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James Laughlin


James Laughlin was born October 30, 1914, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The son of Henry Hughart and Marjory Rea Laughlin, James Laughlin was born into one of Pittsburgh’s leading steel-making families. But after visiting the Laughlin mill as a child, Laughlin decided he would never enter the business.

Laughlin studied at the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, with poet, critic, and translator Dudley Fitts, and served as editor of the school’s literary magazine. By the time he had turned eighteen, he had already published a short story in The Atlantic Monthly.

In 1933, he enrolled in Harvard University, where he majored in Latin and Italian. However, Laughlin, who was drawn to more radical and experimental literature, did not agree with the conservatism of his teachers. He took a leave of absence midway through his sophomore year and traveled to France, where he met popular modernist writer Gertrude Stein. He soon got in touch with Ezra Pound in Italy and stayed with Pound for six months to enroll in his “Ezuversity” (Pound’s term for his private tutoring sessions with Laughlin), but Pound dismissed Laughlin’s poetry and suggested he become a publisher instead.

Laughlin returned to Harvard, and in 1936, as a twenty-two-year-old sophomore, founded New Directions with money from his father. He published books out of a cottage at his aunt’s home in Norfolk, Connecticut, the first of which was the anthology New Directions in Prose & Poetry, which he published in 1936 and sold for $2 each. The anthology included experimental writing from contributors such as Elizabeth Bishop, E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Laughlin himself, under the pseudonym Tasilo Ribischka. This was only the first of a series of annual anthologies intended “as a place where experimentalists could test their inventions by publication.”

Following the publication of the first New Directions anthology, Laughlin began publishing novels, plays, and poetry collections. He published the work of writers such as Tennessee Williams, Randall Jarrell, and Karl Shapiro in a Five Young American Poets series, and reprinted authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Stein in a New Classics series, among others. Laughlin was also the first American publisher of the work of prominent novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Williams and Pound, both of whom had difficulty finding publishers at one point, had many books published by New Directions.

Laughlin also continued writing poetry himself and became more known for his writing in literary circles. In 1945, he published his first book, Some Natural Things (New Directions). Poet Hayden Carruth has said he admires Laughlin’s work for the “layering voices of wit, irony, and fantasy” and the “breadth of literary sources.” Laughlin’s other poetry titles include The Commonplace Book of Pentastichs (New Directions, 1998), Country Road (Zoland Books, 1995), and Phantoms (Aperture, 1995), among many others.

In 1992, Laughlin received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Laughlin died on November 12, 1997, in Norfolk at the age of eighty-three.

The Academy of American Poets offers the James Laughlin Award, the only second-book award for poetry in the United States, in his honor. Offered since 1954, the award was endowed in 1995 by a gift from the Drue Heinz Trust.

Selected Bibliography

The Commonplace Book of Pentastichs (New Directions, 1998)
Country Road (Zoland Books, 1995)
Phantoms (Aperture, 1995)
The Owl of Minerva (Copper Canyon Press, 1987)
In Another Country (City Lights Books, 1978)
Selected Poems: 1935-1985 (City Lights Books, 1986)
Tabellae (Grenfell Press, 1986)
Confidential Report and Other Poems (Gaberbocchus Press, 1959)
The Wild Anemone & Other Poems (New Directions, 1957)
A Small Book of Poems (New Directions, 1948)
Some Natural Things (New Directions, 1945)

By This Poet



Often now as an old man 
Who sleeps only four hours a night, 
I wake before dawn, dress and go down 
To my study to start typing: 
Poems, letters, more pages 
In the book of recollections. 
Anything to get words flowing, 
To get them out of my head 
Where they're pressing so hard 
For release it's like a kind 
Of pain. My study window 
Faces east, out over the meadow, 
And I see this morning 
That the sheep have scattered 
On the hillside, their white shapes 
Making the pattern of the stars 
In Canis Major, the constellation 
Around Sirius, the Dog Star, 
Whom my father used to point 
Out to us, calling it 
For some reason I forget 
Little Dog Peppermint. 

What is this line I'm writing? 
I never could scan in school. 
It's certainly not an Alcaic. 
Nor a Sapphic. Perhaps it's 
The short line Rexroth used 
In The Dragon & The Unicorn,
Tossed to me from wherever 
He is by the Cranky Old Bear 
(but I loved him). It's really 
Just a prose cadence, broken 
As I breathe while putting 
My thoughts into words; 
Mostly they are stored-up 
Memories—dove sta memoria. 
Which one of the Italians 
Wrote that? Dante or Cavalcanti? 
Five years ago I'd have had 
The name on the tip of my tongue 
But no longer. In India
They call a storeroom a godown,
But there's inventory
For my godown. I can't keep 
Track of what's m there. 
All those people in books 
From Krishna & the characters 
In the Greek Anthology 
Up to the latest nonsense 
Of the Deconstructionists, 
Floating around in my brain, 
A sort of "continuous present"
As Gertrude Stein called it; 
The world in my head 
Confusing me about the messy 
World I have to live in. 
Better the drunken gods of Greece 
Than a life ordained by computers. 

My worktable faces east; 
I watch for the coming 
Of the dawnlight, raising 
My eyes occasionally from 
The typing to rest them, 
There is always a little ritual, 
A moment's supplication 
To Apollo, god of the lyre; 
Asking he keep an eye on me 
That I commit no great stupidity. 
Phoebus Apollo, called also 
Smintheus the mousekiller
For the protection he gives 
The grain of the farmers. My 
Dawns don't come up like thunder 
Though I have been to Mandalay 
That year when I worked in Burma. 
Those gentle, tender people
Puzzled by modern life; 
The men, the warriors, were lazy, 
It was the women who hustled, 
Matriarchs running the businesses. 
And the girls bound their chests 
So their breasts wouldn't grow; 
Who started that, and why? 
My dawns come up circumspectly, 
Quietly with no great fuss. 
Night was and in ten minutes 
Day is, unless of course 
It's raining hard. Then comes 
My first breakfast. I can't cook 
So it's only tea, puffed wheat and 
Pepperidge Farm biscuits. 
Then a cigar. Dr Luchs 
Warned me the cigars 
Would kill me years ago 
But I'm still here today.