JAMES LAUGHLIN (1914-1997)

Marjorie Perloff

published in Parnassus 23, no. 1 and 2 (1998): 24-31.


The first letter I received from James Laughlin is dated March 20, 1974: It begins:

Dear Prof. Perloff:
I was very much interested in, and impressed by, your fine review of the books on the politics of Pound and Eliot [by William Chace and David Craig] which appeared recently in “The New Republic.” You make a number of very sound and important points, and you have forced me to reconsider my infatuation with the “Usura” Canto. I guess you are right, it is one of Ezra’s over-simplifications.
I find myself a little puzzled, however. . . .

J. went on to defend Pound’s views on banking and credit against my strictures, prodding me, ever so gently, to supply him with more precise evidence so that he might respond with a Letter to the Editor of The New Republic. (In the end he decided not to write it).

I cite this letter because it show J. to be, as he always was, the perfect gentleman. No doubt, he was irritated by The New Republic piece, written as it was by an unknown young professor at one of the “beaneries” (in this case, the University of Maryland), a professor who was, moreover, a Jewish woman and hence could be expected to have it in for Ezra. But J. was not only unfailingly polite; he really wanted to understand what my objections to Schwundgeld and the like were, and so he wrote a long thoughtful letter to which I immediately responded.

Thus began a correspondence and warm friendship that lasted to the end of J.’s life. At its peak in the mid-eighties, when J. was a star on the lecture circuit (in those very beaneries he professed to despise) and was publishing poems and essays right and left, he and I wrote back and forth almost every week. In the nineties, when J.’s health began to fail, the pace slowed down, but as late as ‘96-’97, we had an excellent exchange about my book Wittgenstein’s Ladder. One of the last letters I got from him (4 June 1997), inquired whetehr, now that I had written about Wittgenstein, I’d write a book for New on the Vienna of my childhood. “Can we wind that up with an advance contract,” he asked, “before I take the longest journey?” J. knew that he didn’t have long to live.

Rereading J.’s wonderful letters composed over a twenty-four year period (with their wide-ranging literary reference, their sometimes stinging gossip about Those We Love to Hate, and their regular enclosures of poems, essays, stories, and interviews), I am convinced that the prevailing image of J. , as it emerges from articles over the past decade as well as from the recent obituaries, is somewhat one-sided. The press has tended to view J. as the tall, handsome, rich, ski-loving playboy who became, with the help of his large fortune, the avant-garde publisher of his day, a publisher who “discovered” Pound, Williams, and dozens of other writers and could tell good stories about them. Again and again, one comes across references to J.’s tenure at the “Ezuversity” in Rapallo, where Pound told him to forget about being a poet himself and instead found a publishing house. Thus one tends to forget that, (1) contrary to legend, J. did not have unlimited resources to publish and publicize the books of his choice; indeed, he was, for many years, dependent on the good graces of his Aunt Lila; (2) J. was himself astonishingly well-read and cultured in ways almost incomprehensible today; and (3) he had a powerful drive to produce his own poetry and did write, in the course of his life, thousands of pages of poems.

In J.’s scheme of things, literature and life were inseparable. In 1987, when he found himself in love with two young (and very different) women, he wrote me, “I was looking something up in [R. P.] Blackmur’s book on [Henry] James and found this about Strether: ‘Men of my age have been noted as liable to strange outbreaks, belated uncanny clutches at the unusual and ideal.’ Is that I? Ann [then Mrs. Laughlin; she died in 1989], when she accepts it, will just tell her intimates I’ve gone manic again.”

For J., as this wry commentary shows, “Je” is always “un autre”–a creature to observe, sometimes with bemusement, sometimes anxiety or even disgust. But his curiosity (in poetry as in love) never flagged. During a residency at Brown in 1986, the seventy-two year old poet-publisher thought he had better learn something about the new “language” poetry. I had recommended Charles Bernstein, whose first collection of critical writings had just appeared. “I am slowly fighting my way,” J. wrote me, “through Content’s Dream. It’s a battle. That dreadful style–or lack of style. He has wonderful ideas but he piles up 15 big words in strings without any euphony. . . . There should not be so many content words packed closely into a sentence. There should be ‘rest words’ between the hard words so that the mind doesn’t get swamped.” The stricture was partly tongue-in-cheek, given the poem J. wrote at about the same time called “Charles Bernstein”:

I wish there were some kind
of a cat scan which would

show what actually happens
in his head when he writes

his poems those extraordi-
nary leaps from one word or

phrase to another which at
first seem to have no con-

nection but let them sink in
a bit and you’ll see they do. [1]

This is written in J.’s preferred verse-form, whose rule I quoted in these pages in 1980:
in a couplet any second line has to be within three spaces of the line preceding it. Now that is unquestionably the most artifical metric that the mind of man has ever devised but it suits me. I’m able to get from it the kind of tensity I want between a free-flowing prose cadence in the poem working against the strict architectural discipline of this narrow column of lines.
(“A Portrait of the Publisher as Poet: Parnassus [1980], 198)

The witty occasional poems like “Charles Bernstein” are often delightful–Guy Davenport and others have written on their artful “Roman” epigrammatic quality–but J.’s fame, I believe, will rest not on these or other topical poems, but on his love lyrics. What a wonderful irony that the letterhead J used for years had as its epigraph (next to a portrait of Pound), the lines from Canto 81, “What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross.” Irony, because Pound himself was hardly a love poet: he was too ambitious, too ideologically driven, and in the end too absorbed in his large schemes and sacred places to write poems about his own erotic feelings. Such references as there are to the women in his life are couched in mythological trappings: Olga and Dorothy are represented by nymphs or goddesses, or, synecdochically, as eyes or characteristic utterances. J., modest as he always was about his own poetry, never seems to have realized that, when it came to “what thou lovest well,” he was, hands down, il migglior fabbro. Here is a poem J. enclosed in a letter of 1992, not included in the 1994 Collected Poems (Moyer Bell):

THE CHANGE
when it came was nothing sudden
it was so gradual they didn’t

notice it was coming and when
it began they weren’t aware it

was happening it wasn’t some-
thing they talked about at all

it began with such little things
like the way she kissed and how

long a kiss would last and what
her tongue would no longer do

(until there were no more kisses)
then where she wanted him to touch

her and what she wanted to touch
such gradual little differences

such an undeliberate alternance
in her tactile affection it was

as if nothing was changing with
intention sometimes there would

be a little change of tone when
they were talking she lost in-

terest in some of her prettiest
dresses replacing them with ones

that were less colorful and more
severe it was all so tentative

as if she were groping then one
day they realized (both at the

same time) it was something they
could speak of could bring into

the light but there was no bit-
terness no recriminations they

knew they would always be to-
gether the best of it would

always be the same that was
assured but each would be free

to act without asking as the
change would require of them.

What makes “The Change” so powerful and subtle a poem is its curious use of the third person. The poem purports to be a little narrative, telling us how “they” came to feel. But of course we never know how “she” really feels for it is the lover who must read the signs: first the changed kisses, then the changed “tactile affection,” the wearing of less “pretty” and “colorful” dresses, and so on. The lover must tell himself that the “change” is something the lovers have undergone together. Recrimination, anger, jealousy: these are not part of his vocabulary. But the poignancy is that despite the poet-lover’s assurance that “each would be free / to act without asking,” the reader can tell from the speaker’s obsession with nuance and gesture that he has not really changed at all. “The Change,” like so many Laughlin love poems, is thus a poem about the waning of attraction: we can almost see it happen, inexorably, step by tiny step.

Then, too, the seemingly casual diction of “The Change,” is highly artful. “It was all so tentative/,” we read in lines 24-25, “as if she were groping then one/ day they realized. . . “ “Groping” mentally only takes place when the real thing no longer exists. And “as if she were groping then one” foreshadows the lovers’ impending separation. Indeed, it is after “they realized,” that the “it” “happening” in line 5 (“it wasn’t some-/thing they talked about” can finally become” became “something they / could speak of.”

The Laughlin lover is usually stoic; he doesn’t feel sorry for himself, and he knows that a certain decorum must be observed. Indeed, the decorum of the love poems is very like that of that first letter I received from J. One observes certain codes, certain limits (hence the typography of the lyrics), and one doesn’t take oneself too seriously. But within those strictures, emotion is all. When Ann Laughlin died a painful death from cancer in 1989, J. was devastated. He had not been a “good” husband and he knew it. In his letters to me, he often referred to his sense of guilt. But Ann had held his life together for many decades, and after her death, the trips to New York and Europe, the lecture engagements and mini-courses, fell off. By the time, a few years later, that J. married Gertrude, a love of his youth, he knew he was an old man. His health was failing. The letters of the nineties have lost their edge: no more nasty jokes about Clammy Armpit (Amy Clampitt) or the Vendlerizing of this or that anthology or journal.

The last poem in the Collected Poems is called “The Empty Room”:

As he passes the open door
he can see there is no long-

er anyone in the room no one
is lying in the bed and no

one is attending the recum-
bent figure the water glass

with its bent drinking straw
is gone from the beside ta-

ble there are no flowers
in the vase none of her fa-

vorite red and blue anemo-
nes the window shades have

been raised because the
room need no longer be

kept darkened now sun-
light is flooding the

room in its neatness
and emptiness it is for

him a scene of terror
what can he do with

what is left of his life?
(my wife Ann)

The poem enacts sundering — long-er, recum-/bent, ta-/ble, fa-/vorite, anemo-/nes, sun-/light— and the line “what can he do with?” is itself cut off from the previous couplets. The last time I visited the Laughlins in Norfolk, I passed the open door of that empty room and knew what J. meant about the neatness and sunlight. And now there is another empty room in Norfolk and Gertrude and J.’s children are no doubt tip-toeing past it, experiencing a similar sense of numbness and loss.

It is a sad moment for all of us who loved his wholly distinctive presence. Happily, we have the poems, such as “The Stranger,” in which the poet addresses the young man he once was with the words, “I’m glad you haven’t changed, you’re still yourself,” J. is still with us.


[1]
James Laughlin, The Man in the Wall (New York: New Directions, 1993), p. 89.