James Laughlin

From the Poetry Foundation:

While a sophomore on leave of absence from Harvard University, James Laughlin met Ezra Pound in Rapallo, Italy, and was invited to attend the “Ezuversity”—Pound’s term for the private tutoring he gave Laughlin over meals, on hikes, or whenever the master paused in his labors. “I stayed several months in Rapallo at the ’Ezuversity,’ learning and reading,” recalls Laughlin in an interview with Linda Kuehl for the New York Times Book Review, “until Pound said it was time for me to go back to Harvard and do something useful. Being useful meant that I should publish books, because at the time publishing was still suffering from the Depression and none of [Pound’s] friends, except Hemingway, had steady publishers.” “Never has advice been better followed,” surmises poet and critic Donald Hall for after returning to Harvard from Italy, Laughlin founded New Directions, a company dedicated to publishing quality works with little regard to their chances for commercial success.

With his own money (Laughlin’s well-to-do father had given him $100,000 when he graduated from college), Laughlin initially set out to publish and thereby recognize experimental and avant-garde writers of merit. His first New Directions book, an anthology containing the work of such authors as Pound, Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and Henry Miller, appeared in 1936. “At the time,” reports Hall, “the 22-year-old editor-publisher … loaded his Buick with 600 unpaginated copies of New Directions in Prose and Poetry, became a traveling salesman, and persuaded bookstores to stock a few volumes—out of pity, he believes.”

During the 1940s, according to Hall, Laughlin’s company provided the first lengthy publication of Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Karl Shapiro, Tennessee Williams, Paul Goodman, Jean Garrigue, John Frederick Nims, and Eve Merriam. The list of New Directions authors eventually grew to include George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, Thomas Merton, and Robert Duncan. “For the most part,” writes Hall, “the list represented the new,” which initially meant limited commercial success. “When I started doing the books,” Laughlin told Edwin McDowell of the New York Times Book Review, “they were way out ahead of the public taste. Nobody could understand them and nobody wanted to buy them…. But a younger generation of professors matured and became interested in using them in college courses, and that’s what put us on our feet.”

While New Directions “started in the service of verbal revolution,” it made other, equally impressive contributions to literature in print. It published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up when other publishers would not; when The Great Gatsby was out of print, New Directions brought it back; the company also reprinted the works of Henry James, E. M. Forster, Ronald Firbank, and Evelyn Waugh when no one else would. Hall believes that in these instances, the decision to publish established authors was governed by the same assumptions underlying the publication of new writers: “the assumption of quality and the assumption that these books would not sell in the marketplace.”

But New Directions may have made its most important contribution, suggests Hall, in bringing foreign authors to American readers in translation: “not only the obvious Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Rilke, Valery, Kafka and Cocteau, but the less known and the unknown: Montale, Neruda, Queneau, Cardenal, Lorca, Pasternak, Paz, Borges, Mishima, Lihn, Vittorini, Parra, Guillevic.” The first American publisher of Vladimir Nabokov, New Directions made available Nabokov’s critical work on Gogol, a group of short stories, and some translations of classic Russian poetry, as well as his second novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

After years of being subsidized by the money of Laughlin’s family, New Directions eventually became a profit-making venture. Aided by the million-copy sale of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind, the hundreds of thousands of reprints of Herman Hesse’s Siddharta, the academic acceptance of writers like Pound, and the popularity of younger authors like Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and John Hawkes, the company started to make money. Laughlin, who emphasized that New Directions has always been an intimate group venture and that the profits have been “small,” modestly gave others credit for the company’s critical and commercial success: “I am only a happenstance catalyst who started publishing because Ezra said I had to ’do something useful.’ The credit, whatever there may be, belongs to the writers we published and to the long-suffering people who actually saw that the books got printed, proofread, and sold. Without all of them, New Directions would have been just an amateur’s hobby.”

While Laughlin is most often recognized for his work as a publisher, he is also a writer and poet. In a laudatory review of his writing career in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, John A. Harrison and Donald W. Faulkner propose that Laughlin “is perceived as a minor poet, in part because he has chosen to publish so little…. That [he] continues to apologize for his poetry is unfortunate, for it has been recognized as fresh, concise, full of wit, of impeccable quality, lucid, ironic, and often intense.” Laughlin himself described his poetry as “’an arbitrary visual pattern against the sound pattern of a colloquial cadence to get tension and surprise.’”  Denise Levertov called Laughlin’s poems “free of bombast and of any pretentiousness…. Emotion is disciplined in the precision of his diction and the strictness of his idiosyncratic form….” Through the years, Laughlin published various collections of his work, including such works as The Man in the Wall, The Secret Room, and A Commonplace of Pentastitches.

Also included in Laughlin’s list of writing credits are various essay collections. Notable among these is a 1987 work, Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. As the title suggests, the work is a compilation of essays and lectures, where, drawing on memories of his own relationship with Pound, Laughlin investigates the sources the noted author used for his writings over the years. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Minkoff praises the book, calling Laughlin “an enthusiastic guide to favorite Pound topics, from Provencal poetry to monetary theory.” Laughlin’s experiences with other authors also led him to issue his 1989 work, Random Essays: Recollections of a Publisher, a collection of talks and essays composed over the years. Reviewing the work for the Los Angeles Times, Richard Eder says, “Laughlin’s literary opinions are gentlemanly; they range between sensible and silly. What shines through is his kindness and civility, his individuality, and the joy he took in his authors.” Eder goes on to say that “the time … [Laughlin] spent with Pound, Williams and Gertrude Stein allows him to add some nicely provocative touches to their well-established images.”

In 1990 Laughlin expanded the list of his writings to include Random Stories, a collection of short stories written mainly before he graduated from Harvard. John Litweiler opens his review of the work in the Chicago Tribune by quoting critic Kenneth Rexroth, who praised Laughlin’s work as a publisher, adding that, “’He is [also] an excellent and original poet, and might have been writing his own poems.’” Litweiler continues this praise to include Laughlin’s work as a short-story writer: “His own fiction, too, it’s now clear from Laughlin’s collection of so-called Random Stories.” In discussing this collection, Litweiler feels that Laughlin “seldom presents description—it would only get in the way of the particulars of existence that reveal his people, places, feelings…. With Laughlin’s fiction, despite its usual absence of overt drama, action is constant. Life, indeed, flows.”

Over the years, Laughlin published some twenty books of his own work, including poetry, short stories, and essay collections. Despite this impressive list of writings and the mostly favorable critical reception it has received, Laughlin’s greatest achievements are most readily and most often acknowledged in his work as a publisher. New Directions proudly continues to publish books “for James Laughlin.”

The Collected Poems of James Laughlin

Poetry by James Laughlin

Edited by Peter Glassgold

Published in Laughlin’s centenary year, The Collected Poems of James Laughlin encompasses in one majestic volume all the poetry (with the exception of his verse memoirs, Byways) written by the publisher-poet. Witty, technically brilliant, slyly satiric, and heartbreakingly poignant, Laughlin charted his own poetic course for over six decades, prompting astonishment and joy in fellow poets. Compiled and edited by Peter Glassgold, Laughlin’s chosen poetry editor, The Collected Poems includes more than 1250 poems—from the early lyrics written in Laughlin’s signature “typewriter” metric, to the “long-line” poems of his later years, to the playful antics of his doppelgänger Hiram Handspring, to the trenchant commentary of the five-line pentastichs that occupied his last days.…
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Christmas Poems

Poetry by James Laughlin

Sparkling and elegant, Christmas Poems is a delightful selection of holiday poems by a wide range of authors such as Chaucer, Herbert, Longfellow, Dickinson, Rilke, Yeats, Paul Dunbar, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, e. e. cummings, Kenneth Patchen, Thomas Merton, Wallace Stevens, Marie Ponsot, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Denise Levertov, and Bernadette Mayer. Beautifully designed, this New Directions gem rings with the deep sentiments of the season and just the right splash of holiday cheer–Christmas Poems comes with French flaps and is the perfect size for a stocking stuffer.…
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The Way It Wasn’t

Nonfiction by James Laughlin

James Laughlin––poet, ladies’ man, heir to a steel fortune, and the founder of New Directions––was still at work on his autobiography when he died at 83. He left behind personal files crammed with memories and memorabilia: in “M” he is taking Marianne Moore to Yankee games (outings captured here in charming snapshots) to discuss “arcane mammals,” and in “N” nearly plunging off a mountain, hunting butterflies with Nabokov (“Volya was a doll in a very severe upper-crust Russian way”).…
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Byways

Poetry by James Laughlin

Edited by Peter Glassgold

James Laughlin, the late founder and publisher of New Directions, was also a poet of elegance and distinction. Upon his death in 1997 at the age of eighty-three, he left unfinished his long autobiographical poem, Byways. Yet the man who published, promoted, and kept in print the work of some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century remained resistant for most of his life to the memoiristic impulse. In the end, he found his autobiographical voice not in conventional narrative but in verse.…
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The Collected Poems Of James Laughlin 1935-1997

Poetry by James Laughlin

With a contribution by Hayden Carruth

James Laughlin was best known as the publisher of New Directions Books, but he had also been a dedicated poet. His work is both modern—rich in technical experiment—and ancient—grounded in the Greek and Latin poets. Guy Davenport called Laughlin ’a very ironic Roman poet, and a very salty Greek one. Which is not to say that he imitates anybody, or offers plaster casts of antiquities. He is the real thing.’ Laughlin described himself as a writer of light verse.…
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A Commonplace Book Of Pentastichs

Poetry by James Laughlin

James Laughlin (1914-97) was a poet of distinction as well as the founding publisher of New Directions. A Commonplace Book of Pentastichs, the last book of his own that he helped to prepare, is a compilation of 249 poems composed in a five-line stanza form first introduced in The Secret Room (1997). A note to “Thirty-nine Pentastichs” in that earlier volume explains: “a ’pentastich’ refers simply to a poem of five lines, without regard to metrics.…
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Poems New and Selected of James Laughlin

Poetry by James Laughlin

The poetry of the late James Laughlin (1914-97) spans a period of over sixty years, from the first verses written in his signature “typewriter” metric to the most recent pieces that open his Poems New and Selected. Laughlin reveals himself in his poems as a master of concision, of the well-placed word that penetrates the human heart. Over two hundred and twenty-five poems included here show his technical brilliance as well: in short- and long-line poems; in the three-stress verses of his autobiographical “Byways”; in “Epigrams,” amatory and otherwise, and “Pentastichs”; in idiosyncratic “(American) French” poems and their translations of his own devising.…
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The Secret Room

Poetry by James Laughlin

James Laughlin, poet and publisher, is known in Italy as Il Catullo americano, the American Catullus. Like the Latin poet whom Laughlin has long called his master, the subject at the heart of his work remains ’’love/… & the lack of love./which is what makes evil,’’ but seen now from the wry, often poignant perspective of old age. In his newest collection, The Secret Room, he has gathered nearly 150 poems that address his mature theme in a variety of ways.…
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Remembering William Carlos Williams

Nonfiction by James Laughlin

A lifetime of memories, a lifetime of writing, a lifetime of publishing (since 1936)––what to do, how to say it, what is the organic form? If you are James Laughlin, founder and publisher of New Directions, poet and friend of poets, you adapt the narrative metric of one friend (Kenneth Rexroth) to tell the very personal stories of your other friends with verve, compassion, and a shrewd eye to the emotional truth of complex relationships.…
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The Love Poems Of James Laughlin

Poetry by James Laughlin

As a poet, the late James Laughlin (1914-1997) was perhaps best known for his love lyrics. Marjorie Perloff has written, “Who else…writes such bittersweet, ironic, rueful, erotic, tough-minded, witty love poems, poems that run the gamut from ecstasy to loss?” Andrei Codrescu wrote, “Under deep cover as Godfather of Modernism, James Laughlin has secretly raised and made himself into the Poetry Chieftain of Sane Eros, the Catullus of fin-de-siècle America.” This small paperback edition of his finest love poems is a perfect memorial to one of the twentieth century’s most important men of letters.…
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The Man In The Wall

Poetry by James Laughlin

James Laughlin has been called the American Catullus. Like that most Greek of ancient Latin poets, he elevated his everyday subjects with wit and clarity of language. Love and hate, death and aging, politics, literature, travel, the horrors of war––Laughlin’s muse spoke of all these things with a fresh directness that make his poems both timeless and contemporary. The founder of New Directions, Laughlin’s efforts as publisher and poet had been to prolong and extend the old poetic traditions.…
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Maldoror

Fiction by Comte de Lautréamont

With a contribution by James Laughlin

The macabre but beautiful work, Les Chants de Maldoror, has achieved a considerable reputation as one of the earliest and most extraordinary examples of Surrealist writing. It is a long narrative prose poem which celebrates the principle of Evil in an elaborate style and with a passion akin to religious fanaticism. The French poet-critic Georges Hugnet has written of Lautréamont: “He terrifies, stupefies, strikes dumb. He could look squarely at that which others had merely given a passing glance.…
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