Poetry Needs Nurturing
In an interview, publisher-poet James Laughlin says today's 'climate of perception' has changed
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — The Country Road
By James Laughlin
149 pp., $22.95
When James Laughlin was studying with Ezra Pound in 1935, Pound gave the aspiring poet some valuable advice: Your poems are horrible. Stop writing and find something useful to do with your life.
Then he added, as a suggestion: Publishing doesn't require much skill.
Mr. Laughlin heeded Pound's words, and in 1936, as a Harvard University undergraduate, he founded New Directions Publishing Corp. He devoted his next six decades, to publishing the best avant-garde writing he could find - but he never stopped penning what he refers to as "light verses."
Today, Laughlin takes comfort in the great success of New Directions (which poets and critics alike credit with having profoundly shaped modern Western poetry) and in the fact that his 13th book of verse has recently been published. He even notes that Pound eventually recanted, saying: "Laughlin isn't all that bad."
His new collection, "The Country Road," is classic Laughlin: numerous poems that contain references to Greek mythology - which, Laughlin says in an interview , "gives me some authorization for what I want to say," and a large selection of intimate love poems.
Laughlin strives for poems that are as transparent as a window and have a definite resolution, but he's also changing some of his own poetic rules. The man who never wanted his work to be too personal - for fear of being embarrassed - is now writing longer poems that allow him to better explore his "psyche." "Those things that I've been troubled by, felt, noticed, or been inspired by," he says.
Laughlin has passed the stage where he needs his characteristic "typewriter metric" as it could be called. Suggested by William Carlos Williams, this device uses preset margins on the typewriter to determine uniform line lengths. Laughlin says this once freed him to focus on crafting lines that "sound nice, where the words sort of flow together."
Today the poet needs the openness of what he calls "narrative verse," long poems that are meant to sound colloquial and "zip along." But Laughlin has no illusions of grandeur. "Poetry is a divine gift," he says, and one that he doesn't have. He writes because he can't help it - "the stuff just pours out of me."
It might be surprising to some that Laughlin, who says he has no room for influences other than the classics, gets many of his ideas from TV shows on PBS or from Anthea, his muse, who has the annoying habit of dictating to him shortly after he's gone to bed. He dutifully writes down what he is given and then works on the poem over the next few days.
But this devotee of the ancient writings - whose house contains nearly 20,000 books of and on poetry - does not then spend an equal amount of time revising. He has no interest, he says, in working on the same page again and again, as was necessary for Dylan Thomas.
Perhaps this paradox is part of what makes Laughlin such a fascinating literary figure. Laughlin the poet is,, by his own account "lazy," but Laughlin the editor can speak in almost mind-boggling detail about the lives and work of many great 20th-century poets.
As Laughlin reflects on the changes he has seen since the 1930s, he admits there might be some truth to the idea that too much confessional work has driven the average reader away from poetry. People are confused, he says, because so much bad writing gets published. "The multiplicity of mediocre talents creates great difficulties for the book trade. This stuff gets hurled at the booksellers and they don't know what to do with it."
The average reader has even more trouble, he says, because "People can't be expected to understand poetry and what poetry is until they get some help.... A lot of people believe that anything that rhymes is poetry." Unfortunately, no one seems to be giving the public what it needs.
Laughlin says what's needed to begin changing the status quo are one or two magazines or journals that could set the standard and say, "in a kindly way, this is good and this is bad, so that people know what to ask for and stores know what to carry." Laughlin recalls a time when 20 regional newspapers regularly reviewed poetry. Today, he counts perhaps five that do.
But a larger problem is the direction our culture has taken, he says. People aren't educated; they don't have a knowledge of the classics or of Greek, Latin, or even another modern language. More important, people are caught up in what Laughlin refers to as "the malady of the age": psychology and medicine.
"It's a different climate of perception," he says, adding that "In the age in which we live, with the TV, the movies, and the works, poetry is not the accepted mode of communication, and I don't know anything that's going to change that."
But before poetry-lovers despair, they should remember that "at any given time, there may be 10 really top people who are writing." And if that's not much of a consolation, there's always the work of Laughlin's top six: Catullus, Sappho, Arnaut Daniel, Henrick, Rochester, and, of course, Shakespeare, "the greatest writer who ever lived."