Irving Layton Layton, Irving (Vol. 15) - Essay

Israel Pincu Lazarovitch


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Layton, Irving 1912–

A Canadian poet, short story writer, and editor, Layton has exerted a major influence on his country's literature. His work examines both the creative and destructive relationships between humanity and nature, often with strong overtones of social protest. Rebellious and unconventional, he has provoked critical controversy with his harsh and angry imagery as well as with his erotic love poetry. Layton was a close associate of Robert Creeley, Cid Corman, and Jonathan Williams during the 1950s. He received the Governer General's Award in 1959 for A Red Carpet for the Sun. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

A.J.M. Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1954 Irving Layton published two volumes of verse that stood out as remarkable in a year that was distinguished by several books of more than usual merit…. One of Mr. Layton's books, The Long Pea-shooter, was mainly satirical; the other In the Midst of my Fever, was entirely serious, though not at all solemn. It contained a number of poems that are not only far above anything he has done before but are as fine as any written by a poet of Mr. Layton's generation in America.

[In 1955 Mr. Layton] also published two volumes; and again one is chiefly satirical (The Blue Propeller) while the other (The Cold Green Element) is lyrical and dramatic. Neither of these books seems to me quite as good as its predecessor, though The Cold Green Element has so much in it that is both original and excellent that it stands out as the most remarkable achievement of another very fruitful year in Canadian poetry.

The most prolific and perhaps the most fluent Canadian poet since Bliss Carman, Layton has published eight privately printed volumes since 1945 and has fought a continuous running engagement with reviewers and critics. The opposition or neglect his early work encountered is not to be attributed entirely to stupidity or cowardice on the part of the reviewers. It would have required second-sight, or friendly partiality, to foretell from the poetry he published before 1954 the high order of excellence shown by In the Midst of my Fever and The Gold Green Element, and there was much in the earlier books (as there is a little in the later) which seemed arrogant, puerile, or deliberately offensive. Mr. Layton set himself up as a demolisher of the genteel tradition—in itself a worthy enough undertaking, heaven knows—but it is not so easy to succeed in as the enthusiast hopes. To make any real progress in it requires a measure of sophistication and humility that Mr. Layton achieves in his two best books but which is conspicuously absent from the early ones, and not too evident in his avowedly satirical ones, where perhaps sophistication and humility are most needed. Wherever Mr. Layton has been least successful one discovers a petulant fascination with sexual and functional processes and a childish flaunting of four-letter words that seem to be flung about with an angry rather than a joyous abandon. (pp. 587-88)

Mr. Layton has come [very far] in the two masterful volumes of 1954 and 1955. Mr. Layton, it is clear, has been one of those poets who has to write too much in order to be able to write at all. He loves everything he writes, even the unsuccessful experiments—perhaps most of all the unsuccessful experiments, as a mother loves the ugly child best—and instead of throwing them in the waste basket or filing them away for future revision, he swells a volume with them. But this habit, if it has been hard on the reader, has been good for the poet. Practice in his craft has now made him well nigh perfect, at least in a score of superb poems. The self-confidence that looked like arrogance in the early verse and the savage indignation that looked...

(The entire section is 1287 words.)

Hugh Kenner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Irving Layton, to fit him quickly into the curriculum, should be brackted with, say, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley…. Canada provides him with a situation, not a tradition. He belongs to the anti-academic wing … of the American poetic generation, a little younger than Auden and Spender, whose right and center fill the better-capitalized quarterlies with cat's-cradle Meditations and grey flannel Suites: the generation that succeeded and should have inherited the achievements of Pound, Eliot, and Williams but could never grasp what they were up to. Mr. Layton's disdain for this poetic right and center is implicit; he will have us perceive that, though a wag, he is no Winters' tail. "If I'm not mistaken," he assures us on the front flap of A Laughter in the Mind, "the book is my best to date." [He is not mistaken. Sheer practice has lifted him to steady distinction.]… He inhabits roughly that quarter that ignores Eliot as a conformist, delights in Pound chiefly for the fact that he was fired from the only academic job he ever had …, and takes from Dr. Williams what it can use, the aggressive notation of raw particulars.

And Mr. Layton—to move directly to his chief strength—is peerless in the directness with which he can note

the tight smile
Cats have for meeting death….
(pp. 413-15)

With this daintiness, however, there cohabits a violence of imagination that can dispel rhythms, scatter tropes like ninepins, and occasionally blow a...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Louis Dudek

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I must confess that for the past three or four years I've been unable to read anything by Irving Layton, at any rate not without a certain feeling of sour taste and acid indigestion. Whether this comes of prejudice as Layton himself tells me, or of something in the poetry, I cannot be sure. For years I was his champion against the deaf and myopic critics in Canada, insisting that he was a vigorous realistic poet who deserved recognition. Today everyone is ready to admit that Layton is much better than the critics gave credit for in 1950…. In fact he is universally hailed as "the most powerful Canadian poet", and no one seems inclined to dissent from the chorus of unanimous praise. Layton, it seems, has graduated from Canada's most neglected poet to the most over-rated poet anywhere. (p. 136)

I think still that Layton is every bit as good a poet, when he is good, as I argued that he was … a few years ago. But he is not what most of his critics now make him out to be. (p. 137)

Not having read the poetry for some years, I cannot be very specific. But most of [A Red Carpet for the Sun] I know from way back. Turn to page 111 and read:

Adults are children merely
with a larger vocabulary.

The position of that merely makes one's nose cringe. By getting stuck in an unidiomatic position the word has ambiguous reference, forward and backward, without any valuable increment on either side. The second line, in any case, as a pretended witty stroke, comes down like a club. But go on:

my fears are no different from
when I was a six-year son.

This is about the nadir of un-English idiom: mere illiteracy. I have always recoiled at this kind of thing in Klein, and in Layton. The fatal flaw of much of their poetry. And most damaging when, for lack of humility, it goes with bluster and self-conceit.

This I my wife abuses;
and others, my principal:
who lives by daily ruses
a desperate animal

The barbarism here is really troglodytic. Old Gurth seems to be learning to speak, and to punctuate. He's simply not found a way to...

(The entire section is 1005 words.)

George Woodcock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[After reading his Collected Poems I find that] Irving Layton is a poet whom one reads at his best with delight, and at his worst with a puzzled wonder that so good a poet could write and—even more astonishing—could publish such wretched verse…. (p. 5)

For all his flamboyance of manner, Layton is capable of some extraordinary lapses into mere triteness and triviality…. He can also perpetuate, with a coy archness that seems out of character, some of the weakest jokes that can ever have been given the shape of verse…. (pp. 6-7)

[Layton] is one of those half-fortunate writers who have a way with words and phrases, an almost fatal ability to make a statement on any...

(The entire section is 2612 words.)

Munro Beattie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Irving Layton's] three principal gifts are a matchless ease and spontaneity of phrasing, an acute ear for line and stanza cadences, and the power to declare himself with indomitable authority on many topics. The authority derives from the most superb self-confidence in Canadian literature and from total faith in a handful of pseudo-ideas adapted from Nietzsche and Lawrence. Most of these views belong to the stock-in-trade of the anti-bourgeois writers from Sherwood Anderson to Alan Ginsberg. From this base Layton has been able to denounce a considerable proportion of his fellow humans as philistines, pharisees, puritans, and pedants.

The denunciatory Layton, bent upon uttering "a loud nix to the...

(The entire section is 615 words.)