Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was born in Jamaica, where his father was a lawyer. His parents were divorced when he was young, and his father remarried. When Simpson traveled to New York to attend Columbia University, he learned for the first time that his mother was Jewish–“and therefore, according to Jewish law, so was I.” He served in the army during World War II. When the war ended, he returned to Columbia to complete his studies. After working in publishing, he returned to Columbia to earn a doctorate and began an academic career that led him first to the University of California at Berkeley and then to the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he taught from 1967 to 1993.
Simpson’s early poems were metrical and rhymed. His style underwent two major changes, the first (in At the End of the Open Road, which won the Pulitzer Prize) a breaking away from elegant metrics into hard-edged, imagistic free verse, the second (begun in Searching for the Ox) a delving into narrative, in spare lines stripped of most artifice. Yet his interest in storytelling was there from the beginning, in poems such as “Carentan O Carentan,” which recounts a bloody ambush in ironic ballad stanzas, contrasting the pastoral beauty of a “shady lane” with the “watchers in leopard suits” who “aimed between the belt and boot/ And let the barrel climb.”
One of the sections of Simpson’s second volume of selected poems, People Live Here, is devoted to “The Fighting in Europe.” In “The Battle” the speaker recalls most vividly “how hands looked thin/ Around a cigarette, and the bright ember/ Would pulse with all the life there was within.” These lines suggest that even though Simpson’s manner changed dramatically, he remained interested in the telling detail (the ember) and the life within people. The other sections of People Live Here show the range of Simpson’s thematic interests: “Songs and Lyrics,” “The Discovery of America,” “Modern Lives,” and “Tales of Volhynia” (poems about Russia, where his mother’s family had lived). Some of Simpson’s lyric poems, such as “Birch” and “As Birds Are Fitted to the Boughs,” are sonorous and neatly articulated, but others tell stories in their musical forms. “My Father in the Night Commanding No,” for example, uses rhymed quatrains to recount life with his practical father and romantic mother.
Many of Simpson’s poems deal with American life, both his own immigrant discovery and astonishment (as in “The Pawnshop”) and his close observation of neighbors in the suburbs. In “The Tenant” Simpson mentions a kind of investigation similar, perhaps, to his own practice: “Behind the Perry Masons and Agatha Christies/ I came across a packet of letters./ It was like being a detective.” Behind the commonplace mysteries lie the greater mysteries of the commonplace.
Simpson continues peering into other lives and examining his own mind–because he is still trying to figure out America. An outsider in a constantly strange land, he has remained an insider, from early childhood, within the world of books. Perhaps his great facility with the poetic tradition has allowed him to give up prosodic virtuosity in the pursuit of the pure, bare story, transformed into poetry because it was not embellished but cut into no-nonsense lines.
Simpson is, at heart, a visionary poet, much of whose power comes from the plainspokenness of his narrative probings. His vision owes much to two writers in particular, Walt Whitman and Anton Chekhov. The two great changes in his work correspond to his close reading of these masters. Several poems in At the End of the Open Road, Simpson’s first breakthrough, pay homage to Whitman and speak to him. Simpson concludes that “[a]t the end of the open road we come to ourselves.” His own vision of America is dark and foreboding: “the heart misplaced, and seeds/ As black as death, emitting a strange odor.”
The second breakthrough began with Searching for the Ox and was confirmed by Caviare at the Funeral, whose title poem is based on a story by Chekhov. A later poem, “Another Boring Story,” begins with a Chekhov story about one professor and then adds a story about another, apparently drawn from Simpson’s own experiences of university life. The similarity, like a good metaphor, is rooted in contrast, the distance between the two parts.
Simpson’s vision is based in irony, the sense of a discrepancy between how things were and now are, between dreams and lives, between beauty and ugliness, between clamor and quiet. In “Ed,” for example, a drunken man whose family, years ago, disapproved of his former girlfriend, a cocktail waitress, wishes that he had married her instead of the “respectable woman” who eventually left him: “‘Well,’ they said, ‘why didn’t you?’”