The Secret Room

In THE SECRET ROOM James Laughlin, the founder in 1936 of the publishing house New Directions, presents poems of great clarity and honesty. He confronts the difficulties of old age, whether impotence or the imminence of death, with wit and courage. He divides the collection into four parts: the first includes lyrics and brief narrative poems, the second is made up of epigrams and comic verses, the third includes poems made up of five lines—pentastichs—and the last is a selection from his long autobiographical poem “Byways.”

Despite the occasional references to classical mythology and Eastern religions, this so-called American Catullus does nothing to hide his meaning or mystify his readers. In fact, his poems are so clear and so baldly written, so stripped of what Laughlin calls “rhetoric and verbal decoration,” that there is little pleasure in the language for the reader. In his poem “Those To Come,” he says he would be “a fool to hope that any/ of my verses would remain in/ print” after his death, and he takes the sensible approach to writing that finds pleasure not in some distant future, but in the “amusement I have in composing/ them. Just that, nothing more.” The amusement for the reader does occasionally arrive, but the wait is often interminable. For readers who yearn for unadorned poems that produce “the simple statement/ / in plain speech compress-/ ed to brevity,” or ruminations such as “who am I and what are all/ of us doing on this earth,” this collection is for them.