Simpson, too, could be critical of America, but he always criticized it out of a deep, palpable love, in poems that make poignantly, stirringly clear his powerful lifelong attachment to the American idea. Born on the island of Jamaica and educated at a British-style school where it was made obvious to him that the Brits would never consider him one of their own, he moved to New York to attend college at Columbia and never went back (though he always spoke with a hint of a British accent). Joining the U.S. Army, he served his adopted country in World War II, fighting his way across France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, after which he spent several months laid up with a serious case of post-traumatic stress. Some of his most unforgettable early poems are about the war. And some are about Whitman. As far as I’m concerned, it was Simpson, not Ginsberg, who was Whitman’s true heir. In one of his most anthologized poems, he laments that the “open road” of Whitman’s verse turned out to lead “to the used-car lot.” This wasn’t a glib, Ginsberg-type slam against the U.S.A.; it was a wistful acknowledgment of human imperfectability, an admission – by a man who, in person as in his poems, invariably evinced a melancholy, sardonic plainspokenness – that reality always falls short of dreams.
For Simpson had no time for guile or pretense. The poet, like the teacher, was a straight-shooter – his work free of artifice or adornment, yet full of striking lines that memorably articulated enduring truths. Above all he had no use for ideology – which, alas, increasingly made him an outlier in the American academy. To leave a classroom in which he had just dissected a novel with impeccable, seemingly offhand delicacy and insight, and to walk into another classroom down the hall, where one of his hip, decades-younger colleagues was spitting out postmodern slogans and fashionable politics by the yard, was to journey from one universe to another. Louis Simpson’s death represents a loss for American poetry, and is also one more sad symbol – for me at least – of the loss in our time of so much that was once denominated by words like civilization and education and culture. Ave atque vale.
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