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James Laughlin

By Charles Simic

I suppose everyone knows the story of how James Laughlin started a publishing house while still an undergraduate at Harvard. Thanks to that act of courage or folly, generations of Americans interested in Modern European and South American literature, as well as in our own avant-garde, got their education by reading New Direction’s books. Pound, Williams, Apollinaire, Borges, Sartre, Garcia Lorca, Nathaniel West, Brecht, Celine, Neruda, Paz, Michaux, Rimbaud, Djuna Barnes, and so many other writers and poets he made familiar and indispensable. If I were to subtract that long list of names from what I know and love in literature, I would not be the same person. In truth, I can’t even begin to imagine what I would be like without the books Laughlin published.

That’s not all I owe him. I also received an education in the art of poetry from Laughlin without quite realizing that I was getting one. We met some thirty years ago, saw each other only a few times after that, but we corresponded regularly over the years.

“I often find I’m working in a vacuum,” he used to tell me. “I suppose one shouldn’t care about such things,” he continued in another letter, “but neglect has always been painful.” So, that was the basis of our correspondence. I was the recipient of what he used to call “my latest bulletins on mortality.” Like this one:

What bothers me most about
the idea of having to die
(sooner or later) is that
the collection of junk I
have made in my head will
presumably be dispersed
not that there isn’t more
and better junk in other
heads and always will be but
I have become so fond of
my own head’s collection.

“Here is a poem to make you cry and one to make you laugh,” he’d say and I would make a few suggestions. In the process of reading his poems closely, I learned about Laughlin’s masters, the Classical Greek and Roman poets and the Provençals whom he studied and thought about all his life.  When Espresso de Roma reviewing one of his books translated into Italian called him “Il Catullo Americano,” he was delighted. Laughlin was one of the purest lyric poets we have had in that old tradition, a tradition to which he brought plenty of new life. For him, as for Pound, all cultures were contemporaneous. Ancient Rome and New York City today both belonged to one continuous present. The poet who remembered himself existing two thousand years ago and the poet who did so yesterday were one and the same person.

Everything to do with love, literary gossip, travel, politics, growing old, and death were his subjects. He wrote passionate love poems toughened by his feel for the comic and his ear for the colloquial American. “Bringing over the language of the day to the serious purposes of the poet,” as Williams described the task, was Laughlin’s ideal too. He wanted a poem that would be joy to read and that would convey the flavor of an extraordinary moment, a moment of happiness. The ephemeral is eternal, his poems proclaim. The true subject of his poems is the astonishment that it should be so.

O lovely lovely so lovely
just fresh from a night of
it lovely oh I saw you at
nine in the morning coming
home in the street with no
hat and your coat clenched
tight but not hiding your
evening dress lovely and
fresh from a night of it
lovely you stopped at the
curb for the light & your
eye caught mine lovely so
lovely and you knew that
I knew and you knew that
I wanted you too so fresh
from a night of it lovely.

Rereading Laughlin’s poems and his letters, I hear his voice in all its distinctness and charm. That may be his supreme accomplishment as a writer: Once heard, never to be forgotten. For instance, in a letter consoling me for some dental hassles I’ve had, Laughlin digresses typically to entertain me with a little story:

…I’ve had such a peculiar history with one of my upper fronts. A few years ago it started to fall out. Cause unknown. My dentist, who has built a new garage with the fees levied on me, kept popping it back with various supposedly sustaining devices. But it kept popping out. Most remarkable was an event long to be remembered in London literary circles when it popped out as I was at the height of my eloquence at a reading with Gavin Ewart and Peter Porter at a club devoted to the work of a lady lesbian sculptress. The tooth flew at least twenty feet in the air. There was astonishment and virginal applause. Soon little scurries were down on their knees hunting for it under the chairs. It was from this that I met the young lady poet from Islington who asked me to agree that poems must be true to be beautiful…

Humor for Laughlin was about seeing oneself as one really is. From time to time, one stepped away briefly from oneself and took a quick look at the absurd creature putting on airs in our own name, and had a good laugh. It’s a great thing to be remembered as a great publisher and a poet, as James Laughlin certainly was, but it’s even nicer if that remembering is accompanied with laughter.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 1998.

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