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'Byways: A Memoir by James Laughlin'

Had done all that could be done

With fiction."

Eventually, though, Pound gave his disciple the bad news:

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. . . You said I was

Such a terrible poet, I'd better

Do something useful, and become

A publisher, a profession which

You inferred required no talent

And only limited intelligence."

So Laughlin came back home and in 1936 launched New Directions with a stake of $100,000 from his father. But he didn't quite give up writing poetry, In 1994 Moyer Bell published his Collected Poems, and it showed that even "il miglior fabbro" could be wrong. Laughlin's verse was epigrammatic and learned, with a distinctly friendly voice -- girl-crazy, sheepishly intellectual and self-mocking. When I first read those poems, they reminded me sometimes of the Greek Anthology and sometimes of William Carlos Williams. Most were light-hearted or erotic, but not all. "Experience of Blood" opens: "I never knew there was so much blood/ in a man until my son killed himself" and ends "I had to wipe away the/ blood it took me four hours to do it/ but I couldn't have asked anyone else/ because after all it was my blood too."

For the most part, Byways avoids such painful memories, preferring to celebrate great writers or reminisce about ancient amours. For example, when he first arrived in Rapallo, Laughlin tried to pick up the attractive Olga Rudge, not knowing she was Pound's mistress. On other pages he recalls Genevieve de Hautecoeur, his father's French companion, who introduced him to the incomparable love sonnets of Louise Labe; the teenage Lola, who gave him "noctes incredibles" and at 16 was "grown up beyond her years/ In the intricacies of sex"; and Daphne and Honora and Dawn and Melissa and Liddy and . . . As Laughlin sums up the Dutch philosopher Koos Vanderleou, "He enjoyed/ Life with his lovers/ and friends."

The longest section of Byways (70 pages) chronicles Laughlin's own friendship with William Carlos Williams, and manages to discusseverything from that poet's theories of versification (including the notorious "variable foot") and the structure of Paterson, to his hatred of Eliot, his sex appeal and his ability to combine a fulltime medical career with a steady flow of writing. Williams was, Laughlin concludes:

. . . in his work (as he

Was in his life) believable,

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