Impossible Standards

Impossible Standards

The poems and a new biography of James Laughlin tells of his public success as a publisher and his private disappointments.


Vladimir Nabokov was hiking down a mountain on a summer afternoon. It was 1943, and he and his companion, James Laughlin, had made their way up a peak in northern Utah to find butterflies for Nabokov’s collection. The light was fading, and they were in tennis shoes. The two of them slipped on a steep and icy snowfield and slid down the mountain until Nabokov caught an outcropping of rock with his butterfly net and Laughlin grabbed the Russian’s foot and held on. Literature saved Laughlin’s life, one could say—but only this once.

Laughlin was hosting the Nabokovs at a lodge in Alta, where he had begun to build ski lifts. He also happened to have introduced Nabokov to American audiences, a grand achievement in publishing but not Laughlin’s first. He was 28 and had already brought out works by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Delmore Schwartz, Kenneth Patchen, John Berryman, Dylan Thomas, Henry Miller, Harry Levin, John Crowe Ransom—all of whom would come to define American modernism but had a hard time finding their way to decent American publishers. Laughlin began to lead what he called the “advance guard” of American writing as a 22-year-old sophomore at Harvard College. He ran his press, New Directions, for more than sixty years, and published roughly 1,500 books.

An entrepreneur and a publisher, Laughlin was the scion of a steel-fortune family in Pittsburgh. He also wrote poetry, a lot of it. Last fall, a hundred years after his birth and seventeen years after his death, Ian MacNiven published a thick biography of Laughlin,which has appeared alongside the publisher’s Collected Poems, a 1,200-page brick. Together the books tell a story of public success and private disappointment and failure. Priceless anecdotes abound—Saul Bellow turning Laughlin into “Hildebrand the playboy publisher” in Humboldt’s Gift; the 20-year-old Laughlin running Gertrude Stein’s PR—and MacNiven is plausibly right to say of Laughlin that “more than any other person of the twentieth century,” he “directed the course of American writing.” But Laughlin, the unfortunate inheritor of his father’s bipolarity, also comes off as a poor husband, a distant father, a priapic narcissist and a largely failed writer, becoming more anxious and depressed with age. One can see why: his literary obsessions led him to turn personal problems into aesthetic ones. His lack of moral vision reinforced his lack of artistic rigor, and vice versa, leaving him in the sway of his insecurities. It’s a sad irony that he couldn’t himself write the kind of imaginative work he published for the world in abundance, the kind that in challenging you is both good and good for you. The same course of events that launched him as a publisher clipped his wings as an artist when he was a very young man.

* * *

In 1933, after his freshman year at Harvard, Laughlin went to visit Ezra Pound in Rapallo, Italy, where the poet was living in self-imposed exile. Laughlin had begun to read Pound at boarding school, on the advice of an unusually good English teacher who knew the poet and was later happy to introduce his star pupil to him. Pound held forth in great, rambling speeches to whoever would listen, a sort of education in itself, which he called, without due modesty, the Ezuversity. Laughlin was transfixed.

Back at Harvard and living at Eliot House, Laughlin sent writing to his old schoolteacher that sounded strikingly Poundian. The older man was having none of it: Laughlin had better stop the imitation and write more “authentically.” Laughlin heard far worse from Gertrude Stein, whom he met the next summer in Bilignin, France, after catching the eye of her friend Bernard Faÿ. She told Laughlin that he was untalented, the sort of young man who mistakes sensitivity for a literary gift, and that he had better do something useful, like steelmaking. (She didn’t tell him not to write about her, although he quickly lost faith in the critical monograph he’d started.) Laughlin wrote, sounding like Stein, “Each time you know a great person you begin to know more and more that you yourself are not a great person.” He was 20.

Laughlin liked to say that Pound convinced him to take up publishing by insulting his poetry. “Jaz,” Pound supposedly said, “you’re never gonna be any good as a poet…. You’d better become a publisher. You’ve prob’ly got enough brains fer that.” MacNiven doubts that it happened precisely this way, but it might as well have: Laughlin’s youthful ego was punctured, and in his writing it never recovered. Not that this impeded his publishing.

“I have a new direction and an increased confidence,” wrote Laughlin, after his father signed over a fortune to him for his 21st birthday. He would publish an anthology of good new writing; its first edition was New Directions 1936. Laughlin followed up with a novel by one of his contributors, William Carlos Williams’s White Mule, which was lauded so widely that it would’ve been an unequivocal triumph if Laughlin hadn’t been skiing in New Zealand during the short surge of demand for the book. (Williams drove from Paterson, New Jersey, to New Directions’ proto-offices in Norfolk, Connecticut, to try to print more copies himself, but Laughlin’s father wouldn’t let him.) Pound had told Laughlin months before his 21st birthday how badly Williams needed a good publisher.

Not all of Laughlin’s judgments were Pound’s, though: he put the 25-year-old Elizabeth Bishop in his first ND anthology on the recommendation of Marianne Moore. The early anthologies had more women than the front lists of early ND catalogs. Laughlin wanted to publish a book of Bishop’s a few years later in a series called Five Young American Poets; she turned him down when he told her that having a woman in the series would lend it sex appeal. Still, the series had John Berryman and Randall Jarrell.

For all his early success as a publisher, Laughlin was cowed out of learning by imitation. Success probably made the problem even worse. He missed that phase in which artists try on any number of styles before they can make one of their own, and, after turning 21, would seldom again imitate any styles of poetry ambitiously, least of all those of the writers he published. (It must have been hard for him with all those giants standing on his shoulders, although he did borrow the cadences and plain American speech of William Carlos Williams, who freely issued those prescriptions to whoever would take them.) In his poetry, Laughlin found any number of ways to disavow creative ambition—by choosing arbitrary constraints (too random to reflect his conviction), writing classically (more imitation than innovation), or, most often, writing lackadaisically, not trying much at all. The bulk of Laughlin’s poetry came to him in a torrent in old age, when his earlier friends were dead or dying—including Pound, who was, as MacNiven writes, Laughlin’s “intellectual father.” Perhaps Laughlin would have been much more of a poet if he’d had more years to read in boring obscurity before meeting Pound. But then he might never have published Pound either.

Laughlin suffered from impossible standards: they were too high to try for, but nothing else would satisfy him. Hence the many poems in which he repeatedly apologizes for their being mere verse and not actual poetry—an oeuvre that seems never to end because it hardly ever really begins.

His moral standards seem to have been as impossible as his aesthetic ones when it came to love: he vacillated between the cold and draconian probity of his mother’s Calvinism and his father’s relentless philandering. He couldn’t criticize himself without breaking himself, so he didn’t try. In 1995, in his 80s, Laughlin published a poem about “a boy-doll named Harry” who’d been his “best friend”:

When I was eight my mother
Snatched Harry and gave him
To the Salvation Army. I never
Saw him again. I don’t know who
Got him. There has been a hole
In my heart ever since.

Out of context, these lines would sound like a parody of Freudian self-pity, but they’re notable in that Laughlin describes a psychic wound without distancing himself from it. His mother is remote and punitive, as always—“My mother didn’t talk to me a great deal unless she was planning a paddywhacking for some misdeed”—but she also hurts him by cutting off his social and imaginative life incomprehensibly. No matter what she actually did, he felt more than seventy years later that she had robbed him of her presence and his substitute for her. Were the double entendres in the poem—“snatch,” “hole,” even “Harry”—more than a psychological accident? It’s wordplay for someone whose relationship to women was always that of a child—capricious, needy and reflexively self-centered—no more so than when his writing made his lust out to be holy.

“His Problem,” as he wrote in a concurrent poem, “Was an excessive interest / In the life of language…. / The words built a wall around him, / Shutting him off from those / He should have loved.” His problem wasn’t only this, though, nor only that “He was passionately absorbed / In words,” but that his words absorbed him in idealized sexual passion. It went beyond his anatomical fixations on “sexy legs and pretty little feet” and “sweet little breasts”—descriptions such as which prompted Denise Levertov, whom he published for decades, to take the page from which he had just read a poem to an audience at Houghton Library at Harvard and burn it on the steps of the building. His problem was that his prurience took the place of love. There are no poems that betray any effort of sympathy or care for his lovers, or any serious interest in mutual understanding or trust, but there are hundreds of lines in which he transposes ideals suited to them onto sex acts. “The sacrament,” he writes in “Love Is Cumulative,” is that

When we make love you em-
body whatever was beauti-

ful in those who have gone

in you it has all come to-
gether the perfection of

the sacrament

His flaws were not lost on him. “Your Error,” he wrote, “was dehu- / manization it wasn’t // a girl you wanted but / a love object”—a line that appears less than a seventh of the way through his Collected Poems and, in slightly different form, on the very last page. He calls himself a Narcissus who sees his lover in the water. He was haunted to the end of his life by dreams of his mother’s frigidity and of him trying to pull a turtle out of its shell, possessing its body. He made fun of the way he needed women to mother him, and fantasized about him and his lover being children together. He wanted to note his egocentrism in the epigraph to his autobiography. “I admit that I was self-satisfied / and arrogant,” he wrote shortly before his death in November 1997. “I didn’t go to much pains / to provide diversions for my wife.” Those lines are not exactly passionate, and he seems to have known his problems without feeling their urgency.

His conscience speaks most clearly in an early poem of his, “The Voices,” in which “the tired / old voice in // the back of his head” “whines” that “It is sin it is sin it is a / deadly sin”: “you’ll / take her love but you can’t / give yourself.” His conscientiousness sounded like the whining voice of his mother’s religion, so of course “the voice in the heart” drowns out “the back of his head” and even loves to transgress it:

        …and sadly
and happily madly he enters
  again the soft
  and delectable
  battle of Love.

* * *

Stein was wrong to say that Laughlin lacked talent. He had a fine ear and exceptional taste (if not tastefulness), and you could fill a slim and powerful volume with poems of his that flawlessly effect the effects they describe. About his children, he writes, “my love of them / fills me all full of soft feelings,” the line welling up with rhymes as soft and unexpected as his affections. A poem about an Italian girl from his youth has all the disorienting excitement of a young bilingual love affair (“we’re enchanted in / another world O Giacomino Giacomino.” His ability to mix languages in the course of a poem was his best borrowing from Pound, although Laughlin seems to have generally inherited Pound’s hauteur and Williams’s sloppiness, the worst of both writers). “She Said in Apology,” a poem in which he’s talking to a lover, ends with a rhyme whose awkwardness puts you in the point of view of his lover doubting him but wanting to believe him (“let // us not be concerned with / minute particulars it is // the inner light I cherish”). That she’s apologizing for the size of her breasts makes it hard to appreciate the prosodic achievement.

MacNiven ends his otherwise excellent biography on the preachy note that Laughlin’s “spirit continues to inspire [New Directions], ‘the lengthened shadow of a very tall man.’” Not that this is all wrong. Laughlin was committed to his publishing and was by all accounts patient and generous with even the worst of his imperious, impecunious writers, such as “Dreadful Edward Dahlberg” and Delmore Schwartz, who once brought a battered cat to Laughlin’s office and tied it to his typewriter. Laughlin’s lack of discipline extended to his reading—he didn’t finish reading Ulysses until he was 60, despite publishing Joyce and work about him for decades—but his editorial choices are legendary, even if he often happened to have Pound or Kenneth Rexroth or Edmund Wilson in his ear. New Directions is a national treasure, and it’s no small testament to Laughlin’s legacy to say that he left the world with something so much greater than himself.

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