Photo Credit: Newsday / David L. Pokress
Louis Simpson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who used everyday language to chronicle suburban life, often focusing on people and places on Long Island, died Friday in his sleep at his Stony Brook home.
A former comparative literature professor at Stony Brook University, Simpson, 89, had been diagnosed in 2005 with Alzheimer's disease, said his daughter, Anne Simpson, an English professor and psychoanalyst in Pasadena, Calif.
A native of Kingston, Jamaica, her father "had a complex relationship to the American heritage and the American character," she said, writing with "a mix of acute perception and a certain measure of skepticism."
Simpson was awarded the Pulitzer in 1964 for "At the End of the Open Road," a collection of poems that offered some pessimistic views, as seen in the first two lines of "In the Suburbs":
There's no way out.
You were born to waste your life.
In "Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain," a poem that appears in "The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940-2001," the poet asked:
Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.
Simpson's work has "a beautiful economy to it," said his friend David Church, middle school director of The Stony Brook School, where Simpson taught for two years.
While the language sounds like that "spoken over a backyard fence," he said, Simpson "very delicately calibrated that colloquial speech." Long Island life is woven into much of his work, Church said. Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was born on March 27, 1923, and moved from Jamaica to New York as a teenager. During World War II, he served with the 101st Airborne Division, participating in the Normandy invasion. By the time he settled in New York he had become a U.S. citizen, his daughter said.
Simpson went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in English, as well as a PhD in comparative literature, all from Columbia University. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley, moving to Long Island in the late 1960s to assume his teaching role at Stony Brook.
Anne Simpson recalled her father being "very playful" with her and her brothers as children. She told of toys he created, including a boat made from a ham container, an orange juice concentrate can serving as smokestack.
Her father also had a love of dogs, she said, writing a poem several years ago called "Lottie Hasn't Been Feeling Well Lately" about his most recent beagle, now deceased. In his later years, Simpson supported local poets, hosting monthly gatherings in which they critiqued one another's work.
Besides his daughter, Simpson is survived by sons Matthew, of Acton, Mass., and Anthony, of Hollywood, Calif.; and two grandchildren. His three marriages ended in divorce.
Visitation is Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at Bryant Funeral Home, East Setauket, with the funeral Sept. 27 at Caroline Church, East Setauket. Burial will be in Cedar Lawn Cemetery, Port Jefferson.