Saturday, October 31, 2009

Louis Simpson - of the War Generation - A Survivor [Part I]

Louis Simpson [1923- ], one of the last survivors of the generation which went to war in 1941, began as a formalist poet [The Arrivistes, 1949], but developed into a free verse "deep image" poet during the 1960's, and continued in this vein throughout the next 40 years; insofar as I'm aware, he's still writing and publishing. I have no idea what Simpson is like in person: He taught at Berkeley in the 1960's, but was gone before I arrived there as an undergraduate in the late Sixties. I can only guess from his work, what his personality is like. Simpson served in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army during the Second World War; those interested in what this might have meant, are directed to the 12 part miniseries Band of Brothers [Dreamworks SKG, 2001], which documents in some detail the difficult engagements this division participated in in the European Theater (i.e., Normandy, The Battle of the Bulge, etc.).    

I believe I must first have read his work in the Donald Hall anthology Contemporary American Poetry [Penguin, 1962], though I did acquire his Selected Poems [Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965] later and read it through. His most famous collection, At the End of the Open Road [Wesleyan, 1963] won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. I'd like to discuss two of his poems which were quite influential on my poetics and thinking about poetry in the 1960's and 1970's.

This poem appeared in his Pulitzer collection, and has been frequently anthologized. It captures the mood of the Sixties, Americans' uncertainty about their preeminent destiny as the "most important people" in the world.
              The Inner Part

When they had won the war
And for the first time in history
Americans were the most important people --
And their wives did not scratch in public,
Just when they'd stopped saying "gosh" --
When their daughters seemed as sensitive
As the tip of a fly rod,
And their sons were as smooth as a V-8 engine --
Priests, examining the entrails of birds,
Found the heart misplaced, and seeds
As black as death, emitting a strange odor.
Following WWII, America's position in the world--its military and diplomatic dominance in world affairs--seemed unchallenged. American foreign policy, during the 20 year period following the surrender of the Japanese after the two atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was based on the assumption that America had "saved" the world, and, backed up by its overwhelming military power, had the moral authority to dictate to the family of nations (at The United Nations). The rise of the Soviet Union, the beginning of the Cold War, and the spread of nuclear technology, moderated this arrogance somewhat, but in another sense it made us more rigidly defensive and bellicose than we might otherwise have been. Nevertheless, Americans tended to think their "license" was a blank check.

This overconfidence was also moderated by other "sinister" undercurrents. Our confidence in scientific research was shaken by the newly identified problems with radiation, pesticides, food additives, industrial pollution and environmental poisons of all kinds. The environmental movement was just getting started in the late 1950's.       

It is in this context that Simpson's poem is launched. Configured not so much as self-doubt, as an accusatory finger, a symbolic warning about the dangers of hubris, of a cocky presumption about the rectitude of power, the poem is a morality play, in which scientists (the new "priests" of our technological culture) discover mutations and deformities in the bodies of birds--reminiscent of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring [Houghton Mifflin, 1962], the original shot across the bow, warning America of the dangers of chemical contamination in agriculture and the environment generally. 

The connection Simpson makes between the military victory (in WWII) and society's misplaced over-confidence in the technological manipulation of the environment is commonly unremarked, though it was certainly not a logical connection at all at the time. The drift of the poem is largely satiric, chastising Americans for their bumptious provinciality (whose wives no longer "scratched in public"), "when their daughters seemed as sensitive as the tip of a fly rod, and their sons were as smooth as a V-8 engine...." This indictment of the middle-class, unsophisticated and crass, proud of its sport and purring Detroit engines, is held up as the personification of complacency, against a backdrop of danger, as evidenced by the unwitting destruction of nature. Yet Simpson doesn't actually identify these "birds" as being American--perhaps that's not an important distinction, given the harshness of his accusation. 

The poem seems to be saying "don't get too comfortable with your security and prosperity, there are things, largely unremarked 'invisible' things, happening in your world that spell doom to your quaint assumption of superiority and efficiency and confident inertia." In the context of a traditional, religious framework, such spooky signs might signify evil. Simpson proposes the existence of an insidious force, of "seeds as black as death"--rather like cancerous cells propagating defective births, unwanted mutations. 

During the Nazi period in Germany, German scientists were encouraged to explore all kinds of horrific theories about human behavior and physiology, using prison- and death-camp inmates as helpless guinea-pigs. Too, in America, many conscientious objectors were forced to undergo similar (though less brutal or fatal) "experiments" including radiation exposure. The American public was routinely encouraged to believe that they should have confidence in synthetic products, in scientific experiments--that's a practice that continues today, as the chemical-medical industries push the sale of hormones, genetically engineered agriculture, and all manner of medical chemistry. Everything is safe, it's all been tested, etc.

There is also a dichotomy in the poem between the realities of armed conflict (war), and the comfortable insulation that Americans have traditionally felt, from the disruptions that have occurred in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. Except for the Civil War, Americans have had the leisure to view war as a "necessary evil" which "happens" to others, but not here, not in America. WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan--these are things that happen to others, but not to us. One major consequence of 9/11 has been the realization by Americans, that terror, as a tool of conflict, will no longer be confined to foreign countries, but will be brought right to our doorstep, right inside our own house. 

It may be that what Simpson is saying is that the complacency which Americans have enjoyed for 75 years (as of the writing of the poem in question [1962]) is an illusion, that the dangers inherent in a world of conflict, greed, ignorance, license and gullibility, are as present, at any time, in any circumstance, as they are when expressed as open warfare. 

The war may be over, but the seeds of conflict continue to affect us. Not only that; but the faith we may put in newfangled manipulations of our food, of our homes, of our yards, of our clothes, may be just as naive and dangerous as our assumptions about any sense of righteousness we may hold about other countries, other peoples, other ways of life.         


Ed Baker said...

the piece that "changed my course" was /is in

Song:"Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds of May"

a fun book (to follow with along your essay/observations is

Selected Poems
Louis Simpson

A Harvest Book HB 129 $1.45 slightly higher in Canada

AND OF COURSE there is his brilliant :

"My Father in the Night Commanding No."

J said...

"The Inner Part" sounds like poesy to me----though like most modern poesy rife with grand generalizations (something Wordsworth's Prelude, say, thankfully lacks).

Ball- broadcasters don't sound like poesy.