poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

Born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1923, Louis Simpson was the son of a lawyer of Scottish descent and a Russian mother. He immigrated to the United States at the age of seventeen, studied at Columbia University, then served in the Second World War with the 101st Airborne Division on active duty in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. After the war he continued his studies at Columbia and at the University of Paris.

While living in France he published his first book of poems, The Arrivistes (1949), for which the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote of Simpson, "He is a surprisingly live poet: as you read him you forget for a moment that we are the ancient."

In the Spring 1997 issue of the Harvard Review, Simpson wrote: "It is the struggle to express the contemporary that makes poetry seem alive, and contemporary life can hardly be expressed in the forms used by poets four hundred years ago."

Simpson worked as an editor in a publishing house in New York, then earned a Ph.D. at Columbia and went on to teach at Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Simpson's second collection of poems, Good News of Death and Other Poems was published in 1955 by Charles Scribner's Sons (in Poets of Today, Vol. 2), followed by A Dream of Governors: Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1959) and At the End of the Open Road, Poems (1963), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Louis Simpson went on to publish more than eighteen books of original poetry, including Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2010); Struggling Times (BOA Editions, 2009); The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940-2001 (2003), which was a finalist for both the National Book Award in Poetry and the Griffin International Poetry Prize; 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); and Selected Poems (1965).

The poet Seamus Heaney called Simpson's work "a touchstone for poetry," and wrote: "Louis Simpson has perfect pitch. His poems win us first by their drama, their ways of voicing our ways ... of making do with our lives. Then his intelligence cajoles us to the brink of a cliff of solitude and we step over into the buoyant element of true poetry."

The poet William Matthews wrote: "If Chekhov were an American poet alive now, his gentle and heart-breaking poems would read like these, and like these would release slowly, almost reluctantly, but certainly their fierce and balanced compassion."

In 1975 the publication of Three on the Tower (William Morrow), a study of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, brought Simpson wide acclaim as a literary critic. His other books of criticism include Ships Going Into the Blue: Essays and Notes on Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 1994), The Character of the Poet (1986), A Company of Poets (1981), and A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell (Macmillan, 1978).

Simpson is also the author of a memoir, The King My Father's Wreck (Story Line, 1995), and published a volume entitled Selected Prose in 1989. His Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology (Story Line Press) won the 1998 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.

Among his many other honors are the Prix de Rome, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Medal for Excellence from Columbia University.

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.

Working Late

Louis Simpson, 1923 - 2012
A light is on in my father's study.
"Still up?" he says, and we are silent,
looking at the harbor lights,
listening to the surf
and the creak of coconut boughs.

He is working late on cases.
No impassioned speech! He argues from evidence,
actually pacing out and measuring,
while the fans revolving on the ceiling
winnow the true from the false.

Once he passed a brass curtain rod
through a head made out of plaster
and showed the jury the angle of fire--
where the murderer must have stood.
For years, all through my childhood,
if I opened a closet . . . bang!
There would be the dead man's head
with a black hole in the forehead.

All the arguing in the world
will not stay the moon.
She has come all the way from Russia
to gaze for a while in a mango tree
and light the wall of a veranda,
before resuming her interrupted journey
beyond the harbor and the lighthouse
at Port Royal, turning away
from land to the open sea.

Yet, nothing in nature changes, from that day to this,
she is still the mother of us all.
I can see the drifting offshore lights,
black posts where the pelicans brood.

And the light that used to shine
at night in my father's study
now shines as late in mine.

From Collected Poems by Louis Simpson, published by Paragon House, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Louis Simpson. All rights reserved. Used with permission. (Originally published in Caviare at the Funeral, Franklin Watts, 1980.)

From Collected Poems by Louis Simpson, published by Paragon House, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Louis Simpson. All rights reserved. Used with permission. (Originally published in Caviare at the Funeral, Franklin Watts, 1980.)

Louis Simpson

Louis Simpson

Born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1923, Louis Simpson received the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for At The End Of The Open Road

by this poet

poem
Do not write. I am sad, and want my light put out.
Summers in your absence are as dark as a room.
I have closed my arms again. They must do without.
To knock at my heart is like knocking at a tomb.
                Do not write!

Do not write. Let us learn to die, as best we may.
Did I love you? Ask God. Ask
poem
Trees in the old days used to stand
And shape a shady lane
Where lovers wandered hand in hand
Who came from Carentan.

This was the shining green canal
Where we came two by two
Walking at combat-interval.
Such trees we never knew.

The day was early June, the ground
Was soft and bright with dew.
Far away the
poem
Uncle Bob prayed over the groom:
"Let him establish Kingdom principles."
Aunt Shirley prayed for the bride:
"Father, I pray an anointing on her."
"Love," said Reverend Philips,

"is insensitive, love is invalueless."
He said that we merger together
in holy matrimony,
and the choir burst into song:
"He waits for