionate, committed and often astonishingly beautiful. He is adept enough--and I would say, humane enough (I take the will to communicate as a gauge of an artist's humanity)--to be clear and readable. If the rhetorical intensity of his poems slackens in the process, it should also be noted that their plainness of diction contributes to their directness.
Reading the more than 200 pages of People Live Here, one is struck both by the range of subject and treatment and by the unifying effect of Louis Simpson's voice and attitude on heterogeneous material. While capable of lyric rapture, the poet typically holds himself at some distance from his subjects and is by turns satirical, demused, sorrowing, disdainful, sympathetic, wry. Yet to say that he holds himself at some distance is less accurate than to note that while sympathetic, Simpson seems by his very nature to be an outsider. He grew up in Jamaica, West Indies, with parents of Scottish and Russian descent; he was 17 before he moved to the United States. While he engages himself passionately with American life, at times it is as if the poet were an anthropologist from an alien culture observing American ways. Simpson was the alien Easterner in California, for instance, two decades before Annie Hall:
Here I am, troubling the dream coast
With my New York face,
Bearing among the realtors
And tennis-players my dark preoccupation.
And here is his account of certain Long Island folkways:
There aren't too many alternatives.
The couple sitting in the car
will either decide to go home
or to a motel.
Afterwards, they may continue
to see each other, in which case
there will probably be a divorce,
or else they may decide
to stop seeing each other.
("Little Colored Flags')
The poet's attitude is deadpan, insistently noncommittal. In "American Classic' he addresses the issue of alienation:
The feeling of being left out
through no fault of your own, is common.
That's why I say, an American classic.
The Best Hour of the Night reflects Simpson's increasing focus on life in the suburbs. "Suburbia' is a word that one rarely pronounces without sneering, but to dismiss or ignore it is to eliminate from consideration a significant slice of the American pie. As Robert Lowell put it, "History has to live with what was here.' Someone who knew nothing of present-day America would get little idea of our life from most contemporary poetry. I often think of a student of mine some years ago who said, "I never feel completely at ease outside of Great Neck,' and I can almost imagine her in a Simpson poem. His view of these briefcase-carriers, deal-strikers, Saturday-night poker players and village-meeting-goers combines detachment with a self-effacing sense of identification.
In his examination of Homo suburbanus, Simpson does not avoid the iffy area of morality. "Do you know the eleventh commandment?' Harry, one of his characters, asks. (The eleventh Commandment is "Don't get caught.') After Harry makes this remark, the poet, almost but not quite a straight man, notes coolly: "Then, as I recall, everyone laughs.' Harry is later sent to prison for
kickbacks, misapplication of funds,
conspiracy, fraud, concealment, wire fraud,
falsified books and records, and
interstate transportation of stolen property.
("The Eleventh Commandment')
The poem concludes with the poet's dry comment on greeting Harry's young son after the father's removal: ""Hi there,' I say to him./What else do you say to a six-year-old?'
In staking out fresh material for his poetry, it is not surprising that Louis Simpson should feel the necessity of creating new or at least hybrid forms. This he has done notably in "The Previous Tenant,' which is something like a short story in free verse. The form allows the writer to highlight certain details without being bound to the three-dimensional realism and continuity of traditional fiction. (While "postmodernist' fiction writers take the same kinds of formal liberties, of course, Simpson is not attracted by their interest in fantasy and "meta-realism.') The speaker rents a cottage where the previous tenant has left some of his belongings, and through conversations with the landlord and others, pieces together the story of an affair his predecessor had that caused him all sorts of trouble including the divorce that necessitated his moving into the cottage in the first place. It's a fascinating, skillfully spun tale in which we learn all sorts of different things about the characters involved, the speaker, the little suburban town in which the story is set and, finally, about American values.
If you cling to the impression that poetry is by nature obscure, forbidding and otherworldly, buy one of these books by Louis Simpson. You may be the only passenger on the 5:51 reading it, but you will feel a shock of recognition at poems that dare to come to terms with this country we live in--even though, as Simpson says in "Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain':
. . . all the realtors,
Pickpockets, salesmen, and the actors performing
Turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted