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.