A Poem For Sunday

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Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn writes:

James Laughlin, the founder and publisher of New Directions from 1936 until his death in 1997, was also a prolific poet, who established his style with some guidance from William Carlos Williams, one of his most distinguished authors. In Peter Glassgold’s introduction to The Collected Poems of James Laughlin, 1935-1997, the omnibus volume he has edited, I learned that Laughlin dubbed it “typewriter metrics.” Glassgold describes it thus: “The lines in any given stanza could not vary in length more than one typewriter character.” Laughlin said that he was after “an effect of tension from the war between the strictly artificial pattern and the strictly natural spoken rhythms.”

The poem below was written in the mid-30s, around the time he took a trip to Key West to try to talk Elizabeth Bishop into joining his list. She didn’t say yes, but there’s an enchanting picture of her on the steps of a brothel where they were treated to tea, and, as Laughlin recalled, “Oreo cookies, my favorites.”

“What My Head Did to Me” by James Laughlin:

I guess I like myself
pretty well anyway I
wanted a statue of my-
self so I had a woman

make one it was a head
and she modelled it in
clay then one night I
dreamed I’d killed my

very best friend and
there was my head right
there ready to tell on
me when the police came

I tried to destroy the
face so they wouldn’t
know it was me but my
hands stuck tight in

the clay I couldn’t
tear them loose and
there I was when the
police came held by my

own head with the body
of my friend multi-
plying itself like
endless mirrors down

the street that’s the
thing my head did to
me but of course it
was only a dream see.

(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 Lori Leaumont)