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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Number 216: James Laughlin "Step On His Head"

Step On His Head

Let's step on daddy's head shout
the children my dear children as
we walk in the country on a sunny

summer day my shadow bobs dark on
the road as we walk and they jump
on its head and my love of them

fills me all full of soft feelings
now I duck with my head so they'll
miss when they jump they screech

with delight and I moan oh you're
hurting you're hurting me stop
they jump all the harder and love

fills the whole road but I see it run
on through the years and I know
how some day they must jump when

it won't be this shadow but really
my head (as I stepped on my own
father's head) it will hurt really

hurt and I wonder if then I will
have love enough will I have love
enough when it's not just a game?

-- James Laughlin

Hap Notes: James Laughlin (1914-1997) casts an enormous shadow of influence over the literature of the 20th (and 21st) century. His remarkable taste and boldness is unequaled today and one can hardly see when it ever will be equaled at all.

Don't know him? Sure you do. You may not know his poetry but you are most certainly familiar with writers that he published and was often the first to publish. Just a short list includes Elizabeth Bishop, Kay Boyle, e.e. cummings, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams, Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, Denise Levertov, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Gregory Corso, Nathanael West and that's just mostly the Americans. He was the first to publish Hesse's Siddhartha in America as well as Dylan Thomas's poetry and his publishing company also handled the works of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Rilke, Valery, Kafka, Cocteau, Neruda, Queneau, Cardenal, Lorca, Pasternak, Paz and Borges. If you are not impressed and you love literature, check your pulse.

Laughlin was heir to the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company in Pittsburgh although after visiting one of the foundries as a child, with its hot smoke, sparks, fire and noise, he determined he would not be going near the family business. He majored in Latin and Italian at Harvard and while on a sabbatical in Europe he wrote to Ezra Pound whom he visited and ended up attending what Pound called his "Ezuniversity"; hanging around with Pound for about six months. Pound told him to "do something useful" and he left Europe and started New Directions, a publishing house dedicated to the more experimental writers of the era. Laughlin knew the books would probably not make much money. That was not why he started the company. He wanted to give writers he felt were doing interesting work a publisher and, just maybe, some readers. (If this has no impact on you, again, pulse- check it.)

Laughlin recalled how when the names of Pound or T.S. Eliot were mentioned in the classroom at Harvard, his creative-writing professor, poet Robert Hillyer, would actually leave the room. Laughlin's taste was not as conservative, obviously.

The first thing his publishing company, New Directions (founded with a gift of $100,000 from his father,) tackled was an anthology of writers who included William Carlos Williams, Henry Miller, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound (and also Tasilo Ribischka- a pen-name for Laughlin himself and described as "an Austrian now living in Saugus, Mass., where he is a night watchman at a railroad grade crossing; this gives him lots of time to think.")

After the anthology was published, he put copies in the trunk of his car and sold them to book stores a few at a time. New Directions published anthologies consistently until 1991 when they issued their last edition. New Directions also published Fitzgeralds' The Crack Up (where you see that Fitzgerald was every bit as brilliant and insecure as you thought.)

Laughlin knew everybody, was led to other writers by the writers he already knew and his life was a who's who of American letters. He had copious notes he wrote on his life which was published by New Directions called The Way It Wasn't and includes his thoughts on butterfly hunting with Nabokov and camping trips with Kenneth Rexroth. Their catalog is breathtaking: take a gander at this- New Directions' landmark best-sellers, however, were Hesse's Siddhartha and Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind.

If you have been moved by any of these writers you owe Laughlin a good thought.

In today's poem Laughlin talks about the cycle of father to child. Laughlin said of his own father and father's father in reference to New Directions, "Of course, none of this would have possible without the industry of my ancestors, the canny Irishmen who immigrated in 1824 from County Down to Pittsburgh, where they built up what became the fourth largest steel company in the country. I bless them with every breath. "

In today's poem, Laughlin is playing a little "shadow" game with his kids as they step on his shadow's head as they walk along. There is a joyful and a cautionary tone to this poem as the poet knows the shadow game presages a real one that will take place someday.

The love and joy in this poem is a happy running stream that turns into a river that runs into what could be a very dangerous sea. Laughlin knows that it won't be long before childhood delight turns into a young person striking out on their own and possibly striking out at the father a bit, too. It may not even be totally intentional but parents must be ready for it.

This comes with the territory of parenting and the poet hopes he and his offspring will be ready for it with love. He knows it's his love that needs to be the strongest, able to withstand what will come. (I won't tell you what that is- let's just enjoy this poem for now. We'll look at another of Laughlin's somewhat related poems later this year.)

Here's Laughlin reading the poem:

Here's a good Laughlin quote: "I don't have any business acumen. I'm not good at deals and can't cope with agents."

and another:

"Do not become a cheap writer. Keep up your standards. It is better to be read by 800 readers and be a good writer than be read by all the world and be Somerset Maugham."

You can find more Laughlin here:

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