Even though he doesn't live here anymore, Robert Creeley still looks like a New England poet. With his flannel shirt and modest manner, he seems like the guy from next door - a friendly man who just happens to be the creator of spare, lyrical poems that have influenced two generations of poets. The author of more than seventy volumes of poetry, prose, and plays, Creeley was on campus in March to celebrate the late James Laughlin, founder and, for sixty years, head of the pioneering New Directions publishing company.
James Laughlin, who bequeathed more than 4,000 rare books and manuscripts to Brown before his death last November.
Creeley's reading to a standing-room-only crowd at Carmichael Auditorium kicked off a three-day memorial tribute to Laughlin sponsored by the Program in Creative Writing. In addition to readings and panel discussions by more than a dozen New Directions authors and translators, the tribute featured a first glimpse of Laughlin's own gift to Brown - a collection of more than 4,000 rare books and manuscripts that Samuel Streit, associate librarian for special collections, calls "a major windfall for Brown libraries."
Creeley read from Life and Death, his latest New Directions poetry collection, and reminisced about Laughlin, who provided a first, and much-needed, venue for such writers as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, Nathanael West '24, William Carlos Williams, and Brown Professor Emeritus of English Edwin Honig. "What he provided," Creeley said, "was a sense of being able to write without constriction, without the distraction of the sense that you can't say that, it's not possible, it's not permissible. [Laughlin's] extraordinary provision brought together a remarkable company of writers that it was an honor to belong to."
On display at the Annmary Brown Memorial during the New Directions festival were such literary treasures as signed, limited-edition volumes by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, as well as those authors' rare page proofs, on which they had written annotations and corrections.
According to Streit, Laughlin's interest in Brown began when Professor Emeritus of English John Hawkes invited him to teach as a guest lecturer in the English department. "Laughlin had a very good time guest-lecturing here," Streit said. "He liked the faculty, he liked the students, and he liked the library." Shortly before Laughlin's death late last year, Streit says, the publisher called "out of the blue and asked if Brown would be interested in acquiring his library."
The Laughlin gift came in two parts. The first, a bequest set up by Laughlin, consists of his collection of four major American writers: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Thomas Merton. The second part was initiated by Laughlin's widow, Gertrude Huston Laughlin, who, Streit says, "asked me to go through the rest of [his] library and take whatever I wanted for Brown."
When it is complete later this spring, the Laughlin collection will make Brown an important stop for scholars trying to understand a group of major writers who found their audience through James Laughlin. "Getting to New Directions," Robert Creeley reminded his listeners, "meant being given a place at the table."