"A poet," Louis Simpson once wrote, "should wish for enough unhappiness to keep him writing."
Simpson may not have wished for trouble, but he kept writing for 60 years — spare, powerful poems about war, infidelity, suburban alienation and other modern ailments that brought
A native Jamaican of Scottish and Russian descent, Simpson died in his sleep Sept. 14 in Stony Brook, N.Y. He was 89 and had
In 1964, when he was an assistant professor of English at
"He was the exemplary writer of narrative poetry in America," said poet and critic Mark Jarman of
Simpson was often described as an heir to Walt Whitman for his ability to tell stories through poetry about ordinary life. But unlike the generally optimistic Whitman, Simpson viewed America through a darker lens shaped by boatloads of unhappiness and doubt.
He was born in Kingston,
When Louis was 16, his father died and his stepmother booted him and his brother out of the house. He moved to New York to live with his mother and learned that her family was Jewish. He later discovered that his father was part black.
While a student at
When he resumed his studies at Columbia, he had a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and psychic wounds that would not heal. He had a mental breakdown in 1946 and spent six months in a psychiatric hospital, where he saw a guard beat a patient to death.
For years afterward the war returned in disturbing flashbacks, some of which found new purpose in poems such as his widely cited "Carentan O Carentan," a meditation on death:
There is a whistling in the leaves
And it is not the wind,
The twigs are falling from the knives
That cut men to the ground.
Although he had wanted to write novels, he turned to poetry because shorter works were all his ravaged mind could sustain. At Columbia, he finished his bachelor's degree in 1948 and a master's in 1950, both in English. He worked as an editor and earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Columbia in 1959.
By then he was on the second of his three marriages, all of which ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Anne of Pasadena, he is survived by two sons, Matthew, of Acton, Mass., and Anthony of West Hollywood; and two grandchildren.
He taught for eight years at UC Berkeley, leaving in 1967 to join the faculty at
The postwar decades brought major shifts in his writing, from the formalism of his early years that brought comparisons to English poet
For Simpson, the open road led to California. But, as he wrote in the first poem in the collection, "In California," he did not find paradise there:
Here I am, troubling the dream coast
With my New York face,
Bearing among the realtors
And tennis-players my dark preoccupation.
His disappointment peaked in the poem "Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain," in which Simpson, playing on Whitman's celebratory "Song of the Open Road," lamented the disintegration of the American dream:
"Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.
Where is the nation you promised?"
Sometimes, his disillusionment was a cause for wry commentary, as in "Sacred Objects":
I am taking part in a great experiment —
whether writers can live peacefully in the suburbs
and not be bored to death.
As Whitman said, an American muse
installed amid the kitchen ware.
Simpson survived the wasteland, producing more than 18 volumes of poetry, including "Searching for the Ox" (1976), "In the Room We Share" (1990), "The Owner of the House" (2003), and "Struggling Times" (2009).
He also wrote a novel, critical studies of poets such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and
Widely anthologized in the 1960s and '70s, his work was noticeably absent from some later surveys, omissions that Jarman speculated may have had more to do with Simpson's acerbic personality than the quality of his writing. He did not suffer fools, especially not fellow poets and poetry editors.
"Louis could dress you down in a rather scathing way you never forgot," observed Jarman, who was stung by Simpson's criticisms on more than one occasion. "He took poetry seriously. People like that need to be valued, no matter how prickly they are."
"Popular taste," said Whitman
"will be taking precedence
in the arts." The old man seems
to have thought that people
would be avidly reading
the poetry of Walt Whitman.
I'm sorry, Walt, but the public
these days doesn't read anything.
The public watches TV.
That's all right by me.
Popularity out of the way,
we can get on with art…