Louis Simpson, who graced the pages of The Best American Poetry three separate times, died on September 14. Born in Jamaica, the West Indies, in 1923, Louis came to the United States at the age of seventeen and was an ace student at Columbia University, where he favorably impresed Mark Van Doren. One day he told his prof that he was taking a leave. Why? To join the army. He served with the 101st Airborne Division in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany.
In a poem entitled "The Silent Generation," Louis coined that term to designate the prevalent attitude of his contemporaries in the wake of the cataclysmic events that marked the Second World War. The poem is in his book A Dream of Governors (Wesleyan UP, 1959), A subsequent volume won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. I met Louis in 1970 -- he gave the Phi Beta Kappa poem that year to my graduating class at Columbia. Bob Hanning introduced us on College Walk.
Louis was something of a controversialist. He was angry about a lot of things -- entertainingly so, when the subject was critical theory and related bullshit. In 2005 Les Gottesman organized a Columbia Review reunion. I got to moderate a poetry reading that weekend at the Bowery Poetry Club and before the reading, Louis and I talked about an anthology of World War II poems that the Library of America had just published. I expressed my awe at his wartime exploits. Imagine having to parachute into France, just weeks after D-Day, behind enemy lines. You had to pray that your chute would open. You had to pray that you didn't land on top of a tree. You had to pray you didn't get shot down. "You were a hero," I said. Louis laughed. "I wasn't a hero," he said. "If you want to talk aboujt a real hero, think of Harvey Shapiro." Harvey, who had joined the air force during the global conflict, had flown more than thirty missions over occupied Europe. "I'll tell Harvey you said so," I said. I will always cherish the modesty of that moment. -- DL
Here are the last two stanzas of Louis's poem "Old Soldier":
The guns reverberate; a livid arc
From sky to sky lightens the windowpanes
And all his room. The clock ticks in the dark;
A cool wind stirs the curtain, and it rains.
He lies remembering: "That's how it was. . ."
And smiles, and drifts into a youthful sleep
Without a care. His life is all he has,
And that is given to the guards to keep.