Louis Simpson

1923 –

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1923, Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was the son of Aston Simpson, a lawyer of Scottish descent, and a Russian mother, Rosalind (née Marantz), who worked in the Garment District in New York City before briefly embarking on a film career. Simpson attended boarding school in Jamaica, then immigrated to the United States at the age of seventeen, where he 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 the University of Paris.

While living in France, Simpson published his first book of poems, The Arrivistes: Poems 1940–1949 (The Fine Editions Press, 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.” Simpson’s second collection, Good News of Death and Other Poems, was published in 1955 by Charles Scribner’s Sons as part of 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 (Wesleyan University Press, 1963), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He went on to publish nearly twenty 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 (BOA Editions, 2003), which was a finalist for both the National Book Award in Poetry and the Griffin International Poetry Prize; Nombres et poussière (Atelier La Feugraie, 1996); There You Are (Story Line, 1995); In the Room We Share (Paragon House, 1990); Collected Poems (Paragon House, 1988); People Live Here: Selected Poems 1949–83 (BOA Editions, 1983); The Best Hour of the Night (Ticknor & Fields, 1983); Caviare at the Funeral (Franklin Watts, 1980); Armidale (BOA Editions, 1979); Searching for the Ox (William Morrow, 1976); Adventures of the Letter I (Oxford University Press, 1971); and Selected Poems (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1965).

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 (University of Michigan Press, 1986); A Company of Poets (University of Michigan Press, 1981), which was part of the Poets on Poetry series; 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 a volume titled Selected Prose (Paragon House), released in 1989. His Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology (Story Line Press, 1997) won the 1998 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.

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.”

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 [Anton] 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.

Among Simpson’s many other honors are the Prix de Rome, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Medal for Excellence from Columbia University.

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

Simpson lived for many years in Setauket, New York, on the north shore of Long Island, near Stony Brook. He died there on September 14, 2012.