The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Golfers” is a short poem in free verse. It comprises three stanzas of three lines each, a parenthetical single-line stanza, and a closing couplet. It belongs to one of the most intensely creative and productive periods in Irving Layton’s long publishing career as a poet—the middle to late 1950’s and the early 1960’s—when he wrote some of the best and most memorable of his poems. Many of his poems of this period celebrate the creative urge so central to Layton’s life and writing. The central observation of “Golfers” is one that is voiced over and over in Layton’s poetry: contempt for those whom he believes deny the life force by leading lives and taking moral stances that seem to Layton sterile and static.

Of the many volumes in which “Golfers” has appeared since its first publication in Layton’s seventh solely authored collection, The Blue Propeller (1955), the one that seems best suited to its tone and intent is F. R. Scott and A. J. M. Smith’s The Blasted Pine: An Anthology of Satire, Invective, and Disrespectful Verse, first published in 1957 and reissued in a second edition in 1967, Canada’s centennial year. In both editions, “Golfers” is included in a section entitled “Solid Citizens,” in which Canadians, particularly of Anglo-Scottish descent, and their institutions and mores are the chief target of the satirical verse. Though it is nowhere stated in Jewish poet Layton’s poem that the golfers depicted are Gentile, they do seem the epitome of the “country-club set”: smug and exclusive Gentile materialists and nation-builders that the professedly atheist but strongly Hebraist and socialist Layton abhorred and whom he has pilloried all of his writing life.

In “Golfers,” Layton depicts golf, a slow, mannered game of strategy and precision, as the choice of those people who relate not at all to earthy, Dionysian joy—the sensual, creative principle—but who cultivate a cerebral sterility of morality, mind, and spirit. Wynne Frances, in a critical work on Irving Layton, says:Philistinism is the name Layton gives to that compound of smugness, rigidity, gentility, complacency, materialism, and moral apathy that he regards as the most insidious threat to the creative spirit. He attacks it wherever he finds itanywhere in the world.

Golfers Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem’s opening three lines are a simile formed on an allusion to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the renowned French essayist unsurpassed for his thorough, enlightened, and lively observation of human nature with all of its idiosyncracies and folly. Montaigne’s “distinction/ between virtue and innocence” differentiates between virtue, a chosen moral position, and innocence, a lack of experience. Layton believes that the creative urge can be best expressed and satisfied through experience, so that innocence is not necessarily a desirable state: virtue seems to him a moral stance that often precludes experience and invites intellectual, moral, and spiritual stasis. The golfers appear to have opted for virtue: irritated, the poet observes, “what gets you is their unbewilderment.” The coined word, where “certainty” or “confidence” might have served, implies an attitude of deliberate disengagement from the turmoil and vitality of a headlong encounter with experience, with life.

Stanza 2 comprises another simile: The intrusion of the golfers into a pastoral scene is likened to the despoliation of landscape by raw, unfinished houses. The golfers “come into the picture suddenly”; whether this phrase is simply a colloquial expression of the golfers’ sudden appearance or is an expression of their assault on the poet’s artistic sensibilities and his communion with the natural setting is unclear. In stanza 3, the tone is jeering; the contempt of the poet for these Philistines is intensified. The poem’s tenth line, a parenthetical aside, picks up the thread of the moral and spiritual stance that the poet attributes to the golfers in the poem’s first stanza, and the reader realizes the extended metaphor on which the satirical structure of the poem is based. “(What finally gets you is their chastity),” complains the poet; the golfers are compared to reluctant virgins, trapped in restraints that prohibit their access to sensual pleasure and fulfillment.

While virtue and innocence can be admired and understood as conditions involving free will or inexperience, chastity is generally viewed as having been imposed and is regarded as an undesirable state. To a poet who embraces Dionysian philosophy with the overt enthusiasm that Layton always has, chastity is practically obscene. Thus in the closing couplet the poet makes a final sardonic observation about the golfers: “And that no theory of pessimism is complete/ which altogether ignores them.”