Louis Simpson, Great American Poet

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 5 2011 @ 6:38pm

by Bruce Bawer

Yesterday, by way of commemorating the fourth of July, Zoë posted an Allen Ginsberg poem, “America.” Ginsberg is now widely considered the 20th century’s Whitman, its quintessential Poet of America.  My own candidate for that position is Louis Simpson, who was born in Jamaica three years before Ginsberg, came to the U.S. as a young man, served heroically in World War II, and went on to produce a capacious and first-rate body of work, including (by the way) many poems which have referenced Whitman sensitively and perceptively.  Simpson manages to combine frank, even stinging, criticism of America with a profound and abiding affection for it and a deep regard for its founding values.  This is my idea of a splendid poem about America.  

A siren sang, and Europe turned away

From the high castle and the shepherd’s crook.   

Three caravels went sailing to Cathay

On the strange ocean, and the captains shook   

Their banners out across the Mexique Bay.


And in our early days we did the same.   

Remembering our fathers in their wreck

We crossed the sea from Palos where they came   

And saw, enormous to the little deck,   

A shore in silence waiting for a name.


The treasures of Cathay were never found.   

In this America, this wilderness

Where the axe echoes with a lonely sound,   

The generations labor to possess

And grave by grave we civilize the ground.

Here’s another.  And here’s his latest collection.  

If you prefer to celebrate America's 235th birthday by reading prose rather than poetry, the natural choice, in my view, is the 1948 novel Raintree County by Ross Lockridge Jr.  about a high-minded young Indiana man who comes of age in the Civil War era.  If not the Great American Novel, Raintree County is certainly far more worthy than many far more famous candidates for that title.  It is a beautiful book that is, among other things, very much about what it means to be American.  I first read it in my teens, which may have been the best time to do so, but if you’re past your teens and haven’t gotten around to it yet, dig in.  And if you’ve seen the 1957 movie starring Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint, and Elizabeth Taylor, please banish all memory of it when you pick up the book: it doesn’t capture anything of what makes the book so special, and aside from being one of the worst Hollywood adaptations ever made of any novel, it was ludicrously miscast.