The late James Laughlin
was the legendary founder of New Directions Publishing, a press that was in the forefront of the modernist explosion in American letters in the twentieth century. Through New Directions, Laughlin brought his readers the likes of Kenneth Rexroth
, H. D.
, William Carlos Williams
, Gary Snyder
, Pablo Neruda
, Jorge Luis Borges
, Denise Levertov
, Thomas Merton
, and, of course, Ezra Pound
. Now, New Directions is offering the autobiographical musings of its founder in Byways: A Memoir
This is, however, an autobiography with a twist: it consists of a 319-page poem. And, quite a poem it is. It tells of Laughlin's early years as the scion of a wealthy Pennsylvania family, of his first tentative experiments with literature, of his meetings with Pound and others of his famous stable of writers, and much, much more. There's a very long segment that treats of William Carlos Williams, including photos and excerpts from letters and Williams's own work, and, of course, there's more than a smattering of references to Laughlin's many love affairs.
One of the real treats of this book is to hear, in Laughlin's own words, how Pound told him he couldn't write, and that he should use his significant fortune to publish those who could ? namely, Pound and his friends. Pound was, in this case, mistaken. Laughlin could write, and he wrote very, very well. His poetry is immensely readable, yet is enormously graceful, as well. His work owes a great deal to such classical stylists as Catullus, and, while occasionally losing the reader unacquainted with Latin, Greek, or vernacular Italian, it still resonates deeply and consistently as an inordinately humane venture in letters.
Having said that, it should be pointed out that the book is an unfinished work, and it sometimes feels somewhat cobbled together. There are parts that drag badly, but, if you persevere, Byways, overall, is an intensely interesting and pleasant read.
This is obviously verse written from the heart. As Laughlin put it:
That's where it all gets piled
Up, on the blue lines of the
Big yellow pads, when I'm wakened
In the middle of the night by the
Pressure of images and words at
The back of my brain, ideas that
Are struggling to escape, to be
Liberated from the labyrinth of
Lost memories. The rush of them
Is strong enough to jolt me out
Of sound sleep.
A wonderful book. Also worth checking out are his Love Poems.