The avant-garde publisher New Directions was founded in 1936, but the idea was borne two years earlier when Ezra Pound gave some fairly harsh advice to James Laughlin, a 22-year-old aspiring poet and Harvard undergrad. In 1934, Laughlin was ambitious enough to travel to Rapallo, Italy, to meet and study under Pound, who was by that time a fascist and outspoken anti-Semite, but still respected by young writers as the force behind Eliot, Joyce, and Hemingway, as well as Imagism, the movement he helped shape. After two months, though, Pound didn’t think Laughlin possessed enough talent, and told him to return to the states and “do something useful.”
Three quarters of a century later, “useful” hardly describes New Directions (which will be celebrated Tues/11 at City Lights Books) and its dedication to publishing eccentric and groundbreaking work, beginning with the likes of Dylan Thomas, Denise Levertov, Tennessee Williams, and Marianne Moore, and continuing today with contemporaries like László Krasznahorkai and Javier Marías.
Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems from New Directions (New Directions Publishing, 191 pages, $14.95) testifies to that dedication. Published to commemorate its 75th anniversary this year, and edited by the poetry editor, Jeffrey Yang, the anthology draws from the New Directions’ exhaustive archive, piling together over 140 poets of every nationality, period, and style into a handsome little book. Arranged chronologically by date of birth, and spanning from antiquity to the present, the anthology explores the vastly different ways poets have responded to nature: worshipping it, vilifying it, and bemoaning its loss. As luck would have it, four contributors to the anthology will read at City Lights to commemorate New Directions’ anniversary: Michael Palmer, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Nathaniel Tarn.
As conventional or even dry as an anthology of nature poems may sound, Birds, Beasts, and Seas is impressive simply because New Directions’ specialty has always been renegades, rejects, and intransigents. It’s an anthology of nature poems, of course, but the poems are by no means characteristic of the genre. They are, however, characteristic of New Directions. Several of the poets here are rarely anthologized at all, and stumbling onto them is like bumping into old friends suddenly back from oblivion. William Bronk, for instance, whose poem “Aspects of the World Like Coral Reefs” dismantles science and asserts “It is absurd to describe the world in sensible terms;” or French poet Saint John Perse, Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro, and some of the very poets reading at City Lights on Tuesday, like Nathaniel Tarn whose brooding poem from “The Fire Season” wouldn’t appear in your typical nature anthology:
Our pines continue to die and continue to die—
funeral carpets of needles around their base.
You could sleep there, you could suffocate
soundly and be in harmony with all of nature.
Editor Yang writes in the preface that nature poems could change our way of thinking about the environment, and while Yang’s faith in the poem is admirable (however naive), the most anyone can really expect from Birds, Beasts, and Seas is an anthology that, at its finest moments, is new and invigorating.
New Directions Publishing 75th Anniversary
Tues/11, 7 p.m., free
261 Columbus, SF