This Old Poem #100:
Louis Simpson’s Working Late
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/28/04

  What can 1 say about Louis Simpson that his ubiquitous bios do not?

  Louis Simpson was born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1923, the son of a lawyer of Scottish descent and a Russian mother. He emigrated 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). He 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.

  In 1975 the publication of Three on the Tower, 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 (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 (1978).

  Louis Simpson has published over seventeen books of original poetry, including The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940-2001 (BOA Editions, 2003); 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); Selected Poems (1965); At the End of the Open Road, Poems (1963), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize; and A Dream of Governors (1959). He 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 Academy's 1998 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. Among his many other honors are the Prix de Rome, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Columbia Medal for Excellence. Louis Simpson lives in Setauket, New York.


  That about sums it up. In short, LS is the sine qua non of the background player in any particular oeuvre. He’s not the ‘leading man’ type of literature. He’s as Beta male as they come. No 1 is likely to ever do an in-depth study of LS’s work for he’s the 1 who does such. Not that the world of literature does not need the LS-types, it does. The problem comes with the tendency to accord equal status with the Great Whites of literature to ‘remora poets’ such as LS. LS & his ilk simply do not have the artistic nor intellectual heft to be mentioned in the same breath, nor collected in anthologies with far superior contemporaries as a Robert Lowell, John Berryman, or Sylvia Plath.

  His ‘poems tend to be meager prose broken into lines, with a liberal amount of clichés. That said, he’s not the worst of the poetic lot- he’s just among the dullest. Say what you will about a Tourette’s sufferer like Nikki Giovanni, headcase like Sharon Olds, mummy like Donald Hall, or vampire like Ted Hughes but their pottymouthings, scat-fetishes, necrophilia, & wickedries at least make them (kind’a) freak show ‘interesting’. Old LS? He’s the stately old man in the bowler tossing peanuts at the legless dwarf hermaphrodite. Don’t believe me? Let’s check out this ‘literary gem’:



Uncle Bob prayed over the groom:
"Let him establish Kingdom principles."
Aunt Shirley prayed for the bride:
"Father, I pray an anointing on her."
"Love," said Reverend Philips,

"is insensitive, love is invalueless."
He said that we merger together
in holy matrimony,
and the choir burst into song:
"He waits for us, and waits for us."


Every day they went swimming in the pool
and rode the two water scooters.
They rented two deck chairs
and sat on the sand in the sun.
A breeze made the palm leaves whisper.

The sea is green close to shore,
further out it is blue.
The ship standing still on the horizon
makes you think of sailing away
forever with the one you love.


Jennifer ordered the roast beef platter.
Mike had the fish cakes.
"I thought you didn't like fish,"
she said. "Well," he said, "I guess you were wrong."
Tears came to her eyes. The honeymoon was over.

But then they went to their room
and everything was OK.
In the evening they went dancing
and stayed up late on the veranda
looking at the lights and the moon.


And you, hypocrite lecteur,
what makes you so superior?

  Now, the couplet at the end is supposed to be the payoff to the poem. I.e.- the poet breaks the ‘4th Wall’ & speaks directly to the reader. In order for there to be power behind such a break the action going on in the rest of the poem has to have a terrific buildup so that the ‘break’ snaps back hard, like a branch bent backward into your face. The slap/payoff has to jar. The Ozzie & Harriet banality that leads up to the ‘snap’ in this poem totally undermines the strength of the wallop-cum-yawn. LS would needed to have at least have heightened the language earlier in the poem so that their was ‘potential’ energy caused by the tension of excellent wordplay & the humdrumness it describes. Enjambed prosaic prose does not fit the bill. Again, toss them peanuts at the dwarf!
  Let’s hit the titular poem. Slap some water in your face 1st!

Working Late

A light is on in my father's study.
"Still up?" he says, and we are silent,
looking at the harbor lights,
listening to the surf
and the creak of coconut boughs.

He is working late on cases.
No impassioned speech! He argues from evidence,
actually pacing out and measuring,
while the fans revolving on the ceiling
winnow the true from the false.

Once he passed a brass curtain rod
through a head made out of plaster
and showed the jury the angle of fire--
where the murderer must have stood.
For years, all through my childhood,
if I opened a closet . . . bang!
There would be the dead man's head
with a black hole in the forehead.
All the arguing in the world
will not stay the moon.
She has come all the way from Russia
to gaze for a while in a mango tree
and light the wall of a veranda,
before resuming her interrupted journey
beyond the harbor and the lighthouse
at Port Royal, turning away
from land to the open sea.

Yet, nothing in nature changes, from that day to this,
she is still the mother of us all.
I can see the drifting offshore lights,
black posts where the pelicans brood.

And the light that used to shine
at night in my father's study
now shines as late in mine.

  The basic theme of this poem is the tried & true ‘parents’ face is now mine’ gambit. OK, so why not actually try to play off the expected that accompanies such a trope? Let’s freeze-dry this baby & core to the center.

Working Late

A light is on in my father's study,
looking at the harbor lights,
listening to the surf
and the creak of coconut boughs.

All the arguing in the world
will not stay the moon,
to light the wall of a veranda,
beyond the harbor and the lighthouse
at Port Royal, turning away
from land to the open sea.

Nothing in nature changes
the light that used to shine
at night in my father's study
now shines as late in mine.

  The reader does not need the profession of dad nor the son’s reaction. The dynamics of father-son relationships are human universals in all culture. The specifics are not needed. With that in the back of the reader’s mind, by ridding the poem of that trope & condensing it the father son relationship takes on a metaphoric quality in the contrast of the moonlight to the study light. Ok, I’m stretching it a bit. That is the trope I would heighten were this a 1st draft of mine (OK, my 1st drafts are better than this- so play along with me!). The potential to heighten that trope is there. For me to do anymore would violate the strictures I’ve placed on myself in doing the TOP series. Still, this rewrite can at least sate a querying young mind in to a 2nd read- the original does not. Is it me, or are such lowered expectations a problem in themselves?

Final Score: (1-100):

Louis Simpson’s Working Late: 45
TOP’s Working Late: 62

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