Irving Layton Essay - Layton, Irving (Vol. 2)

Israel Pincu Lazarovitch

Layton, Irving (Vol. 2)

Layton, Irving 1912–

Rumanian-born Canadian poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Irving Layton, baring his talons of cruelty, lewdness, vulgarity, has always presented those claws in a brilliant polish of cadence and rhyme. He may scoff at "civil polish"—ethical or aesthetic—but how nicely he enamels his scoffing!

The Layton talons may be blunting a little. In Nail Polish the old scorn is here: scorn of Marxists, of Christians, of fellow poets, of the "merciless pinheads" of the twentieth century. But the vituperation is turned lower now…. Even the old bawdiness turns a bit rueful….

This whole volume has less fire than earlier ones, more mist. Less green and gold, more grey and white. Fewer snakes, more worms….

Why is this cooler manner emerging? Layton is fifty-nine of course. Yet the brevity of these poems sounds less like the mark of attrition in the singing man, or the swinging flesh, and more like a deliberate attempt at the throw-away style of (for instance) Cohen's songs. This cool style, like the pale sheen of modern nail polish, is a long way from the bloody brilliance of the earlier Layton.

Elizabeth Waterston, "New-Found Eyes," in Canadian Literature, No. 52, Spring, 1972, pp. 102-04.

What is distinctive about Layton is his energy, sometimes zestful, sometimes fierce, and his thoroughgoing commitment to his own views of humankind and human experience. A confident egotist, he is yet "faced toward the stars"; believing in himself, he has had to struggle mightily for that belief—first against years of neglect, then against years of misunderstanding. Capable of generosity, tenderness, it is well-known that he has not survived without bitterness. He has written often of the spontaneity of his emotions, but has sustained himself by means of a pervasive Nietzscheanism, convinced that the battle is to the strong. The world of human happenings fascinates him. He may not love people much, or many of them, but he is not indifferent to them. His poems are populated. For most of his career his misanthropy is Swiftian, affection for individuals on the one hand (even though he is often harsh towards them), hatred of the mass and its abstractions on the other.

As is often pointed out, Layton is a traditionalist in technique. His career has coincided with the cult of "the new", but that is ultimately irrelevant. His own claim that he is a fine craftsman with a near-faultless sense of rhythm is not too extravagant, but (to use a phrase of Eli Mandel's) his early poems are a "pellmell scattering of images". While many have moments of penetrating beauty—a quality achieved by image, intensity, tone—often they are not coherent wholes, being too clotted, over-detailed, combining clumsy syntax with an overplus of material. Too much happens in too confined a space; but this is a squandering of riches, disclosing eagerness to proffer the largesse available to a true poet. Later, of course, he manages a range of traditional forms impressively, sometimes magnificently….

Throughout his work there is much evidence that Layton can put on a style: pastiche of Auden, Eliot, Yeats, Williams, Stevens. Obviously, he is interested in all the means available to the poem. True, he has not explored much into the rhythm and sound of colloquial speech, for he is a literary poet, but he is not at all rhetorical in the bad sense, for he does have a good ear and, after the very early period, an ease of line which allows him to bring all his senses into his work with a high degree of naturalness. While one of his subsidiary notes is anticultural, anti-academic, he is steeped in European culture and he uses it to good purpose, just as he uses a wide range of the forms of English poetry—from song and ballad to sonnet and octosyllabic couplet, epigram, nursery rhyme, dramatic monologue….

Of the many other elements in Layton's work, predominant are: hatred of man's raging but all-too-rational cruelty in an apocalyptic universe, and an erotic sense of woman, a chief means of whatever solace he may achieve….

Whatever coherence may be discerned in his view of human experience, it is through this nightmare of holocaust, of the apocalyse. With it goes a bitter sense of betrayal….

Layton is not a poet of the single vision, but a man of varied (often inconsistent) moods and passions, whose intensity is frequently a fusing power in his work. While here and there (especially in his portraits of women or responses to the plight of animals) are moments of tenderness and generosity, he is mostly an energetic hater. Perceiving that love is essential for survival, his own contribution to that end tends paradoxically to be negative and destructive. He detests mass-man and conformist hypocrisies, persistently attacking the abstract, the academic, the theoretical which drives out flesh-and-blood responses….

Towards woman as towards all experience Layton displays the full spectrum of attitudes. His devourers, they are also his earthly salve; all beneficence, yet they are soulless. Desirable beyond measure, they are to be cast off contemptuously after use. Truly Protean (as George Woodcock observed), has Layton integrated the many elements of himself, as poet and man? Rather than unacknowledged law-giver, he is the poet in search of his wholeness; but his sense of selfhood seems to be of a reactive self, contingent upon circumstance.

Nowadays we are largely indifferent to our poets, and those few of us who are not tend to demand that, to expect serious attention, a poet must offer us a new-imagined world, fruit of a large vision and a large commitment. At the very least we look for a distinctive voice, a "determining personality". In these terms, Layton cannot be said to have a large vision, for his poems are the occasions of a somewhat chameleon personality, which has obvious enough limitations. No single work of his is on a large or profound scale; but what of his commitment? Obviously, his life has been devoted to poetry, and in no small way. His efforts and his personality have broken through thick barriers of social convention and inhibition. Both his work and his belief in it have been salutory in establishing and developing the poetry of his own country, and to that poetry he has contributed a fair number of beautifully made, memorable poems.

Mike Doyle, "The Occasions Of Irving Layton," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1972, pp. 70-83.

Layton is probably [Canada's] first important poet to pour out books, good, bad or indifferent, with an absolute conviction as to the significance of poetry and the power of the word. He creates and lives in his own myth, most validity in his role of poet in the poems themselves. There he becomes Orpheus, Adam, the dying and rising god, the living word through whom the identity of all nature's divided things is manifest. He is worshipped and praised, for through him the vision of the community of living things is ever created anew, life is justified and men may praise, not the god but the world.

At best, it is not in himself but in his office as poet, as instrument of the imagination, that Layton finds his authority. As such, it does not matter what sort of scribbler his particular audience may think him to be; he knows that the poet is not irrelevant or powerless, but central to their lives….

It is the Dionysian poet Layton cultivates, and whose irregular footprints so horrify those whose rooms he would extend; and in a time of cultural disintegration, when the visible or articulate order is so largely diseased. It is the Dionysian imagination that we may need to cultivate, abandoning ourselves to Eros and the deepest springs of our desire.

D. G. Jones, "Myth, Frye and Canadian Writers," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1973, pp. 12-13, 18.