A Poem For Saturday

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Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn writes:

James Laughlin, the founder and publisher of New Directions, shepherded a list, from 1936 until his death in 1997, which Peter Glassgold describes in his introduction to The Collected Poems of James Laughlin, 1935-1997 as one that “steadily expanded to include an astonishing pantheon of contemporary authors, primarily of the Modernist avant-garde, and quite literally changed what educated Americans read and the way American writers wrote and the kinds of poetry and fiction that were taught in our schools.” Today, ND is just as vital a force in contemporary literary culture, and the backlist is, of course, astounding.

Laughlin considered himself primarily a love poet and was encouraged by a number of his treasured authors—among them William Carlos Williams, Thomas Merton, Kenneth Rexroth, and Guy Davenport, who has praised his poems as “witty, elegiac, sexy, satiric, naughty, poignant, wise.” But Ezra Pound whose “Ezuversity” in Rapallo, Italy proved foundationally crucial to Laughlin’s literary education “ruled them hopeless,” he recalled. When prodded as to what path he should take, Pound replied, “ Go back to Haavud to finish up your studies. If you’re a good boy, your parents will give you some money and you can bring out books.” And so they did, launching one of the great publishing houses of the century.

Glassgold tells us that more than three-quarters of the 1,250-odd poems in the new volume date from Laughlin’s last fifteen years. When I was at The New Yorker, we published a number of his poems, which I found so captivating and dear. I loved the one below, which we wanted to publish but couldn’t because I discovered it had already appeared in a book. When I called to give J (as he was called) the sad news, he replied, mischievously, “Poor Gramps—ejected on a technicality!”

“Grandfather” by James Laughlin:

Sits on a chair at the
Kitchen table shelling
Peas into a bowl. He
Looks contented, even
Happy, smiling as he
Works. If you ask him
A question he probably
Won’t answer. He has
No idea what my name is,
Or even, I guess, that
I’m his grandson. He’s
93 but he has to be kept
Busy or he’ll start to
Root around in closets
All over the house. What
Does he think is lost?
No matter, he has been
Asked to shell peas.
He’s happy doing it. And
We’ll have peas for lunch.

(From The Collected Poems of James Laughlin, 1935-1997, edited with an introduction and notes by Peter Glassgold © 1995 by James Laughlin. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue)