Louis Simpson is the author of 17 books of original poetry. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, and the Academy of American Poets 1998 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. Among his many other honors are the Prix de Rome, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Columbia Medal for Excellence. He published his first book of poems, The Arrivistes (1949) in France. His other books of poetry include The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940-2001 (BOA Editions, 2003); Nombres et poussière; There You Are (Story Line, 1995); In the Room We Share (1990); Collected Poems (1988); People Live Here: Selected Poems 1949-83 (1983); The Best Hour of the Night (1983); Caviare at the Funeral (1980); Armidale (1979); Searching for the Ox (1976); Adventures of the Letter I (1971); Selected Poems (1965); At the End of the Open Road, Poems (1963), and A Dream of Governors (1959). He translated Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology and is author of the memoir, The King My Father’s Wreck (Story Line 1995), and published a volume entitled Selected Prose (1989). He earned wide acclaim for his books of criticism, which include: Three on the Tower (1975), a study of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams; Ships Going Into the Blue: Essays and Notes on Poetry (1994); The Character of the Poet (1986); A Company of Poets (1981) and A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Path, and Robert Lowell (1978).
Born in Jamaica, Simpson studied at Columbia University; served in the Second World War followed by studies at the University of Paris after which he earned his Ph.D. at Columbia where he went on to teach. He also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Louis Simpson lived for many years in Setauket, New York, on the north shore of Long Island, near Stony Brook. He died on September 14, 2012. (Academy of American Poets) The New York Times offered this look back at his life and accomplishments.
“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.”
Louis Simpson reads A Clearing
A Clearing, by Louis Simpson
I had come to Australia
for ten weeks, as a guest of the state.
My duties were light: to confer
with students. They didn’t want to –
they came once or twice, that was all.
One night someone knocked: a student
with some poems she’d like me to see.
The next day I observed her
in the dining room, and went over.
“I liked” I began to say –
She lifted her hands, imploring me
not to speak. All around her
they were talking about the usual subjects,
motorbikes and football.
If it got around that she wrote poems –
At night I would sit in my room
reading, keeping a journal,
and, with the aid of a map,
trying to learn the positions
of the southern constellations.
I’d look at them on the map,
then go outside and try to find them
in the sky before I forgot.
I had recently been divorced
and was starting a new life,
as they say. The world lies before you,
where to live and what to be.
A fireman? An explorer?
An astronaut? Then you look in the mirror.
It was night sweats. Listening
to an echo of the end.
Roger had a live-in girlfriend.
They asked if I’d like to go with them
to a party and sleep over.
He drove. I looked at the gum trees.
Not the Outback, but country –
cattle and kangaroos,
and flies, getting in your eyes,
ears, nose, and mouth.
Once, talking to a sheepherder,
I watched a fly crawl over his face
from his eye to his mouth,
and start walking back
before he brushed it off.
They learn to put up with nature
and not make a fuss like us.
We arrived. I was introduced,
and they made up a bed for me
on the porch at the back.
Then the party began to arrive:
Australians, lean and athletic.
They put a tape on the stereo,
turned it up full blast,
and danced, or stood and shouted
to each other above the noise.
I danced with two or three women
and tried shouting. Then I went
and sat on the bed on the porch.
There was nowhere to go, no door
I could close to shut out the noise.
So I went for a walk
in the dark, away from the sound.
There were gum trees, wind rustling
the leaves. Or was it snakes?
There are several venomous kinds.
The taipan. There’s a story
about a child who was sitting
on a log and fell backward
onto a taipan. It struck him
There’s the tiger snake and the brown.
When they have finished telling you
about snakes, they start on spiders.
You don’t need these – you have only to walk
into the bush. There are stories
about campers who did, and were lost
and never seen again.
All this was on my mind.
I stepped carefully, keeping the lights
of the house behind me in sight.
And when I saw a clearing
in the trees, I walked to it.
I stood in the middle of the clearing
looking at the sky. It was glittering
with unknown constellations.
Everything I had ever known
seemed to have disappeared.
And who was I, standing there
in the middle of Australia
at night? I had ceased to exist.
There was only whatever it was
that was looking at the sky
and listening to the wind.
After a while I broke away
and went back to the lights and the party.
A month later I left Australia.
But ever since, to this day,
there has been a place in my mind,
a clearing in the shadows,
and above it, stars and constellations
so bright and thick they seem to rustle.
And beyond them – infinite space,
eternity, you name it.
There’s nothing that stands between me
and it, whatever it is.
From The Owner of the House, by Louis Simpson
Copyright © 2003
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