- Meadow House
- Photograph by Jonathan Williams
- James Laughlin
- 1914 -1997
I think we have a proper candidate, finally, for the excellent "Epitaph for Someone or Other," from J.V. Cunningham's little book, Doctor Drink. It goes:
Naked I came, naked I leave the scene,
And naked was my pastime in between.
At the end of his long literary life which spanned nearly 70 years, J. Laughlin left us a cache of poems that makes me ask an interesting question: did the classic Roman masters (Horace, Catullus, Martial, Propertius, Ovid), did they leave as many excellent poems amongst the whole lot of them as the Master of Meadow House just on his own? This is not a captious or whimsical question. It may take us a generation or two to come to an enlightened answer.
What I am suggesting is that Laughlin poems are available to us by the hundreds in their finely-crafted simplicity and clarity. We know the world they are about. To the reader without considerable Latin, poor Catullus is hard going and often you wonder why anyone bothers. A prose translation on the order of F.W. Cornish's published in the Loeb Classical Library in 1913 is by now utterly pallid, de-sexualized, and inanimate. Frank O. Copley gave us in the 1950s a raucous version seen through the prisms of e.e. cummings. A strange thing to do- sometimes charming. There is even an edition of 1970 for "American Readers" translated by Reney Myers and Robert J. Ormsby. It's down-market and chattery, full of chicks and pricks, and brings some of the briefer epigrams to life: "Pricko tries to climb the poets' hill; / The Muses with their pitchforks praise his skill." The modern version that gives us more feeling of Catullus's cultivation-cum-sass in the Rome of his day is the one by the late Peter Whigham that is published in Penguin Classics.
To change tack- JL, distinguished poet, distinguished publisher, was also an accomplished skier, to judge from reports by Kenneth Rexroth and Hayden Carruth. I am sure they are right, but I am writing as a man who spent two years in Aspen, Colorado in the 1960s and never once bothered to lift up mine eyes unto the hills to see anyone streaking down the slopes of Aspen Mountain. I was busy at the Aspen Institute, cogitating, and playing volleyball with strange people like Hunter Thompson, Jonas Salk, James Farmer, Barry Bingham, and George Plimpton's father... JL's pipes and cigars were other major pleasures he allowed us to know about. His golf game he kept private.
What is the one adjective that most described his manner of being? Rexroth said it was JL's "chaste" demeanor. He was not a man who caroused or drank much of anything. You certainly felt his Scots-Irish Presbyterian reservation. Being in the presence of an abstemious Celt is frankly unsettling, like observing a famous but cadaverous chef.
I think "dogged" is the word I would use. This quality allowed him to struggle through all those piles of hideous manuscripts looking for something, anything with quality. It kept him absolutely devoted to the hard process of writing his poems and prose over decades when few ever gave them more than a thought. And, of course, it kept him on erotic patrol from about the age of 13 to 83. Georges Simenon (who wrote 400 books, of which 300 were very good, according to Guy Davenport) insisted that he'd slept with over 12,000 women. His seemingly non-long-suffering wife would laugh loudly and insist it was a figure definitely less than 7,000. So, as they say, who's counting? Those high in testosterone and those low in testosterone probably don't think about sex more than three times a minute. That leaves plenty of time for novel-writing. It is, after all, a "low form," sayeth the poet, quoting some wag like Mr. Mencken.
J. Laughlin saw himself with startling clarity. There are not many poems around like "Reading the Obituary Page in The Times":
He was a messy sort of person
who never quite finished any-
thing he started there was a
garden of girls who had found
him unsatisfactory for one rea-
son or another with men friends
he was the master of the short
conversation after ten minutes
there was really nothing more to
say the truth was that he dis-
liked himself extremely he had
to press his brains against his
skull to understand anything
more difficult than the news-
paper all his life he never
understood what made a car
run computers were out
of the question in old age he
became foolish about money try-
ing to make more go out than
came in this annoyed the bank
and worried the children he
didn't kill himself but he
constructed his death as if
he were drawing diagrams
for a newly born Euclid
Not exactly luxe, calme, et volupté. More like calm, cool, and collected. I made my visits to Meadow House, Norfolk, Connecticut, for some 35 years and certainly shall miss them in the extreme. True to his poem, some days the sands of conversation would start running out after ten minutes. Then, you had to figure out something to shift JL from his Squire Sisyphus mode into his more garrulous Hiram Handspring persona. All one had to do was whisper a name like "Edward Dahlberg" or "Merle Hoyleman" or "Kenneth Rexroth" and the fat would hit the fire. We would babble on happily for the 45 minutes until lunch and, with a bit of luck, I might even be able to sneak a second Scotch and soda from the sideboard in the dining room.
The living room/study at Meadow House is a marvellous room. The extraordinary shelves of private press books, éditions de luxe, artist's books; the glimpses here and there of Marin, Klee, Chirico, Tchelitchev, Magritte; the big desk covered with manuscripts and New Directions business; the large windows looking out over the rocky meadow and the sheep. Somewhere Ezra Pound says, "The humane man has amity with the hills." I have been in equally civilized parlors (Guy Davenport's, Robert Kelly's, Ping Ferry's, Peyton Houston's, Jonathan Greene's, Robert Duncan's, Donald Anderson's, to name a few), but nothing quite like this. Smoke damage to some of the paintings was severe in a fire a few years back. A late-night cigar fallen and smouldering in the cushion of JL's favorite Queen Anne armchair. Rare books too were lost, but, wondrously, not the house, nor anybody. Last year things looked much as always. I hope that room can remain itself. What a day out, to visit Meadow House and then drive an hour east to Mark Twain's superb domicile in Hartford.
At JL's death I heard Mr. Roger Straus on NPR's "Morning Edition" lament that Laughlin was the Last of the Gentleman Publishers and we would not see his like again. I think people in New York City should travel more. JL was not the first such publisher. There were Alfred Knopf, Kurt Woolf, Pascal Covici, Horace Liveright, John Farrar, just to start an eminent list. In 1997 two of JL's most talented contemporaries also died: Leslie Katz, of Eakins Press; and Ben Raeburn, of Horizon Press. There is a younger generation of publishers very much in the New Directions tradition. Think of Douglas Messerli at Sun & Moon Press; John Martin at Black Sparrow Press; Jonathan Greene at Gnomon Press; Tom Meyer and myself at the Jargon Society; The Press of David Godine; Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Books; and Jack Shoemaker at North Point and Counter Point. There are obvious others. J. Laughlin was not the first or the last. Let us just say he was the BEST!
LINES WRITTEN DURING A PITTSBURGH STEELERS/NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS AFC PLAYOFF GAME*, IN HONOR OF THE MASTER OF MEADOW HOUSE
Your Frater Jacobus is nearing the Elysian Fields. Bid him welcome! Introduce him to a cotillion of soignée young ladies, yet dutiful to the Muses. And please keep him at a safe distance from Edward Dahlberg, who will berate him for publishing any writers at New Directions other than himself. Kenneth Rexroth always said that 90% of the worst human beings he knew were poets. "Poets these days are so square they have to walk around the block just to turn over in bed."
O saeclum insapiens et infacetum!
What a witless and tasteless age!
Scaly Mountain, North Carolina,
3 January 1998
*The Steelers won!