This Day In Literary History
On March 27th, 1923, the famous poet Louis Simpson was born. He was born in Jamaica to a Scottish father and a Russian mother. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 17, settling in New York City.
Louis soon enrolled at Columbia University, where he majored in English. One of his professors was the famous writer and critic, Mark Van Doren. In 1943, Simpson cut his education short to enlist in the U.S. Army, as World War II was raging.
He became a member of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He served as a courier for the company captain, which required him to deliver orders from company headquarters to officers at the front. Thus, he saw action in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.
While stationed in France, Simpson's company fought a fierce and bloody battle against Nazi forces which had ambushed them on the west bank of the Carentan France Marina. The battle would inspire Simpson to write his classic poem Carentan O Carentan, which included these memorable verses:
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.
Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
The way to turn and shoot.
But the Sergeant's silent
That taught me how to do it.
O Captain, show us quickly
Our place upon the map.
But the Captain's sickly
And taking a long nap.
Lieutenant, what's my duty,
My place in the platoon?
He too's a sleeping beauty,
Charmed by that strange tune.
Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.
After the war ended, Louis Simpson enrolled at the University of Paris and continued his studies. He then returned to New York City, where he worked as a book editor while doing his graduate studies. He earned a PhD from Columbia University.
He would become a respected professor of English and poetry, teaching at not only Columbia University, but also at the University of California - Berkeley and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Simpson's first poetry collection, The Arrivistes, was published in 1949. In the beginning, he was strongly devoted to traditional verse and was acclaimed for this work. However, as the years passed, he moved away from traditional styles and embraced free verse.
Whether he worked in formal or free verse, as a poet, Simpson was always known for both his strong sense of narrative and for his lyricism, which was never compromised by his narrative voice.
Louis Simpson's 1963 poetry collection, At the End of the Open Road, won him a Pulitzer Prize. Edward Hirsch, critic for the Washington Post, described it this way:
"A sustained meditation on the American character... the moral genius of this book is that it traverses the open road of American mythology and brings us back to ourselves; it sees us not as we wish to be but as we are."
In this poem from At the End of the Open Road, titled In California, Simpson tips his hat to one of his favorite authors of free verse, the great Walt Whitman:
Here I am, troubling the dream coast
With my New York face,
Bearing among the realtors
And tennis-players my dark preoccupation.
There once was an epical clatter --
Voices and banjos, Tennessee, Ohio,
Rising like incense in the sight of heaven.
Today, there is an angel in the gate.
Lie back, Walt Whitman,
There, on the fabulous raft with the King and the
For the white row of the Marina
Faces the Rock. Turn round the wagons here.
Lie back! We cannot bear
The stars any more, those infinite spaces.
Let the realtors divide the mountain,
For they have already subdivided the valley.
Rectangular city blocks astonished
Herodotus in Babylon,
Cortez in Tenochtitlan,
And here's the same old city-planner, death.
We cannot turn or stay.
For though we sleep, and let the reins fall slack,
The great cloud-wagons move
Outward still, dreaming of a Pacific.
In addition to his poetry collections, Louis Simpson has also written nearly a dozen works of non-fiction including studies of famous poets from T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams to Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath. He lived on Long Island until his death in September of 2012 at the age of 89.
Quote Of The Day
“The aim of military training is not just to prepare men for battle, but to make them long for it.” - Louis Simpson
Today's video features Louis Simpson reading one of his poems. Enjoy!