Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

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From the beginning of his career as a poet, Layton has defined himself as anti-intellectual, although the profusion of literary, historical, philosophical, and mythological allusion in his poetry speaks to the enormous range of his reading and thinking and belies the anti-intellectual stance he takes. According to critic Eli Mandel, Layton’s is “a poetry of profound social and personal concern.Layton belongs with the sort of writer (and artist) [George Bernard] Shaw was prepared to speak of as poet-prophet.” In the eloquent “Foreword” to his 1959 collection A Red Carpet for the Sun, in which “Golfers” also appears, Layton voices his central concerns, laying out the issues he takes up so aggressively in his poetry. Those concerns are ego-and life-centered; poetry is the artistic medium through which he addresses them:The free individual—independent and gay—is farther from realization than he ever was. Still, in a world where corruption is the norm and enslavement universal, all art celebrates him, prepares the way for his coming.Poetry, by giving dignity and utterance to our distress, enables us to hope, makes compassion reasonable.

“Golfers,” though ultimately too slight a poem to sustain the weight of Layton’s vociferous disapproval, does embody what Mandel cites as Layton’s central themes: “[T]he nature of the creative process,and the social implications of both human perversity and creativity.But beyond,is the question of articulation itself, the pattern and meaning of poetic form.” If Layton’s vision is thus understood, the rationale of “Golfers” ’s central simile becomes clear. More than being symbolic of a social and cultural group that Layton abhors, the golfers are anathema to his beliefs as a person and a poet. The comparison of the golfers to the “gaps [in subsequent collections amended to the harsher “gapes”] and planed wood” of unfinished houses depicts them as raw, ungainly, without athletic ability or (more significantly) aesthetic wholeness or satisfaction. The poet invites the reader to share his opinion that “among sportsmen they are the metaphysicians.” He dismisses golf as an effete game that is contemplative and bloodless, one in which the golfers may strike poses and take attitudes—just as metaphysicians are often regarded as practitioners of a most abstruse branch of philosophy. The golfers are laughable, in the poet’s view, because they are “intent, untalkative, pursuing Unity,” an aesthetic structure as artificial, empty, and unsatisfying as an unfinished house. (In his Gulliver’s Travels (1726), eighteenth century satirist Jonathan Swift similarly mocked the fictitious Laputians, scholars so cerebrally preoccupied that they needed “Flappers” to draw their attention to earthly realities.)

The bitter irony of the poem’s closing couplet, then, arises from Layton’s view that golfers represent almost everything he abhors as a person and a poet. “Why are people so destructive and joy-hating? Is it a perception of the unimportance of their lives finally penetrating the bark of their complacency and egotism?” he asks plaintively in the “Foreword” of A Red Carpet for the Sun. It is above all the misplaced arrogance of the golfers on which Layton focuses his satire and defines his own “theory of pessimism” in “Golfers.”