Prose from Poetry Magazine

Former Dogs

by David Biespiel
The Way It Wasn't: From the Files of James Laughlin.
Ed. by Barbara Epler and Daniel Javitch. New Directions. $25.00.

"Well, I am hurt," New Directions founder James Laughlin writes in a letter dated February 12, 1950, to William Carlos Williams. "I am terribly hurt, I won't conceal it." What Laughlin says next to Williams, who had written to say that he was on the verge of  leaving teeny New Directions for super-mainstream Random House, is the best sketch I know of a publisher's attempt to set his teeth back into his head after they've been kicked out and scattered across the office floor:

A hundred times when other publishers have told me what faithless bastards writers are I have held you up as an example of  loyalty. I feel exactly like Gretchen's brother in Faust.

Then shifting tactics:

But go your way — with my blessing. You are a lovable cuss, and I'll be sore for a few weeks, but it will pass. What you are doing is only human, and I've done plenty of things myself on a par with it. I can't complain.

Then, feeling spurned again, he's whipped up into sarcastic scorn:

All right...go to the big boys. They were swell to you about publishing White Mule, weren't they? They did a beautiful job on the Collected Poems didn't they? They fell over themselves didn't they to get a critic to write a book about you? They overwhelmed you, didn't they, with offers to keep the American Grain in print? Go to them. Rush. Run. Don't lose a second. Let them slobber their dirt all over your decency and your purity. And offer up to them as a little bribe my pride, and my life's devotion to an ideal. See how dirty they can make that too.

At last, penance:

Well Bill, I'm sorry to have talked to you this way. It's not respectful, it's not friendly. But you have hurt me deeply and terribly, and the only way to get it out of my system is to talk right out, cauterize it, and then forget it.

A letter like this stands in as a curious fact of the publisher's life. What's impressive is Laughlin's grudging, yet formidable contrition: donned with a well-heeled, Presbyterian courtliness, without any disregard, deviousness, or indifference to the art, and saturated with the devotee's piousness. In the end, Williams stayed with New Directions.

Parts of this letter are included in The Way It Wasn't, a scrapbook of some three hundred pages of Laughlin's personal letters, photographs, anecdotes, literary tall tales, and drawings splendidly arranged as an abecedarian by Barbara Epler, New Directions's current editor-in-chief, and Daniel Javitch, Laughlin's son-in-law. A killer treasure chest, the book is crammed with oddball memorabilia and fantastic yarns — Laughlin receiving a cabin cruiser as a gift when he was fourteen from his steel-magnate father, visiting a brothel in Key West with Elizabeth Bishop, golfing with Robert Fitzgerald and chatting about Homer in the fairways, admiring W.H. Auden "doing take-offs on local characters in Trioler" while waiting for a train to Vienna. Situated at the big wells of twentieth-century Modernism, Laughlin (1914-1997) was a wildcatting publisher to be sure. But he was also a negligible poet, and so it's surprising to see in sketches about Burma and Rapallo, about Cocteau and Cline and Edith Sitwell, about Aunt Leila and Frances Steloff, about his own father and his paterfamilias Ezra Pound, about women and skiing and cultural wasteland usa, and more — that his crazy scraps of ephemera dramatize something essential about how a literary alertness gets formed.

Laughlin's success story as New Directions's Trustifarian publisher, monarch of taste, one-man customs official, and connoisseur of the last century's literary avant-garde has never been in dispute. The house's list is stocked with so many experimental turned influential writers: Borges, Bowles, Merton, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Paz, Sebald, Tennessee Williams, W.C. Williams, and, of course, Ezra Pound, to name just a fraction of the stars. Though Laughlin denied it, he was a top-notch businessman (Basil Bunting initially refused to publish with New Directions because he thought Laughlin was a "capitalist viper"). And even though his editorial judgment belied an eclectic damn-it-if-it-doesn't-sell and damn-the-bastards-for-not-buying-it taste, he was able to build up New Directions from its outsider status to its current place as one of this country's most prominent literary imprints.

But the legend of the barbarian at the gate is at odds with Laughlin's personal story. Growing up in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood as the Carnegies and Mellons, where, he says, "at one house, the butler passed chewing gum on a silver salver after the coffee," Laughlin epitomized bonhomie. He was upper-crust, urbane, with a dash of boarding school, towel-snapping earthiness; and classy. He was never a natural rebel, definitely not a loose cannon. Not that he was 
entirely un-rebellious, but his uprisings had a toney air. His first significant mutiny was to reject attending his father's university, Princeton, and instead enroll at Harvard. The daring.

There's a podcast interview with Laughlin that I've listened to a few times while reading The Way It Wasn't. His Pennsylvania whine is unusually flat. He doles out his answers with little urgency, as if bemusedly thinking all the while What a life this is! And I'm in it! How did that happen! Narrating the chronology of his "auto-bug-offery," as he calls it, he all but admits that he was an accidental publisher. Taking leave of Harvard in 1934 to live in Rapallo, Italy, and sit at Ezra Pound's knee at the so-called Ezuversity, Laughlin let Pound practically bully him out of writing: "Pound said I was never going to be any good as a poet and that I ought to take up something useful." Pound's orders were for Laughlin to become a publisher and magazine anthologist ("You've got enough brains for that") and to use his wealth to promote unheralded writers whom Pound recommended, including Pound, naturally.

This story now forms New Directions's genesis myth. The interesting thing to me is how offhandedly Laughlin retells it. The suggestion to go into publishing in the Depression-era thirties (it cost him personally $396, a real wad in those days) was accepted with an OK, why not? Thanks, Old Possum sort of shrug, followed by Which direction should I go in? A new direction, the master must have intoned — one in which America becomes, in some bizarre Poundian way, the future of Europe, belching speakeasies and freeways, art galleries and I Love Lucy, Adrienne Rich and Ogden Nash, transcendence and mythlessness. As he did with the founding editor of this magazine, Pound dispensed advice: "Ut doceat, ut moveat, ut delectet."

Certainly Pound was prescient about Laughlin's potential as a poet: not completely without a shred of talent, but no more than six shreds. Laughlin's verse memoir, Byways, published posthumously in 2005, and for which some of the notes in The Way It Wasn't were intended to help him get organized to write, is more memoir than verse. If ever a poet sauted prose into hash and tried to pass it off as poetry, then Byways is the could-have-been-worse dish. Here are lines about a stroke-ridden William Carlos Williams in the early sixties shortly before Williams's death, which, despite my disinterest in them as poetry, are heartbreaking:

One day when I arrived at
9 Ridge Road in the late
Morning I saw an unexpected
And encouraging sight. Bill
Had had a burst of energy and
Was typing, with one finger,
At the dining room table. Floss
Put her head in from the kitchen
To tell me, "Don't disturb him,
He's practicing by trying to
Write me a letter." The floor
Was littered with balls of
Paper Bill had crumpled up
And thrown away. When he was
Tired and stopped his work I
Picked up one of the balls
And deciphered it later
Out in the car. The typing
Was mostly wrong, but this
Is what he wanted to say.

Dear Floss thank you for everything
forgive me I always loved you Bill

Laughlin's empathy is so dear and compassionate, his style sedate. But here as elsewhere, with no trace of metaphoric vitality and scant interest in language beyond narration, Byways is unconvincing as poetry. And yet: I'm won over by Laughlin's generosity.

I don't mean to suggest that because Laughlin was a groundbreaking publisher, an American original really, that you either ought to dismiss his poems or retool your values as a reader to appreciate them. He has his moments. The best of his shorter poems are keen with humanity, sensuality, and a feel for the fleetingness of life. He can be grandly funny and self-deprecatory. He has a knack for cross-fertilizing tones — usually blending courteousness with a flirtatious bawdiness. Below, he's almost delicately remembering a Harvard girlfriend:

First dinner date we were
Holding hands on the table by
The end of the meal. On our
Second we were kissing, long
Kisses, in the car, and so it
I loved her spirit and,
Excuse the word, her sexiness.
She was a toasty little biscuit.

"Excuse the word..."? I love that. Its gentlemanly demur, its whispery I ought not to kiss and tell, its Oh, that's a word one doesn't use, does one. And then, the hell with it: "She was a toasty little biscuit." Laughlin had nerve all right, eh, Mr. O'Hara? That can take a poet somewhere certainly. But only so far.

If you can close one eye and squint with the other and just read Byways for its rendition of a full-bodied life with outstanding friendships, adventures, and recollections, and where Laughlin's literary values can be distilled as counsel — for instance from a letter published elsewhere to Delmore Schwartz in which he says, "Do not become a cheap writer...Keep up your standards...It is better to be read by 800 readers and be a good writer than be read by all the world and be Somerset Maugham" — then you'll find yourself, should you like to immerse yourself in the literary lives of others (and doesn't everybody?), you'll find yourself thinking that the gates of heaven have opened, and James Laughlin is the angel who just walked by.

All of which is to say: I love you, James Laughlin! Reading The Way It Wasn't I've become besotted with the savage gossip. He's got the goods on almost every Modernist hero and the sweet ease, forgiveness, and rages of an old-fashioned literary man. Laughlin's tales are a rich illustration of what Oscar Wilde means when he says, "life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it." For weeks I've been e-mailing friends such sweet nothings as:

It is a risk to be my friend. I operate on the principle that if someone does me a kindness that entitles me to ask immediately for another favor. That's not as immoral as it sounds — if you're a Buddhist.

Here he is on publishing: "Biznizz stinks worse than ever. I am learning to care deeply for the gin." On poets: "Where do mediocre poets get my home address? Their junk keeps turning up and some don't send envs. Too many bad poets." On bookselling:

Most of the buyers are women — bitches: rather stupid middle-aged women of no background, worried about business, positively hating a book that requires intelligence to read and sell. These creatures I must woo. . . .She is the enemy, and also the friend. My God how you love her after she has bought something. All your loathing runs away and you are friends.

On William Candlewood, a fictitious employee at New Directions:

He used to write rejection letters to authors. He was also the whipping boy. If something fouled up at New Directions it was always blamed on Candlewood. The apology letters said he would be fired immediately.

On Djuna Barnes: "I once asked Louis Zukofsky if he ever spoke to Djuna when he met her in his neighborhood. ‘No,' he said, ‘What do you say to the Minister's Black Veil?'" On Gertrude Stein, "the most charismatic pyramid ever built." On Thomas Merton:

Father Abbot always gave Tom permission to go off with me for the day. Tom would start out circumspectly —he would go to the storage room for an old bishop's suit and exit from the monastery looking very ecclesiastical, so as not to shock the gate brother. A few miles, and he'd say, "Stop here." He would go into the woods, take off his bishop's suit, put on his blue jeans, his old sweater, and his beret, and get back into the car with a sigh of relief. Then we would head east, stopping. . .at a few rural beer parlors along the way.

On Lillian Hellman:

I didn't like Lillian Hellman at all: what a raspy character. When I knocked at her door. . .(hoping to butter her up) she only opened the door four inches and said words to the effect: "Fuck off, you rapist." Perhaps I had interrupted her communings with the ghost of  Dashiell Hammett.

In the process of reading Laughlin's notes I've become less interested in what they say about the history of New Directions Publishing Corporation (about which, please, enough has been said already), or Laughlin's interests in revolutionary literature, or even in realizing that, my God,  James Laughlin knew everybody — Eliot, Pound, Auden, Nabokov, Frost, Stevens, Joyce, Moore, Bishop, Lowell; the names go on and on. Instead, I've become fascinated by the whole idea of ephemera as a stimulant for the coercive, infant gibberish of the imagination and for memory's apprehension and misapprehension of the past.

Embedded in these stored-in-the-bottom-drawer annotations are the mazy cleansings of a literary mind. As mere recollections, they exist in memory prior to any method of discrimination, and they're certainly not based on any force of argument or motive. Still, even unconnected to any literary narrative, these slice-of-life records assert that memory isn't history. Instead, memory, like imagination, is continuously alive. And all of this long before Laughlin, or any writer, has a sense of how to knead the unassimilated dust of one's past into the technique and form of written art. I guess I'm speaking of the way one's sublimations and bare intensities begin as spatters on the canvas of the psyche. Whatever the ephemeral is — the jumbled, the inchoate, the cropped, the pigments of alienation, the corny, decaying, nostalgic patterns of the past or the foggy guesses about the future —all of it stirs in one's mind like uncodified dots and dashes. Laughlin seems to have understood better than most that literature is most urgent when it thrives on possibility, that something in the whirling, wavering stuff of the imagination — the rapid spirals and notations and unbraided strands — must ignite if  something, anything, is to catch fire.

He must have learned to trust this gospel from Pound, who, devoted to an art of impulse, believed that in the isolated corners of one's consciousness the winged moments are always about to coalesce. Surely Laughlin's life and editorial tastes, his personal files and arcane memorabilia reveal a fantastic extroversion and represent belief in passion and spontaneity. But they also suggest that behind the veils of the mind of a poet, for instance, is a mysterious other force that must be kept alive, a something that brings one to the doorstep of the imagination and cracks the heart wide open so that one can be uninhibitedly available to emotion and life. It's a something that confirms connection to the past, faith in the primacy of the imagination, and delight in poetic invocation. A continual presence, I mean, but one that is mysteriously absent in any physical sense.

Imagine my surprise to read Laughlin's disdain for this whole concept:

I'm a turnip head. When you speak of an "imaginary space, the presence of an absence. . ." I'm pushed back to the confusion. . .and specifically "the presence of an absence" takes me back to that night in Trivandarum. . .when the fiery old guru, he looked like Oswald Spengler made of  black bronze, asked me, "Now you, Mr. America, with your Aristotle, what is in the space between two thoughts?" Vedanta — I hadn't the foggiest.

I wonder, though...because he has such faith in poetry as recovery of the lost and as a repository of wisdom. Besides, all these bits and pieces comprise and stimulate the projective switches that open Laughlin's imaginative self and self-containment as a publisher. They house a certain sort of literary company, a kind of heaven where all one's former dogs are still alive. The tidbits are shorthand for the mysterious, unshakeable presence of a literary consciousness, I mean. And their promise is to lift one, like a child, into the very first spring of time.
Originally Published: November 18, 2007


On February 16, 2008 at 3:46pm dorothy lagapa wrote:
i'm so happy to have found this to read andbuy--i've been wanting a better bio than what hayden carruth wrote and while i would like an even more fleshed out account of his life.

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2007


Audio Article Authors
 David  Biespiel


David Biespiel is the author of  three books of  poems, including The Book of Men and Women (University of Washington Press, 2009). A book of prose, A Thousand Faces, is due out later this year.

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