Monday, September 17, 2012

Thank you, Louis Simpson

Tonight's news that the poet Louis Simpson had died returned me to the second floor of the Shaman Drum bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor. Mr. Simpson was giving a poetry reading, but I was in attendance for a purely selfish reason: My professor, who had brought Mr. Simpson to Ann Arbor, had selected one of my poems and that of another student at Eastern Michigan University for Mr. Simpson to read and critique.

A Pulitzer Prize winner … reading my poem … and then giving his thoughts on what I had written. I was puffed up, ready to hear Mr. Simpson praise my poetry as the ripplings of the literary world's next tidal wave. He must, he would say, read more.

And in Ann Arbor, to boot. This was not Ypsilanti, or even Detroit. This was the center of the academic and free-thinking universe, as far as I was concerned.

Perhaps he would call me "the next Allen Ginsberg." Perhaps even Ginsberg himself would call after he and Louis Simpson discussed me over coffee in a chic cafe in New York or San Francisco or while they strolled along the Seine. ("Al, old pal, I came across this kid in Michigan who will make your 'muscles big as a vagina' howl!")

As I've described the critique to friends since then, Mr. Simpson savaged my poem. Ripped it. Left no word unscathed. He played Sherman to my Atlanta.

"Overwrought" may be one of the words he used.

I should have been upset, but I wasn't. "How many people get their poem ripped by a Pulitzer Prize winner in front of the literary elite?" I told myself.

I fear that the words of poetry's next revolutionary leader, written during and for a few years after that class, unfortunately have been scattered in one of my many moves to, within and from Michigan, Prague and San Francisco over the past 25 years.

Perhaps Mr. Simpson's death is a sign to start writing poetry again with a clean slate.

Regardless, in remembrance of Louis Simpson tonight, I say thank you to Mr. Simpson and to my professor, Lawrence Smith, for the opportunity to be shredded by one of poetry's best.