Louis Simpson

1923–2012
Louis Simpson

Poet, editor, translator, and critic Louis Simpson was born in 1923, in Jamaica, to Scottish and Russian parents. A contemporary of Confessional poets like Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath, Simpson’s early work followed a familiar arc. In the New York Times Book Review, critic David Orr noted its highlights: “Simpson has followed a path lined with signposts sunk so deep in our nation's poetic terra firma that they've practically become part of the landscape. Those signposts declare that a poet born in or around the 1920's should (1) begin his career writing witty, ironic formal poems bearing the stamp of Eliot and Auden; then (2) abandon that formalism for a more 'natural' free verse approach, while (3) dabbling in surrealism; until (4) finally settling on social, conversational poems in the manner of a man speaking to men.” While Simpson’s early books like The Arrivistes (1949) and A Dream of Governors (1959) show the influence of Auden, they also speak to his horrific experiences in World War II, where he served in the 101st Airborne Division and saw active duty in France, Belgium, and Germany. Simpson’s intense formal control, at odds with the visceral details of soldiering, also earned him comparisons to Wilfred Owen. At the End of the Open Road (1963) won the Pulitzer Prize and marked a shift in Simpson’s poetry as well. In this and later volumes, like Searching for the Ox (1976) and The Best Hour of the Night (1983), Simpson’s simple diction and formally controlled verses reveal hidden layers of meaning.

Though born in Jamaica, Simpson moved to the United States when he was seventeen to study at Columbia University. After his time in the army, and a brief period in France, Simpson worked as an editor in New York before completing his PhD at Columbia. He taught at universities such as Columbia, the University of California-Berkeley, and SUNY-Stony Brook. Simpson’s life-long expatriate status influenced his poetry, and he often uses the lives of ordinary Americans in order to critically investigate the myths the country tells itself. Though he occasionally revisits the West Indies of his childhood, he always keeps one foot in his adopted country. 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. Elsewhere Hirsch described Simpson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, 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." Collected Poems (1988) and There You Are (1995) focus on the lives of everyday citizens, using simple diction and narratives to expose the bewildering reality of the American dream. Poet Mark Jarman hailed Simpson as "a poet of the American character and vernacular."

A noted scholar and critic, Simpson published a number of literary studies, including Three on the Tower: The Lives and Works of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams (1975), The Character of the Poet (1986), and Ships Going Into the Blue: Essays and Notes on Poetry (1994). Simpson also penned a novel, Riverside Drive (1962), and the autobiographies North of Jamaica (1972) and The King My Father's Wreck (1994).

Simpson’s later work included The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems (2003), a collection that spans his sixty-year career, and Struggling Times (2009). In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Simpson received numerous awards and accolades, including the Prix de Rome, the Columbia Medal for Excellence, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. He was a finalist for the prestigious Griffin International Poetry Award, and his translation of Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology (1997) won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. Simpson lived in New York state.

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.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • The Arrivistes: Poems, 1940-49, Fine Editions, 1949.
  • Good News of Death and Other Poems, Scribner (New York, NY), 1955.
  • A Dream of Governors, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1959.
  • At the End of the Open Road, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1963.
  • Selected Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1965.
  • Adventures of the Letter I, Harper (New York, NY), 1971.
  • Searching for the Ox, Morrow, 1976.
  • Armidale, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1979.
  • Out of Season, Deerfield Press, 1979.
  • Caviare at the Funeral, Franklin Watts, 1980.
  • The Best Hour of the Night, Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
  • People Live Here: Selected Poems, 1949-1983, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1983.
  • Collected Poems, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1988.
  • Wei Wei and Other Friends, Typographeum (Francestown, NH), 1990.
  • In the Room We Share, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1990.
  • Jamaica Poems, Press of Appletree Alley (Lewisburg, PA), 1993.
  • There You Are: Poems, Story Line (Brownsville, OR), 1995.
  •  
  • The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 2003.
  • Struggling Times, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 2009.
  • Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books (Northumberland, UK), 2010.

OTHER

  • (Editor, with Donald Hall and Robert Pack) The New Poets of England and America, Meridian, 1957.
  • Riverside Drive (novel), Atheneum, 1962.
  • James Hogg: A Critical Study, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1962.
  • (Contributor) Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, editors, Five American Poets, Faber (London, England), 1963.
  • (Editor) An Introduction to Poetry, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1967, 2nd edition, 1972.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A Company of Poets (literary criticism), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI), 1981.
  • 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.
  • Selected Prose, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1988.
  • Selected Prose, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1989.
  • 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.
  • Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology, Story Line Press (Brownsville, OR), 1997.
  • (Translator) The Legacy & The Testament, Story Line Press, 2000.

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.

 

 
 

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • 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.

PERIODICALS

  • 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.

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Translated By Louis Simpson

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Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

LIFE SPAN 1923–2012

Louis Simpson

Biography

Poet, editor, translator, and critic Louis Simpson was born in 1923, in Jamaica, to Scottish and Russian parents. A contemporary of Confessional poets like Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath, Simpson’s early work followed a familiar arc. In the New York Times Book Review, critic David Orr noted its highlights: “Simpson has followed a path lined with signposts sunk so deep in our nation's poetic terra firma that . . .

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