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This review is taken from PN Review 201, Volume 38 Number 1, September - October 2011.

PRESENT LIFE LOUIS SIMPSON, Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe) £9.95

In his prose study, A Revolution in Taste (1978), Louis Simpson took Robert Lowell to task for losing his way in the collection Notebook: 'it is the involvement of a poet, as he writes, that involves the reader ... Poetry is not just looking back. Nor does it consist of comments on life. It is a form of present life.' This judgement reflects interestingly - as such things tend to do - on Simpson himself. What we get from this 'leading figure in American letters for more than half a century' (Bloodaxe) is an involving, demotic manner. His focus has long been on the average life, lived with its various confinements and confusions, and, as a corollary, the nagging perseverance of the unexplored self. Two poems in the present selection quote versions of these lines from Cavafy's 'The City': 'As you have wasted your life here in this place / You have wasted it in every part of the world'. It therefore seems appropriate that the cover of Voices in the Distance should be Room in New York (1932) by that American master of the long day, Edward Hopper.

Some of Simpson's finest earlier poems were war poems, influenced by his experience in the 101st Airborne Division in Europe in 1944-45. 'The Runner' seems to be the most autobiographically influenced, while 'Carentan O Carentan' captures the mundane bursting into horror. War haunts the psyche in 'I Dreamed That in a City Dark as Paris'. Then there is ...


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