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The Wrong Bed—Moira
 

It was in London that I
Fell into the wrong bed.
I should have guessed she
Was paranoid but sometimes
You can’t tell. She picked
Me up in the Gargoyle. It
Was the night Dylan tripped
And sprained his ankle so
Badly he couldn’t walk.
We got him to his place in a
Taxi, then went on to hers
In Chelsea. I think her
Name was Moira but I can’t
Remember for sure now. She
Was a small girl, brown hair,
Lively eyes, nicely dressed,
An upper-class accent, quite
Chatty. She had some bottles
And we drank till we both
Passed out with our clothes

On. Next day, about noon,
She ordered a car with a
Driver and we drove down to
Bath. That’s when the bad talk
About Americans started, but
I let it pass. She had friends
In Bath, a couple with an
Apartment in the Crescent.
We dumped on them; they said
We could have the sofa. We
Ate at a pub, then the drink
Began again. I think I was
The first to pass out. I woke
Up in the night. She was on
The sofa with the man. No sign
Of the wife, I went back
To sleep on the floor.

Next morning when the couple
Had gone off, they had a
Shop somewhere, she said,
Well, you brought me down

Here, I guess I’d better
Let you have it.” She sat
Down on the sofa and pulled
Up her skirt. By then I
Wasn’t interested, but she
Gibed at me: “Come on, Yank,
Let’s see what you’re good
For.” When that was over,
And it wasn’t much, there
Was the only kind word I
Heard about Americans. She
Said, “You’re better than
Most of the Johnnies around
Here.” I should have left
Her in Bath to get herself
Home, but I felt sorry for
Her somehow. She was a mess
But sort of pitiful. I got
Her back to Chelsea. She
Didn’t ask me in. The car
Hires ran me sixty pounds

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from The Old Bear: Kenneth Rexroth
 

Sometimes he could be sweet as Honey, but other times he was
Unbearably cranky; you couldn’t
Get near him or he’d growl or
Even bite. People either loved
Him or thought he was bad news
And to be avoided at all costs.
That summer when I drove down
From Alta to visit him in San
Francisco he was on a roll of
Good humor and I found him
Quite irresistible. Many of
His stories were made up,
Obvious fictions of a wild
Imagination, but so funny
One wanted to believe them.
When it was time for New
Directions to publish his
Autobiography the lawyer for
The libel-insurance company
Read the script and was
Horrified. “You and this man
Will spend the rest of your
Lives in court.” We solved
That problem by changing
Names of the characters who
Would be easy to identify
And making the title An Autobiographical Novel.
When I first saw how thick
Kenneth’s manuscript was I
Was surprised. When I dipped
Into it here and there I
Was amazed. I encountered some
Anecdotes that were in Kenneth’s
 

Spicy lingo but could not have
Happened to him, since they
Dealt with people I knew he
Hadn’t met—though when he
Was talking he seemed to know
Everyone of any consequence.
It got a bit tiresome this
Omniscience of persons and
I decided to set a little trap
For him. The scene was one
Of Kenneth’s “Thursday Nights”
At the old house on Potrero
Hill in San Francisco which
Attracted many of the young
Writers and bohemians from
North Beach. These events
Were Dutch, you had to
Bring your own food and
Drink. For my stunt I
Needed a glib accomplice
And enlisted the poet Robert
Duncan, who was one of the
Favorites of the group. He
Brought the discussion around
To the contemporary French
Poets: Bonnefoy, Guillevic,
Pinget, and others. I chimed
In with a nonexistent poet
Whom I had invented for the
Evening, one Auguste Dampière.
Between us Robert and I gave
Dampière a big build-up; we
Claimed that he was the new
Max Jacob. Kenneth took the
Bait and was soon giving us
 

The inside dope on his old friend
Auguste. It turned out that he
Had met him in Aix-en-Provence, Where they had picked up two
Girls at a café and hired a cab
To take them out to visit Mont
Sainte-Victoire, Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire that is, the hill
That the master had immortalized More than thirty times in oils
And watercolor. By this time
Kenneth had attained full voice
And there was no stopping him.
After a brief digression on the
Proficiencies of the two young
Ladies from Aix, he gave us
At great length, speaking as
A painter himself, a rundown
On the techniques and spatial
Constructs not only of Cezanne
But of most of the other great
Impressionists, together with
Insights into their private
Lives. It was a masterful
Performance which left Duncan
And me so moved neither of us
Could bring himself to break
The spell by denouncing his
Confabulation, if that is the
Right term for his fakeries.

Copyright © 2005 by the Trustees of the New Directions Ownership

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BYWAYS: ExCERPTS

from the Introduction:

James Laughlin had an abiding fascination with doppelgängers. This is not surprising in a poet who invented his own double—one Hiram Handspring, who could write with ease the kind of long-line poetry that rarely came naturally to Laughlin himself. But even as James Laughlin he was a man of many names. In the office of New Directions, the publishing house that he founded as a young man, he was and still is known as JL, but he often signed a note to one of the staff simply J (with no period). William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth called him Jim. To Ezra Pound and Hayden Carruth he was Jas; to Delmore Schwartz, Jay; to Thomas Merton, J. (with a period). His annual anthologies, New Directions in Prose & Poetry, were first edited by James Laughlin IV, later by J. Laughlin. Who knows why he jettisoned the IV, but he was, as these memoirs of his show, conscious of his ancestry, and it is possible that he sensed something of a doppelgänger-like shadow cast by those other men in his family who carried his name before him.

James Laughlin IV was born in 1914 into a wealthy Pittsburgh industrial family, the proprietors of Jones & Laughlin Steel. As an undergraduate at Harvard, and a would-be poet, he visited Ezra Pound in Rapallo, Italy, where the expatriate American poet ran his informal “Ezuversity.” Pound’s advice to young Laughlin: He should forget about writing poetry and go back to America and do something useful. Since he couldn’t very well assassinate Henry Seidel Canby, the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature (loathed for his mediocrity by Pound and JL), he should instead finish up his studies at Harvard to please his wealthy parents and start a publishing house with his family money. Pound promised to send out the word to people he knew, and the manuscripts did in fact start coming in—from Pound himself, of course, as well as Mary Barnard, Elizabeth Bishop, Kay Boyle, E.E. Cummings, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Lorine Niedecker, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Louis Zukofsky, to name just some of those whose work appeared in the first ND “Annual.” The year was 1936, and New Directions was launched—while James Laughlin was still an undergraduate at Harvard—with a stake of $100,000 from his father.

Over the years, JL entertained many proposals for books about his life and the history of New Directions. I recall hearing about contracts for at least four of them, two of biography and two for his memoirs, but he got out of them in one way or another after having second thoughts. I remember him quoting Pound to the effect that if all you’ve got left to write about was yourself, then your life might just as well be over. Yet JL’s diffidence wasn’t total. From the start he wrote poems about his boyhood and family in Pittsburgh and about his children. Later, there were poems about New Directions authors, such as Rexroth, Nabokov, and Dylan Thomas, and about the terrible self-inflicted death of his son Robert. A series of lectures at Brown University led in 1987 to his booklength memoir of Pound, while his collected literary essays, most of them from a personal perspective, were published fifteen years before his death.

Writers will often tell you that their best ideas, after cooking somewhere at the back of their minds, will steal upon them at an odd hour and take hold. For JL, his full autobiographical impulse suddenly found voice in poetry, in a suitably fluid short-line form that he adapted from Rexroth’s long narrative poem The Dragon and the Unicorn. He called these poems collectively his Byways, the ambling reminiscences of an old man looking back on his long life and many loves. He began publishing segments of his autobiographical poem in 1993, ten years after he started it. Yet he felt uncertain about what he was doing and looked as always to others for encouragement and advice, and he received it, principally from Hayden Carruth, whom he thanked in print for his “editorial collaboration.”

Copyright © 2005 by Peter Glassgold

 

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