Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2547
Irving Layton 1912-
(Born as Irving Peter Lazarovitch) Canadian poet, short story writer, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Layton's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 15.
Iconoclastic and brash, Layton is one of the best known and perhaps most celebrated poets in Canada. Self-styled as one of his country's greatest poets, Layton has changed the parameters of Canadian literature with his energetic, passionate, and often angry poetry in works ranging from The Cold Green Element (1955) and A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959) to A Wild Peculiar Joy (1982) and The Gucci Bag (1983). Filling nearly fifty volumes written during a career spanning nearly six decades, Layton's poetry examines both the creative and destructive instincts of humanity and frankly satirizes the flaws and foibles of contemporary society. His often belligerent, violent, and graphic love poetry has provoked controversy in both literary and public circles. Outspoken and unconventional, Layton has assiduously cultivated a global presence for contemporary Canadian poetry, partly by presenting much of his poetry as performance art and partly by spotlighting the concerns of Jewish Canadians. Details about his private life have at times captured the public's interest more than his literary works, and some readers are as much attracted to the man as to the poetry. Many commentators, however, have consistently praised Layton's lively style, ironic detachment, and satirical vision. Although Layton's inflated sense of self-worth and his controversial views about women have alienated some readers, critics have generally acknowledged the refreshing effects of Layton's essentially romantic outlook on Canadian letters and have often cited his role in renewing poetry's relevance to contemporary affairs.
Born Irving Peter Lazarovitch on March 12, 1912, in Neamtz, Romania, Layton immigrated to Canada at the age of one with his family and eventually settled in Montreal, where his mother supported the family by running a small grocery store. As a child, Layton aspired “to make music out of words,” as he called poetry; he wrote his first poem for his sixth-grade teacher, Miss Benjamin, which he later published in Dance with Desire (1986), a collection of love poetry he dedicated to his teacher. He studied at Macdonald College in Montreal where he earned a bachelor's of science degree in 1939. While there, Layton began lecturing at the Jewish Public Library and wed Faye Lynch in 1938, but his first marriage was short-lived. During World War II he served in the artillery for Canadian army from 1942 to 1943, eventually attaining the rank of lieutenant. During his enlistment, Layton co-edited, along with Louis Dudek and John Sutherland, the literary journal First Statement (later merged with Preview to become Northern Review), which aimed to expose other young and rising talent. In 1945 Layton launched his literary career by privately publishing his first volume of poetry, Here and Now (1945). That same year Layton joined the faculty at Herziliah High School in Montreal, where he taught until 1960. Upon graduating in 1946 from McGill University with a master's degree in economics and political science, he married Frances Sutherland, with whom he had a son and daughter, though this marriage, too, was brief. In 1949 Layton took the first of several positions at Sir George William University, where he taught in the English Department until 1969. In the early 1950s Layton continued to craft his poetic voice and to clarify his purpose in such works as The Long Pea-Shooter (1954) and The Cold Green Element, both of which met with minimal success. At this time Layton began voluminous correspondences with the likes of American poet Robert Creeley and Canadian writers Cid Corman and Jonathan Williams. By the late 1950s Layton received widespread critical and popular acclaim with the publication of his award-winning A Red Carpet for the Sun, which many critics consider his breakthrough work. In 1961 Layton married Aviva Cantor and had a son with her, but their marriage was later dissolved. As lecturer and poet-in-residence at William University during the 1960s, Layton developed a reputation for writing forthright and conscientious poetry with the publication of such works as The Swinging Flesh (1961), Balls for a One-Armed Juggler (1963), Periods of the Moon (1967), and The Shattered Plinths (1968). In the 1970s Layton's poems continued to test the limits of contemporary Canadian literature, beginning with Lovers and Lesser Men (1973) and The Pole-Vaulter (1974) through For My Brother Jesus (1976) and The Covenant (1977) to The Tightrope Dancer (1978) and Dropppings from Heaven (1979). Meanwhile, Layton cultivated a burgeoning celebrity status in Canada and abroad, particularly in Italy where he consequently published several Italian-language poetry editions of earlier and original collections. In 1978 Layton married Harriet Bernstein and with her had another daughter. In the early 1980s Layton published a string of volumes, including For My Neighbors in Hell (1980), Europe and Other Bad News (1981), A Wild Peculiar Joy, and The Gucci Bag, which culminated in two consecutive nominations for the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1982 and 1983. In late 1983 Layton also divorced Bernstein, which headlined national celebrity news; the next year Layton wed Anna Pottier. In 1985 Layton published his autobiography Waiting for the Messiah—covering the years between 1912 and 1946 and tracing his youth in Montreal and his efforts at becoming a poet—partly in response to Elspeth Cameron's 1985 biography entitled Irving Layton: A Portrait. When Layton was seventy-five-years-old, he published both Final Reckoning (1987) and Fortunate Exile (1987). Since then he has published a second volume of A Wild Peculiar Joy (1989), Fornalutx (1992), a collection of selected works from his entire career, and Raging Like a Fire (1993).
With their melodious tone, romantic point of view, and classical forms, Layton's poetry recalls the spiritual values of an earlier era, as they plainly confront the complacency, moral sterility, and indifference of contemporary Canadian culture and society. An epigram in Taking Sides (1977) illustrates Layton's poetic stance: “One cannot love life as much as I do … without [frustrating those] … who make it difficult to live joyously.” The preface to The Laughing Rooster (1964) essentially defines Layton's primary purpose as poet: “to change the world”—a viewpoint that informs nearly all of his poetry. Early in Layton's career, the socially- and politically-aware themes and satiric tone of such early works as Here and Now and Now Is the Place (1948) gradually become angrier and more focused in The Black Huntsman (1951). Subsequent works of the mid 1950s, like The Long Pea-Shooter and The Cold Green Element, illustrate the evolution of the skeptical and defiant voice that became Layton's hallmark. His first professional success, A Red Carpet for the Sun, is a retrospective of Layton's writings between 1942 and 1958. The poems in this work represent some of his best and best-known poems, including “In the Midst of My Fever,” which locates universal experiences in personal moments, and “The Birth of Tragedy,” which outlines the pleasure and importance of poetry for Layton. Often incorporating Western mythic themes of death and rebirth, a good deal of Layton's poetry concerns the presence of evil in the twentieth century—Auschwitz and Hiroshima, for instance—which he sees as the primary cause for the morally indifferent and culturally stagnant conditions of the contemporary world. Layton's poems also frequently rail against social injustice and denounce the materialistic bourgeoisie, exploring the elemental passions and the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds while exalting the individual—especially the poet. Another theme of Layton's poetry calls for honesty in poetry and renewal of the poet's vocation. Balls for a One-Armed Juggler, for instance, expands the tradition of social poetry in Canadian literature and history with its meditations on the devastation of European culture and on the failure of Christian humanism following World War II. In this volume such poems as “The Real Values” and “Thanatos” confront hard truths about hypocrisy and death, while “A Tall Man Executes a Jig,” one of his most complex and controlled poems, embodies the contradictions of violence with its dichotomous structure centering on attraction-repulsion.
During the 1970s, Layton's works continued to advocate poetic honesty, social responsibility, and engagement with history in such writings as Lovers and Lesser Men and The Pole-Vaulter. Typically equating the act of writing poems with making love, these collections also reaffirm Layton's view of poetry as humanity's salvation and of the poet's societal obligation to counter complacency and other maladies. For instance, many poems in The Pole-Vaulter develop the relationship between the poet and the violence of the mid-twentieth century, most notably “For Anne Frank,” “The Final Solution,” and “The Transformation.” Violent imagery carries over into another major part of his writings: Layton's love lyrics. Many of these poems feature the exotic settings of Layton's travels during the 1960s. Most notable is The Swinging Flesh, which celebrates sexual love. Replete with sensual, erotic, and explicit details designed to shock a puritanical and complacent society, Layton's love poems often juxtapose images of love and beauty with those of violence and death. Despite its satiric edge, Layton's love poetry also expresses precise emotions for specific people, often couched in intimate detail. The Love Poems of Irving Layton, with Reverence and Delight (1984) is the definitive collection of his expressions on love and reflects his multiple responses to various stages of love, including most of Layton's best-known love poems, such as “The Day Aviva Came to Paris,” “Seduction of and by a Civilized Frenchwoman,” and “Misunderstanding.” Another large part of his oeuvre deals with the Jewish-Canadian experience from the post-Holocaust generation's vantage, specifically Layton's quest for a Jewish cultural identity in an era of moral and social decline. Avoiding religious doctrines, Periods of the Moon and The Shattered Plinths, for instance, address the cultural, historical, and philosophical aspects of Judaism, most notably in the militant “For My Two Sons” and in the accusatory “The New Sensibility,” which is aimed at other contemporary poets who have failed to engage historical and political realities in their art. Harshly focusing on the Jewish crisis during the 1940s, Layton's controversial For My Brother Jesus culminates his response to evil in the twentieth century, blaming Christianity for anti-Semitism and reclaiming Jesus for the Jews. In poems such as “Displaced Person” and “For Some of My Best Friends” a voice identifying with the Jewish Jesus articulates the tragedy of the Holocaust and charges Christianity with the downfall of European civilization. In addition to its Jewish themes, For My Brother Jesus introduces new themes of nostalgia and remembrance, of mortality and the past. For example, “On Revisiting Poros after an Absence of Ten Years” contemplates death after the loss of various close friends, memorably his writer-friend Desmond Pacey. Another poem in this collection, “Act of Creation,” expresses the energy of his newfound appreciation for the past and for history in general, which typifies the tone of subsequent works. The Covenant, The Tightrope Dancer, and Droppings from Heaven engage the usual religious themes and confrontations with mediocrity, as in the poems “Freud with All His Knowledge” and “Father and Daughter.” Other poems of the late 1970s—such as “Takeoff,” a vivid description of flight, and “Senile, My Sister Sings,”a reassessment of his appreciation of women—exhibit a renewed lyricism and wit as well as a blend of ecstasy and elegy. For My Neighbours in Hell elaborates standard themes of social injustice and spiritual death during materialistic times in such poems as “The Burning Remnant,” which ponders the survival of Jews, and “Self-Interview,” which explains Layton's pessimistic outlook on humanity. The Gucci Bag not only echoes Layton's standard mantras of “poetry-as-salvation” during proud and covetous times, but also concerns love and conflict in the face of eroding personal relationships.
Layton's works since the early 1980s increasingly concern his literary legacy. The foreword to Europe and Other Bad News is an apologia that reviews a number of critical misinterpretations of his text, clarifying his major themes for the critics while complaining about contemporary poets who have avoided the Holocaust in their art. Modeled on the poetics of the biblical Jeremiah, the romantic William Blake, Lord Byron, and Walt Whitman, and the liberated Lawrence, the poems of Europe and Other Bad News condemn society's crimes, decry evil, and celebrate the triumph of Jewish survival, most notably in “Credo,” which ponders the divinity of humanity, and in “Reingemacht,” which bemoans the deep despair of the contemporary psyche. The retrospective view on Layton's career of “In Beginnings and Other Starts,” one of the most lyrical poems in Europe and Other Bad News, introduces the principal themes that define his later works: personal introspection and re-evaluation of his literary achievements. A Wild Peculiar Joy is a comprehensive selection of Layton's work, with minor revisions, chosen by Layton himself and the Canadian poet Dennis Lee. Final Reckoning summarizes his indictment against complacency in contemporary Canadian culture. Featuring many of Layton's atypical longer narrative poems—“Socrates at the Centaur,” for instance, humorously recounts the Greek philosopher's visit at a Toronto theater—this collection emphasizes the Holocaust, murder, and death, overwhelming its comic values. Marking Layton's seventy-fifth birthday, Fortunate Exile spotlights the strength and vigor of the poet and social critic searching for meaning in his religion, gathering poems from his entire oeuvre about Jewish history and experience and intimately portraying Jewish history and people. Layton's other writings began to appear late in his career and include the essay collections Engagements (1972) and Taking Sides as well as several volumes of selected correspondence with such notable contemporary literary figures as Canadian poet Dorothy Rath and American poet Robert Creeley. An Unlikely Affair (1980) chronicles Layton's relationship with Rath at the beginning of her career, including his advice to her in the form of suggested reading lists, original poems, and typical aphorisms. Wild Gooseberries (1989) documents Layton's correspondence between 1939 and 1989 with Creeley, the founder and leading member of the Black Mountain Poets.
Layton has both delighted and exasperated critics and readers alike with his ecstatic literary style, candid social criticism, and flaunting sensuality. At times, Layton has been criticized for either being too prolific or indiscriminately publishing everything he has written, which has caused some critics to remark that his oeuvre in general is inconsistent. Most commentators, however, have recognized Layton's role in expanding the limits of Canadian literature, claiming that the spiritual energy and visionary force of his romantic ideals, along with his ironic point of view, has revived long-stagnant poetic conventions. Some critics have compared the content and style of Layton's poems to those of Romantic poets Whitman and Blake, particularly Layton's explorations of the individual's status in the contemporary world and of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. Critics also have observed that Layton brought the Jewish-Canadian experience into global prominence, but because of his negative views on organized religion, he has antagonized some readers. In addition to aggressively courting controversy with his unconventional personality and often confrontational attitudes, Layton has also attracted considerable attention—both positive and negative—with his provocative use of sexual imagery and language. While many reviewers have acknowledged the liberating effects of this aspect of Layton's poetry—some have drawn comparisons to D. H. Lawrence's lyrical treatment of passion—others have debated the aesthetic and cultural merits of his contribution, particularly feminist scholars who have invariably deemed some of his writings defective, inferior, and second-rate. They are particularly indignant about Layton's erotica, castigating his explicit handling of human sexuality and deploring his treatment of women in general. Despite the occasional controversy, critics have generally acknowledged that Layton has changed Canadian letters.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 283
Here and Now (poetry) 1945
Now Is the Place (poetry and short stories) 1948
The Black Huntsman (poetry) 1951
Love the Conqueror Worm [with Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster] (poetry) 1951
Cerberus (poetry) 1954
In the Midst of My Fever (poetry) 1954
The Long Pea-Shooter (poetry) 1954
The Blue Propeller (poetry) 1955
The Cold Green Element (poetry) 1955
The Bull Calf and Other Poems (poetry) 1956
The Improved Binoculars [introduction by William Carlos Williams] (poetry) 1956
Music on a Kazoo (poetry) 1956
A Laughter in the Mind (poetry) 1958
A Red Carpet for the Sun (poetry) 1959
The Swinging Flesh (poetry and short stories) 1961
Balls for a One-Armed Juggler (poetry) 1963
The Laughing Rooster (poetry) 1964
Collected Poems (poetry) 1965
Periods of the Moon (poetry) 1967
The Shattered Plinths (poetry) 1968
Nail Polish (poetry) 1971
Engagements: The Prose of Irving Layton (essays) 1972
Lovers and Lesser Men (poetry) 1973
The Pole-Vaulter (poetry) 1974
Seventy-five Greek Poems (poetry) 1974
For My Brother Jesus (poetry) 1976
The Covenant (poetry) 1977
Taking Sides (essays) 1977
The Tightrope Dancer (poetry) 1978
Droppings from Heaven (poetry) 1979
The Love Poems of Irving Layton (poetry) 1979
For My Neighbours in Hell (poetry) 1980
An Unlikely Affair: The Irving Layton-Dorothy Rath Correspondence (letters) 1980
Europe and Other Bad News (poetry) 1981
*A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected Poems 1945-1982 (poetry) 1982
The Gucci Bag (poetry) 1983
The Love Poems of Irving Layton, with Reverence and Delight (poetry) 1984
Waiting for the Messiah: A Memoir (autobiography) 1985
Dance with Desire: Love Poems (poetry) 1986; revised as Dance with Desire: Selected Love Poems (poetry) 1993
Final Reckoning: Poems 1982-1986 (poetry) 1987
Fortunate Exile (poetry) 1987
Wild Gooseberries: Selected Letters of Irving Layton, 1939-1989 (letters) 1989
Irving Layton and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence (letters) 1990
Fornalutx: Selected Poems, 1928-1990 (poetry) 1992
Raging Like a Fire (poetry) 1993
*This work was also republished in an expanded version with additional poems in 1989 as A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected Poems 1945-1989.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6011
SOURCE: Layton, Irving, and Kenneth Sherman. “An Interview with Irving Layton.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 10 (spring 1978): 7-18.
[In the following interview, conducted on December 10, 1977, Layton discusses social and religious history and ideas; the state of poetry in Canada; and his public image.]
[Sherman]: Throughout much of English literature one notes a Christianizing of the Old Testament and its figures. Good examples of this are to be found in the medieval passion plays as well as in Eliot's The Waste Land. Would it be fair to say that in your recent Yeshua poems you are rewriting the New Testament in terms of the Old?
[Layton]: That's certainly a very good way of putting it, because they Christianize not only the figures in the Old Testament—they have Christianized my brother, Yeshua! It's a lie to say that Jesus was the first Christian to die on the cross; he was not a Christian, he was a Jew, and he was a Jew that the Romans thought was a rebel and a subversive and one who possibly was going to lead some kind of revolt against the Roman Emperium. So there you already have a falsification of a Jew. For that matter I would say that the disciples of Jesus have been also falsified to appear as Christians when to my reading they were Jews! It's important to remember the first 15 bishops in Jerusalem were Jews, regarded themselves as Jews, obeyed the laws of the Torah, were not excommunicated from the congregation. The fact that they asserted that Jesus was the Messiah was not considered blasphemous and was no ground whatsoever for excommunicating them from the community. This process has gone on for many, many centuries so that today many people are totally unaware that Jesus himself was Jewish.
In your preface to For My Brother Jesus, you lambaste the Christians, attributing the Holocaust to the doctrines they preached for centuries. In The Covenant, you now make a distinction between the Christians and the Gentile heathens, or as you label them, the “Xians”. Is this distinction a cop-out? Do you, a “well-disciplined Zarathustrian,” truly feel there is a place for Christianity in today's world?
Why did I make a distinction? First of all my whole argument has been distorted because people prefer to distort an argument that they cannot answer. They create their own straw man. The point that I was making was that Christianity or Christendom, by publicizing a stereotype of the Jew for nearly two thousand years, prepared the soil on which the death camps and the crematoria could spring-up and flourish. That was my point. I wasn't making the point that Christians actually went ahead and murdered Jews or tortured Jews or killed Jews. Whether they were Christians or not Christians was irrelevant to my argument. My main argument was that Christianized Europe had a picture of the Jew which made him less desirable than vermin, or as I put it somewhere else, if Hitler had ordered the extermination of the canine population in Europe, it would have met more resistance than did his attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe. And if he had wanted to exterminate the cat population all the cat lovers in Poland and France and Hungary would have been up in arms and said, “Oh no! you cannot do that to our lovely cats, our poor pets.” But with Jews it was different because the image of the Jew that Christianity, that is to say the churches and the priests and the bishops and the popes had propogated for so many centuries, made the Jew undesirable. And therefore to eliminate them nobody was going to protest or oppose. It's significant to recall that when Hitler wanted to exterminate the misfits in Germany the bishops went to see him and said “Oh no, you cannot do this; it is anti-Christian,” and the plan to exterminate the misfits was never carried through. But no such protest was raised by the bishops of Germany or the bishops of any other Christian country against the systematic extermination of the Jews.
So, the second part of my question: do you feel there is a place for Christianity in today's world, or do you think that Christianity is simply an evil which we've had to live with for the past two thousand years?
No, Christianity is not altogether an evil. My serious thinking on that has been that Christianity is Judaism with a nose job; that Christianity is a blend of Hebrew ethicism and Greco-Roman paganism—and now I am coming to the real kernel of the thing—that Christianity was a means, and perhaps the only means, whereby Hebrew ethicism could be propagated throughout the world. I think that the values that the Jews were the first to put forward, namely human dignity, freedom, love, creativity, all of the Judaic values, have been embodied in Christianity and have been spread to the four corners of the earth. We must remember that human beings are fallible, that there is always going to be a mixture of idealism and evil in whatever human beings do and Christianity, no more than Judaism or no less than Judaism or no less than Judaism or no less than Nationalism, will exhibit this mixture of idealism and evil. But the idealism was given to Christianity by the Jews and it is a dream by which we live. We hope that one day human beings will live together in peace and harmony. There will be brotherhood, fellowship, love, mutual helpfulness, co-operation, rather than strife and hatred. This is a Judaic dream, this is the dream which Christianity has carried to the four corners of the earth. Even if they pay only lip service to it, it's still something. It's an accomplishment.
Would it be fair to call Irving Layton, a Hebraic pagan?
I don't know whether it's fair or unfair until you tell me what you mean by this oxymoron, “Hebraic pagan.”
Well it seems that your recent emphasis on religion in your poetry has accentuated one of the problems I think critics have with your work, and that is that there seems to be a tension between the Hebrew concerns, the spiritual concerns, and the more pagan or physical concerns, and I think that a lot of critics have trouble coping with that. They feel that there's some basic contradiction.
There is a contradiction and it's a contradiction that I noted in a very early poem, “Vexata Quaestio,” the vexed question, in which I was really saying that Western man has in his psyche two opposing value systems: that given to him by the Hebrews and that given to him by the Greeks. The Hebrew believes that salvation can be only found in and through obedience to the behests of God and the Greek believes that salvation, though I don't think a Greek would use that word, can be found only in experiencing life as fully as possible. Now I don't think that anyone can ever reconcile these two opposing and contradictory commands. I think to be a Modern is to have that tension in one's soul, so that instead of calling me a Hebrew pagan, I would simply say that I am a Modern living in the modern twentieth-century world and that I exhibit these tensions.
So modern man is condemned to dualism.
Rather than dualism, I'd say tension.
In The Covenant you claim that a Jew is someone who chooses the qualities, human dignity, freedom, love and creativity. Then by your definition the poet Shelley was a Jew, as was D. H. Lawrence and others.
Oh, quite. I think that anyone on this planet who has ever affirmed those values is a Jew. It was a Jew who first brought in to the world the notion that there are values superior to that given to him by either his environment or his society, his nation, his state. That there has to be a striving for self-definition, for self-transcendence, a rising above mere physical appetites or material prosperity. These are the things that the Jew gave to the world and when a writer asks for a greater freedom or for a recognition of human dignity, any writer, whether it be Lawrence, Shelley, Byron, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, in effect he is expressing Judaic values and to my way of thinking, is a Jew. A Japanese poet or a Chinese poet who affirms these values, for me is a Jew. It may sound chauvinistic to say that he is a Jew, but the fact remains that I am using the word Jew as a rubric in view of the fact that the Jew was the first to put forward these values.
Yet D. H. Lawrence, especially in his book, Apocalypse, is very, very, critical of the whole Judeo-Christian tradition and I'm sure that he would have some misgivings about being called a Jew. Perhaps he wouldn't mind being called a pagan since he promotes paganism in much of his writing.
Yes, because there are elements, let's face it, there are elements in the Judaic-Christian tradition which are reprehensible, which I do not accept. There is certainly an anti-eroticism. There is a repressiveness. There is a nay saying. But for me that's the dark side of the doctrine. For me that's the dark side of the other things: creativity, freedom, human dignity and love. Also, I am aware that every orthodox religion is degradation of drama into dogma; that your great religious teachers come forth with a poetic idea of immense radiance and illumination and great power and then the followers, who are always lesser people, attempt to tidy the vision. They add certain elements from their own limited experience to the original vision of the great poets. And this is what happened to the Jewish tradition and to the Christian tradition. It's what happens to every great doctrine. Look what has happened to Communism, look what has happened to Socialism, look what has happened to Nationalism. Always this great volcanic burst of fervour and strength and eloquence and light, and then the lesser people getting on the band wagon, so to speak, holding on to the prophet's robes and reducing the thing to something which they can understand. So there is no reason why I have to accept the whole Judaic tradition as it has developed over the years. I am no friend to the rabbis. I never have been a friend to the rabbis. I am no friend to the narrow-minded Jewish bourgeoisie. I have excoriated them in language as scathing as any that I have used for our “Xians” or pseudo-Christians, let it not be forgotten. I am no friend to anyone who is narrow and bigoted and small-minded and above all, believes somehow or other that repression is the way to salvation.
When reading Layton I often get the feeling that he would be more comfortable living in Italy, Greece or some other Mediterranean country. Is much of your well-documented discontent with Canada merely the result of a Levantine soul having been misplaced in an Anglo-Saxon land?
I certainly would be more comfortable but I would not be one-tenth as productive. For me living in Canada has meant a very creative tension. I have been able to fortify myself by going to live in Greece and Italy and Israel from time to time, but I always come back here to cultivate my tensions and to make sure that my enemies and antagonists are alive and flourishing, for without them I don't know what I would do.
Have you seen any change in the sense of Canadian gentility which you have cried out against over the past 30, 40 years?
No, I haven't. It's taken a new form; it's masked itself, differently of course, but I don't think that gentility, or for that matter the accompanying philistinism, have changed very much. This has become more apparent to me than ever before, though I had intimations of it before the publication of For My Brother Jesus. But the publication of that volume a year ago, and now the publication of The Covenant, has convinced me that gentility is still there. The gap between rhetoric and experience, which is how I define gentility, is still as large as it ever was, and the attempt to maintain that gap, just as resolute. Well the poet lives with experience, articulates experience and his reaching comes from his experiencing the world at a particular time and place. He gives a report of it. That for me is the role of the poet in any given society. The rhetoric that he develops comes out of that experience.
In the preface to one of your poetry workshop collections, you stated there are 4 divisions in Canadian poetry: the Loyalists, the Indians, the Frygidians and the Jews. Do you still subscribe to such a classification?
Yes! I think on the whole the four categories give a fairly accurate picture of the writing in Canada.
Where would you put poets whom you admire, such as Pat Lane or Alden Nowlan?
Well, because they are poets perhaps I wouldn't put them in any category at all, poets being able to transcend categories; but I am aware that this is something of a cop-out. On the whole I think I would put them in the category of Loyalists. They are not Frygidians, they are not Jews and they are not Eskimos or Indians. But there is that Loyalist quality of being say, anti-American or suspicious of the modern experience or the un-willingness to immerse themselves in the destructive element. For me Jews, are those who have been willing to immerse themselves in the destructive element and have come out as survivors, maybe crippled survivors, but nevertheless, as survivors. Nowlan and Pat Lane have not immersed themselves in the destructive element.
How do you think the poetry scene today in Canada differs from what it was 20 or 30 years ago?
Several features are different. For one thing the sheer number of poets that we have today. Throw a stone and you're going to hit a poet. The outlets available to the poets. The grants made possible to them by the Canada Council and by Provincial governments. Their achievement of status which I think is the really great difference between now and then. I think of my friend, the late A. M. Klein, who was driven to madness and silence because the poet had no status at the time he was writing and I say to myself the tragedy of his life could certainly have been avoided had he been living today. So from the standpoint of the number of poets, the number of outlets and the status the poet enjoys today, there is an immense difference. O.K., one could say that all that is quantitative rather than qualitative. Qualitatively I think, and here I may be showing my grey hairs, that the poets of the 40's and 50's, were markedly better. They had a wider range, a greater vision, were more ambitious than the poets who are writing today. It seems to me that many of them are writing too much, they're writing too fast. There's a great hunger for recognition, poetry readings, the whole bit. So as in everything, this mixture of idealism and evil that I was talking about before, this too is manifesting itself in the poetry scene in Canada today.
Well what is it that you feel is most lacking in today's poetry?
What bothers me Ken, is that poets, by and large, are not concerning themselves with the large moral, political and psychological dilemmas; there's a kind of playing around with words, as though poems were puzzles. And the Black Mountain group, which has taken root in this country, exhibits this tendency most strongly. Reading their poems, it strikes me that there's no large emotion. Everything is reduced to playing with words. Also, there is a general lack of satire. Again, take the Black Mountain school. Their writers are devoid of wit, satire or humour. If only someone would remind Frank Davey and his disciples, that the poet used to be called “a wit”. They fall into the gentile tradition. You see, the poet in North America has become a surrogate for the priest and poetry readings have become a surrogate for church going. Think of the solemnity associated with poetry readings. You're supposed to leave feeling sanctified, saved, because of all things you've listened to Robert Creeley drone inaudibly some of his skinny poems. This solemnity reflects the real insecurity of the North American poet. In other words, when you have nothing to say, say it solemnly, grandly. Because the sense of salvation is very strong in North America. So if it isn't Jesus who will save you, then Robert Creeley will save you, or Robert Duncan will save you, but some Robert will save you with his lines! You know, there's no humour in the gospels either. That's what's wrong with the New Testament and that's what's at the root of all this poetic gentility. Every time someone comes out with a salvationist ideology, the one thing you notice is the absence of humour. No humour on Black Mountain; no humour in the New Testament; no humour in Lenin's Communism either. I believe everyone should be trained to become suspicious of anyone or anything that lacks wit, humour.
How do you see the trends in poetry developing in this country over the next decade or so?
I'll do what businessmen do; I'll forecast trends on the basis of research. What's now apparent? What are the forces? The forces are: grants, respectability, outlets, and what I am afraid of is that this may lead inevitably to a great mediocrity. That you're going to get a lot of birds singing but you're not going to get a rare bird anymore like A. M. Klein, or even say an Al Purdy; someone who towers because of either an eccentricity or a peculiar, if distorted, direction that his genius takes. This is what I think is happening not only in Canada but in the United States of America or England. One has only to realize that there are no Frosts, there are no Hart Cranes; where is your W. B. Yeats, your Pasternak? These are giants. And I don't think it's only distance—that we're looking at them through the wrong end of the telescope so that they seem bigger than they are. They were giants, and I don't see giants, I don't see even little giants, not yet. Of course one could say, that well when Yeats first appeared he didn't look like a giant either, or Hart Crane, and of course that's a point. But I read a great number of manuscripts, and I don't see that kind of either violence or lust, or indignation appearing that generally heralds your crazy, eccentric, madman who's going to be your important poet. I don't see that identification between the criminal and the artist. I like to think of the poet as something of a crook, certainly a knave, a rogue, a criminal, an outsider. Maybe by accepting the poet as we have we've embraced him and really given him the kiss of death. Maybe that's a bad thing to do with poets. Maybe they should always be allowed to grow up to be the wonderful, visionary, and beneficial misfits that they have been in the past. Certainly the past 150 years.
You once said that women's poetry in Canada is nothing more than the whines that accompany menstruation, and it is evident from your work that you believe there is something hormonal in women that prevents them from the creativity you attribute to males. On what evidence do you base such an opinion?
Well the evidence is for one thing that women have never come up with the great poets of the stature of a Milton, or a Homer, or a Dante, and a Shakespeare and I can go on rattling off some other names to show my prejudice or my erudition. I don't think that women's creativity lies in the field of art, except to a limited degree. Theirs is a biological creativity and I realize that I am making the classic male chauvinist remark. But the women artists that have achieved fame and greatness have done so in a very limited way, whether it's a Colette, or a Gertrude Stein, or an Emily Dickinson, or in our own time, Doris Lessing: if you examine their work, what strikes me anyway—it may not strike anyone else—is the limited nature of their achievement and within that limitation, of course, it is important. But I have the feeling that they will never give us a kind of all comprehending, all embracing achievement that we have so far had from the great male artists. It may be due to cultural factors and not biological factors. But if I'm pinned down I have to say that I belong with those who believe that there are inherited physiological, biological, hormonal differences between the male and female and that the female's achievement is of a different kind, no less great, no less important, but it's of a different kind from that of the male's.
In a recent article in Toronto Life you made a very interesting observation: “one's image is like a poem. You start an image as you start a poem, in full control … But as the poem or image develops something happens … The creator suddenly finds himself the victim of the poem. It is the same with the image every public man creates.” Irving, how much of your direction as an artist has been dictated by the public image you've had hurled back at you by the media and populace?
It's not so much the image that society had of me that gave a direction to my poetry, as much as the tension, or discussion or debate that went on between me and my public in Canada. That is to say the image that society had of me as a lecher never in anyway influenced my writing. Or the image that Canadians have had of me in any way, did not influence or change my writing. But what did happen was, because of the image they had of me, I entered into a kind of dialectic with that society, either to remove that image, or change that image, or to laugh at that image, or to expose that image, or any of these things. In other words, I had to take into account that there was this image that they had of me, which I might find laughable, or grotesque, or ridiculous, or amusing, or sad, but because it was there it was saying something to me about Canada. It was their poem that they were writing, I read the lines. I interpreted those lines. And I said to myself, this must be a particular kind of society to create this particular poem, ah! let me look at it, I must analyse it. And I would analyse it and I did analyse it, even as I analyse a poem by Shakespeare or John Milton or one of my own poems. You inspect this image, this poem, and it says something to you. You either accept it or reject it or you deal with it in one way or another. So it's that kind of influence. It is an influence at second remove you might say.
You're being very objective about it. Has it had no effect on your life in anyway whatsoever, other than it has led you to analyse it, and led you to think more carefully about Canadian society?
Well it's given me some of my happiest hours of merriment. It has certainly had a great effect. It's made life particularly enjoyable for me in this country and that is one of the reasons why I have never thought of leaving this country. Where could I get anything as asinine as this picture of myself as a rampaging, lustful, lecher walking down the corridors and pouncing at every girl that came within five yards of me or any of the other images that Canadians have had? It's provided me with many, many hours of pleasure, of amusement and certainly of reflection as I said a moment ago.
Is the poet who gets in trouble one who takes this image seriously?
If he's too much concerned with the image that society has of him he can get in trouble. As I've said on other occasions and in that article in Toronto Life, poets developed an image of themselves as Bohemians, as drunkards, as womanizers and so on. An unflattering image really by way of contrast to the respectable bourgeois. It was a defence. It was a defence of strategy. Eventually, of course, the image became a self-fulfilling prophecy and in that way it destroyed writers like A. M. Klein or Delmore Schwartz or John Berryman or Hart Crane and I can go on and list a number of other poets who have come to a sad end. They are destroyed because they accept society's valuation of their own role and function. Well, for myself, I was very lucky because I had a brother-in-law by the name of Strul Goldberg who made a million. He was crass, miserly, grotesque, one of these bloated figures of the bourgeois, who was so immediately repulsive, that thereafter I've had nothing but a seething contempt for people who make money their one goal in life. Therefore, I was never captivated by the ethos, the values of this capitalistic society, or this materialistic society. I always had other values given to me by my father, who was a scholar and a recluse and who made me feel, though he said very few words to me when he was alive, but who did make me feel that there was another world that was inviolable and much more beautiful. And this has been implanted in my soul ever since I was a child of five. So I never had the problems that a Klein had, or a John Berryman, or a Hart Crane, or any of the poets in North America. I've been saved from that particular tension. I've always had a feeling of superiority to the society in which I lived and nothing that I experienced in my life ever convinced me that I was wrong in holding this position of superiority. In fact everything that has happened in my life only went on to confirm my sense of self-superiority.
So this is the image that we get—of Layton being a strong, successful man, the poet as warrior, perhaps an aspiring ubermensch. Is there no self-destructive side to Irving Layton? Are we being fooled by some persona that he's laying upon us?
I don't think there's a person in the world who hasn't got a self-destructive side in him. Whether he be a poet or he be a shoe salesman, or an automobile mechanic. To be human is to have this element of masochism or self-destruction. In other words, this self-destruct thing exists in everyone of us and it's time to go off. It's time to go off when we die. After all that's what death is, it's this self-destruct mechanism that was implanted in one when one was in the mother's womb. But I would say that my motto has been, “BE STRONG”. Be strong and be joyous. I said it in a poem many years ago that I wrote for my son. And I've taken that as my goal—to be strong and to be joyful. I cannot say that I've always lived up to it, but certainly this is my philosophy.
Does this philosophy make you a unique poet living in the modern world?
In the sense that I have not tolerated or wanted whimpering or whining which has been popular with poets. The self-pity that you get in a Shelley and from time to time in Keats and in other afflicted poets who have lived in this bourgeois era. I can understand their self-pity and I sympathize with it, but for myself I have never found it a reasonable or heroic way of living.
George Woodcock once wrote, “When Layton forgets to argue, when he lets his fancy go … we get his best work”. Do you feel in your most recent poetry there's been more of the arguing for the advancement of your religious message at the expense perhaps of fancy, of aesthetics?
No I don't think so. I think in my most recent work I have made an interesting and for me original combination of argument and poetry. It's a different thing to do. It's really a tightrope and I'm only too well aware of it. One can become terribly didactic, too obvious, and ruin the poem by in effect putting one's finger in the reader's eye. I think my best poems in The Covenant and in For My Brother Jesus, avoid that sort of thing. I say my “best” poems. You can't always pull the trick off. You can't always maintain your balance on that particular tightrope, but I'm trying to do it. I'm trying to do something that other poets have not always been very successful at doing and I ought to be given good marks for trying even in my failures. But in poems where I succeed, as in “The Luminous Bagel” or “On Seeing An Old Man Praying in the Duomo,” or in the poem, “For My Brother Jesus,” or that very beautiful poem on the Jewish cemetery that I saw in Barcelona, “Parque De Montjuich,” I think I have done things there that I did not do before and that I do not see many other poets either achieving or even attempting to achieve. With these poems, I attempt to say something strongly, directly, as energetically and as imaginatively as I can. I don't think that I have dried up the sources of fantasy and imagination. I'm using fantasy and imagination truthfully in the service of truth.
Which poets in the past would you say your recent poetics are most akin to?
Well there are some of the poems that Yeats wrote. The poems dealing with the problem of Irish independence, where he was trying to do what I have done. Notice the distinction.
Some of Pound, some of the things in the Cantos; poems like Personae. And of course, D. H. Lawrence.
How about Rudyard Kipling?
Well, now that you've mentioned Rudyard Kipling, I must own that I've always had a rather fond, fondness for him. I think he's an undervalued poet, chiefly because people like T. S. Eliot and others came along, but I think he's done a number of very fine poems that deserve being read and reread.
When you read critics on Kipling there seems to be this attitude that he might have been a good poet had he not concerned himself with political issues and I think that this is part of what's happening with critics when they treat your work now.
Well that's part of the gentile tradition all along, you see. It's part of the pseudo-romantic tradition that has obtained in this country for so many decades. That the poet is not to say anything really, that he is to depict sunsets and lovely landscapes, rivers and lakes, and to concern himself with daffodils. That's part of the romantic tradition. The imagery might be different in our own time but in effect—be descriptive, be narrative, be lyrical, be lush if you wish but don't be argumentative and don't say anything to shock people and to make them aware of injustice and poverty or whatever. That's a tradition which has maintained itself for a very long time and you come up against it again and again. I came up against it as I mentioned earlier, thirty years ago when I first pointed out certain things about the repressiveness of Canadian society. And in effect I was told to shutup and to do what Carman had done or Lampman and talk about snow, or talk about swans, or marshes, or discover some species of bird that I was particularly fond of. Well I'm not an Ornithologist and birds haven't particularly appealled to me. I have in my time, as you know, written about frogs and squirrels, but that's as far as I could go. In effect what these people are telling me is to get back to the frogs and listen once again to their delightful croaking and depict them. Well, all in good season. For now I want to say things that strike me as having to be said and it's that kind of urgency that I believe makes the poet. It made Shelley, it made Byron, it made even Keats; an urgency to say something, to reveal something, to one's fellow man, and it's for this reason that I've said that poets are prophets and the descendants of prophets. Because their job is to probe and explore and to say things that are not delightful and that are unfamiliar. Your minor poet is concerned with beauty; your major poet is concerned with something else in addition to beauty—truth. And when he achieves a combination of beauty and truth, then he becomes the significant Shakespeare or Dante or John Milton or Wordsworth.
What is Irving Layton's personal vision of the Messiah? Maybe I should first ask—does Irving Layton consider himself the Messiah?
Well I have good grounds for considering myself a Messiah because I was born circumscised and I'm the only Jew after Moses to have been so favored with a messianic sign. But I have to put a limit to my vanity. It is sufficient that I consider myself a great poet without going so far as to consider myself the Messiah. In a sense, of course, every great poet is a Messiah. I think all people who write, who paint, who compose music are part of the Messiah. Why should we think of one Messiah? Why not think of the Messiah as this collective figure, really; that all poets, all painters, all musicians and composers have contributed towards making, and that the messianic dispensation is nothing else but that all of mankind becomes a part of this tremendous opposition to mere gravity, mere soil? That is, an affirmation of the spirit; the spirit taking the form of beauty, and color and creativity and truth and all the other things that the human animal, and only the human animal, has exhibited. The capacity for love, the capacity for creativity, the need for freedom, the claims of dignity. No other animal exhibits these thrusts, or assertions or qualities. So for me that's what the messianic dispensation is all about. All of us are striving to become a part of the Messiah. And we all have a part in this Messianiship,—all of us, all human beings on this planet—even Hitler.
How do you include Hitler?
Hitler was a human being who in his own personal life would exhibit a fondness for children, or for his friends. He exhibited loyalty, great courage. He had certain qualities that certainly were admirable qualities. They were used for diabolical ends and he was of course a madman, but these specific qualities of loyalty or devotion or courage, I consider great human qualities. The terrible thing, you see, is that the devil himself can exhibit these, and Milton knew it when he raised the powerful antagonist against God and made him the most significant figure in his Paradise Lost. The devil, after all, is the hero of Paradise Lost: not God. And he endowed the devil with this great quality: that he will serve no one. There's your first individualist. The affirmation of the individual, the rebelliousness. That is the quality you find even in a Hitler.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6722
SOURCE: O'Rourke, David. “The Lion in Winters: Irving Layton at York.” Canadian Literature, no. 87 (winter 1980): 52-65.
[In the following essay, O'Rourke compares Layton's public image with a more complete portrait, commenting on Layton's role as a poet and teacher and providing extended excerpts from a number of Layton's March 1978 class lectures. In the class transcriptions, Layton gives autobiographical information, descriptions of some of his work, and responds to various questions from students.]
It is frequently pointed out with some degree of disparagement that a large number of Canadian poets are also university teachers. The people who are concerned with this phenomenon, most not employed by universities, argue that an academic appointment ranges in the vicinity of dangerous to insidious. They worry that the established Canadian poet will become “too soft.” They fear that this country's poetry will become “too academic.” They are of the opinion that the true poet ought to be “on the street” and “with the people.” Sitting in cafés, they lament their brothers and sisters with university chairs. The fact that their own poetry is often not that good seems inconsequential; that students may be considered “of the people”—irrelevant; that university employment does not preclude contact with “the street”—beside the point; and, finally, that established poets might rebel against the “academic poetry”—not quite conceivable.
Still, there is some cause for the hysteria. A poet employed by a university does run the risk of realizing any of these forecasts. So might a poet employed by a bank. Fortunately, these people tend to be cognizant of the situation and usually guard against it. Less aware of the “dangers,” however, may be the potential, or aspiring, young poets coming through the school system. Of those who make it to university, most can thank one good high school teacher. But, once arrived, these students are likely to find English classes run like laboratories, critics talking like scientists, and the skilled technician at the head of the room looking down upon the concept of a creative writing programme. Poems are then submitted to microscopic analysis and the poets, who are given to esoteric articles, placed on pedestals. While this may sound facetious to an academic audience, a “layman” looking on would not think it so humorous.
This, regrettably, is the area in which the established Canadian poet finds himself. Often frowned upon by his colleagues, the people who continue to dismiss Canadian Literature courses, the established poet is able to offer a different perspective to those young people running the gauntlet of university ranks. He tends to be supportive of creative writing, a touch cynical of the academic process, and frequently more informed about the art of poetry than a number of the departmental specialists. Louis Dudek is one example: influential in having taught or first published Daryl Hine, Leonard Cohen, Michael Gnarowski, David Solway, Pierre Coupey, Seymour Mayne, and Peter Van Toorn. Earle Birney, Frank Davey, D. G. Jones, Ralph Gustafson, and Fred Cogswell also deserve attention as educators who have helped, and continue to aid, creative writing in this country. Yet another poet comes to mind: ranting and raging and telling everyone that he knows what's best, a natural teacher—Irving Layton.
For approximately half his life, Layton has taught in educational institutions ranging from parochial school to university. For the period from 1969 to 1978, he was located at York University, concluding one of his most productive periods as a poet in Winters College. Students expecting to find in Layton a prolific drinker or, at least, a body in heat have encountered a serious poet, an arrogant idealist and, in many respects, a conservative in the tradition of the self-made man. Whether Layton has ever been any of the characters he has paraded before the public is a question to be considered. For one thing, the seedy bars and succession of full-breasted women would not have left a great deal of time for some thirty-five books, as well as those which he has edited. Also, the somewhat hedonistic stereotype which is often projected for the benefit of the newspaper reader does not do justice to what is certainly one of the most wide-ranging minds in Canadian letters. This is not to say that Layton has “pranked” the public, though his sense of humour is constantly underestimated; nor is it to suggest that there is not a bit of truth behind each of the masks. It is merely to point out that the nature of Layton's personality is frequently as protean as many consider the bulk of his work to be.
Like Ken Kesey's powerful protagonist, McMurphy, Layton's “poet” does battle with the sterile forces of anti-life; though, with Layton, this can mean culture, gentility, castration, Xianity, the SS, technological society, and almost anyone living in Canada. The opponent is awesome: it has chloroformed mankind, driving those with vision to alcoholism, insanity, or suicide; it turns on anything that is sensitive or creative; and, lastly, it has made the Jew, both as person and as symbol, into an endangered species. What is curious is that Layton's identification with his poet is complete to the extent that they become interchangeable—from a boy pounding with a broom to order the chaos (if not the gods) to a man plugging the void with his phallus. The role of the public persona is an extension of Layton and/or his mythological poet, and must be viewed in the prophetic tradition; that Layton has often sensationalized this voice (not unlike Norman Mailer) is a technique that has proved functional in stirring the very people it is his vocation to reach.
It has often been said that Layton is a didactic poet. In an era of experimental virtuosity, this may not be entirely unhealthy; but, regardless of one's aesthetic bias, Layton has a vision, and will continue to articulate it. For the less perceptive reader, he offers the “Foreword”: a prologue, or handbook of instructions, to prevent one from missing the point. It is ironic, given his conviction that what is being said is ultimately more important than the approval of academics, that Layton remains one of Canada's most misunderstood poets. It is as though people would rather discuss what they dislike about Layton than actually read his work: a practice accentuated by his rise to national and, now, international prominence.
It would be convenient, but to some extent untrue, to suggest that Layton considers the classroom a microcosm of the universe, or that he views his students as the members of a personal congregation. In fact, he is more interested in what his students think and have to say, and endeavours to maintain a low profile. Fortunately, this is quite incompatible with his personality—with the result that classes tend to be lively exchanges, frequently off the topic and often past the time. Toward the end of his 1977-78 graduate course on Montreal poetry, however, a rather unique situation presented itself: Irving Layton, in the role of teacher, lecturing on Irving Layton, the man and the poet. In this article, I have divided into three parts my notes from these lectures: the first section adding to the biographical record; the second, the artist on fourteen poems; and the third, an edited transcript of Layton's last class at York. The distinction between man, poet, and teacher is not so obvious in reality: a fact that should be evident in the third section.
It is interesting to note that Layton's vision has changed very little in the last couple of decades, that his current themes and stances amount to a progression of former insights into the nature of man and society. This exploration of fundamental problems in depth has produced what is easily the most unified body of poetry in Canadian literature. It has also resulted in the critical work of Wynne Francis and Eli Mandel remaining the best in the field; the latter's 1969 Irving Layton offers what is still the most complete perspective on Layton, and is helpful in coming to terms with even his most recent work. Future comparative studies might view the way in which Layton, Cohen, and Klein explore the post-Holocaust psyche of modern man, or investigate the differences between Layton's and Leonard Cohen's conception of the poet as Christ.
I should point out that, for the most part, in this article Layton has been allowed to speak for himself; only in the third section is a narrative framework provided, and that to underline the retrospective nature of the class. Layton's words have been left unchanged, as has the order of the poems taken up in the flow of discussion. Where repetition or duplication may be found, it has been allowed to stand in order to mark the poet's own points of emphasis. Lastly, I should like to thank the other students in the course, whose leading questions gave Layton the range required to address with passion that which he has considered of significance in both his life and work.1
Right. Early poetry was framed in Montreal, English and French Canada. I felt alienated: all my teachers were English, not Jewish. My home was poor. My father was a visionary, a scholar. He entertained angels, didn't give two shits for the kids—said about six words to me.
I was the youngest in the family. My mother couldn't spend too much time with us, maintaining the grocery store. She wanted us to be like Mrs. Steinberg's sons down the street. She had to cut off her hair and wear a hideous wig. My beautiful mother. It was traditional—to keep the husband's mind off his wife's beauty and on religious thoughts.
I rebelled very early against the piety and orthodoxy in the home. Refused to be bar mitzvahed, refused to say Kaddish when my father died. Strul Goldberg was the great influence on my life. He was the ideal I was supposed to look up to after the death of my father. He was successful—made a lot of money peddling religious articles. My father once said, “If you spit in his face, Strul would say it was raining.”
It was so important to be living where we did—under that flat (a semibrothel), surrounded by Poles, Italians. I got out of the city to the country market early with my mother: that's where I got my sense of colour and smell—great effect on my poetry. In school, I found out the English didn't live up to their “fair play” maxim. I got expelled—was in trouble from the day I was born. David Lewis lent me ＄10.00 for my matriculation fee, introduced me to A. M. Klein. They were the famous debating team in Montreal; Lewis was the serious orator, Klein the great wit. Klein tutored me in Latin on the side of Mt. Royal.
I learned politics and literature in Horn's Cafeteria, frequented by Trotskyites, Stalinists, Socialists, and Communists. At the time, I was a member of the Young People's Socialist League, which was one of the tributaries of the CCF. Frank Scott used to come down and give lectures. There was little separating politics and literature then. In the thirties, Marxism was the dominant ideology: a good writer helped the revolution. I used to get on a soapbox in Fletcher's Field and give lectures on poetry, and on the revolution in factories. My girlfriend, Suzanne, a Communist, used to come down and yell all sorts of names at me—I had to know my stuff—then, after, we'd amorously get together. The early interest in politics gave me my life-long distaste for English gentility.
The best thing to happen was me going to Macdonald College instead of McGill. I had to do a lot of science—and not just English. When I brought in a Communist to speak, I was harassed by the R.C.M.P.—even though I had also, a fortnight earlier, brought in the head of the Bank of Montreal. But the other students were worse. When I was in residence, they used to dump garbage on my bed and throw my books on the floor. Every day. I could never catch them. But the B.Sc. made me a well-rounded person, and you can see the agricultural images in my poems. I worked on farms for three or four summers, something significant for an urban Jew.
My first marriage was a disaster. I was an idealist and a Socialist. I married her because she was scarred. It was my way of coping with the injustices of the world. … Stupid.
So there's the picture. Early poems born of scorn, hatred, opposition, rebelliousness: all notes you find in my early poetry. The tremendous joie de vivre is from my mother. I can have the most morbid thoughts and not lose the joie de vivre. It has nothing to do with the brain, but everything to do with the physical constitution. So you get the two boats going in the same direction: with the rebelliousness, a celebration. I enjoy living—women, wine, sewers. Up until now I've had more than my share of disappointment, hardship, but it doesn't affect my temperament or joy. It's very Hebraic. No poet except the one in Ecclesiasticus has had such a sense of nullity. Very early the trick was to fill up the nothingness. You have to make up your own code and live by it. Never in my life have I been guided by externals. I've never been influenced by others. I fill up the void with my own idea of what's right and follow it.
In the later poems, there is a deeper note. The Holocaust really began to hit me about fifteen years ago. I began to meditate on what makes men so destructive to do such things. It becomes the black thread which runs through my poetry.
The “pole-vaulter” is Nietzsche's overman: to go beyond life. I don't believe in God, but I do believe in divinity. We know there's a divinity through truth, beauty, and creativity. This is what allows me to go on despite the records of Hitler, Stalin, etc. It doesn't matter: they come and go. Death takes them away in his green bags. Nobody escapes death and that's why I love it. Chance, Appetite and Death, are my three gods—they allow hope.
And then there's the unfairness of the cosmos, the poignancy, especially as it affects little creatures. Did I tell you the story of the kitten? Responsible for my first marriage and many other things? The most influential thing in my life. My cat gave litter to four kittens when I was a kid: one was crippled but it didn't know it. It would drag its inoperative hind legs trying to play with the others. He was so brave. I've never been able to resist someone being brave and defiant despite some great hardship. Even today, I am still vulnerable to this kind of situation. Hence, you find so many poems dealing with wounded birds, mosquitoes.
“PROLOGUE TO THE LONG PEA-SHOOTER”
This is a broadside against the literary establishment as it was in '52 or '53: a kind of academicism, an English sort. Dudek was not originally in, but was put in later on. Jasper Shittick is Sutherland, Bowell is Powell, a reviewer at the time for the Montreal Star; genteel, narrowminded, anti-erotic—he was representing the fashion of the time: puritanism. When he cut down a poet, it was a compliment—worth another two hundred books to be sold.
Here I'm having a good spoof, though there are serious parts. I'm attacking most people for being lousy readers. I'm also attacking other poets who would rather see a rival poet's book bomb than be successful as, at that point, the friendship comes to an end.
Second and third stanzas, I'm being ironic. Don't try for greatness, go for fame—people don't understand greatness. Be genteel: that's what the people wanted. Women were into romanticism, something to take them out of their modern homes. Then I attack the cultural philistines: the people who worship Eliot because everyone worships Eliot. In the fifth stanza, I'm ironically telling poets: despite the Holocaust, be genteel—write like Le Pan.
From “clergymen” on, in the last stanza, I attack culture in general. Someone should go through my stuff, prose too, and see my constant attack on culture. Torture, mutilations, beatings, never decreased attendance at operas. Culture is the great lie which enables people to forget, to live with, the atrocities of this age. The erudite cannibal of tomorrow will very likely be cultured. Retired clergymen ravage life to spiritualize. In a later poem, it's not chicken or fowl which inspires people, but the broken skull of a Jewboy. So far as I know, I am the only poet who has as a theme the infinite adaptability of people to live with a Holocaust.
“NOW THAT I'M OLDER”
The capacity for assimilating murderers' bullshit is limitless for people.
“THE IMPROVED BINOCULARS”
What I am concerned with from the beginning is aggression. Man is condemned to be either creative or destructive. Since only a small minority is creative, the rest engage in destruction. It's an apocalyptic poem. Goethe, when he was dying, asked for more light—the irony in the poem. “Improved binoculars” is the symbol for modern technology.
These poems are never picked up by genteel Canadians—they're European, Mediterranean. Europeans read my work and identify. I am a Canadian by accident of birth.
“My visitor … absence of theories”: a theme you'll find in many of my poems. Very Kafkaesque, but I hadn't read Kafka then. Another theme in my work: the contrast between the storm trooper and the genteel thinker—the visitor has no doubts. “We agreed … the condition … murder of others”: the condition of our century—we kill for someone else's theory. We've arrived at a point where one man will kill another, not even knowing him, for a third man's theory. The “executioner” is my symbol for the sensibility of the 20th Century.
This is an important poem. The black irony, the humour, is maintained throughout. People will get together, love one another, as long as there is a victim. “Mythical cage”: Socialism, Communism, religion—any Utopia. The virtue of altruism is like an orgasm for them. The function of the half-holiday is to blind me. It takes something like that for people to see how much generosity there is in their souls.
“FOR ANDREI AMALRIK”
Another theme in my work: the forgone mediocritization of thought in everyone. Passion, original thought, is penalized. The unusual, the extraordinary, the unique, is being punished across the world—Russia, Poland, China. People will have to be chameleons if they want to be original.
“ELEGY FOR MARILYN MONROE”
The odd, eccentric individual is persecuted almost as much in North America. The Russians send them to insane asylums; we make them crazy so they have to go on their own. Sexton, Plath, Lowell, Klein, commit suicide or go crazy in this world. Anyone who can see, anyone with talent, has to go. The pigmies are the commissars.
The sensitive original cannot kill: he has not fortified himself against others—hence, the helpless Jew. The person who can see is defenceless because he can see. The little man derives a great feeling of power from persecuting others and our society, technology, is making nothing but little men: elevator operators, secretaries, etc.
“AT THE IGLESIA DE SACROMONTE”
An actual story—what Christianity has done to passion. Another theme: the contrast between pagan vitality and energy versus what religion has done to it.
The difference between true poets, prophets, and false poets. The poet is Icarus; he doesn't hang around cafés discussing literature. To be a poet is tragic. He'll never make it, never get there, his wings will be melted, but the difference is that he'll try whereas others won't.
“PIAZZA SAN MARCO”
Il Duomo is a magnificent structure in Venice. I'm saying that these people will never produce a cathedral like that again; instead, they have it hanging on medallions from their wrists. The diminution of modern man—mankind is no longer capable of the greatness which has produced such monuments. You have heroes from the Bible to the Renaissance, but downhill since then.
Nature as a battlefield. Butterfly over a dead mosquito: a war is going on under the innocence of nature. “Crooked Star” is the Soviet star—I was then still somewhat of a Socialist. Bloodshed and star: my symbols for life—torture/death and illumination. Injustice, blind cruelty, defiance, illumination, gallantry, occur again and again in my poetry.
“LIKE A MOTHER DEMENTED”
The most anti-Wordsworthian poem I have ever written: my vision of the cosmos. Note the black irony, the dark mocking vision. I'm answering the riddle of, Why man? Answer: nature needs an audience to see its tragedy. My verdict on man: “nature's most murderous tool and accomplice.”
“THE POET ENTERTAINS SEVERAL LADIES”
First stanza: hunchback/deformity can throw a bigger shadow than anyone, ironically attracting children. Ugliness and beauty. “My dog … torn ear”: brutality, torture, mutilation, goes on all the time in nature. Second stanza: I accept the Heraclitean notion that all is flux, change, rotting driftwood. Beauty is momentary, flux forever. Humans discover this, but nature does it. Third stanza: mankind has a momentary radiance, but again nature, “My dog,” goes on. Fourth stanza: never resting, never ceasing … I am full of pity to all this. Fifth stanza: mind can touch memory, turning it into fire—poetry. “I,” the poet who puts bells on machinery. “My dog licks his bruised fur / paws his torn ear”: nothing overrides this fact—“bruised” is in for impact.
Here the savagery and the celebration are fused. The rebel statement: God is neither Christianity, nor Judaism—God is blood. The sexuality enables me to forget nature's strife; look at “The Tamed Puma” in The Covenant. My favourite theme: men sing best when they are cruel. Human beings are very creative: they will pluck out your eyes; they will use your spasm to break their prison; they will kill out of love. The poet reconciles the death wish with the love wish—living with the reconciliation is like divinity.
LAST CLASS AT YORK
Enter Layton, five minutes late, looking like a Jewish Zorba. He sits down, belly protruding a little over his belt. “Right!” he says, “Last class … I believe we're still doing me.” He gives the impression of a professional wrestler.
A discussion takes place on “coffee house” poetry. Layton summarizes, “Yes, it's a very good thing for suffering poets to get together, but there has to be a good poet or two among them; otherwise, the bad stuff will multiply. Look at the Montreal situation: Harris and Solway are besieged by bad stuff. You only get one or two good poets every ten years. What is happening now is quantity—inferior poets financed by the Canada Council. Harris has been around for a long time. Was in my class in 1967. Works hard on his craft. Produced a good book like Grace. Same with Solway—a master craftsman. They bring their poetry to Hottentots and are told it's not poetry. That's dangerous! At least in Russia they know who the good poets are—they put them in insane asylums. In North America, the good poet is swamped by mediocrity. In Russia, they know what good poetry is and stop it; in Canada, they trivialize it: surround the flowers with weeds and choke them. It's terrible. …”
Layton says this not so much in conversation, as trying to explain that something has gone wrong. The class has only started, and his adrenalin is pumping.
A student asks what he thinks of W. D. Snodgrass's essay, “Tact and the Poet's Force.”2 Layton listens to a passage, then offhandedly replies, “Snodgrass is being English and polite.” It looks as though he's going to leave it at that, but then the tempo beings to build. “Tact is something a minor poet is concerned with. Can you imagine Milton, Dante, Shelley, talking about tact? Those bishops and those cardinals burning. It's context, not tact. In one context you overstate like Byron, in another you understate. I've never heard Pushkin talk about tact. ‘Tact’ has come into being because of minor poets like Snodgrass. The academics love it! Have you ever heard anyone getting excited about Snodgrass?”
Layton continues more calmly, “There are no rules to poetry, only contexts. The only thing is to be effective. Subtlety and vulgarity may be used at different times when necessary. You can't make a rule to be subtle all the time—look at Blake!”
The student unrolls another quotation, this time from Peter Hunt's “Irving Layton: Pseudo-Prophet”:
The same cannot be said of ‘Whom I Write For’ which exemplifies a central defect in Layton's work. The very barbarism he deplores (at Hiroshima and in Nazi Germany) is present in his own vision and method:
I want you to feel as if I had slammed your child's head against a spike; And cut off your member and stuck it in your wife's mouth to smoke like a cigar.
He does not integrate the sense of moral shock with the description of the horrors he hates; rather he attempts to shock the reader by overt obscenity and sadism.3
Layton leans forward with his hands clasped together, and answers slowly and deliberately, “The man is not capable of understanding a poem or why it was written. Hunt is illiterate. When I talk about stuffing a man's penis into a woman's mouth, I'm shocking because I've seen it. When I write about Auschwitz, am I being as bad as the SS? My aim is to make people aware that they're living in an age of atrocity. I'm trying to tear away the veil of culture. In the Preface to my forthcoming book,4 I talk about the self-horror it masks: man's hatred for life. Man has a hatred for sexuality because he cannot master it. He's arrogant. He wants to be God, Master of life, and—when he can't—he tries to rub it out.
“I'll tell you an interesting story. People have written reviews of my latest book,5 some good and some bad. I went to an Italian Embassy party, because I wanted to say goodbye to my translator going on vacation, and see an Italian girl doing her M.A. thesis on me at Toronto. She tells me she's fascinated with my idea of a poet. I deal with it throughout my work. She says what she's really interested in in my later books is that Christ becomes the archetypal poet. It took an Italian woman to see something as plain as the crooked nose on my face! That Christ is the archetypal poet—he stands for love, creativity and, most of all, joy and laughter. All my poetry leads up to Jesus. Like him, I don't intend to be tactful!”
He turns to The Covenant and reads “Xianity.” “Now how could anybody have missed this?” He is standing up, almost shouting. “It takes an Italian. …” Layton slams his book against the table, staring directly at the class. “How … ?”
He reads “For My Brother Jesus,” gesturing theatrically with his free hand, then turns to “Christos-Dionysos” and “Magdalena,” noting that “Yeats would have been happy to compliment me on these … I think.” He sits down and reads “Disguises,” “where I compress the Jewish experience into a lyric,” as well as the poem “Bambino,” which starts him off again.
“No theory can satisfy me—look at ‘The Poet Entertains Several Ladies.’ In order to understand me in North American poetry, you have to understand that I have broken all the rules consciously. I accept none of the Judaic, Christian, Canadian tenets. I've been attacking the anti-eroticism and philistinian element in Canada. Nobody likes to have their tenets questioned, much less violated—that's why the critics have been so hostile.
“I distrust the virtuous. I'm anti-ideological—Zionism, Communism, Socialism, Fascism—I'm opposed to all that. I'm concerned with the human soul. What the critics say can't hurt because I've said worse myself. They forget I had a mother who cursed me from the moment I got up. I've heard it all before. What I'm worried about is the damage to the spirit. Sometimes you have to shout, scream, kick someone in the ass, pour a bowl of urine on their heads, dump a bathtub of shit, to get them away from their tact! If you feel very strongly about the dangers to the human spirit, you're not going to be tactful!
“What is it about the English that makes them talk like that? Snodgrass … You'll never find a Russian talking like that!” He calms down a little. “I'm sorry I lost my temper. It wasn't at you. It's just that I've been fighting this attitude all my life—in the thirties, in the forties—and it hasn't changed at all.”
There is a long pause, a sort of vacuum after Layton's burst of energy. It becomes a question and answer period.
Didn't someone do a survey, and found out you had the third largest vocabulary in English poetry?
“I'm supposed to have a vocabulary of 21,000 words. Shakespeare had 31,000. Only Shakespeare and Milton have used more, and yet I am cited for using vulgar words.”
Do you see yourself influenced by Klein, and influencing Cohen? Is there a tradition of Montreal poetry?
“There's a tradition insofar as we're all Jewish, but the tradition goes further back to the Old Testament. We're capable of drawing on that tradition. Jews throughout history in different nations and different cultures—you'd be a fool not to draw on it. What I say, any Jew will tell you that. Any Jew digging into his history. We've seen empires come and go. We're still here, they're not—some are on the way out. What a fantastic privilege to draw on that unique history. Kenneth Sherman and Eli Mandel are doing it now. In Mandel's latest book,6 he's looking for his roots.
“In any other sense of a tradition—no. Klein and I disagreed on a lot of things. Klein was orthodox and had visions of getting ahead. The respectable lawyer and the bohemian. If anything, I and we—First Statement and Preview—influenced Klein. With Cohen … influence only in the sense that I kicked open doors for him to write about.
“Technically, there's hardly a poet in North America who I haven't influenced in some way. It took an American, Olson, to point it out. Canadian critics wouldn't understand it if you printed it on their cocks. But I had a disagreement with Williams: they wanted to reject everything, whereas I wanted to adapt it. … All Canadian poets have adapted the things I was doing in Red Carpet for the Sun.”
So you're trying to change the psyche of Canadians … ?
“With Red Carpet for the Sun, I achieved an attack on Canadian culture. After that, I got into the soul—man is either a fallen angel or a risen devil. The problem is not sociological, political, or the price of coffee. The problem is man. I began to get into the darker aspects of the soul. Then in '66, '67, during the Six Day War when the extermination of the Jews—a remarkable people, not because I am a Jew, any historian will tell you they've made more contributions to the world: art, medicine, etc.—anyway, that's when a turn happened. The world was ready to let the Jews be massacred. The genteel, religious West. Then the attack on culture sharpens.
“The academics who attack me today are financed by the Canada Council. The genteel academics … In the old days they were right from England, loud in attacking my vulgarity, ‘tactlessness’; but they've all gone and have been replaced by Canadian academics. It brings the story up to date, and it will continue. Look at the reviews of my latest books. If you want a sensitive view, you have to go to a European, not an Anglo-Saxon.
How do you reconcile the relation between Nietzsche and the Jewish tradition?
“A tall point. Nietzsche did not influence me any more than D. H. Lawrence did, but they both had arrived at insights and feelings which I arrived at. And gave me more. Nietzsche's been far more a liberator than anyone, including Marx. Nietzsche attacks bourgeois culture. He is the greatest liberator.
“The Jew accepts the moral elite—I'm not saying the Jews are a chosen people—whereas I have improved upon it. I believe in divinity, not God: I rejected all that stuff when I was thirteen. The Overman is the man who goes beyond human nature—more soul and less asshole—and that's very close to Judaism. ‘Ought’ is the notion that the Jews gave the world. ‘There ought to be justice’—Moses, Abraham, arguing with God, telling him he ‘ought’ to behave better. We are weak, we are fallible, but it's possible for us to attain divinity.
“So there's the theme of rebelliousness between Jewish history and Nietzsche: a dialogue with divinity. Any wonder why Stalin and Hitler hated the Jews? People who have argued with God, do you think a dictator's going to scare them? I smell the stink of the dead corpse while he's speaking. I'm a Jewish Nietzschean. I've said it before, but they've ignored it.
“The whole thing about the Overman is that he does not use violence. He's above it. And since there's been two wars against Germany, it's hopeless that the West will understand Nietzsche. Even Bertrand Russell didn't. Nietzsche's been called the prototype of Nazism, but read him! He has nothing but praise for the Jews—he attacks Germans! See his passages on anti-semites. But the stupidities, the nonsensicalities, are still being taught!
Layton turns to “The Cold Green Element” in response to a student's request. He reads the last line slowly, triumphantly. “The ‘cold green element’ is my metaphor for life, my symbol for fecundity. The wind and the satellite represent change, flux. At the end of change is death, so I'm calling your attention to mortality. There's a reference to the A-bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. And then there's the poet who hangs like a Christ-figure, or victim, on the gate.
“The relation between the crowd and the poet is a theme I've always kept: they go to see him tortured. The second image of the poet, someone who's been blasted by lightning because of his vision or revelations, is that he is crippled—the hunchback—and that goes back to ‘The Poet Entertains Several Ladies.’ I see my past selves as the leaves on a tree which will also eventually decay. There's an awareness of not being able to divide life and death.
“So the poem's about the poet in a Hiroshima world, an age of atrocities, but it also has old age and death. There's the Nietzschean/Dionysian note: robin chewing the worm. The ending is that you forget all your medical troubles when you hear children. Plus, ‘breathless’ is ambiguous.
“‘A Tall Man Executes A Jig’ and the ‘Pole-Vaulter’ are two other significant poems. They're about redeemers: people who have experienced pain but don't whine.”
How do you see your work in the context of modern and contemporary poetry?
“Modern poetry tends to be pragmatic, not metaphysical, due to Pound et al. Because of my background in philosophy, theology, and science, you hear a different note in my poetry. There's not a single poet in Canada who has my background in the sciences, so I find many of the poems of my contemporaries shallow. Another reason why much of my work runs contrary to contemporary poetry is because of my Jewish background and Hebraic literature. Anyone who is familiar with it will not be impressed with Camus and Sartre. Not after reading Ecclesiasticus. Exile is redemption—not Zionism. I don't think we've wandered as far as we have and done things that we have done to settle for a piece of land, an army, and an Air Force. I'm not against a homeland, but your Bellows, Cohens, etc., have that Jewish imagination which is the result of history and the Bible.”
Does that mean you have to be Jewish to be a great poet?
Layton laughs. “Well, some poets have managed to survive the terrible handicap of not being Jewish. No, there are other great cultures, but the Jew is very fortunate. He writes out of time and space. He's been everywhere, and is aware of what goes on in the world. He carries with him his history. Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc., are his contemporaries. My mother used to talk to them like they were members of the family. Same with God.”
A student presents a seminar on Michael Harris, David Solway, and Bob McGee: contemporary Montreal poets. Twenty minutes later, Layton notes, “It's true that Harris and Solway—I don't know McGee—are repudiating us, but they've gone to a landscape/Archibald Lampman tradition. That's good, because they have to rid themselves of our influence and because they feel comfortable with it, but they'll have to watch out for the—and I know you're going to kill me when I say this—gentility. Excellent poetry, great poetry, but what are they saying? Where's the satire? That's what bothers me.
“Look—here's a poem I would like to see Harris and Solway write.” Layton reads “News from Nowhere”7 gesturing magnificently. “The poet has a public function to perform as a prophet.” He turns to “The Happening” and announces, “Now there's a prophetic poem—it's not the proletarian, it's the castrated intellectual who is going to change the world.” He reads the last of his new poems, “Flies,” stating that it deals with man's aggressiveness and how it is turned into art: “The fly versus the death of a human being.”
“If there's a continuing tradition in Montreal poetry, it's excellence. Harris and Solway are genuine poets: they'll have ulcers, hemorrhoids, troubled marriages, but what I don't want to see watered out is the prophecy you find in Klein, me, Page, and Scott. That's the real Montreal tradition! Stress on craft, being naked, Harris and Solway have all the good things, but it bothers me that they're dealing with things handed down from Lampman.
“We've come full circle from Lampman to Harris and Solway. Tying the country to the mind is 19th-Century. The tradition of Montreal poetry, the other half, is a public one—a concern with the world out there, not navel-gazing. You get a tradition of social awareness, not social realism because the Russians have bastardized that. There's less emptiness in Harris and Solway because they've suffered, but still the poet has that public element they have to keep in mind. When the poet becomes too arty-farty, he's in trouble. Especially in these times.
“It's the prophetic tradition you should shoot for. The good poet always speaks for his generation. …” Layton looks down at his watch and realizes he has gone into overtime. “Look, I'd like you all to come over to my place for an evening. We'll have some wine, good conversation. … How about it?” He writes the class into a black pocketbook, stuffs his briefcase, and heads for the door, long hair flowing in a white mane.
The other students were Maria Jacobs, Jack Urowitz, J. Kertes, and Nancy Gay Rotstein. The lectures in question took place in March 1978, the last class being on the 29th of that month.
W. D. Snodgrass, In Radical Pursuit (New York: Harper & Row, 1975); the passage begins with the last paragraph on page 12, and concludes at the end of Jarrell's poem, “Protocols,” page 13.
Peter Hunt, “Irving Layton, Pseudo-Prophet—a Reappraisal,” Canadian Poetry, 1 (Fall/Winter 1977), p. 5.
Irving Layton, The Tightrope Dancer (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1978); a number of identical phrases would suggest that Layton was very close to the manuscript of this volume at this time.
Irving Layton, The Covenant (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977).
Eli Mandel, Out of Place (Erin: Press Porcépic, 1977).
The poem was later published in Droppings from Heaven (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1979).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1359
SOURCE: Harding, Anthony John. “In Debate.” Canadian Literature, no. 98 (autumn 1983): 102-04.
[In the following review, Harding characterizes Layton's political viewpoints in Taking Sides as troublesome and bewildering, attributing the former to naiveté and the latter to poor editing.]
Taking Sides is both annoying and embarrassing. It is annoying because of the careless way in which it has been edited (of which more later); it is embarrassing because Layton too often—on the evidence of the writings here reprinted—wants to be at once the farsighted political commentator or student of political theory, and the irresponsible wearer of motley, the garlanded innocent, of whom everything can be forgiven. There is every reason, of course, for poets to be political theorists and even political activists. There is room in politics—indeed there is a crying need—for the joy, the anger, and the life-affirming zeal that Layton brings to every subject he writes on. The poet, at least a poet-prophet such as Layton, is more likely than the company director or university professor to speak for humane values against the conspiracy of rival imperialisms which daily threatens our lives with annihilation. When he enters the political arena, however, he must expect the same rules of debate to apply to the poet as to other men and women, and if anything, the poet's standard of conduct should be higher than the politician's. Certainly self-contradiction, outrageousness, and verbal abuse of one's opponents carry penalties no less severe for the poet than for the merest political hack.
These observations sound, and are, prissy, in an age when “public debate” consists mainly of television appearances lasting anything from twenty to thirty seconds, but Taking Sides is calculated sooner or later to outrage everyone's sense of what makes for a fair fight. It must also be admitted that in this age the convolutions of history can make a fool of the most well-intentioned and circumspect political analyst. Still, in this post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era it is disturbing to find that in 1965, during the Johnson administration, Layton wrote this: “For all her mistakes in judgment and deed, I know of no other country that has so persistently sought to ethicize power as the United States” (p. 101). To ethicize power? With all that was coming to light, even then, about the activities of various U.S. agencies in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the U.S.A. itself? Or this, also in 1965:
[America's] leaders have again and again told the American people they must resist the ever-present temptation to equate dissent from their policies with disloyalty. When I read over the account of the huge peace rally in Washington or of the peace marches, I'm left wondering what sort of weed must be smoked to produce a judgment as ill-balanced as that.
Certain subsequent events, such as the shootings at Kent State in 1970, might lead one to expect some sort of retraction, some recognition from Layton that he had not understood American politics as well as he thought he had, but Layton does not apologize, still less retract. History has also cruelly called into question much of what Layton wrote in his despatches from Tel Aviv in 1968. In the era of Begin and Sharon anyone who shares the agony of Israel can surely only weep at this:
Jews are too individualistic, too fond of irony and mockery, and too humane to fawn on military leaders. The strut of de Gaulle would provide only endless laughter to a nation which was the first to attempt to teach other nations the hollowness of military power and glory.
Perhaps it's unfair to continue pointing out the more obvious lessons of history, however. Perhaps political commentary is not a field in which one should expect constant apologies, adjustments, and retractions. The reader should not ask “is this position tenable in light of facts which are accessible to us now but may not have been accessible then?” but rather “however partial this person's view of the facts may be, do his or her statements clarify the point at issue? do they make a constructive contribution to debate?” Layton very rarely meets these requirements either. Consider the following two passages—both from 1967, if the editor's dates are to be trusted:
the western democracies are under attack by the Soviet Union and its satellites who are bent to destroy them by subversion or by starting brush fires in their vicinity. Russia's championship of the most reactionary elements in the Arab world against democracic [sic] and progressive Israel shows up her humanistic pretensions for what they are—Soviet propagandistic clap-trap. … Will the western democracies finally get the message? … Sharing a moral, political and religious tradition with Israel, they are menaced by the Soviet Union which with the assistance of its dupes and stooges is striving with all its might to extend its tyranny over men's minds and to enslave the human spirit where it cannot extinguish it.
Communism today is not the monolithic thing that it was, or that it appeared to be, several years ago. … There's a point where you have to use your head and realize that Russian security depends, or the Russians think that their security depends, upon having a strategic area allotted to itself. … what has happened is that the two powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, are slowly working toward some accommodation, toward some kind of adjustment. And all this I find very hopeful. … The present leadership of the Soviet Union is much closer to the bureaucrats and the engineers that we know in our own society. … They are not ideologues in the sense that Lenin and Stalin were ideologues.
It may be said that these quotations are taken out of context, and so of course they are. But nowhere is there any explanation of how two such completely opposed positions might be reconciled with each other.
The editor of Taking Sides seems uneasily aware of such contradictions, and tries to camouflage them with appeals to “tensions,” to “layers of human meaning” and “the dialectic of reality.” “Reality” here, however, seems to mean the limitations imposed upon us by mortal and material existence, for Aster adds that there are two ways to “conquor” [sic] reality—love and imagination—and continues, as if by way of explanation, “Politics is the manner in which men and women try to seduce reality, to become its master through power.” The limitations of mortal existence apply equally to everyone, however, and a universal condition cannot be invoked to excuse inconsistency, or disregard for the etiquette of debate.
After this rather unsatisfactory introduction, the editor decides to let Layton speak for himself, and follows Layton's own principle of never explaining and never apologizing, which leads to some irritating problems with the text which a careful editor would have dealt with. On p. 189, for example, Layton refers to “this poem,” and later to “my recent poem.” Neither poem is identified. On p. 177, Layton answers what is evidently a question from an interviewer by saying “I really don't know,” but the question itself is not printed. Typographical errors abound. A letter reprinted from the Globe and Mail and dated “April 13, 1971” refers to a letter that appeared in that newspaper on April 19, 1971. The German chancellor, Dr. Kiesinger, becomes “Kissinger” on p. 123 and “Keisinger” on p. 194; to add to the confusion, the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands is sometimes referred to as the NPD and sometimes as the NDP (pp. 124-25, 194-95). Allen Ginsberg becomes “Alan” (p. 55), the Deity becomes the “Diety” (p. 171), and so on. Graduate students wanting to write theses on Layton's political views would be best advised to ignore Aster and go to the original sources. For students and academics generally, an accurate bibliography of Layton's writings would have been far more useful. Other readers will find here a few valuable comments on the flowering of Canadian poetry in the 1940's and 1950's, and an imperfect but provocative record of Layton's considerable achievement as the nemesis of Canadian complacency and puritanism. For the rest, the time would be much better spent reading For My Brother Jesus or Nail Polish or The Bull Calf.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9965
SOURCE: Wiens, Erwin. “From Apocalypse to Black Mountain: The Contexts of Layton's Early Criticism.” Canadian Poetry, no. 16 (spring-summer 1985): 1-20.
[In the following essay, Wiens comments on the importance of keeping Layton's critical statements framed by the literary, political, and social context in which they were made. Wiens highlights the people and movements surrounding Layton's comments, particularly those associated with the controversies between the literary magazines Preview and First Statement.]
There is some debate whether Layton has engaged in literary criticism at all. When George Woodcock compiled his anthology of criticism by poets, Poets and Critics (1974), Layton was not among the ten poet-critics, nor among Woodcock's list of the many good poet-critics he was obliged to omit from his anthology. In fact, Layton, along with Earle Birney, was specifically excluded. These two poets, said Woodcock, “have reacted in a romantic manner against criticism and raged against those who are mythically supposed to have been the killers of Keats and other frail versifiers.”1 Seymour Mayne, however, reminds us that Layton has maintained “a critical dialogue not only with his critics but with his fellow poets on the nature of poetry and the poet. … No other Canadian poet has taken on the task in such large measure, and no other poet has elicited such a wide response.”2 For Eli Mandel, Layton's “Forewords” to his books of poetry constitute “the single most important body of criticism of its kind in Canada.”3
Certainly Layton has generated an impressive bulk of commentary on poetry and poets, from his early reviews in First Statement in the 1940s to his “Foreword” to The Gucci Bag, 1983. To date, there have been two collections of his prose, Engagements and Taking Sides, and there are nine uncollected “Forewords” (since 1972), plus public and private correspondence and published interviews. As Mandel's qualifying phrase suggests, “criticism of its kind,” little of Layton's commentary has taken the form of systematic, academic analysis. It may appear to consist merely of aphorisms and polemics, of extravagant generalizations or personal abuse, or, occasionally, of moving tributes. Almost always it has been written in response to current controversies. Removed from its original contexts, it often appears contradictory or merely sensational, but examined in close relation to successive movements and counter-movements since World War II, his comments on poetry and poets appear much more consistent, illustrating a development in depth and range, a critical view rather than random flashes, however brilliant.
In this essay, I have examined Layton's criticism in the contexts of prominent developments in poetry and criticism during the decade that followed World War II. Layton's early criticism was directly provoked by the controversies between First Statement and Preview in the 1940s, then between Contact Press and the Toronto based “mythopoeic” poets in the early 1950s. These controversies flourished in relation to developments in England and the United States, and both sides of the controversies readily exploited international developments to advance their own cause. This was certainly Layton's method. In the 1940s, he used Herbert Read and the Apocalyptics to attack what he, along with Dudek and Sutherland, considered a facile and moribund Eliot-Auden-Thomas eclecticism among the Preview group. In the early 1950s, he shifted his attack, asserting a vigorous, anti-Eliot, modern American tradition against the disaffected, Movement-influenced, formalism of the “mythopoeic” poets. His early articles in First Statement and CIV/n may appear, at first, cast in the familiar form of reviews or critical appraisals, but their main purpose is to engage current controversies, to assert and clarify his own complex understanding of the nature and function of poetry.
When Layton's first literary essays and reviews began to appear in the early 1940s, modern poetry in Canada had reached the point of “cell division.” This is the image used by Dudek and Gnarowski in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada to illustrate the nature of the “ferment” in the 1940s, in contrast to that of the two preceding decades. In the 1920s and 1930s, the conflict had been between the modern poets, particularly the poets of the McGill Movement, and the Canadian Authors Association. The struggle of the former group was for modern poetry itself: for a greater awareness in Canada of the theories and techniques of Yeats, Eliot and Pound; for more freedom in form and rhythm; more freedom in the choice of poetic subject; for colloquial language; for a more precise intellectual content; and for a closer relationship to contemporary events. Not all of these issues were clearly resolved by the 1940s, but the conflict with the late-Victorian or Georgian-oriented Canadian Authors no longer generated the poetic and critical “ferment.” The front had shifted to “a conflict of generations within the modern movement and a clearly marked diversification of trends.”4
In Montreal, the “conflict of generations” revolved around two new “little magazines,” Preview and First Statement. The poets associated with Preview were the older generation, among them, F. R. Scott, A. M. Klein, P. K. Page, Neufville Shaw, and Patrick Anderson, its editor. A. J. M. Smith was no longer in Montreal, but his poetry and criticism continued to appear in Canada, and his ‘presence’ is clearly evident among the Preview poets. Wynne Francis has pointed out that by the 1940s several of them had gained considerable recognition, had published frequently both in Canada and the United States, and they were “comfortably established” in their professions. The poets associated with First Statement were younger and much less established. John Sutherland was the editor and primemover, with Layton and Dudek as co-editors. By January 1946, the two groups had officially merged to produce Northern Review, with Sutherland as managing editor and an editorial board carefully selected from both camps. In the sixth issue, Sutherland published his attack on Robert Finch's Poems, and this led to the mass resignation of the Preview poets from the editorial board, leaving the magazine in the hands of the former First Statement group. Nevertheless, many of the controversies continued to the end of the decade and into the 1950s, even though the Preview front had been dispersed. According to Wynne Francis, the conflict between the two groups “generated much of the poetic activity that went on in Montreal and made the ‘Forties Canada's most exciting literary decade.”5
One of Layton's first, and most revealing, contributions to First Statement was the essay “Politics and Poetry,” 1943.6 During the 1930s he had been contributing articles on European politics and social developments to The Failt-Ye Times, and in the early 1940s he was working on his thesis on Harold Laski. He could, with some credibility, present himself as au courant. “Politics and Poetry” purports to review recent poetry in England in relation to a new, buoyant mood in English society. Layton is delighted to report that “in politics and poetry, the present happenings in England are full of promise,” enlivened by an “intense intellectual ferment.” What particularly pleases him, however, is that there is currently a “well marked reaction” against “the triumvirate of Auden, Spender, and Lewis,” repudiating “both in theory and practice the conventions of the older group.” With a somewhat condescending magnanimity, Layton can acknowledge the stature of the Auden group during the 1930s—they were “diagnosticians and prophets” who “injected into their verse an urgency and a moral fervour that marked an important advance upon the poetry of the previous decade”—but with the outbreak of the war, “history took a sudden lurch forward,” and hence, “much of their poetry is no longer relevant.” Although their goal was worthy, and their achievements significant, they failed, mainly because they wrote as outsiders, out of “frustration”, alienated from the feelings and aspirations of their society. The crucial difference between the Auden group and the new generation of poets is that the former were “hostile to their society and rejected it” while the new generation “derives its main vigour from an identification with it.” They are still “on the side of the dispossessed,” but “for the doctrinaire Marxism of the thirties, they have substituted a willingness to observe and experiment.” Layton also welcomes the fact that under the new regime “clearness and intelligibility have been restored to English poetry.” He announces that the “clipped, tortuous style which has held English poetry in a straightjacket for over a decade has disappeared,” to be succeeded by a “personal, free-flowing, … more elastic and colourful” style.
Layton's exuberance and optimism are engaging, but as a review essay, or a survey of contemporary writing in England, “Politics and Poetry” is not very informative. Layton mentions only four poets, Alan Rook, H. R. Rodgers, M. J. Tambimittu, and Henry Treece. He quotes only a few lines by Alan Rook which convey at best a vague impression of the characteristic work of the period. Of the four poets, only Henry Treece seems to have had a major role in contemporary developments. But although Treece was a leading figure in the Apocalyptic movement and had, together with J. R. Hendry, edited The New Apocalypse (1939) and The White Horseman (1941), Layton mentions neither the movement nor the anthologies, nor any other prominent younger poets of the period like Nicholas Moore and G. S. Fraser. George Woodcock's anarchist literary journal Now began to appear in 1940, with poems by Alex Comfort, Roy Fuller, Kenneth Rexroth and Julian Symons, but Layton does not mention any of these. Neither does he mention Dylan Thomas. He does mention George Barker, but lumps him in with the older Auden generation. Moreover, Layton's exuberant view of developments in England was not sustained. The August, 1943 issue of First Statement that contained “Politics and Poetry” also carried his review of a collection of poems by James Edward Ward, which he contemptuously described as “ladling out a thin syrup” of “reassurance” to war-torn England.7 It is apparent that Layton's main purpose is not to present new work to a Canadian public, but to declare his own colours, and those of the First Statement group, using selected developments in England for support and rhetorical emphasis. Secondly, for all its ebullient chatter, “Politics and Poetry” begins to sound like a sharp polemic against the Preview poets. Layton's immediate point is that while the anglophile Preview poets were still self-consciously cultivating the attitudes and mannerisms of Eliot and Auden, in England itself these were already dated. The more important point is that this datedness betrays the fact that Preview poetry had not been shaped by the pressures of contemporary, personal experience.
Thus, whatever its faults as a review essay, “Politics and Poetry” illustrates Layton's own critical position during the 1940s, and his astute appraisal of some of the crucial issues confronting the poet. The 1940s in England, and also in the United States, saw two opposing developments: the establishment of English literary modernism in the universities and the academic journals, and its repudiation by the new generation of poets. In The Art of the Real, a detailed survey of poetry in England and America from 1939 to 1976, Eric Homberger claims that in the late 1940s, Eliot's reputation “was at its glorious zenith.”8 A brief survey of some important titles and their publication dates seems to illustrate this. The Four Quartets was published in 1943, and Notes Toward a Definition of Culture in 1948. F. O. Matthiessen's The Achievement of T. S. Eliot had been published in 1935, and it was followed in 1947 by a second revised and enlarged edition. Cleanth Brooks published Modern Poetry and the Tradition in 1939 and The Well Wrought Urn in 1947. T. S. Eliot: A Study of his Writings by Several Hands, edited by B. Rajan, appeared in 1947. Delmore Schwartz acclaimed “T. S. Eliot as the International Hero” in Partisan Review in the Spring of 1945. The Eliot-inspired New Criticism was not yet dominant in the universities, but the basic texts had been written. In addition to the two books by Cleanth Brooks cited above, the first edition of his and Robert Penn Warren's Understanding Poetry appeared in 1938; John Crowe Ransom's The New Criticism gave the movement its official name in 1941; and Wellek and Warren's Theory of Literature, 1949, would soon become something of a summa theologica.
Among practising poets in England, particularly among the younger poets, there was a different mood. Reviewing Oxford Poetry 1948, an anthology of new poetry, John Wain wrote:
Not one of these thirty-five poets seems anxious to write like Mr. Eliot. I had long suspected that the echo of his voice was growing fainter, and this proves it.9
There was indeed, as Layton had sensed, a reaction against Eliot during the 1940s, particularly among the Apocalyptics, and subsequently among the Personalists and New Romantics, two over-lapping movements that grew out of Apocalypse. The reaction to Eliot's impersonal classicism is immediately apparent in the names of the two later movements. Against Eliot's conservatism, they reasserted left-wing libertarian themes, often with a mixture of Marxism and anarchism. Against Eliot's “reactionary,” “defeatist,” “selective” and “sterile” view of life, the Apocalyptics, according to G. S. Fraser's introduction to The White Horseman, proclaimed “freedom and responsibility,” a “large accepting attitude to life,” and “completeness of response.” On a more formal level, the distance between the ‘pure’ poetry of early modernism and the more discursive poetry of the Apocalyptics is apparent when Fraser commends Henry Treece's work for its “ornamental beauty.”10
The reaction to the Auden group was at least as strong. Against their stark analytical poetry, the Apocalyptics reasserted the importance of the subconscious, the mythical and the numinous. Layton's comment that the poets of the forties had rejected the “doctrinaire Marxism of the thirties” is supported by G. S. Fraser's observation that “the group exhibits, generally speaking, a rather ruthless scepticism about political thought.” This, however, does not diminish the social function of their work: “if the poetry of the Auden generation had a certain immediate political and social value, the poetry of the Apocalyptics is likely to have a certain permanent clinical value for the human race.” Again, Layton seems to be making a similar point in “Politics and Poetry” when he reports that although the younger poets “believe intensely in the social function of the poet,” they have discovered that “life and culture, dream and action have coalesced” and they are searching for a social vision “broad enough to include the many facets of the human personality.” For Alex Comfort, “the importance of Auden to the present generation is in the assertion which he made that history is amenable to reason, and his discovery in experience that it is not.”11
Moreover, the 1930s group of Auden, Spender, MacNeice and C. Day Lewis was in complete disarray. Auden's about-face, from left-wing political poetry to a more private, meditative poetry, occurred around 1939-40. In the following year, 1941, he published his New Year Letter where he dismissed the old socialist causes as the “theory that failed”. With apparent regret, he concluded that “Art is not life and cannot be / A midwife to society.” MacNeice, Spender, and C. Day Lewis each made a similar about-face, if not as dramatically as Auden. Now that they themselves had undermined the urgency and validity of their earlier convictions, their work appeared bereft of all but its cleverness. It now seemed that, in the turbulent years between the two wars, the presumed guardians of the moral vision of western culture had trifled with their responsibilities. In The Nation (May 18, 1940), Archibald MacLeish attacked the intellectuals of both the 1920s and the 1930s as “The Irresponsibles,” for their failure to meet the threats to western culture from the extremes of the left and the right.
Thus, neither the dispersed Auden group nor the older culturally entrenched modernists like Eliot and Pound could offer compelling leadership to the younger poets, “born into one war and fattened for another.”12 This was the position of a range of groups, from Twentieth Century Verse (which included Woodcock) to Apocalypse and Surrealism. Looking back on the 1940s in a recent lecture, Roy Fuller recalled that “one disapproved of the public school and university chumminess that sometimes accompanied the left-wing poetry. … One was searching, hopelessly it seems now, for a poetry with impeccable political orientation, yet as rich and free as the great English poetry of the past.”13
If the younger poets in England found the legacies of early modernism and early Audenism at best ambiguous, in Canada the ambiguities had developed in a distinctive context. A. J. M. Smith's early criticism was decidedly engagé. His 1928 polemic, “Wanted—Canadian Criticism,” could have been heartily endorsed by the First Statement poets:
The Canadian writer must put up a fight for freedom in the choice and treatment of his subject. Nowhere is puritanism more disastrously prohibitive than among us, and it seems, indeed, that desperate methods and dangerous remedies must be resorted to, that our condition will not improve until we have been thoroughly shocked by the appearance in our midst of a work of art that is at once successful and obscene. Of realism we are afraid—apparently because there is an impression that it wishes to discredit the picture of our great dominion as a country where all the women are chaste and the men too pure to touch them if they weren't. Irony is not understood. Cynicism is felt to be disrespectful, unmanly.
In the “Rejected Preface to New Provinces” (1936), Smith declared:
Capitalism can hardly be expected to survive the cataclysm its most interested adherents are blindly steering towards, and the artist who is concerned with the most intense of experiences must be concerned with the world situation in which, whether he likes it or not, he finds himself. For the moment at least he has something more important to do than to record his private emotions.
It was Smith, not Layton, who first, in 1942, attacked a “bias in favour of gentility” in Canadian poetry and criticism. In 1944, he held up “local realism” as an effective antidote to colonialism, to “a spirit that gratefully accepts a place of subordination, that looks elsewhere for its standards of excellence and is content to imitate with a modest and timid conservatism the products of a parent tradition.”14 Smith's progress, however, seems to represent an anomaly. In the course of the 1930s and 1940s, he moved steadily toward an aloof, “pure,” Anglo-Catholic aestheticism while modernism elsewhere moved toward the impure social realism he seemed to endorse in the 1920s.
From the perspective of First Statement, the development of modern poetry in Canada appears somewhat differently. In the mid 1920s, when modernism came to Canada, it was already an evolved modernism, refined and reformulated by a generation of poets and critics.15 By the 1940s its basic tenets had acquired an almost canonical status and the First Statement poets clearly felt constrained by them. Louis Dudek, in a 1959 essay, located the “transition” to modernism in the pessimism and “negation” of poets like Robert Service, Drummond and Pratt, in the Period between 1900 and 1925. In contrast to Carman and Roberts, they had confronted the blind, impersonal cruelty of man and nature. The “direct inheritor” of Pratt is Earle Birney, more pessimistic, more laconic, “but more laconic still, so allusive in fact that the intellectual premises now remain unstated, the dry austere poems of F. R. Scott and A. J. M. Smith are the first small bitter fruit of the tree of modernism in Canada.” Scott's “eternal lifeless processes,” as in his poem “Old Song,” are, for Dudek, the “clue” to the constricted metaphysics of the early modernists. The task confronting the next generation of poets was “to break through the zero point of negation (the prickly pear of the Hollow Men) toward some passionate rediscovery of a visionary, or a rational, or a sensuous affirmation of larger life.”16
Sutherland's opposition to Eliotic, nature morte modernism became most strident in his later criticism, for example, in “The Great Equestrians” and “A Note on Roy Campbell,” but it is also evident in his earlier work. His criticism of P. K. Page, 1947, virtually denied that her poetry offered new insights into contemporary society or modern psychology; instead, Sutherland emphasized the distortions of reality effected by her “mole's-eye view of the world.”:
The glitter, the flippancy, and dash indicate in her case a self-consciousness unaccompanied by intellect or even sophistication. Ideas simply help her to locate her poetry in space and time.
In contrast, Sutherland found Earle Birney's early poetry both more spacious and more honest. “David,” he maintained, has “a warmth and intimacy and a personal note.” Unlike the cultivated mannerisms of P. K. Page, Birney's style “as an expression of something basic in the author's mind and personality.” It is inclusive rather than restrictive when it confronts the complexities of modern life: “Space and air are admitted into our contracted modernist poetry.” Similarly Sutherland's early admiration for Pratt is summoned by his spaciousness and energy, in contrast to “the modern poet, shivering in the solitude of himself.” Pratt “severs the last connection with our Canadian nightingales, but he vaults right out of the contemporary scene.”17 Ironically, therefore, the poets whom Smith had placed in the “native tradition”, including Pratt, Birney, Livesay, and now the First Statement group, seemed, in spite of their nationalism or regionalism, or alleged parochialism, able to accommodate a wider range of contemporary experience in their poetic visions, and infuse their work with a sense of spaciousness, energy, and urgency. The “cosmopolitans”, soaking up eclectic international influences, nevertheless seemed to remain confined, restricted to a relatively narrow line of modern experience and expression. There was clearly a social-realist basis to Layton's, Dudek's and Sutherland's attacks on the cosmopolitans, but the purpose of realism was not exactly to bring poetry down from some supposed height, to restrict it to “native” issues and landscapes, but to release it, to open it up to wider possibilities than those of the modern waste land.
Moreover, the differences between Preview and First Statement were hardly ideological. In “Montreal Poets of the Forties,” Wynne Francis makes the apt observation that the political differences between Preview and First Statement, as far as doctrine was concerned, were minimal:
Both groups, for instance, were politically conscious. The Preview poets were more doctrinaire, and more markedly committed to the Left in varying degrees. Many of them displayed strong sympathies with a continental communism of the Auden-Spender-MacNeice variety. Anderson's orientation was for a time thoroughly Marxist; and Scott was committed to the less revolutionary socialist ideals of the C.C.F. Much of the poetry that appeared in Preview had a clear political intention and a strong Leftist flavour.18
Similarly, Miriam Waddington recalls that when she first met Sutherland, he was, under the influence of Layton, “trying half-heartedly to become a Marxist.”19 The First Statement attack upon the Preview poets focussed not upon their politics but upon their alien, and alienating, ‘pose’ and mannerisms, their agonies of cultural deprivation, and their allegedly fastidious integrity.
In “Politics and Poetry” Layton seized upon a renewed interest in romanticism that promised to reinstate both the primacy of the poet's personal experience and his status as unacknowledged legislator. He was pleased to find among the new generation of English poets an “emphasis upon personality” which “directly contradicts the arid intellectualism of the earlier poets.” Layton triumphantly declared that “the note of individualism which T. E. Hulme and Eliot thought they had banished forever has crept back into English poetry.” He compared the contemporary mood to that which produced the surge of poetic activity at the beginning of the nineteenth century: “Just as the French Revolution of 1789 produced the romantic movement of the last century so, I suggest, the resurgence of a democratic élan is creating a new romanticism.” But it is a somewhat chastened romanticism:
Men have begun to dream again, but this time with only one eye shut: the other eye is carefully focussed on the doings of their rulers. Romanticism, yes, but within the context of the machine age and power politics.
During the 1940s there did occur a spirited attempt to rehabilitate romanticism. T. E. Hulme in Speculations (published in 1924), Eliot in the Criterion (which folded in 1939) and in After Strange Gods (1936), and Auden after his conversion to orthodoxy, were all explicitly hostile to romanticism. All seemed to identify it with demagoguery or barbarism of one sort or another. A similar hostility is evident among academic critics as various as the New Critic Cleanth Brooks, the neo-humanist Irving Babbitt, the Marxist Christopher Caudwell, and the neo-classicist Yvor Winters. This prevailing hostility was increasingly questioned during the 1940s.
The leading apologist for romanticism was undoubtedly Herbert Read, who, as an older, established poet/critic, was one of the most influential champions of the work of the younger poets, particularly the Apocalyptics. Already in 1936 Read had published his introduction to Surrealism, entitled “Surrealism and the Romantic Principle.” He attacked classicism as a “contradiction of the creative impulse,” aligned with “the forces of oppression,” “the intellectual counterpart of political tyranny,” whereas the romantic spirit represented “a principle of life, of creation, of liberation.”20 Richard H. Fogle, in “Romantic Bards and Metaphysical Reviewers,” 1945, demonstrated that romantic poetry could also be defended on formal grounds, provided the New Critic could shake off some of his biases.21 Alex Comfort, in “The Ideology of Romanticism”, 1946, attacked the neo-classicists for their “loss of nerve,” for turning aside from the harsher aspects of reality. It was romanticism, not classicism, he argued, that confronted barbarism and held it at bay. Against the popular notion that the romantic artist pursues his personal vision in isolation from the rest of mankind and from the real world, Comfort argued that romanticism was founded on the principle of “the community of the artist with his fellow men.” It was rather classicism, founded on the principle of a literary elite, that cut the poet off from his fellow men. Romanticism provides “voices for all those who have not voices,” but it is more realistic than either Christianity or Marxism in that it promises no eventual utopia, no final triumph of the forces of light over darkness, only a continuing struggle.22 Thus, romanticism was acquitted of the charge that it merely indulged in dreamworld fantasies, and secondly, that it tended toward an excessive, anti-social egomania that must constantly be kept in check by moderate, rational norms.
For Layton, this new enthusiasm for romanticism liberated the poetic personality. It also demanded a morally and politically committed poetry that would be informed by Marxism and a realistic social understanding, but reach beyond that to draw on the authority and vision of masters like Blake, Byron and Heine. Whether or not Layton read specifically the work of Fogle or Comfort is not the point (although he did read Herbert Read with approval).23 Either by erudition or intuition, or a combination of both, Layton was acutely aware of a shift occurring in poetry and criticism in the 1940s, and instinctively attuned to it, quick to find support for his own convictions, and to define his own convictions more sharply in relation to the new “ferment.”
Another feature of “Politics and Poetry” is Layton's emphasis upon the importance of an audience. He announced that the “dessicated coteries” of the 1930s had been dissolved, and quoted with approval an essay by H. L. Senior: “We do not want any more coteries of conceited young men writing little notes to each other disguised as reviews, and calling attention to a widespread influence that reaches no further than the points of their pens.” The young poets, Layton maintained, had regained “the lost sense of community”:
They feel, rightly so, that they have an audience, and they want passionately to be understood by it. This fact of an audience, if I mistake not, is one of the chief reasons for the difference in poetic technique between the two generations. The older generation never had one, not at least, in any vital sense that mattered.
The question of an audience for poetry was a subject of continuing controversy between Preview and First Statement. In the March, 1943 editorial, Sutherland stated that the purpose of a literary magazine was to draw a “close connection … between the writers and the people.” In another editorial a few weeks later, Sutherland challenged the Preview group to harness their “potential energies” to produce “a magazine for readers instead of one important chiefly to writers.” In No. 20, the first printed issue, Sutherland explained that First Statement
is not produced exclusively by a group of writers. Apparently the danger in Canada of producing the work of a special group lies in the fact that such work will reach only a special audience. School teachers and librarians and critics are valuable readers, but the writing should not be of such a kind as to exclude the general public. In expanding First Statement we are hoping to reach a few more average citizens than has been possible hitherto.
In the following spring, in April, 1944, Sutherland insisted that “if the Canadian writer has any duty today, it is the duty of helping to secure a responsive audience in this country.”24
Layton was equally committed to establishing an audience for poetry, but the emphasis upon clarity and the audience that he ascribes to the young English poets in “Politics and Poetry” is difficult to corroborate from other sources. Here too Layton's essay is better read as a polemic against Preview than as an informative survey of developments in England, particularly with regard to the Apocalyptics whom Layton seems to be endorsing. G. S. Fraser frankly concedes, in his introduction to The White Horseman, that “the poets represented in this volume are, perhaps, not likely to have the same immediate popularity as the generation of Auden, Spender and MacNeice.” “They have less sense of … an audience.” Fraser also acknowledges “the obscurity of our poetry, its air of something desperately snatched from dream or woven round a chime of words.” He insists that the obscurity is the result of “disintegration” in society, a valid point perhaps, but not one that the First Statement poets could entirely endorse.25
If the difference in their emphasis upon an audience indicates how limited any alignment between First Statement and the Apocalyptics must be, the limits become even more apparent with regard to Dylan Thomas. Although Thomas himself maintained some distance from the movement, the Apocalyptics ranked him prominently among their number. His work appeared in the Apocalypse anthologies, and contemporary reviewers like Scarfe and Orwell certainly included him in the group.26 One might expect that Layton would champion his poetry. He was certainly no “tame” poet like Eliot or Auden. Compared to the discrete classicists, Thomas appeared an exuberant romantic bard, celebrating the cycle of birth and death in rich, rhapsodic language. However, Layton does not mention Thomas in his criticism during the 1940s. His work was well known in Canada—it was admired and imitated by Patrick Anderson and others of the Preview group. In fact, Sutherland counted Thomas, and also George Barker, among the unfortunate influences upon Preview. In “A Note on Metaphor”, 1944, Sutherland attacked Thomas as a “surrealist”, obsessed by the formal possibilities of metaphor to the point that all “content” is squeezed out of his poetry. Instead of illuminating reality, Thomas uses metaphor “to obscure realities that he finds unpleasant”.27
Again, it is apparent that Layton was reporting developments in England very selectively in order to proclaim his own view of First Statement poetics against those of the rival Preview group. He implies that the Preview poets failed to realize the social pressures that had shaped the poetry they so fastidiously imitated, or to grasp the conflicting poetics of those whose language and mannerisms they had eclectically adopted. When Layton later reviewed Patrick Anderson's collection of poems, The Colour as Naked (1953), it is this uncritical eclecticism that he attacks.28 There is no quarrel with Anderson's technical proficiency; “everything is here, considerable talent, a sensitive ear, ambition.” Neither is there a quarrel because Anderson has switched his allegiance to less worthy masters. The “borrowings” that Layton specifically identifies include Auden, Rilke and Dylan Thomas. Layton allows that the borrowings are resourceful, some of them even “clever and exciting.” There also seems to be no quarrel with Anderson's political position; he has “doffed his Marxism,” but his Marxism was never “anything more than a clothes-hanger.” What irritates Layton is that he “has really nothing to say.” His poems “lack a central urgency” and any sense of “spontaneous and genuine feeling.” Consequently, there is only weariness, a “flanneled ease,” “fastidious boredom,” and a distinct datedness. His images, from whatever source they are borrowed, seem “all as fresh as last year's eggs.” Layton's point is that only the persistence of the poet's experience can infuse a poem with vitality and immediacy, can invest it with creative authority. Failing that, poetry is necessarily stale and dated, no matter how au courant the poet may be.
Layton himself was eclectic and resourceful enough to learn something from almost anyone, and he doubtless did learn from the Apocalyptics and other groups of the 1940s. His ability to combine moral outrage with myth and fantasy, often surrealist fantasy, would not have been out of place in an Apocalypse anthology, although the force of his rhetoric, the range of his humour, and the precision of his imagery may have stood out. Layton did find a temporary alignment with the Apocalyptics useful, but it would be very easy to overstate their lasting influence upon his work. If he needed any instruction in a socially committed poetry charged with rich, sensuous romantic language, there were immediate influences at hand, namely A. M. Klein.
By the mid 1950s, the anti-Eliot, anti-Auden “ferment” in England—that Layton had acclaimed in “Politics and Poetry”—had soured into the rather astringent doctrines of “The Movement”. Among the more prominent poets and critics who became identified with The Movement were Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Anthony Twaite, and Robert Conquest. They were directly opposed to the “romantic excesses” of the Apocalyptics, but they also had their own quarrel with the 1920s and 1930s. However, if the Apocalyptics had reacted primarily against the Auden group and less strenuously against the earlier modernists (D. H. Lawrence and W. B. Yeats were two modernists whom several of the Apocalyptics continued to honour), the Movement poets reacted primarily against the modernists. They reacted against the aloof, cryptic, esoteric poetry of Yeats, Eliot and Pound, against their impossible cultural ideals—particularly when these had often proved remarkably hospitable to fascism, and against their self-consciously difficult, broken syntax. In Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), Donald Davie argued that “one cannot avoid the fact that the poet's churches are empty, and the strong suspicion that dislocation of syntax has much to do with it.” Furthermore, he declared that “the development from imagism in poetry to fascism in politics is clear and unbroken.” According to Philip Larkin, the modernists were guilty of “irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it.” In his poem “Against Romanticism,” Kingsley Amis pleaded, “Let us make at least visions that we need.”29 The immediate targets of the poem are the Apocalyptics or New-Romantics, but the early modernists are also implicated. Thus, for the poets of the 1950s, their duty was to “close the gap between personal vision and public concerns.”30
Much of this Layton could have endorsed as readily as any of the tenets of Apocalypse. He would have been sympathetic to the Movement's emphasis upon “authentic syntax,” rational discourse, and intellectual responsibility. Layton would not allow his readers to forget that the austere moral and aesthetic revulsion of the modernists, delivered from their lofty cultural towers, had been helpless against contemporary political forces. In “Let's Win the Peace” (1944), Layton is contemptuous of the “moral revulsion” of the “decent, virtuous people everywhere” when they contemplate their recent history, or disturbing omens of the future: “They mistake their own shudderings for political realities.” He concludes that “moral intuitions are futile, in fact dangerous, when unsupported by a wisdom which makes provision for their successful expression.”31 This statement is not explicitly applied to the modernists, but it illustrates Layton's conviction that while they may have been acutely perceptive of the moral diseases of their age, they seemed unable or unwilling to render their perceptions in terms amenable to social or political action—they lacked “a wisdom which makes provision for their successful [social] expression.”
The characteristic image of the poet that emerged from Layton's criticism during the 1940s was a good deal less exalted than that associated with the great moderns such as Yeats and Rilke. For Layton, the contemporary poet demanded to be regarded not as a lofty sage concerned only with the eternal verities, but “as an intelligent contemporary speaking of the things that matter to us all.” In reply to an adverse review of some of the poems he had published in First Statement, Layton wrote: “My parents were both sturdy pioneers in this country and never let an occasion go by to inculcate in their children the virtues of thrift and self-reliance. … As for myself I pay my income taxes regularly.”32 Layton's tongue is in his cheek, but this 1940s image of the poet as responsible citizen had a timely polemical purpose.
All of this suggests that Layton should have welcomed the arrival of the Movement in the 1950s. However, Layton's image of the poet became increasingly unruly, while the Movement doctrines of authentic syntax, rational discourse and social responsibility dwindled to a programme calling for moderation, good taste, common sense, and enlightened liberalism. Patrick Swinden describes the characteristic work of the 1950s as a poetry of the “centre”.33 He means a poetry of the political centre, but also a poetry of the emotional and social centre, a middle-class poetry that avoided extreme opinions and extreme emotions, a “safe” poetry. There occurred a definite “lowering of expectations” during the 1950s, a sense of having been betrayed by all that ‘great’ poetry of the preceding decades, and a consequent resolve to make do with more conventional sentiments expressed in conventional forms. Eric Homberger finds the predominant note of the decade is one of “sadness and nostalgia, a positively hangdog tone of regret.”34 It is not that there is a retreat from the world of politics and social issues, but that these subjects are dealt with in the language of polite concern, with little sense of urgency. It was Robert Conquest's anthology New Lines, 1956, that first put all the Movement poets “between the same covers.”35 Swinden suggests that Conquest himself, as a poet and also a “celebrated commentator on Soviet affairs,” represents the idea of the Movement, “an intelligent and cultivated man whose liberal, elitist temperament is well suited to that ambiance of taste and reasonableness which is held to be the proper domain of poetry writer and poetry reader alike.”36
The Movement poets were scornful of the traumas and vague yearnings of the Apocalyptics, and disenchanted with the strenuous intellectual probing of the modernists and the 1930s leftists; they seemed prepared to forego greatness, to settle for minor achievements. Kingsley Amis's poem, “Against Romanticism” is not a manifesto but a kind of ‘position paper’. It favours “useful” visions, however “pallid”, not the exalted, mystical visions of the New Romantics and early moderns. Instead of a “swooning wilderness” or a landscape parched by “frantic suns”, it prefers a “temperate zone”, “the grass cut”, and “roads that please the foot”. Instead of the stentorian commands “of a rout of gods,” it prefers words that cannot “force a single glance.” And instead of ominous warnings that dark forces lurk in the subconscious, it prefers “woods devoid of beasts” and a sky “clean of officious birds.”37 Graham Hough, a polemicist and critic for the Movement, expressed with revealing candour the diminished, and demeaned, role of poetry that became characteristic of the 1950s:
Admitting that we live in a bad time, that none except the very old have ever known a good one, we must admit that the isolation of the poet is perhaps his only salvation. The fact that poetry is not of the slightest economic or political importance, that it has no attachment to any of the powers that control the modern world, may set it free to do the only thing that in this age it can do—to keep some neglected parts of the human experience alive until the weather changes; as in some unforeseeable way it may do.38
Herbert Read, who had championed the young poets of the 1940s, found these developments much less acceptable. In his essay, “The Drift of Modern Poetry” (1955), he accused the English poets of “a failure of nerve”:
English culture in the last few years—in reaction, maybe, to shifts of world power—has become much more self-protectively insular. The bright young men no longer read Kierkegaard, Kafka, Sartre, and what have you, but rediscover Bagehot, George Gissing, ‘Mark Rutherford’, or Arnold Bennett.39
Layton does not explicitly attack the Movement in his criticism in the 1950s; rather, in contrast to his boosterism in “Politics and Poetry,” he becomes contemptuous of all things English. In the “Prologue” to The Long Pea-Shooter, his harshest criticism is of Douglas Le Pan whose special talent is to
Express in words vacuous and quaint The cultured Englishman's complaint That decency is never sovereign, That reason ought to, but doesn't govern— That maids have holes and men must find them (Alas, that Nature WILL so blind them!)
In a letter to The Canadian Forum, in reply to a Mr. Christopher of Ile Bigras, Layton rails against “Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy,” and contends that the Anglo-Saxon is simply “not at home in the world of art.” In another letter, a few months later, he claims Herbert Read as an ally against the “inartistic Anglo-Saxon.”40 “Anglo” and “English” become identified with a cultivated duplicity that pretends to a high-minded concern for justice, culture, and art, yet finds moral fervour, emotional intensity or indignation in poor taste. Developments in English poetry and society were more varied and complex than the narrow image Layton presented, but again his target was English Canada, where precisely that narrow image seemed to be held in servile reverence.
In Canada, the 1950s witnessed “a shift in interest and regional focus, … ultimately, a major shift in critical direction.” The “highly concentrated and localized activity” of the 1940s was dispersed, and the centre shifted from Montreal to Toronto.41 Some of the names that became more prominent were Roy Daniells, Phyllis Webb, George Whalley, Wilfred Watson, Douglas Le Pan, D. G. Jones, James Reaney and Jay Macpherson. Looking back over the decade in 1961, Desmond Pacey found it had been “dominated” by the “mythopoeic school.” In “English-Canadian Poetry, 1944-1954,” he observed that most of the poets were professors, they seemed to write with “less conviction” than the older poets of the 1940s, and that “vulgarity” rather than social injustice inspired whatever outrage they could muster.42
The fact that the mythopoeic poets of the 1950s are closely associated with Toronto and Northrop Frye may disguise the strong influence of the Movement upon them. Many of them shared the Movement preference for traditional forms and syntax, but the influence went beyond that to similarities in pose, or their assumed social position and function. Paul West, for example, has noted that Jay Macpherson appears rather like a “transatlantic Elizabeth Jennings, composing hermetic paradigms” or “cerebral riddles in the manner of the English ‘Movement’.” During the 1950s, Frye himself has much in common with the Movement critics. When he praised George Johnston (The Cruising Auk) for domesticating the “age of anxiety,” and for his “controlled portrayal of the ineffectual,” he was praising Movement virtues. Johnston may have other virtues, but they were not apparent, or important, to Frye when he wrote his review.43 In fact, except for his reviews of Pratt's poetry, there is not a great deal of evidence of the mythopoeic critic in Frye's “Letters in Canada.” The interest is in topography rather than myth; but in either case, the Movement critic predominates.
By 1951, Layton had joined Dudek and Souster at Contact Press and this re-group now constituted the main opposition to the Movement influence upon Canadian poets. In “Patterns of Recent Canadian Poetry,” Dudek argues that the “English Traditionalists” are the “most intelligent” of the new poets, “well-bred, inner-directed gentlemen,” but they represent “formidable hostile forces to the troops of the young who want to write with radical new energy, with negative intent.”44 Dudek specifically contrasts the “idealism” of the social-realist poets of the forties with the “political and moral disillusionment” of “Les Jeunes of Today.” The former group, out of a sense of frustrated idealism, wrote “angry poetry (unlike the Angry Young Men)”, but their idealism nevertheless gave their work “moral and emotional coherence,” “created a spirit of confidence,” and they “established the test of poetry as its total effect, even its pragmatic effect.” The “predicament” of the 1950s is that the younger poets are “not even capable of social anger.” Theirs is a sardonic, bitter realism “without any utopian idealism to support it.” In another essay, “The Transition in Canadian Poetry,” 1959, Dudek maintained that the contemporary poets are merely “foddering at the mid-century on the stored achievement of our recent predecessors.” The 1950s represent the “Victorian stage” of modern poetry, where the poets are merely “exploiting methods already tested and proved good.” Instead of striving for new breakthroughs, as their modern predecessors had done, the contemporary poets are content to live on the “quick wealth” of their “nouveau riche parents.”45
When Layton, Dudek and Souster turned to contemporary American poetry for relief, they were certainly attracted by the more freewheeling, energetic realism of some of the American poets. They identified, or identified with, a tradition of modern realism in opposition to the modernism of Eliot and Auden, and, among the younger poets, they sensed a determination to experiment and probe. The key figure was William Carlos Williams. Against Eliot's and Pound's cosmopolitanism, Williams had maintained a close identification with “deep-seated American ideals.” Throughout the 1930s and 1940s he had opposed symbolism and the influence of Eliot's “Waste Land.” In his autobiography he maintained that the appearance of “The Waste Land” had
wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it. … I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years. … Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape. … I knew at once that in certain ways I was most defeated.
He had called for “enlarged technical means,” not simply for the sake of virtuosity but in order to “liberate the possibilities of depicting reality in a modern world, … in order to be able to feel more.” According to Karl Shapiro, “the radical difference between Williams and, say, Eliot, is that Williams divorces poetry from ‘culture’, or tries to.” Against Eliot's principle of impersonal poetry, Williams “has been dedicated to the struggle to preserve spontaneity and immediacy of experience.”46
It was undoubtedly Raymond Souster who became the most ardent, and through Contact magazine, the most influential apologist for the newer American techniques. In his “Preface” to Cerberus he states his dissatisfaction with “existing forms,” and makes the claim that Olson's theory of Composition by Field “may well start a revolution in English poetry.” Dudek regarded Olson as an “experimenter” on the “frontier” of language, and thought it important to keep “our lines of communication with him wide open.” As a poet, Olson was “one of the most energetic, and verbally gifted, of the new voices in poetry,” but Dudek also found a good deal of nonsensical primitivism and “self-analytical sentimental ‘buzzing’.” Dudek's mentors were Pound and Williams, and he seemed to regard them as sufficient guides for the exploration of new techniques.47
However, American poetry was by no means free of astringent formalism, and neither Layton nor Dudek were uncritical in their acclaim. It was a period of apparent prosperity, of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and super-market consumption, and it seemed to leave poetry on the fringes. Poets turned to more private themes and devoted their energies to technique. Richard Wilbur argued that “the relation between an artist and reality is always an oblique one, and indeed there is no good art which is not oblique.” He allows that poets may be “intelligent men, and they are entitled to their thoughts, but intellectual pioneering, and the construction of new thought-systems, is not their special function.” Marius Bewley was weary of the “older hackneyed emphasis on experimentalism;” he preferred the current “taste for complicated metrical forms;” but even he regretted that often the poet became merely a “verbal engineer.” According to Martin Duberman, the Black Mountain community was “monkishly indifferent to the world outside.” Olson “put down political involvement as wasted effort.” To William Carlos Williams, the younger poets were a disappointment. In “On Measure—Statement for Cid Corman,” he wrote:
If men do not find in the verse they are called on to read a construction that interests them or that they believe in, they will not read your verses and I, for one, do not blame them. What will they find there that is worth bothering about? So, I understand, the young men of my generation are going back to Pope. Let them. They want to be read at least with some understanding of what they are saying and Pope is at least understandable; a good master. They have been besides scared by all the wild experimentation that preceded them so that now they want to play it safe and to conform.48
If this is at all an accurate account of the state of poetry and criticism in the United States during the 1950s, Layton's, Dudek's and Souster's courtship of their American contemporaries seems a little odd. Again it is apparent that they ‘read into’ American poetry the qualities they admired, and then used the Americans in their polemics against the genteel Canadian formalists. Significantly, when Dudek wrote for a more international audience he was much more critical of the Americans than he was in Contact or Culture. For example, in Origin 1956, he dismissed “the best poetry of our time” as “unbearably bad.” It is “void of interest or utility for the reader; it concerns only the poet himself, it is a subject for self-display or self-analysis; at best, an ironic picture of the ‘intellectual’ in a hostile environment.” It is “anything but well-aimed speech; anything but words that teach; anything but conviction; anything but a guide to action.”49
The lengths Layton was prepared to go to assert the function of poetry as “a guide to action” is apparent in his essay, “Shaw, Pound and Poetry”, which appeared in the seventh issue of CIV/n, 1954.50 It is a rather astonishing essay. It seems strange that the late-Victorian, Fenian Shaw and the arch-modern, Social-Credit Pound should be so closely coupled, but for Layton they are both exemplary writers who understood and boldly attacked a corrupt society, and they attacked it where it mattered—in its economic foundations. Layton acclaims a “realism and fundamental sanity in both, springing … from their awareness of money's role in contemporary life; in both, a demonic restlessness and irritability, artists to the fingertips.” Layton is amazingly tolerant, or dismissive, of their ideological affiliations. They “both embraced Mussolini,” but that was because “they were fed up to the gills with liberal pluto democracies that put forward shekel-chasing as the noblest purpose of man.” Layton is quite prepared to “forget their temporary love-affair with Mussolini and Italian Fascism,” and equally quick to dismiss “Pound's Gesellism” and Shaw's “rigid egalitarianism” as “so much blah.” Neither Pound nor Shaw were ever to get off quite so easily again in Layton's criticism. The language and the basic argument of the essay are Marxist, but the point is that whether the writer's ideology tends to the left or the right, he must make himself felt as a threat to the established political and economic powers. Conversely, it is the failure of the contemporary poets to make themselves ‘felt’ that earns them Layton's scorn:
With Shaw dead and Pound a certified madman, the American and English bourgeoisie can sleep more soundly. They have nothing to fear from the delicate poets who have no searching economic questions to ask, or the convertees multiplying like black flies on the maggoty corpse of a plutocratic culture. The rebel of yesterday has withdrawn into the safe folds of sanctimoniousness, retreat is labelled wisdom, resignation Christian charity.
In 1979, Layton reminded his interviewer, Tom Henighan, that he “was once adopted as the white-haired boychick by the Black Mountain boys.”51 He declined the honour. Of the three poets, Layton, Dudek and Souster, Layton was the least attracted either to Black Mountain or to the later work of William Carlos Williams. However, as Layton had ‘used’ the poetics of the Apocalyptics in the 1940s to attack the older Preview poets, so he now ‘used’ the poetics of Williams, Olson, Duncan, Creeley, and Black Mountain to attack what seemed to him the conventional sterilities of the Movement-influenced “mythopoeic” poets of the 1950s. But again, he formed no more lasting alliance with Black Mountain than he had with Apocalypse. No sooner had Contact and Tish established a base for Black Mountain poetics in Canada than Layton shifted his critical position. Such shifts became an established pattern in subsequent decades—with respect to the Beats, the neo-primitivists, the post-modernists, and others. What remained consistent was his conviction that poetry must function at the centre of both public and private life, and his vigilance against any attempt to move it toward a social, or cultural, or intellectual periphery. Almost all of his statements on poets, poetry and the poetic process have been uttered in the heat of controversy. Abstracted from their contexts, his critical statements can appear contradictory, simplistic, wildly romantic, or even blandly platitudinous. But in the contexts of shifting conflicts, of movements and counter-movements, they often appear timely, incisive, and scrupulously poised.
“Introduction,” Poets and Critics (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. ix-x.
“Introduction,” Irving Layton: The Poet and his Critics (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978), p. 15.
“Introduction,” Contexts of Canadian Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 16.
Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski, eds., The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1967), p. 45.
Wynne Francis, “Montreal Poets of the Forties,” Canadian Literature, 14 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 23-25.
Reprinted in Engagements: The Prose of Irving Layton, ed. Seymour Mayne (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), pp. 9-13.
Reprinted in Taking Sides: The Collected Social and Political Writings, ed. Howard Aster (Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1977), p. 43.
Eric Homberger, The Art of the Real (Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1977), p. 69.
John Wain, “Oxford and After,” Outposts, no. 13 (Spring 1949), pp. 21-23.
G. S. Fraser, “Apocalypse in Poetry,” in The White Horseman: Prose and Verse of the New Apocalypse, eds. J. F. Hendry and Henry Treece (London: Routledge & Sons, 1941), pp. 6-8 and 21. Other contemporary sources are Francis Scarfe, Auden and After: the Liberation of Poetry 1930-1941 (London: Routledge & Sons, 1942); Henry Treece How I See Apocalypse (London: Lindsay Drummond, 1946); and Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece, eds., A New Romantic Anthology (London: Grey Walls Press, 1949). A recent study is Arthur Edward Salmon, Poets of the Apocalypse (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983).
Alex Comfort, “An Exposition of Irresponsibility,” in A New Romantic Anthology, p. 32.
Francis Scarfe, Auden and After, p. xiii.
Roy Fuller, Professors and Gods: Last Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: Andre Deutsch, 1973), p. 147.
A. J. M. Smith, Towards a View of Canadian Letters (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1971), pp. 169, 173, and 34; also On Poetry and Poets (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977), p. 10.
The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, ed. Dudek and Gnarowski, is still the most indispensable source for an understanding of the subject. Other important sources are Frank Davey, Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1980); and Kenneth Norris, “The Role of the Little Magazine in The Development of Modernism and Post-Modernism in Canadian Poetry,” Diss. McGill University, 1980.
Louis Dudek, “The Transition in Canadian Poetry,” in Selected Essays and Criticism (Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1978), pp. 124-133.
See John Sutherland, Essays, Controversies and Poems, ed. Miriam Waddington (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971), pp. 76-84, 95-96, 106, and 166; also “A Note on Roy Campbell,” Northern Review, vol. 6, no. 1 (April-May, 1953), pp. 17-20.
Wynne Francis, “Montreal Poetry of the Forties,” p. 26.
“Introduction” to Essays, Controversies and Poems, p. 8.
Herbert Read, “Surrealism and the Romantic Principle,” in Romanticism: Points of View, eds. Robert F. Gleckner and Gerald E. Enscoe, second edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970), pp. 97-98.
See Romanticism: Points of View, pp. 149-164.
See Romanticism: Points of View, pp. 165-180.
See Engagements, p. 163.
See John Sutherland, Essays, Controversies and Poems, pp. 23-33.
The White Horseman, pp. 24, 27, and 30.
See Scarfe, Auden and After, p. 160; and George Orwell, “The Dark Horse of the Apocalypse” in Life and Letters Today, 25 (June, 1940), p. 315.
“A Note on Metaphor,” in Essays, Controversies and Poems, pp. 38-39. See also “The Past Decade in Canadian Poetry” and “Literary Colonialism,” pp. 72 and 32.
Engagements, pp. 33-34.
Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), p. 97; Philip Larkin, “Introduction to All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961-1968” (London: Faber and Faber, 1970) p. 17; and Kingsley Amis, “Against Romanticism,” A Case of Samples (London: Victor Gollancz, 1956), p. 31.
Michael Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), p. 263.
Engagements, pp. 16-17.
Letter, First Statement (April 2, 1943), in Engagements, p. 153.
Patrick Swinden, “English Poetry”, in The Twentieth-Century Mind, vol. 3 (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 390-391.
The Art of the Real, p. 70.
Philip Larkin, Interview with Ian Hamilton, in Twentieth-Century Poetry: Critical Essays and Documents, eds. Graham Martin and P. N. Furbank (London: Open University Press, 1975), p. 244.
Swinden, “English Poetry”, p. 386.
Kingsley Amis, “Against Romanticism”, A Case of Samples (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1956), p. 31. Quoted by Patrick Swinden, “English Poetry”, pp. 387-388.
Graham Hough, “The Modernist Lyric” in Image and Experience: Studies in a Literary Revolution (London: Duckworth, 1960), reprinted in Modernism 1890-1930 eds. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1976), pp. 312-322.
Herbert Read, “The Drift of Modern Poetry”, Encounter 4, no. 1 (January, 1955), p. 10.
Engagements, pp. 158 and 163.
The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, p. 114.
Desmond Pacey, Creative Writing in Canada, 2nd edition (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1961), p. 245; and “English-Canadian Poetry, 1944-1954,” in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, pp. 161, 165.
Paul West, “Ethos and Epic: Aspects of Contemporary Canadian Poetry,” in Context of Canadian Criticism, ed. Eli Mandel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), p. 212: Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden pp. 110-113.
The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, pp. 274 and 282-285.
Dudek, “The Transition in Canadian Poetry” (1959), in Selected Essays and Criticism, p. 122.
William Carlos Williams, Autobiography (New York: Random house, 1951), p. 174; Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New York: Random House, 1954), p. 289; and Karl Shapiro, The Poetry Wreck: Selected Essays 1950-1970 (New York: Random House, 1975), p. 112.
Raymond Souster, “Preface” to Cerberus, in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, p. 147; and Louis Dudek, review of Paul Blackburn's Proensa, Charles Olson's In Cold Hell, in Thicket, and Robert Creeley's A Kind of Act of, in Selected Essays and Criticism, pp. 36-37.
See Richard Wilbur, “The Bottle Becomes New, Too,” Quarterly Review of Literature 7, no. 3 (1953), p. 192, and “On My Own Work,” Contemporary American Poetry, ed. Howard Nemerov (Voice of America Forum Lectures, n.d.), p. 213; Marius Bewley, “Some Aspects of Modern American Poetry” (1954), in Modern Poetry: Essays in Criticism, ed. John Hollander (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 255-256; Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration into Community (New York: Dutton, 1972), p. 399; and William Carlos Williams, “On Measure-Statement for Cid Corman,” in Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics, ed. Gary Geddes, 2nd edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 598.
Selected Essays and Criticism, pp. 56-57.
Engagements, pp. 35-37.
“Freedom and the Life of Poetry: An Interview with Irving Layton,” Journal of Canadian Poetry 2, no. 2 (1979), p. 6.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9836
SOURCE: Wiens, Erwin. “The Horses of Realism: The Layton-Pacey Correspondence.” Studies in Canadian Literature 10, nos. 1-2 (1985): 183-207.
[In the following essay, Wiens traces Layton's relationship with Canadian writer Desmond Pacey in their unpublished correspondence spanning nearly two decades. Wiens focuses on Pacey's criticism of and influence on Layton's poetics from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s.]
On November 3, 1954, Desmond Pacey addressed a letter to Contact Press, inviting the poets Louis Dudek, Raymond Souster and Irving Layton to submit their recent work for a review article on Canadian literature. Early in 1955 Pacey and Layton met in Montreal, and so began a long friendship and an invaluable correspondence, documenting the development of Canadian poetry and criticism after World War II, and the development of a major critic and a pre-eminent poet. The correspondence is also rich in personal drama, recording the triumphs and setbacks in the careers of both men, the tensions in their friendships, their often conflicting views of poetry, of Canadian poetry in particular, and of the role of the poet and the critic in contemporary society. There are discussions of literary figures past and present, heated arguments on current social and political developments, an exchange of bawdy jokes, some brutally frank criticisms of each other's work, and equally frank praise. The tone varies from jocularity to bitter disappointment, from anger to tenderness, from occasional weariness to surges of excitement upon fresh intellectual discoveries.1
The correspondence continued until shortly before Pacey's death in 1975. Layton contributed 531 letters to the correspondence, Pacey 270. Some of Layton's letters are only short notes hastily written on post-cards, but many run to seven and eight pages. In a surge of anger or elation, Layton would send long letters to Pacey on successive days, or even two letters and a post-card on the same day, accompanied by poems composed for the occasion.2 Pacey's correspondence was more regular, usually more directly in response to the most recent barrage of Layton letters and poems. There are some lapses in the correspondence, “cooling off” periods after a particularly heated exchange, and the correspondence generally falls off in 1966 and again in 1968, when there are increasingly frequent references to telephone calls and personal meetings.
Very quickly a strong sense of literary kinship developed between the two correspondents. In the first edition of Creative Writing in Canada (1952), two years before the correspondence began, Pacey enthusiastically reported that “Canadian poets of the forties were all decidedly leftist in politics and experimental in verse form.” He discussed the work of Dudek and Souster and looked forward to great things from them; but Layton is hardly mentioned. Two years later, however, Layton begins to emerge as the leading voice among the left-wing poets, “the most blunt and powerful of the Contact Press poets.” By the summer of 1956, Layton is established, in Pacey's hierarchy, as the foremost poet currently publishing in Canada. In his review of The Bull Calf and Other Poems, Pacey notes “occasional lapses into self-pity” but acclaims Layton's “fierce pride of race” and his “great rolling lines of unashamed rhetoric.” In “A Group of Seven Poets” (1956), Pacey's review of recent work by Phillis Webb, Anne Wilkinson, Raymond Souster, Leonard Cohen, Wilfred Watson, Fred Cogswell and Layton, the argument seems designed to illustrate the considerable pre-eminence of Layton; he is “a life affirming poet” with “honesty and energy and an infectious vitality.”3 In contrast to the cool reception of Layton's work by A. J. M. Smith and Northrop Frye during the early 1950s, and the apparent “aesthetics of distaste” they maintained in the 1960s, Pacey's response after 1954 was ungrudgingly enthusiatic.4
The 1950s had begun, it seems, with a lull. There was a pervasive feeling among poets and critics that the “ferment” of the 1940s that had produced so many promising young poets, particularly in Montreal, had settled to a facile, world-weary ennui. John Sutherland's essay, “The Past Decade in Canadian Poetry,” set the tone:
How suddenly it all changed! The First Statement Press had no sooner published Other Canadians, Anthology of the New Poetry in Canada, 1940-1946, which I furnished with a bristling, defiant introduction, than the whole purpose and driving spirit of the “new movement” were in a state of decay. We had barely rushed to the side of this challenger of tradition, holding up his right—or rather his left—hand in the stance of victory, when the challenger laid his head upon the block and willingly submitted to having it removed.
Similarly, Louis Dudek, in “Ou sont les jeunes?” observed that “our younger poets are getting grey about the temples.” At a time when the poet should have more to say than at “any other time in history,” Dudek wonders, “Why are the young poets at a loss for words?” In his later introduction to the chapter “Signs of Reaction, New and Old” in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada (1967), Dudek dates the lull from 1948, when poetry in Montreal “began to show distinct signs of self-doubt and re-orientation.”
Pacey seems to have concurred. In “English-Canadian Poetry 1944-1955,” Pacey maintained that the year 1949 had “brought a sudden ominous pause” in the “triumphant progress” of Canadian poetry since World War II. He observed that most of the newer, younger poets were professors, that they seemed to write with “less conviction” than the older poets of the 1940s, and that, “at the moment,” they seemed “confused and uncertain.” Layton maintained that the ‘lull’ was largely the invention of John Sutherland, who had simply stopped publishing poems by Canadian poets.5 Nevertheless, Layton was acutely aware that, as the decade established itself, a shift of literary forces had occurred, that the old Preview vs. First Statement groupings no longer occupied the literary centre. New names, a new ‘centre', and a new critical theory had appeared in Canadian literature. Some of the names that became more prominent were Roy Daniells, Phyllis Webb, George Whalley, Wilfred Watson, Douglas Le Pan, D. G. Jones, Eli Mandel, James Reaney and Jay Macpherson. Toronto began to rival Montreal as the centre of poetic activity, and Frye's archetypal criticism had virtually superceded the Eliot-inspired New Criticism, which the First Statement group had so ardently opposed. Thus, when the correspondence began in the mid-1950s, both Pacey and Layton were consciously regrouping. Pacey was on the lookout for a strong voice that would realize the promise of the 1940s, and Layton, who had hardly recovered from his falling out with Sutherland, certainly welcomed new alliances.
In the forties and early fifties Pacey and Layton were social realists, and this does suggest a broad basis for their literary affinities, most apparent in their opposition to the emerging “mythopoeic schools” of the 1950s. On December 12, 1961, Layton described himself and Pacey as “the horses of realism,” ranged against the fastidious formalisms of Frye and Smith. Indeed, since the defection of Sutherland, Pacey had become the major critic in Canada urging the strong impact of contemporary social and historical developments upon literature. In “Canadian Literature in the Fifties” Pacey argued that “the tendencey of our recent poets to emphasize, in Northrop Frye's phrase, ‘the formal elements of poetry,’ may well be associated with this desire to escape or evade the baffling complexity and frustrating inadequacy of their own time and place.” Reviewing Wilfred Watson's poems in “A Group of Seven Poets,” Pacey found him “pretentious, self-consciously clever, pedantically erudite,” but, worst of all, his work manifests “a denial of life.” The mythopoeic poets may be “brilliant as all get-out,” but to Pacey such brilliance put a false glitter upon a moribund literary coterie.6 However, neither Layton's nor Pacey's criticism is distinguished by the rigorous application of a literary theory or critical method, and their most prominent literary terms suggest a more impressionistic criticism. Reviewing the second edition of Creative Writing in Canada, Eli Mandel observed that “in the context of his book, quality usually means something like a ‘sincere,’ ‘honest,’ or ‘intense’ response to a social and physical environment. However obscure the relations between literature and society may be, the shaping force of literature, Dr. Pacey would have us believe, is society.” Mandel seems a little impatient with the lack of rigour and precision in Pacey's method, and Pacey's broad groupings of modern poets into mythopoeic and social realist leaves Mandel decidedly “uncomfortable, especially when it makes George Johnston sound like Fred Cogswell and Margaret Avison like James Reaney.”7 Although Pacey places Cogswell and Johnston in a third group, a “regional” school, Mandel's point is apt. Pacey's divisions do not adequately represent significant differences within each group, nor do his terms fully account for his strong preferences. The correspondence illustrates that, above all, Pacey demanded of the poet a gargantuan appetite for life, a frank celebration of the senses, the courage to affirm the contradictory, painful aspects of life, and the courage to risk bad taste, reckless partisanship, transparent rhetoric, even sentimentality, to expose the sources of his own vulnerability and to display his strength. All these Layton provided in abundance. Pacey was delighted by the poems in The Blue Propeller, by “the energy, frankness, honesty and healthy earthiness which makes your work such a refreshing change in the stolid literary atmosphere of Canada.” He praised Layton's “downrightness, force, and faith in the creative spirit.” From the beginning he took Layton seriously as a craftsman, but he particularly admired his work because it was “so damned hard to be apathetic about.”8 For his part, Pacey's letters demonstrate his willingness to render himself vulnerable to the impact of poetry, to accept the challenge of the poem with intrepid gusto. These were the qualities that Layton, for all his antipathy to critics and academics, found refreshing, and they are qualities that are consistently related to their discussions of realism. There is an historical and ideological content in their ‘realism,’ but also a prominent psychological and emotional content.
Early in the correspondence there is a heated discussion on the relative claims of poetry and criticism. In a letter dated September 7, 1955, Pacey argues that criticism, “when it is doing its job properly,” is “creative”; the critic, like the poet, makes order out of chaos. His work “differs in degree, not in kind from the creative activity of the poet.” The poet takes “the stuff of experience and (not reduces but) lifts it to order, to meaning, to clarity, to poignancy, to passion.” Similarly, the critic “takes the stuff of his experience—individual works of art—and lifts it to order, to meaning, to clarity, etc.” Pacey concedes that “the degree of order achieved” by the critic is less than that achieved by the poet, because the critic is concerned “with secondary rather than primary experience.” Pacey then argues the role of the critic as a mediator between the poet and the audience: “After all, art at its best is a dynamic relationship between artist and audience—and the most sensitive, trained, receptive fraction of the audience is the critic.” He then subtly extends the role to include a kind of supervisory function: “If he the critic says ‘here you fail in clarity, or in power, or in passion’ the artist had better listen and search his soul.” Finally, Pacey claims that “Coleridge was just as creative when he wrote his Shakespearean criticism as when he wrote his poems.”9
Layton would have none of this. To compare the critic's “experience” of literature the poet's “experience” of life trivializes that poet's ecstasy and suffering, the emotional and psychological “risk” that goes into the making of a poem. Pacey's argument, Layton maintained, struck at the pillars of the poet's authority—that he speaks directly out of his personal experience with passion and honesty, refusing the meditation and the consolation of acceptable, domesticated forms of reality. Moreover, Layton sensed in Pacey's argument, particularly the argument for the critic's supervisory function, a certain condescension. The poet begins to appear somewhat childlike, “a happy, lecherous nature boy,” one whose thoughts and judgements about his work or about the world he so passionately engages must be taken with a grain of salt, weighed and sifted by the more objective, mature judgement of the critic.10 Pacey replied:
I didn't think I twisted your words when I said you spoke as if poets could do no wrong. … I still insist that poets often make mistakes and that mere critics can often point these out to them. … Anyway, you've missed my main point if you think it is that contemporary critics have as their main function correcting the errors of contemporary poets. I see that as a very minor role of the critic, and I quite grant that it doesn't often or significantly happen. The critic is creative when he detects a pattern or order or meaning in the literary history or the individual poem of the poet. He re-creates if you like.11
The argument continued to simmer throughout the correspondence, with Layton maintaining that the critic, for all his erudition, has no intuitive sense of what is significant in current events, no way of taking the pulse of the age. He can only hope to follow, at one remove from reality, where the poet leads. The poet is “one who knows what the essential things of his age are, what is dying and what is coming to life, what approaches on cat feet from afar.” In another letter, in response to Pacey's accusations that he had become an arrogant windbag, Layton concedes that in part his “arrogance” is a “protective device to conceal … a certain shyness,” but “in larger measure it's the triumphant affirmation of the poet's role in a world that's gone deaf, dumb and blind.”12
One feature of Layton's work that Pacey certainly did intuit was its strong affinity with the poetry of W. B. Yeats. There are frequent comparisons between the two poets—their tragic vision, their heroic affirmation, the triumph of laughter and gaiety over despair, their earthy vitality, and their stature as “public” poets. On December 6, 1956, Pacey wrote to Layton: “You really write with authority now, with that sonorous finality that Yeats attained in his later work.” Pacey often quoted from a letter by Yeats to Dorothy Wellesly, “Bitter and gay—that is the heroic mood,” and he claimed this as “our motto.” In this published criticism of Layton's work, Pacey regularly made the same point. His review of The Bull Calf and Other Poems (1956) notes a “ripe bitternes” and assured tone “akin to that of the later Yeats.” In 1967, reviewing Periods of the Moon, Pacey again maintained that “throughout the book Layton exemplifies what Yeats called the heroic mood.” Layton emphatically endorsed these Yeatsian analogues. On November 7, 1956, he wrote:
After all the guff Smith, and now a new offender, Margaret Avison, have written about Wm C. Wm.'s and Pound's influence on me, it's enough to restore my faith in the intelligence of people when someone like you comes along and speaks of my affinity with Wm. B. Yeats, At Last! I wrote Smith a long time ago that my favourites among the poets were Isaiah, Blake, and Yeats.13
Pacey had a very high regard for Yeats. In Creative Writing in Canada and Ten Canadian Poets, Pacey recoils whenever he detects the influence of Eliot or Auden. When a poet or a poem is described as “Eliotic” or “Audenish” it usually means that Pacey finds it half-backed, derivative, mere self-conscious posturing. But when a poet or poem is described as “Yeatsian” the term is intended as high praise. His criticism of Smith perhaps best illustrates the point. “Son-and-Heir” and “The Face” are “clever but superficial imitations of Auden,” and “Calvary” and “Bird and Flower” are insincere Eliotic exercises. But at his best, “Smith, like Yeats, makes use of intellectual symbols and of taut, tense rhythms; and he shares Yeats' ideal of the hard, aloof, aristocratic poise amidst the contemporary chaos and commercialism. Like Yeats also, he attempts, though less successfully, to combine the bitter and the gay, to be at once really responsible and apparently irresponsible.”14
One aspect of Yeats that undoubtedly attracted Pacey was his belief in the importance of a national literature. The Yeatsian inscription in Pacey's collection of Essays in Canadian Criticism 1938-1968 is particularly appropriate:
“Cosmopolitan literature is, at best, but a poor bubble, though a big one. Creative work has always a fatherland. There is no fine nationality without literature, and … no fine literature without nationality.”
In the letters, Pacey's nationalism becomes almost poignant when he seems to plead with Layton not to leave Canada. On February 24, 1960, when Layton seemed to be considering a move to the United States, Pacey cautioned him that “no Canadian writer has ever left Canada and remained a good writer.” On May 10, Pacey was relieved that Layton had decided to return. On several occasions Layton again threatened to abandon Canada to its impregnable philistinism, but on July 8, 1962, he assured Pacey that “actually, I love this country and would never think of leaving it for another,” and he even confessed that “few poets have been treated more kindly than I've been, both by the critics and the general public.” A few years later, on April 12, 1967, when Layton was preparing to leave Montreal, Pacey was again apprehensive that he might leave Canada altogether, and pleaded with him, “This country's worth fighting for.”
When Pacey discusses his own work in the correspondence he is usually rather modest, but in response to Layton's criticism, which is often severe, he emphatically defends the integrity of his work. On May 6, 1957, in response to Layton's comments that his recent reviews lack penetrating insight, Pacey concedes that, “unlike Frye,” he cannot come up with “brilliant answers” to the problems of Canadian literature; he can only offer “honest” assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of Canadian poets. Earlier in the correspondence (April 2, 1956), Layton had encouraged Pacey to inject more gusto, a more aggressive energy, into his fiction, complaining that the earthy, ebullient personality he had come to know was entirely absent in the stories. Pacey replied that although he was “full of wild enthusiasms and sudden despairs, I can't write like that. … When I start to write I immediately wear a mask of sympathetic tenderness.” In a later letter, he suggests that his stories, quite unconsciously, form a pattern, that they are all “studies in vulnerability.”15 Although Pacey often complains that Layton tends to jump on him “with both feet,” he does not retreat into a shell but continues to send Layton drafts of his stories and criticism, often with an almost boyish enthusiasm.16
In 1956 and 1957 Pacey was working on Ten Canadian Poets. As he discussed each of the chapters in progress, his letters convey the sincerity and integrity of his criticism, the breadth and thoroughness of his research (soliciting old correspondence, re-examining old issues of The McGill Fornightly, etc. and the manner in which his criticism seems to emerge directly from a personal encounter with the poetry. The chapter on Pratt was clearly the easiest for Pacey. The sense of triumph over adversity, of affirmation in spite of dark imitations, these were qualities that made any complaints against Pratt's language and verse forms appear minor. On July 4, 1957, Pacey wrote to Layton, “I'm glad you met Pratt: he is everything that you say, and has a kind of oak-like honesty and openness that wins you at once. … But I do know that he is a man who has suffered, and that his cheerfulness is a triumph of the human will over disaster.” The chapter on Birney, however, proved one of the most difficult for Pacey. As a preeminent representative of the “native tradition” in Canadian poetry, as an acute social critic, as the poet who, perhaps more than any other, had ranged over the whole of Canadian history and geography, Birney belonged in Pacey's pantheon. Pacey had written on Smith and Scott and formed strong convictions on their strengths and weaknesses in terms of their social realism or their abnegating formalism, and he had contributed an enthusiastic introduction to Livesay's Selected Poems.17 But Birney's work failed to draw a strong response from him. On March 22, 1957, he confided to Layton that the Birney chapter was going badly, that there was a “weariness” in the poetry that failed to inspire him. A week later, however, he is beginning to find more interest in Birney, and by April 2, he has discovered “real merit” in the poetry and the chapter is virtually written.
The chapter on Klein presented different problems. While he warmed to Birney slowly, he had always responded enthusiastically to Klein. In “English Canadian Poetry, 1944-1954” Pacey had designated Pratt and Klein as rivals for the position of English Canada's “greatest living poet.” However, when Pacey sent Layton a draft of his Klein chapter he received a somewhat condescending reply. On December 12, 1956, Layton claimed that Pacey had merely heaped vague, uncritical praise upon Klein. Klein's career, according to Layton, required a much sharper psychological analysis:
Klein's story is a tragic one of Cariolan pride—and failure. … He was compelled to earn his bread in a profession which he despised, and to see men less brilliant than himself gain honours and wealth which that society only too readily confers upon the unscrupulous, the superficial, and the aggressive. … There is a strong, wayward, bohemian streak inside him, the strong, desire to kick over the traces, all this conflicting with an equally strong Hebraic sense of responsibility and familie ties. … for the homosexual, the failure, the man who had turned his back on family obligations, he had scant sympathy. … The failure of Klein is the failure of a man too frightened by his environment, by fate, if you will, to be the moving poet that the charitable fairies attending his birth had intended him to be when they placed those lavish gifts of intellect, imagination, and impulse in his unpropitious cradle.
Pacey thanked Layton for his comments, but he was “hurt” by his scornful condescension. By March 1, 1957, however, he is again confident that his chapter on Klein is “honest, perceptive and certainly more comprehensive than anything published hitherto.” On March 12, in opposition to Layton's repeated claims that Klein lacked a sufficient vision of evil, Pacey again declares his admiration for Klein's “tremendous effort to affirm in the face of chaos.” ‘Apreciation’ and ‘criticism’ were very closely related in Pacey's work.
After 1958 the correspondence often becomes distinctly acrimonious. Occasionally the acrimony is diffused by wit or sincere praise for each other's work, but on other occasions a touch of censure finds its way into the praise: for example, on July 16, 1958, Pacey seemed pleased with A Laughter in the Mind:
You seem to be at the top of your form throughout. Moreover, the poems wear well. Many of them I have read before, yet I re-read them with pleased excitement. It's a very varied book of course, but I think you have been equally successful with the tender and thoughtful poems on the one hand, and the gay and rollicking ones on the other.
Layton, however, resisted what he thought to Pacey's increasing emphasis upon the “tender,” an attempt, Layton sensed, to persuade him to moderate his savage rhetoric. There are also occasions when the exchange is sharply critical while the tone is jocular. In the late 1960s, Layton was avidly reading the classics of Greek and German philosophy. Pacey mocks his middle-aged attempts to “get educated,” and suggests that with his dense metaphysical poetry he has become immersed in “the cold cream element.” In another letter Pacey pokes fun at Layton's success as an “academic” and threatens that when he next comes to Toronto he will “sport with Aviva in the shade” while Layton “turns the dry pages of ancient tomes.”18 But such exchanges barely manage to diffuse the tension that easily flares into anger throughout the 1960s.
In the course of the decade Pacey was appointed to more and more senior positions at the University of New Brunswick, while he felt increasingly isolated from the literary centre. Layton, who had been struggling on the periphery, suddenly found himself at the centre of critical and public attention. In The Midst of My Fever, The Cold Green Element, and The Bull Calf and Other Poems had all drawn favourable reviews, even from A. J. M. Smith and Northrop Frye, and The Improved Binoculars contained the enthusiastic introduction by William Carlos Williams; but it was A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959), published and promoted by McClelland and Stewart, that thrust Layton's work into public and critical awareness. In the decade that followed, Layton held the attention, sometimes adulation, of a considerable public through his appearances on television and radio, through controversial statements in the popular press, and through his poetry. He found himself a celebrity and he enjoyed the role. Pacey, however, began to see Layton's success, and his apparent courtship of success, as dangerous to his work, encouraging him “to write too much, too easily,” and pandering to his public's craving for mere naughtiness and cheap titillation (December 1, 1958).
In March, 1959, Layton sent Pacey his poem, “Because My Calling is Such.” Pacey took the occasion (March 10) to attack Layton for his posturing and self-indulgent egotism: “Don't tell me you're going to retreat from your honesty into this kind of fakery—that your goddam poetry is so mysterious and important that for it you'd jettison the love of woman.” He concludes, “Because the great Frye has said you're good, everything you write is ipso-facto excellent. Balls!” He accuses Layton of becoming a “stuffed shirt,” and allowing himself to be exploited by McClelland and Stewart. On October 21, 1959, he wrote to Layton congratulating him on becoming a “lion,” but confessed that he liked him better as “a flea-bitten terrier.” Layton's puzzled response, on October 24, is indicative of his view of the function of poetry and of the role of the poet. Vulgar acclaim, with resort to promotional gimmicks, appeared much less repulsive to him, and much less dangerous to his integrity, than the measured, decorous approbation of academic critics:
All this is good for poetry in this country. A poet has at last broken the sound barrier! You ought to rejoice that one of us, and that one your own devoted friends, turned the trick. What's more, much of your criticism helped me to do it. You're a funny dog! You yelp and wag your tail excitedly while I'm battling the waves and gasping, but when you see me nearing the beach you let your tail droop and you let out the most mournful howl my ears ever heard.
A few years later (October 11, 1964), Layton again triumphantly reported the success of a reading tour together with Birney, Leonard Cohen, and Phyllis Goglieb, a tour that had been vigorously promoted by McClelland and Stewart and filmed by the National Film Board. He joyfully claimed that, as popular symbols of Canada, poets were now “running neck and neck with Mounties.” Pacey scoffed at all the hoopla, calling the tour “the McClelland and Stewart travelling circus.”19 In December, 1962, Pacey met Kingsley Amis in Cambridge, and had found him smug and conceited, reduced to predictably shocking declarations, lack-lustre cynicism, self-consciously out of fashion, but still trying to milk his early success. On June 19, 1963, following a flurry of public appearances by Layton on television and in the press, Pacey comments:
I see you are still emitting a steam of platitudes about poetry, professors and penises. You are rapidly becoming the Kingsley Amis of Canada.
The acrimony between the two correspondents is again evident in an exchange on Layton's introduction to Love Where the Nights are Long. Layton's dismissal of the love poetry of the Cavalier poets as “insincere frippery” seemed to Pacey merely self-serving and ignorant: “You're a great big bluffer and it's time someone called your bluff.” Pacey maintained that the only poet in Love Where the Nights are Long who has “a real gift for amorous verse” is Leonard Cohen: “Your own love poems are seldom your best—they are either too rhetorical, or too diffused, or too laboured.”20 One might have expected Pacey to rejoice in the soaring rhetoric of Layton's “Introduction,” and to have found at least some pleasure in Layton's bold declaration of the unique merit of Canadian love poetry. That Pacey chose instead to belabour Layton's comments on the Cavalier poets, and then wrinkle his nose at Layton's own love poetry, illustrates the tension in the correspondence at this point.
The end of the 1950s also marked the end of Layton's friendship with Dudek. Pacey witnessed the quarrel with a mixture of sadness and anger. On February 4, 1959, he wrote Layton that his “fulminations” against Dudek and his wife Stephanie were “unworthy” of him: “I'm sorry to see your creative energy being diverted into these literary squabbles which are so futile. Get on with the poetry and let your fellow poets get on with theirs.” Layton maintained the quarrel was not simply a matter of personal animosity or petty rivalry:
My quarrel with Louis is a literary one; it's the same sort of thing I had with John Sutherland. I reject his point of view as vehemently as I did John's and for the same reasons. If it were to prevail it would stifle creative activity in this country. … My quarrel with Stephanie is of the same kind I have with all psychologists who step heavily into the field of literature. I detest the whole kaboodle. … I frankly regard her kind as a real danger to poetic activity.
The following day Layton wrote two letters to Pacey, defending his conduct in the quarrel. He maintained that some of his fundamental convictions about poetry were at stake:
What then do I see in Stephanie and Louis? In Stephanie, the psychologizing attitude that wishes to reduce every poem to a fragment of autobiography, of case history. That regards poets as gifted but crazy people. … Louis's ‘embodiment’ is more complex. … There was always in him a moralistic, puritanical streak: no more than John Sutherland was he ever able to open up to literature as pure experience. He must always, alarmed or confused, send for the generalizing intellect to let him know how he ought to feel when confronted by the novel and the dionysian. All my conscious life I have fought this attitude towards art, towards poetry. … I'll fight anyone who exalts reason above imagination and intuition; anyone who refuses to see that the creative process is supra-rational. It's the fellow whose fires have gone out or who never had any who wishes to pretend that the moralizing and generalizing intellect is supreme. In our time the creative fires are being leveled down on all sides, with all the little people happily lending a hand: social workers, psychologists, university professors … and the thousands of good-natured philistines who demonstrate again and again that while they may care for art, they can also live without it.
To Layton, Dudek's understanding of the role of the poet and of the poetic process seemed fundamentally contrary to his own understanding of the prophetic function of poetry. It was reductive, it subordinated the creative process to scientific rationalism, and it undermined the poet's claim to truth, his authority as a teacher, based on his unique perception and experience of reality. Layton's tendency toward “moralizing” was as strong as Dudek's, but Layton insisted that, for the poet, moral knowledge came directly out of the creative experience, while Dudek increasingly demanded that such knowledge must first pass muster before an enlightened, liberal understanding of psychology and society.
There was certainly also a good deal of personal acrimony involved in the quarrel. Dudek's dismissal of some of Layton's finest work as “pure rubbish,” and Layton's caricature in “Mexico as seen by the Reverend Dudek”21 seem unnecessarily vindictive, and do little to serve the cause of Canadian poetry. On the other hand, neither of them ever entirely lost sight of the merits of the other; for example, in a letter to Pacey, January 13, 1971, Layton complained that Dudek had been given a “raw deal,” being excluded from Geddes's 15 Canadian Poets: “Dudek has range and substance that the younger poets don't even try for.”22 Undoubtedly, however, there were important issues at stake. It is unthinkable that either poet would have allowed a view so fundamentally opposed to his own, especially considering each poet's stature and influence, to go unchallenged.
The change in Layton's public reception after 1959 was accompanied by equally dramatic changes in his poetry and criticism. From as early as 1954, the characteristic themes of “social realism” became less and less prominent in Layton's work, and by 1959 the term seems quite inapt. Nietzsche and an emphasis upon the “dionysian element” became much more prominent than Marx and images of proletarian resistance. The main target of his fury is “gentility,” and the term becomes more and more encompassing. Under this heading he attacks academic criticism, “culture,” “literature,” “formalism,” “invalidism,” “prudery,” all of which he regards as symptomatic of a pervasive intellectual and moral torpor. Throughout his career as a poet, Layton maintained, he had been confronted by “a genteel academicism and a faded romantic sensibility which politely questioned the poet's creative role in society.” In his “Foreword” to The Laughing Rooster, Layton is convinced that the greatest threat to the poet comes “from those who wish to appear his friends and allies. … They're the ones who wish to bracket the poet between Culture and Education and fob off their cerebral theories as having equal authority with the experiences of the poet.”23 From this perspective he sees enemies almost everywhere. On one occasion his fierce defence of the poet acquires the mythical dimensions of an avenging angel, avenging all artists who have suffered while complacent philistines prospered, both psychologically and materially:
When I spit into their eyes, Desmond, I do so for all the poets, for all the gifted and talented who've had to eat the bread of humiliation from the fat-assed, prostituted many: the cowards, the lunk-heads, the well-heeled philistines, the spiteful dullards whom wealth has given the upper hand over those least able to defend themselves. I am a dangerous man, a madman if you wish, because I think I have been chosen by Time and Fate, to avenge all the indignities they ever suffered: the suicide of Chatterton, the pauper's grave of Mozart, the madness of Holderlin. I'd say this in the strongest feeling I have: it colours almost everything I write and think. It's the clue to my short stories and to many of my poems.24
In a letter on October 7, 1963, he suspects that professors, clergymen and critics “exist largely for the purpose of blunting the poet's impact.”
Pacey seemed, at first, a little bewildered by the attack on gentility. From the perspective of orthodox social realism, Layton's fury seemed to be misdirected:
I don't think the phrase genteel tradition has very much relevance in a Canadian context. I feel that there's only a tiny minority in this country that cares for literature at all and that for good or ill it is concentrated in the universities. The university people are not ‘genteel’ in any very significant way, and they are mainly left-wing politically (Carlyle King chairman of Sask. C. C. F., Frye used to be a Marxist and is still well to the left etc. etc.) They are your allies—and the enemy is big business and philistinism generally. … You shouldn't be wasting your satirical gifts on the Fryes and Paceys, or even on the relatively stuffy Woodcocks and Whalleys, but should be directing them against the politicians who are exploding hydrogen bombs and holding up the national health scheme and the Canada Council etc. etc.25
This letter, however, does not exactly resound with conviction, and it had no influence upon Layton. He either scorned these issues or took up the opposing side. What engrossed him were quite other questions. At the conclusion of his “Foreword” to A Red Carpet for the Sun, he wrote:
Dionysus is dead: his corpse seethes white-maggoty with social workers and analysts. Not who is winning the Cold War is the big issue confronting mankind, but this: will the Poet, as a type, join the Priest, the Warrior, the Hero, and the Saint as melancholy museum pieces for the titillation of a universal babbitry? It could happen.
Similarly, in the “Foreword” to The Swinging Flesh, he regards the extinction of the Dionysian element as the crucial issue of the age:
What engrosses the mind, what troubles the spirit of the creative writer today are not the inequities and malfunctioning of the so-called capitalist system. These are in the process of being rapidly eliminated. His anxiety, his concern, to be quick about it, is something else: it is that for the first time in the history of the world man's reason is abolishing the law of historical development through strife and opposition. The Promethean idea of the twentieth-century is that men, collectively, can control their destiny. But—and here's the rub—they can do so only at the sacrifice of the Dionysian element which is the beginning and assurance of all creativity.
Layton never slakened his claim to ‘realism’, but there remains little evidence of the left-wing social-realism of the 1940s and early 1950s. Layton now has a scornful confidence that contemporary society is quite willing and able to take care of the dispossessed, of economic inequities, and capitalist exploitation generally. He is also confident that society can take care of its “culture,” that it is willing and able to provide subsidies and prizes. At least, these are not the pressing concerns they were formerly. Similarly, with the arrival of the ‘sexual revolution,’ with the liberalization of the censorship laws, and with the new wave of films, pop art, post-modern literature, all with their apparently raw, primitive energy, the priggishness and unoffending formalism of the 1950s were no longer such formidable forces. Layton's attack upon gentility shifted accordingly. During the early 1950s it had focussed primarily upon the aesthetic effect of gentility, upon “the miserable devitalized stuff that passes for poetry in this country.”26 In the 1960s the attack focusses upon its moral effect. It identifies a moral philistinism that is immune to shock or anger, that perverts the poet's moral outrage into merely an aesthetic performance, and renders human suffering acceptable as a mark of political sophistication. “Gentility” became the key term in Layton's attempts to account for organized evil on the scale of the Holocaust and the Siberian labour camps, perpetrated or condoned by supposedly enlightened, civilized, progressive societies.
It seems that no sooner had Layton won some of the public and critical acclaim that had long been due, particularly from left-leaning, anti-establishment fellow travellers, than he took up a series of positions that appeared decidedly reactionary. Marxism became coupled with Christianity as a “sour, boring joke.”27 On issues ranging from women's liberation to the Vietnam War he was consistently on the ‘wrong’ side. As early as November 7, 1956, he confided to Pacey that he found himself questioning his “socialistic beliefs,” that he had begun to find socialism and capitalism “woefully inadequate terms.” By February 18, 1959, he had rejected them outright, together with modern aestheticism:
I feel that all the old concerns are dead—the aestheticisms of Eliot, Yeats, Gide, Proust, equally with those of the anti-Establishment antics of the left-winging social realists of a decade and two ago. Irrelevant, that's the word. Irrelevant, irrelevant, irrelevant. As usual, the professors are caught napping, this time on the heavily annotated tomes of Joyce and Eliot, unaware that humanity has turned a sharp corner into a world where pity and sensitivity, or even ordinary decency, have no address. … Our condition is worse than that of the Romans—with no Christians in sight to redeem us. The ‘Beat’ writers are saying it, but not very well or very successfully, and they'll end up by destroying themselves rather than the conditions that produced them.
By 1961 he has nothing but contempt for the “flabbly socialists” and “decadent left-wing intellectuals.” He finds a distrustful “puritanical strain” in the poets of the Left, and in this regard, he much prefers Roy Campbell to Stephen Spender. His praise is now all for the greatness of J. F. Kennedy, De Gaulle and Churchill. He approves entirely of Kennedy's handling of the Cuban crisis; he refers to him on one occasion as “truly a wise and noble prince.” Then, in 1965, he is with “L. B. J. all the way,” fully supportive of American imperialism in Vietnam. The tone is occasionally lightened when Layton reports that he is sending reams of poems and political advice to the White House, but so far “the silence is defeaning. Ah well …”28
Pacey watched his ‘progress’ with dismay. He finds Layton's adulation of the Kennedys, both Jackie and John, “silly,” and demands to know with reference to Yeats, why Layton must assume “the ass's mask of an insufferable braggart.” He denounces Kennedy as a capitalist and imperialist. Layton he denounces as an outright fascist, although the denunciation is softened a little when he signs the letter “Pinky Pacey.” He compares Layton on the Cuban crisis to the aging Wordsworth's conservative stance on the First Reform Bill, and concludes that Layton has become a typical “romantic conservative.”29 Layton resists both terms. What Pacey regards as his conservatism, Layton argues, is rather his direct apprehension of the pulse of reality, the result of his acute sense of the forces of history. He allows that if Byron and Blake were romantics, then he is one too, but denies any inclination toward a romantic nostalgia; his “historical realism” is prophetic, looking to the present and the future.
During the early 1960s Layton became increasingly impatient with the modern poet's failure to address “the moral and psychological dilemmas of his time.” In the “Foreword” to Balls for a One-Armed Juggler, dated September 11, 1962, Layton releases the full force of his contempt:
What insight does the modern poet give us into the absolute evil of our times? Where is the poet who can make clear for us Belsen? Vorkuta? Hiroshima? The utter wickedness of Nazism and National-Communism? There is no poet in the English-speaking world who gives me the feeling that into his lines have entered the misery and crucifixion of our age. His psychology, pre-Freudian; his political thought, pre-totalitarian; his metaphysics, non-existent; his well-meant babblings originate in a bourgeois-Christian humanism totally unable to account for the vileness enacted by men and women of this century. … The modern poet has been an empty windbag and a chatterer. No wonder anguished people turn from him in amusement, boredom, or pity. He has nothing to say worth listening to. … The truth is this: instead of remembering they are prophets and the descendants of prophets, the poets have swapped roles with entertainers and culture-peddlars.
Unlike the novelists, the playwrights and the film-makers, the poets have willingly rendered themselves superfluous to their society, “pleased if someone overhears them and recommends them for a travelling fellowship or a university post.”30 Layton's letters during February and April, 1962, seem a rough draft of this “Foreword.” On February 3, 1962, he enters upon the theme almost casually, begging to differ with Pacey's estimation of Margaret Avison's poetry:
I don't however share your enthusiasm for Avison—her work simply leaves me unmoved. … I find it clever lattice-work; the feelings and thoughts are stale; it's the language and apparent modernity of technique that fools you into thinking them otherwise. … The truth is, I don't like the way most Canadian poets use language; nowadays I want poems to be like a steel dagger, unsheathed and gripped for the plunging.
The letter of February 16 generalizes more boldly and accumulates more conviction:
Too much that is being written today in verse leaves me with the feeling of its “peripherality,” its remoteness from that reality which must always be the springboard for the imagination. It just doesn't seem important enough for all the breathlessness and frantic gesturings that accompany the utterance.
By April 28, Layton's anger and conviction have crystalized. The letter illustrates Layton's constant emphasis upon realism, upon the didactic or prophetic function of poetry, upon its centrality in human affairs, even as the occasions for such a function seemed to become increasingly elusive. These themes are not new, but they acquire greater urgency and an almost naive simplicity, while they become charged with an increasingly complex vision of the savagery of twentieth-century civilization. Although the letter still lacks the poised fury and rhetorical sweep of the “Foreword,” it has brought Layton into position, not only for an attack upon his contemporaries, but for the coming offensive of his own creative energy:
More and more I grow dissatisfied with the poems I read: they appear irrelevant and inconsequential. Compared to the novelists and playwrights, the contemporary poets are simply nowhere; still blabbermouthing about ‘Love’ and ‘Dear’ etc. etc. and in the same old vein. They don't say a helluva lot that's new. For the greater part, they've remained stuck fast in Christianity (Eliot, Auden, Thomas) or if they break away from that swamp, go on to mouth ridiculous puerilities about ‘Art’ and ‘Tragic Visions’ and ‘Social Credit.’ They're pre-Freudian and pre-Marxian; and unlike their European contemporaries, have not assimilated Nietzsche. Most of the stuff written today is adolescent drivel. There's no reason why any intelligent man or woman should spend more than a minute scanning it. I'd like to write poems that a surgeon or an attorney-general could read and appreciate. Poems that come out of the lives and emotions of contemporary persons. To hell with ‘Literature’ and the ‘literary sensibility', and all the academic palavering and head-shaking that goes on in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘poetry’. What I really want is a blend of realism and imagination, an enhancement of the actual, and by the latter I don't mean the dried-out emasculated version of it that pedants entertain in their tiresome brains.
The correspondence is, of course, laden with comments and anecdotes of contemporary poets and critics. At one point (June 24 and November 9, 1955) Pacey defends Frye against Layton's attacks in terms that Layton could not easily dismiss; he informs Layton that privately Frye has a “gift for obscene invective” and that as a student Frye was “legendary” for his sexual exploits. On other occasions Pacey tends to endorse Layton's strong likes and dislikes; for example, he finds Reaney's Suit of Nettles to be mere “childish pedantry”; he finds Hugh Maclennan better as an essayist than as a novelist; and during the winter of 1961-62 there are several comments on Callaghan's work—all of them negative. Callaghan is “all soft mush right through,” and he is compared very unfavourably to the self-exiled Norman Levine.31 Pacey keeps an approving eye on the development of younger poets, particularly Cohen, Purdy, Alden Nowlan and Patrick Lane. On June 3, 1964, however, he complains that the material he has been collecting from younger poets for The Literary Review is disappointing: “Where are ‘les jeunes’? … The stuff I got from Boxer, Coleman, Pearson, Davey, Bowering, etc. would make us look like laughing-stocks abroad.” On February 1, 1967, he also finds that Leonard Cohen's poetry has “fallen off of late,” but Beautiful Losers has “complexity and ingenuity of allusion and symbolism.” Pacey's comments invite extensive analysis in relation to contemporary criticism and the development of individual poets.
Layton's comments on his contemporaries vary from humorous one-liners to intriguing, often revealing anecdotes. His contempt for the Tish poets and their Black Mountain progenitors again illustrates the strong didactic thrust of his poetics:
The Tishites have been screwed by an excessive interest in prosody and by the influence of Olson, Creeley, and Levertov. However, had Davey, Bowering, et al been true poets they would have assimilated the influence and eventually found their own voice levels. But a poet is a teacher, and these have no doctrine in them. The desire to make fastidious bric-a-brac, all the coquettings with words and line-placements will not conceal the empty heart. If a man urgently wishes to improve the lot of his fellow-man, the quality of their lives, he'll discover or invent the means of reaching them—always pre-supposing he has the necessary talent with words, without which, of course, his good intentions will count for nil.32
Several comments on F. R. Scott in the correspondence reveal Layton's strong antipathy toward Scott's work. On December 12, 1956, Layton wrote to Pacey: “His love poems are among the saddest that I have ever read, telling of abnegation and restraint and withdrawal: no gaiety here, no release.” Layton seems to be repelled by Scott's reductive rationalism, by his subjection of ‘instinct’ to ‘will', but it is clear that Scott is also implicated in Layton's attacks upon “flabby socialists.” On June 6, 1964, Layton complained to Pacey that he could find “no feeling for life in the man.” He is the personification of “that gray, rationalistic goody-goodiness that has undone the C. C. F. and now the N. D. P.” He has “a deep fear of life, a distrust of its unpredictable upsurges.” Because he lacks a “feeling for life” he lacks insight: “Whenever F. R. Scott takes up a political position, all one has to do is to take up the contrary one and be proven right in the long run.” In another letter Layton describes an occasion in Scott's home, where Smith was also present. When Layton read his poem “Elegy for Marilyn Munro,” Smith wept openly, declaring it “the greatest poem written in this century.” But Scott “demured mildly.” Layton modestly observed that the century still had thirty-eight years to run.33
On Pacey's side, the correspondence ends tragically. The first evidence of Pacey's illness appears on January 15, 1969. On October 9, 1972, Pacey is recovering from three recent operations. At the same time he is immersed in UNB politics. On January 10, 1969, he is in a dilemma whether or not to take on the job of Acting-President at UNB (one recalls that during the sixties and early seventies university presidencies were not universally coveted). By 1970 he has taken the job. In February 1972, the position is to be filled permanently, and Pacey is clearly the leading candidate but, on December 18, 1972, he writes that he has been “ditched” in favour of a younger man: “I am probably at the lowest point in morale that I have ever been.” Pacey had served the University long and loyally, as a teacher, scholar and administrator, apparently with wisdom, and undeniably with astounding energy.
On Layton's side, the correspondence ends on a pitch of visionary fervour. On August 25, 1973, Layton sent Pacey a postcard from Greece. He had finished The Pole Vaulter and was pleased with it, satisfied that it could well be his last book: it “sums up everything.” On December 14, 1973, however, writing from Indonesia, he remarks upon his continuing creativity, and then, in a little over a week, from January 7, 1974, to January 15, he sent Pacey seven long letters. The are all written from Australia, at an apparently feverish pace, and convey a sense of elation and terror. Some of the themes are familiar, the scorn for anti-Americanism, for “gutless Stalinoids” and “leftist twirps,” countered by his admiration for Orwell and Solzhenitsyn. Other themes, though not new, emerge from a fresh perspective, particularly with reference to the Yom Kippur War and its meaning for the destiny of Jews, whose history of suffering is now set in judgement over European civilization: “My contempt and hatred for Europe is something that I shall take into the grave with me.” What is most striking in these letters is that they provide an almost frightening glimpse of the turbulent creative energy that was about to burst from Layton in the later 1970s, beginning with For My Brother Jesus.
In spite of many bitter, even brutal arguments, the quarrels between Pacey and Layton during the 1960s never led to a falling out. This demonstrates the remarkable capacity for friendship of both men, and also their fundamental agreement on the function of poetry. Pacey shared much of Layton's scorn for modernist purity in language and form, and supported his purpose, if not always his methods, to take poetry out of the confines of ‘high art’ into the impure atmosphere of public debate. Pacey also shared much of Layton's scorn for “modern invalidism.” For Pacey, as for Layton, acute sensitivity and exquisite suffering were insufficient motives for poetry. He demanded that the poet “triumph over adversity,” and it is this sense of triumph, Pacey maintained, that set the work of Pratt, Klein, and Layton apart. He demanded honesty and fidelity to personal experience, not just ideological consistency or formal virtuosity. The value of Pacey's friendship to Layton lay primarily in that avowed “honesty,” his openness to the impact of poetry, and his readiness to take Layton seriously at every turn. He was not one of Layton's most perceptive critics; Eli Mandel, Seymour Mayne, Wynne Francis, and Milton Wilson have demonstrated a sharper understanding of Layton's poetry. In fact any extensive analysis of Layton's poetry by Pacey is conspicuously lacking, and he seems to have shied away from some of Layton's major poems like “Cain,” “A Tall Man Executes a Jig” and “Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1940).” Nevertheless, Pacey provided crucial support in Layton's turbulent career, as both antogonist and ally. In comparison, even an admiring critic like Wynne Francis can maintain that the “ideas” or “targets” of Layton's poetry are relatively gratuitous for an enjoyment of his world:
We may wince, and perhaps we should, as we note our resemblance to certain of the rotating targets (most of them are crude effigies but some are realistic portraits); but we can also, since it is poetry, enjoy the expertise and panache of Layton's performance.
Layton himself is too serious about his role as a prophet to relish such an approach to his work. Nor will it satisfy those who wish either to take him to task for his half-baked ideas and misguided opinions or to applaud him for his blunt truths and moral courage.34
Pacey clearly was one of “those,” and as such he was invaluable to Layton. He enjoyed Layton's performance, but he also took him “to task.” He regarded Layton's ideas and opinions as worthy to be challenged, and he responded with “Dionysian” relish and a kind of fearless sincerity.
Layton's letters to Pacey are held by Mrs. Mary Pacey in Fredericton, New Brunswick. A copy of the collection is temporarily housed in the Harriet Irving Library, University of New Brunswick. Pacey's letters to Layton are in the Layton Collection, Norris Library, Concordia University, Montreal. I am grateful to Mrs. Pacey and Irving Layton for permission to examine the correspondence, and to Seymour Mayne who initially directed me to the correspondence.
For example, Layton wrote one letter on February 5, 1950, two letters on February 6, and another on February 7. See also March 30 and 31, 1959.
Pacey, Creative Writing in Canada, first edition (Toronto Ryerson Press 1952) 141: “English Canadian Poetry, 1944-1954” Culture 18 (1984); “Review of The Bull Calf and Other Poems.” Fiddlehead 29 (1956): 30-31; and “A Group of Seven Poets,” Queen's Quarterly 63 (1956): 438-43. See also Essays in Canadian Criticism 1938-1968 (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1969) 101-121.
See Seymour Mayne, Introduction, Irving Layton: The Poet and His Critics (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978) 1.
See The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, eds. Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowaki (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1967) 119, 142-144, 113, 160-169, and 146.
“Canadian Literature in the Fifties” (1961), in Essays in Canadian Criticism 1938-1968, 203. See also 112-121.
Eli Mandel, “Creative Writing in Canada Reviewed,” Fiddlehead 53 (1962): 61-64.
Pacey, Letters to Irving Layton. February 13, 1955; June 16, 1955; June 24, 1955; July 22, 1958.
Pacey, Letters to Irving Layton, September 7, 1955; November 3, 1955.
Layton, Letters to Desmond Pacey, August 22, 1955; October 30, 1955.
Pacey, Letters to Irving Layton, November 9, 1955.
Layton, Letters to Desmond Pacey, May 21, 1961; April 30, 1956.
See Desmond Pacey, “A Group of Seven Poets” (1956) in Essays in Canadian Criticism 1938-1968 (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1969) 112-121; Letters to Irving Layton, November 26, 1956; December 6, 1956; July 4, 1957; November 21, 1957; November 22, 1957; March 10, 1959; March 6, 1959; Review of Periods of the Moon, Fiddlehead, 71 (1967): 69-72. Irving Layton, Letters to Desmond Pacey, November 7, 1956; November 9, 1956; March 12, 1959; March 21, 1959; March 21, 1959; March 30, 1959; March 31, 1959; July 8, 1962. It is striking how frequently echoes of Yeats occur in Layton's poetry and prose. Layton's stills in “Whatever Else Poetry is Freedom” may be compared to Yeats's in “High Talk”; the rhythm and language of Layton's “The Skull” may be compared with Yeats's “The Fisherman”; and the following passage from Layton's “Ruminations” with Yeats's “A General Introduction for my Work”:
Layton: There is always a difference between the man who goes into the washroom and the man who writes a poem. There is a difference between the man who chews his meat, picks his teeth, pats his infant's head, and the fellow who goes into the privacy of his room and writes a poem about the day's activities. In a sense the poet is the fuller man, or the completer man, more in control of experiences and events, because art is a kind of control and a kind of evaluation of experience.
Yeats: A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness … He is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.
See Layton Collected Poems, 316 and 491; Taking Sides, 188; W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1965) 485-486, 167; Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961) 509.
Creative Writing in Canada, 2nd ed., 137; Ten Canadian Poets, 208-211.
Letters to Irving Layton, November 9, 1955 and April 3, 1958.
Layton reviewed The Picnic and Other Stories in Fiddlehead 39 (1959): 41-43. He noted that in the best of the stories, Pacey has explored “existence's dualism and ambiguity, its perplexing character of good-evil.” The stories may lack “vigour, complexity, verbal sparkle,” but they “do command reflectiveness, sensitivity, painstaking observation, and a tough good-humoured determination not to be taken in by current shibboleths and catch cries.” This accurately summarizes his comments in the letters, except that he often expresses more impatience with the lack of “vigour, complexity, verbal sparkle.”
Pacey, Introduction, Selected Poems by Dorothy Livesay (Toronto: Ryesrson, 1957).
Letters to Irving Layton. October 1, 1960; November 29, 1970.”
Pacey, Letters to Layton, November 25, 1964.
Letters to Layton, March 12, 1963; March 27, 1963; April 30, 1963.
Collected Poems, 300. The poem first appeared in Moment 1 (1980), under the title “Mexico as seen by Louis the Lip.”
Engagements, 56 and 116-117.
Engagements, 56 and 116-117.
This quote is from an undated letter filed after the letter dated June 23, 1962. It was probably written before the end of the month or in the first week of July.
Letters to Irving Layton, October 29, 1956. This is a relatively early letter, and Pacey's understanding of “gentility” developed considerably. The evident naivete of the letter, however, particularly coming from a sympathetic critic like Pacey, indicates the magnitude of the problem that Layton was attacking, and the magnitude of his achievement in making a deeper understanding of the term more current.
Layton, “Preface” to Cerberus, in Engagements, 71.
Layton, Letters to Pacey, November 7, 1956; February 18, 1959; January 10 1961; April 21, 1961; April 29, 1961; October 7, 1963; March 21, 1965; May 8, 1961; January 5, 1962.
Pacey, Letters to Layton, March 6, 1961; March 24, 1961; March 24, 1963; April 24, 1961; April 26, 1961; May 8, 1961; and January 5, 1962.
Letters to Layton, November 9, 1959; June 10, 1959; September 12, 1960; October 30, 1961; December 21, 1961; July 11, 1962.
Letters to Pacey, June 6, 1964.
Letters to Pacey, September 17, 1962.
Wynne Francis, “The Farting Jesus: Layton and the Heroic Vitalists,” CV II 3.3 (1978): 49.
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SOURCE: Smith, Patricia Keeney. Review of Irving Layton: A Portrait, by Elspeth Cameron, and Waiting for the Messiah, by Irving Layton. University of Toronto Quarterly 56, no. 3 (spring 1987): 467-70.
[In the following review, Smith contrasts Elspeth Cameron's biography of Layton with Waiting for the Messiah, Layton's memoir, highlighting the different accounts of the interplay between the man and his poetry.]
Having had one of the first words on Elspeth Cameron's biography of Irving Layton in the Canadian Forum of November 1985, I may here also claim the dubious distinction of having one of the last words on the question of that poet's suitability as a subject for biography or autobiography. It is now public knowledge that Layton's response to the Cameron biography [Irving Layton: A Portrait] is unrelentingly negative, damning it for factual error and rampant anti-Semitism. Having written what I believe to have been a rational and balanced review of that work, and having functioned as a conscientious critic of Layton's poetry for many years, I am now placed among the ranks of a blind literary establishment systematically determined to defame this artist. So saith Irving Layton.
The literary row, fought on public and private fronts around the Cameron book and to a lesser degree around Layton's first volume of memoirs, provides a singular opportunity to investigate the nature and purpose of both biography and autobiography. In limited space one can only outline the perilous adventure of documenting this particular life, shaping it in any way other than Layton's own poems do.
What the Cameron biography gives is flavour. We get the curious folkways of early Rumanian beginnings, the spit and fire and earthy reality of Layton's energetic mother, the spiritual asceticism of his religious father. Cameron has done her research into the early Jewish immigration patterns of Montreal and has recreated the city of colourful vitality that shaped boy into artist. She understands his intellectual evolution, his involvement in politics and economics, his passion for history, his inspiration as a teacher, and his fabled generosity towards students and admirers. Cameron does not flinch from making pronouncements on Layton as lover, husband, and father. Life with Betty Sutherland is fully, even fulsomely, portrayed; life with second long-term mate Aviva reads a little like People magazine. But for understanding the life, especially the amorous episodes, there is much more to be gained from the poems themselves: ‘I Know the Dark and Hovering Moth,’ with its strange, smouldering imagery of devouring female; ‘Maxie,’ Layton's proud and wistful evocation of his growing son; ‘The Day Aviva Came to Paris,’ with its boisterous stuffing of bloody history into one shapely and adorable ass.
Cameron is not good on the poems, but she does tell a good story. Even though her reconstruction reads too much like a movie script at times, even though she speculates and sensationalizes, you want to know more. But do you want to know more for the right reason? Layton's life is a good story, full of pain and triumph and pig-headedness and foolishness and bravery, like anybody's life. He was a thoroughly engaged citizen and thinker during some momentous periods of history, as many have been. His great difference is that he turned most of his story to poetry, the best of which is marked by passion and by moral and prophetic fervour. Unless you know the poetry, the life seems absurd. It is the poetry that redeems the life. But neither the Cameron biography nor Layton's own memoirs deal sufficiently with that interconnection. Autobiography can, of course, give us the subject's mind at work on an interpretation of its own life. While this may be a solipsistic exercise, it can be a fascinating one, especially if the mind is interesting.
In Waiting for the Messiah, Layton looks a long way back, and the distance gives him an untypically cool perspective. It also means that he can slip into attitudes that have become all too familiar, whether deriving from his own assessment or that of the analysts and critics. In short, he can become the victim of his own publicity machine. Nevertheless, there are some wonderful insights. Layton grew up in a world of physical sensations that honed his sensibility as a poet, and he details these lovingly, from the smell of baked challah to the artistic array of cockroaches on a wall. It is a world of superstition and agile imagination in which a boy studying Exodus, who also killed cockroaches by an elaborate system of scalding water, stamping feet, and kerosene, could feel himself as powerful and God-driven as Moses saving the Israelites from Egypt. The remarkable thing is that such sensations stayed with Layton through all of his development as a poet: Moses hero of Israel, son of Keine Lazarovitch killing cockroaches, and the enfant terrible of Canadian letters cudgelling the puritanical and the effete are one and the same person. Here is a mind whose basic positions have remained unchanged throughout its creative lifetime. To trace the origins of those positions is thrilling.
But self analysing self is a precarious business. Layton will recreate a wonderful memory such as the bustle and vigour of the marketplace, but will spoil it in the next breath by theorizing about the necessity of Dionysian chaos and how such recognition has marked his poetry. That, the critics can tell us. It is enough to give us ‘onions falling from their burlap sack and comically rolling down the cobbled hill and along the gutter, to be followed by an ambitious potato trying to catch up with it,’ without such dubious conjecture as ‘Who knows what metaphors were spawned in my unconscious from seeing them race one another towards the gutter at the end of the short street?’ Layton insists on doing the reader's thinking for him, as if that were the only sure way to get it right.
Among the cant there are also splendid evocations of events that shape a life. When young Layton was eleven, his brother Avrum died. From a far corner of the room, he watched while the corpse was washed and lowered into its coffin, which proved to be too short. Consequently the attendants spent some minutes pushing this newly dead stiffness one way and then another into the coffin, with first the head and then the feet protruding grotesquely and comically. Most children will laugh at solemn occasions, not knowing what else to do with heavy emotions. For the poet, this ludicrous scene has occupied a fundamental place in the imagination and is one of several early experiences largely responsible for the ironic attitude towards death so prevalent in his work. Only later does such an attitude become philosophy. Its roots are emotional and imagistic, and, of course, must essentially remain so for poetry.
There is much to be gained from Layton's affectionate and enthusiastic discussions of the teachers who inspired him, the first poets he encountered, and the early loves, one mixed inextricably with the politics of the radical left. It is surprising to learn how fervently embroiled he was in the politics of the time: loudly vocal at Horn's cafeteria in Montreal where the ardent intellectuals met, constantly speech-making in his student days at Macdonald College. He admits ruefully that he can now see the shallow egotism in his dogmatism, and that he might better have spent his energy on romance. The book has things also to say about bad teaching and its assumption that all poets were either English or dead. As Layton puts it, had the approach to poetry been less academic generally, his voice might not have been so extreme in its condemnation of cultural sterility.
The final chapters of Waiting for the Messiah deal with some crucial literary history, involving such figures as Louis Dudek, A. M. Klein, F. R. Scott, A. J. M. Smith, P. K. Page, and John Sutherland and those pioneering literary magazines that put Canadian literature on the map: Preview, First Statement, Northern Review. The portraits of his peers are both loving and incisive. Dudek's laughter is described as Voltairean compared to Layton's Rabelaisian guffaw. After the famous handball game played between them to decide who was the better poet, Dudek asks Layton whether he thinks himself a major poet. The reply, half-jokingly, is ‘Yes.’ This unshakeable perception of himself as a major poetic force has propelled Layton's life and work.
This section of the book ties the man, for better and for worse, to his fate as a writer and brings earlier experiences abruptly forward. ‘I've always found sinners more exciting to be with than saints, restless curiosity if not character making me one of the former,’ says the poet. Such an observation also reminds us that the Montreal Layton knew seemed to be one of brothels and churches in about equal measure. Here is an example of the many extreme and colourful contradictions that account for Layton's poetic understanding of life as a balancing act, a tightrope upon which the artist, the lover, and the philosopher balance precariously and magnificently.
Layton's early life with Betty Sutherland was a heroic struggle. Their material circumstances being meagre, they apparently lived on love and poetry. Layton does not romanticize any of this. As he puts it, ‘My sole aim was to write poems.’ Finally, he had arrived at the fact that would control his existence, the fact that would at various times throughout his career demand the sacrifice of relationships, self-esteem, and comfort. Waiting for the Messiah's final event is Layton's difficult refusal of a teaching job that would have made him financially secure but removed him from the creative milieu of Montreal in which he was so feverishly producing. This refusal was made with Betty's full blessing, and it identifies the cost of creation. The truest book about Irving Layton, poet, must fully explore this cost upon his life and upon his work.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5414
SOURCE: Lewis, Joanne. “Irving's Women: A Feminist Critique of the Love Poems of Irving Layton.” Studies in Canadian Literature 13, no. 2 (1988): 142-56.
[In the following essay, Lewis examines the attitudes toward women in the themes, images, and literary strategies of Layton's love poetry, comparing the sexist, misogynistic, and anti-feminist qualities of his poems with similar opinions gleaned from his personal life.]
Brief to Irving
I open your latest book of eighty-two poems another blitzkreig and see you're taking up the cudgels against another wife: I wonder how she's taking it? I see. She's leaking headaches trembling in corners already and she's only had two years of you. The reason, perhaps, appears on page 75 you squirm over your neighbour's crotch …
After twenty years I am still angry I will say it for us all Faye, Aviva, Harriet, myself: We're not, Irving, merely strumpets for your pleasure; we're almost numerous enough your wives to unionize, vote you out if you think that makes poetry you've got another wife coming. …
—Boschka Layton, unpublished poem
For more than four decades, Irving Layton's poetry has dazzled, puzzled, astonished, and outraged its readers. Not content to let his work speak for itself. Layton has chosen the role of public poet, taking and making every opportunity to voice his opinion and hurl his invective at the universe in general, and at Canadian society in particular. Many of Layton's more than forty published volumes of poetry are prefaced by scathing attacks on those who would shackle a poet's imagination; over the years he has used the media and the lecture hall to passionately and publicly decry social injustice. But perhaps his loudest and most sustained protest has been against a restrictive puritanism that inhibits the celebration and expression of human sexuality.
Hundreds of Layton's poems are written for and about women. More than one volume of his love poems is dedicated to Miss Benjamin, a grade six teacher, who, according to Layton, awakened his erotic impulses and inspired the “horny pre-adolescent” to write his first sensual poem.1
Layton's love poetry however, is neither a celebration of women nor an enduring tribute to the women who have touched his life; yet to call his poetry sexist, to brand him a male chauvinist and leave it at that, does little but to state the obvious. A close examination of Layton's work, applying some of the theories of feminist criticism, reveals his immature attitude toward women and sex, and his belief that men are superior, both physically and intellectually, to women. It also exposes Layton as a misogynist, with a particular hatred and fear of the woman artist.
In Layton's prefaces and introductions to his work, in his letters and interviews, the public Layton has as much to say about women as Layton the poet. His real life relationships with women speak volumes more, and the women themselves have not been silent. Should a critical analysis of Layton's poetry draw on these extraneous factors rather than make a conscious attempt to separate the life of the poet from his poems? A feminist critique makes it imperative that such a separation does not take place. As Sandra Gilbert articulates eloquently in her essay “What do Feminist Critics Want?”, an essential element in a feminist critique of literary texts is to decode and demystify the disguised questions and answers that have always shadowed the connections between textuality and sexuality, genre and gender, psychosexual identity and cultural authority;2 to these I would add, in the case of Layton, connections between Layton-the-man, as evidenced by his life and his public self, and Layton-the-artist, as expressed in his poetry.
Why Layton writes about women is simply put in his forward to Love Poems: he is turned on by them. While other poets, like Wordsworth, for instance, are inspired by daffodils, Layton treasures “the sight of firm-titted women walking on Avenue Road or St. Catherine St.”. He is quick to point out that, like Wordsworth who did not pluck every daffodil he celebrated, he (Layton) has not plucked every woman for which he has written the poems which “lay gratefully between the covers of the book.” He goes on to say that Miss Benjamin, “the fleshly incarnation of … desire” has been reincarnated in all women he has known since then. What he has left unsaid, but what is clear to a careful reader of his work, is that, for him, women and sex are synonymous. Layton acknowledges, too, that his love poems could just as easily be called hate poems “for surely love and hate are two sides of the coin we call sexual interest or desire”. He attributes his ability to capture the “glory and carnage of the love emotion” to his personal knowledge of the “agony and exaltation” of love. An examination of Layton's poetry for the juxtaposition of images of violence and death with images of women and sex, moreover, exposes a thinking which goes beyond the romantic idea of the agony and ecstasy of love.
Layton insists that all words in the English language should be available to the writer, and asserts that there can indeed be beauty, power and majesty in vulgarity. In this regard Layton played a crucial role in transforming Canadian standards.3 But the language of Layton's poetry does more than break the puritan embargo on writing about sexuality in sexually explicit terms; it degrades both women and human sexuality.
A recurring negative image of woman in Layton's poetry presents the female as minus male. The theory of penis envy which underlies Freud's psychology of women had led to the erroneous, but widely held, idea that men are uniquely qualified to supplement woman's lack and to fill the void which the absence of a penis has created in the female anatomy. It is expected that woman, in turn, will show her gratitude by submissiveness. In “The Tamed Puma,” Layton writes: “I plug the void with my phallus / and making love on bed or carpet / we transfigure pitchblack nothingness / into a tamed puma whose whiskers / we stroke between enrapturing kisses” (LP [Love Poems] 108-09). Here the vagina is not only a void, a nothingness, but the vulva becomes a carnivorous animal tamed for the moment by the stroking phallus. Layton subscribes to a masculinist ethos that woman's highest purpose is as a receptacle for the omnipotent sperm. A lover's art, according to him in “A Roman Jew to Ovid,” is to “pump seed into her sweetest parts,” for “women are mystics / that semen tranquillizes” (“Beach Acquaintance”) [The Collected Poems of Irving Layton].4 Unpoetically, Layton reinforces the sentiment with this insult he roared at Margaret Atwood at a poetry reading: “Women are only good for screwing, men are good for screwing plus!” (Cameron 372).
In addition to being presented as a void to be plugged, female genitalia are also depicted as dirty and repulsive. He writes of “hairy, black-pit vaginas” (“Sourwine Sparkle” CP 500) and in “The Pit” (CP [Collected Poems of Irving Layton] 498) he warns man that his inevitable end is to be “gulled / by a woman's insatiable / vulva.” “Women are hysterical idiots / whose holes smell of herring,” he writes in “Pilgrim” (CP 429) and “life's a cess in woman's lovely crotch” (“August Strindberg”).5 The vagina or the vulva (Layton rarely distinguishes between the two) are also referred to as a “dark, dank grove,” a “hairy monster,” a “passion-moist nest,” and, less imaginatively, as a wet snatch, a ditch, a naked twat, a crease, a cockmuff, and a cunt, to name a few of Layton's more popular metaphors.
While denigrating female genitalia, Layton elevates the phallus to god-like status and celebrates the power and “magical touch of the extended phallus” (“Sourwine Sparkle” CP 500). The poet calls for woman to join in the celebration. In “Man and Wife” he writes: “my attentive phallus / prods her and points her to the stars. / Rejoice, O woman, in the pointer!” (CP 364). Layton's belief in penis power often manifests itself in “penis as weapon” imagery. While some of Layton's phallic stabbings appear relatively harmless—“I impale you on your rumpled bed” (“Modern Love” CP 204), or “I plunge like a corkscrew / into her softness” (“Woman” CP 208)—many display more violence; in “Thoughts in the Water” Layton writes:
I feel her deep vibrations as if a seaplane had plunged his ruinous shadow like a sword through her coiling body.
In “Lust” the phallic stabbing becomes a death wish—the verbal representation of a snuff film:
I could stab you with it, plunging it again and again into the vile softness of your body that I might see your eyes glaze up with death as once with sex.
Layton brings sex, violence and death together in a shockingly repulsive way that expresses a fear and a hatred of women and an obscene desire to dominate them. In “The Sparks Fly,” Layton lists some of the things that provoke him into writing. His muses include “wives, womenfriends” and the “orgasmless women of Hampstead.” “Their everyday politics / is diseased sex;” he says, and it is “out of their crushed limbs / I also make poems” (CP 76-77). In “Poet and Woman,” he acknowledges, not unlike many poets, that hurt and pain stir his creative impulses, but his imagery is particularly violent: “I sing loudest when my throat is cut.” Woman is his muse and his executioner.
I handed her the razorblade she lovingly slashed my throat with. After, when she was sluicing the blood into the enamelled urn my sorrow was that I could not thank her.
Once again he links violence and death with sex; in this case, his “greatest poem” is a celebration of the phallus: “the one she sings to the hairy Cyclops on her bed.”6 In the sacrificial killing in this poem, the throat slashed lovingly and the blood gathered in an urn are rituals reserved for the male victim. Not so for the woman in “Portrait of Nolady.” The poet wonders what he can do with a woman who shows the poetry he writes for her to her other lovers to make them jealous. In addition to erasing her identity by denying her a name (nolady), he notes: “I could have her whipped; / with a safety razor / slash deep red trenches / from welt to welt” (CP 287). In “Modern Lyric,” another traitoress meets an untimely death while making love. In a field where “skulls were bashed” and “blood had made its own gutters,” the poet pulled his “girl” down and, as he held her head and kissed her eyes, “slashed the traitoress' neck veins” (CP 459). In “The Worm,” Layton once again combines images of sex and death, prompted in this instance, by the poet's jealousy. Knowing his lover lies
whimpering in another man's arms I picture you stretched out, a stiffened corpse and your cold vagina extruding a solitary pink worm.
Many of Layton's poems show a double standard at work when sex is involved, and often his attack on the unfaithful or lustful woman involves a distorted variation on the theme of male phallus/female void. When he is overcome with passion, his penis fills the void; when the passion is hers and the penis is not his, the woman's vagina becomes an orifice which extrudes a worm (in the case of an unfaithful lover) or in “He Saw Them, At First,” he writes of “lustful women whose vaginas were nests / from which mice scampered out from time to time” (CP 442). There are countless other instances of sex/death imagery in Layton's poetry—he sums up this juxtaposition himself in “The Camera Eye.” Life's gross indecencies are, according to him, “killing & fucking” (GB [The Gucci Bag] 98).
Since, according to Layton, “women are only good for screwing,” his physical description of women is particularly gross when the poem is not specifically about “screwing.” “Women are repulsive mammals / without souls” whose bodies, at fifty, are “misshapen and sexless” and whose faces are either a “blob of painted flesh,” “warped leather,” or “a warp in the void” (“Three on a Park Bench” CP 518). He describes “a middle-aged harpy” as a “hunk of powdered and perfumed meat” in “At Desjardins” (CP 261). Male supremacy and power are complete in “Everything in the Universe Has Its Place.” Woman, when “no longer loved” and her body “no longer desired,” becomes a “heavy insupportable weight,” its “orifices useless,” to be “dragged from room to room” (GB 33) by the poet.
Feminist writer Eva Figes argues that the idea of submission is inherent in the way we make love, man on top, woman underneath.7 If power structures replicate coital postures, it is interesting to observe the male's position in several of Layton's poems: “My back's sunburnt / from so much love-making” (“Look the Lambs Are All Around Us!”), “Cythera all night / at my silvered back” (“Song for a Late Hour”), “letting my squat body pin you to the ground” (“Dans Le Jardin”), all suggest the man on top.8 When the position is reversed, “she rode me like Joan of Arc,” the woman on top is seen as an anomaly—the poem is titled “A Strange Turn” (CP 100). The woman as Joan of Arc recalls a female who wore “male” clothing and is associated with human traits of bravery, courage and valour, qualities which men have traditionally appropriated as “masculine” characteristics.
Layton's fear of women is displayed in his poetry through images which portray the female as destructive and castrating. “And why is it / when woman says, / ‘I love you’ / her mouth begins / to work curiously / as if she were getting ready / for a meal?” he asks in “Questions” (CP 269). He uses insect imagery often in this regard. Stung awake by a mosquito, the poet says to his lover “my first thought / is of you” (“Nocturne” CP 531). In a poem to one of his wives, “For Aviva, Because I Love Her,” he describes himself as a huge bee being picked apart and devoured by a “voluptuous spider” (CP 34). In “When Hourly I Praised,” the poet decries the fact that his lover's lips have been forged by Satan “to singe my wings, / to crisp me like a moth” (GB 36). A woman's thighs are “knives in my temples” in “Eros” (CP 90), and the castrating “Woman in the Square” dispatches the bellhop with “her blade-like arm” (CP 144). In another violently crude poem, “Mr. Ther-apis,” Layton attempts to equate what he saw as the sterility of middle-class married males with primitive Greek rites; he depicts a wife castrating her husband (Cameron 234). As he explored his own situation involving two of his wives in letter after letter to Desmond Pacey and others, he launched into diatribes expostulating about D. H. Lawrence's warnings to males against castration by females, sounding more Lawrencian than Lawrence (Cameron 286). In his often quoted foreward to A Red Carpet for the Sun, the collection of poems which won him the Governor General's award for poetry, Layton blames “modern women … cast in the role of furies striving to castrate the male” for rendering the “male's creative role of revelation superfluous.”9 Dorothy Rath, a woman with whom he cultivated a long letter-writing relationship, reiterates her agreement with Layton's idea of the castrating female. In a letter to Layton, she says: “Women instinctively want to look up to their men but sadly many of them cut them down to their own size after they get them. As you say, they castrate them.”10
Language is a powerful human tool, and feminist critics have begun to ask what role it plays in maintaining and perpetuating existing social structures and what contribution it makes to a sexist world view.11 The idea of male superiority and female inferiority is reinforced by male/dominant and female/muted linguistic positions. Layton displays a poet's belief in the power of words. In “The Tamed Puma” he shows how words can be used constructively: “I place on the brow of every woman I love / a crown made from the choicest words; / I dress her like a woodland queen / in trope and metaphor” (LP 108). A poet's words can just as easily be used destructively. In “Vita Aeterna,” when a “wretched woman” taunts the poet by saying “poetry is one thing, life another,” he concludes she is right, “for her brief days will soon be over / but she will live infamous in his poems forever” (GB 30). In “The Seduction,” he recounts a chauvinistic prescription for seducing a woman with words:
First he knocks her down by assaulting her soul; telling her she's vain, superficial and adding—to drive his point home— that she is frivolous and terribly, terribly selfish.
The poet goes on to explain how this tactic works: the woman is filled with remorse; remorse is a “sure-fire aphrodisiac” in women; their contrition is a variant form of vanity, and vanity is a “quickener / of the sexual appetite.” The poet judges the right moment, when the woman is “sufficiently broken, / humbled and contrite,” to toss her a compliment “as one tosses a bone to a famished bitch.” The seduction is complete. The woman's “gratitude is immense” and she expresses this gratitude by stretching out in “perfect humility” while the poet “rises beautifully to the occasion” and “dazes her with sweet, forgiving kisses.”
Layton's work reveals a belief that the power of the male (as poet) over language gives him the sexual power and control over women. His poem for Jackie Kennedy, “Why I Don't Make Love to the First Lady,” reveals his egocentric, if playful, conviction that the poet is sexually irresistible:
Of course I could have her! In a flash, with a snap of my fingers: An arrogant magician, I'd put words under her perfect feet and make her fly to me. She'd land in my arms reciting one of my poems.
Layton's notion of the poet's sexual power over the woman takes on mythic proportions in his own life. He writes to Desmond Pacey of reading some of his erotic poems to an audience of school girls in Toronto:
But after awhile they relaxed their guards and let their smiles and juices run naturally over their upper and lower parts. When at the end I said I'd better stop reading or they wouldn't be able to sleep at night, they looked at one another with a knowing lasciviousness … In the meantime, of course, my hands had been stroking their hidden and delicious parts, squeezing them with an energy that only an imagination fired by erotic poetry and frustration can muster.
This power of the word is not one Layton sees as available to women. Many of Layton's students have been women, and ostensibly he is an encouraging and helpful teacher. He became well known for his “coffee romances,” the meetings he arranged over the years with a number of his female students and admirers, many of them aspiring to be writers, where they discussed and argued poetry for long hours over endless cups of coffee. Many of his “coffee romances” went well beyond the chit-chat stage and led to sexual liaisons (Cameron 266). The dichotomy between the concerned teacher/poet and the lecherous demagogue is captured in Layton's own words in a poem titled “Misunderstanding,” a play on the words Miss, understanding:
I placed my hand upon her thigh. By the way she moved away I could see her devotion to literature was not perfect.
Layton's poetry often puts these adoring females in an explicitly sexual context. In “Homage to Lucullus,” he speaks of the “repressed virgins” (CP 262) bringing him their bad poetry each year. Furthermore, in “The Sparks Fly,” he shows outright contempt for his students: “for kicks, I sometimes speak / the lines of a poem / to the caged astonished dimwits / then wait for the gibbonous screech” (CP 76). For a woman writer to show potential, she must overcome the handicap of her womanhood—she must transcend her sex. One woman, an aspiring poet who had a coffee romance with Layton recalls: “He told me he liked my poems because, unlike most women writers, I was able to transcend myself” (Cameron 439).
Layton continually registers surprise when the “trivial, empty-headed” darlings of his poems show any sign of intelligence. In “Aftermath,” he is incredulous that the woman he held in his arms a few minutes before, “eyes glazed, bubbling spit” sits composed and “ladylike” talking about “Portuguese wines, / Africa, grief, and Napoleon III” (CP 286). In “Betrayal,” the poet is floored when his “lumpish mistress” espouses “a new thought / in radical politics / —one which he had not given her!” (CP 243). He does not even consider that she could be expressing her own opinion. Since the thought is not his, and must have come from another man, he takes this as evidence she has betrayed him with a new lover.
The extreme act of male supremacy is to mute the woman altogether, and Layton constructs woman's silence with images of wordlessness. In “The Furrow,” a rent in the windowscreen reminds the poet of “her mouth, always / open … but wordless, mere wire, it says nothing” (GB 46). In “Absence,” he says to his love, “I make a silence / out of your name” (CP 573), and, in “Talk at Twilight,” he says of his lover's voice “I smother it / in a blanket of silence” (CP 474).
It becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to defend Layton's poetry as a protest against inhibition and prudishness. Apologies for him, such as Louis Dudek's made in the late 1950s, that the colonial gentility of English Canada could not assimilate his sensibilities,12 no longer ring true. Cameron uses the analogy of a boxer still punching after his opponent has left the ring as she points out that the puritanism Layton once attacked has virtually disappeared from the Canadian literary scene (404).
Nowhere has Layton been more out of touch with the times than in his attitude toward the feminist movement. He is proud to be considered the archetypal male chauvinist pig. He writes to Pacey in 1972: “Skirts going up and pantyhose coming down—that's the only kind of dialectics I'm interested in nowadays” (Cameron 404). To Dorothy Rath he writes of his plans to visit Roumania: “They say that the women of Roumania are beautiful and corrupt which is just the way I like them. Also they've probably never heard of Women's Lib, which is an additional point in their favour” (Layton and Rath 179). At the same time as feminist writers like Kate Millet and Betty Friedan were working to open eyes and raise the collective consciousness of society, Layton, the self-professed liberator of the spirit, writes to Pacey, after appearing on a CBLT-TV “Life Style” program with Kate Millet:
My native chivalry with women stopped me from cracking her on the head, which is what she was really asking for. She's a militant ignoramus whose book Sexual Politics, I now suspect was ghost-written. … She's a menace, not to men, but to her own sex; and if women know what's good for them … they'll shut her up as soon as possible. … Beside her, that other prick-envying communist, Betty Friedan, is an intellectual giant.
Freedom was fine for men, but not for women. Layton's diatribes against feminists verbalized his attitude toward his wives and lovers. He presumably found the idea of male and female equality threatening and untenable. He continually sought escape from middle-class stability and morality, but, even in bohemia, woman's “place” was not on the same plane as man's. With his first wife, Faye, he was both married and “free.” She represented the smothering comfort of a food-centered woman from which he longed to escape. He used her when he needed her, although he felt no particular commitment to the marriage (Cameron 118). Layton says the “hideousness” of his “plight” provided him with a new definition of marriage: two strangers using the same toilet bowl.13 Betty Sutherland (later Boschka Layton) was an artist herself and offered him a life of bohemian unworldliness, spiced with sexual adventure and freedom from pressure to earn money or raise a family. Yet Layton was shocked by Betty's casualness when it came to housekeeping and expected her to iron his shirts (Cameron 224-25). Aviva Layton, also a free spirit and a writer, shared a supposedly open marriage with Layton but was still expected to know her domestic place. She tells how he would come through the door shouting “Dinner! Aviva! Tea!” (Cameron 374). The double standard Layton adhered to in his relationships, his expectation that woman's “place” was either to be involved in sexual activity or in domestic pursuits, is captured graphically in a sketch done in anger by Betty after Layton began having an affair with Aviva. It shows Aviva laid out on a kitchen table, Layton's huge, blackmaned head between her legs (Cameron 273).
Layton's poetry conveys no sentiment to the contrary. Two poems quoted below encapsulate his anti-feminist credo and confirm his misogyny. The first is “Teufelsdrôckh Concerning Women”:
Women are stupid. They're cunning but they're stupid. Life with a capital L wants it that way. They're cunning with their clefts Where nothing can dislodge it Not even Phil 301 at Queen's or Varsity. Women will never give the world a Spinoza, A Wagner or a Marx; Some lab technicians and second-rate poets, yes, But never an Einstein or a Goethe. Vision is strictly a man's prerogative, So's creativity Except for a handful of female freaks With hair on their chins and enlarged glands.(14)
As Cameron points out, poems such as this are not likely to speak to a generation that turned to Margaret Atwood for consciousness-raising about sex roles (406). “Overheard in a Lavabo” reveals what Layton sees as the real threat of feminism—the weakening of men's power over women, as women begin to liberate themselves from the oppressive male ideal of sensuality and submissiveness:
Between marxism and feminism the modern American female has become as sensual as an iron gate She talks liberation but it's Calvin that's in her joints and seals her lovely orifices She inhabits her body as if it were on hire to be returned after its use to Madame Tussaud's waxworks I'd rather fuck a stovepipe for at least warmth if not fire once passed through it(15)
Layton claims vision and creativity as a man's perogative and is threatened when he encounters such qualities in a woman. Most of the women in Layton's life have been artists themselves, poets, writers, and painters, yet it is woman's power to create he fears most. He associated a bohemian, artistic life style with sexual freedom, so he sought out women he felt measured up (or down) to his standards. Yet their creative work was not to be pursued at the expense of what he considered “women's work,” that is providing the domestic comforts which allowed him the freedom to create. Although Betty was an accomplished painter, for instance, social evenings at their home centered on his work, and often guests were completely unaware that Betty was an artist (Cameron 226-27).
The protagonists of Aviva Layton's novel Nobody's Daughter are thinly disguised representations of her and Layton. A line from Aviva's fiction captures the essence of Layton's compulsion to gather women around him: “Alex [the fictional Layton] was terrified of the power of women. That's why he surrounded himself with them—they diffused one another. There was safety in numbers—or so he thought.”16 This fear of women's creative power is borne out in Layton's poetry by the way he uses images of menstruation, pregnancy, and birth. That he associates these images with the creative process is clear from the way he uses them in relation to himself: his times without writing are times of “barrenness,” he describes the state of readiness to write as his head feeling like “a cloud pregnant with rain,” and he refers to poetic inspiration as a “great impregnation” (Cameron 353-54). When associated with women in his poetry, the same imagery is used negatively. In “Lady Macbeth,” he attacks the “bloody communist / with a red flag between her legs,” exposing his immature and anti-feminist bias toward the “foul state” and “defilement” of a menstruating woman.17 In “Man and Wife,” he describes the loss of maleness and individuality, and the death of creativity and freedom, in terms of returning to the womb. He sees this as more abhorrent than being left to lie “in the field, the filthy ditch, / the busy metropolitan street” (CP 364). In “For My Incomparable Gypsy,” he degrades the physical changes which occur with pregnancy. He acknowledges that “brain and instinct are programmed / to infecundate all beauty” but restrains himself from contributing to the “pukes and the rounded belly” of pregnancy. While he gives her leave to “go fuck and fill your womb with child,” he prefers to have woman's unpregnant beauty celebrated in a poem or painting: “The beauty that nature would fill / with pregnancies I'd keep sterile / forever, to be gazed at, not touched: / a poem, a canvas under glass” (LP106-07). “Bicycle Pump” contains a repulsive image of the pregnant woman as a faulty, blown tire. Note as well the coital position of the male while he mechanically pumps away to fill her void:
The idle gods for laughs gave man his rump; In sport, so made his kind that when he sighs In ecstasy between a woman's thighs He goes up and down, a bicycle pump; And his beloved once his seed is sown Swells like a faulty tube on one side blown.
For Layton, the pregnant woman presented a flesh-and-blood delivery of a life that was more alive than his poems. Woman, then, was the very paradigm of creativity. He explored this notion in his correspondence with Pacey (Cameron 354). He feared it was an experience from which he was forever excluded and one with which he could not compete.
Irving Layton's status as a poet, as a user of language, cannot be denied. His work is sexist and grossly anti-feminist, but the sheer volume of that work, Layton's longevity, and his public presence have firmly entrenched him in our literary canon. As long as readers and students continue to buy his books and study his poetry, it is important that critics not ignore him. Dale Spender argues in Man Made Language that language is not neutral. It is not only a vehicle which carries ideas, but it is a shaper of ideas as well. This makes language a paradox for human beings: it is both a creative and inhibiting medium. When sexist language and sexist theories are culturally available, the observation of reality is also likely to be sexist, and by this means sexism can be perpetuated and reinforced (Spender 139-41). So what does one do with Irving Layton? Perhaps a feminist critique is the only valid approach to the work of such a poet.
Sandra Gilbert's answer to the question “what do feminist critics want?”, offers a challenge to readers and critics of literature. As she points out, feminist critics are undertaking a rigorous and responsible re-vision of women, of traditions, and of texts.
Such re-visions should function in two ways: as new visions or understandings of our literary lives and as new versions or transformations of those lives. Both approaches suggest a possibility that few people have taken seriously since the Romantic period: the possibility … that through literary study we can renew our lives.
If a feminist reading of Layton contributes to the understanding and leads to a transformation, then let the Messiah keep coming!
Irving Layton, foreward, The Love Poems of Irving Layton (Toronto: McClelland, 1980) n. pag. Further references to this volume will be indicated by the abbreviation LP.
In Elaine Showalter ed., The New Feminist Criticism (London: Virago, 1986) 36.
Elspeth Cameron, Irving Layton: A Portrait (Toronto: Stoddart, 1985) 404.
The Collected Poems of Irving Layton (Toronto: McClelland, 1971) 328, 432. Further references to this volume will be abbreviated as CP.
Irving Layton, The Gucci Bag (Toronto: McClelland, 1983) 54. Further references to this volume will be abbreviated as GB.
All these quotations are from “Poet and Woman,” CP 107.
Patriarchal Attitudes, cited by K. K. Ruthven, Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984) 46.
See CP 134, 30, 216.
Irving Layton, foreword, A Red Carpet for the Sun (Toronto: McClelland, 1959) n. pag.
Irving Layton and Dorothy Rath, An Unlikely Affair (Oakville: Mosaic, 1980) 136.
Dale Spender, Man Made Language (London: Routledge, 1985) 81.
Seymour Mayne, ed., introduction. Irving Layton: The Poet and His Critics (Toronto: McGraw, 1978) 7.
Irving Layton. Waiting for the Messiah: A Memoir (Toronto: McClelland, 1985) 206.
Irving Layton, Lovers and Lesser Men (Toronto: McClelland, 1973) 85.
Irving Layton, For My Neighbours in Hell (Oakville: Mosaic, 1980) 28.
(Toronto: McClelland, 1982) 147.
Irving Layton, Final Reckoning: Poems 1982-1986 (Oakville: Mosaic, 1987) 36.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196
SOURCE: Owens, Judith. “Love's Trials.” Canadian Literature, nos. 124-25 (spring-summer 1990): 369-73.
[In the following excerpt, Owens comments on the structure, imagery, language, and themes of Final Reckoning.]
Irving Layton's Final Reckoning: Poems 1982-1986 marks his 75th birthday and, as the occasion and the title might suggest, the volume asks to be read as a summation, a marshalling of some of Layton's characteristic concerns and themes. Layton remains, as he puts it in the Acknowledgement, an “unsparing critic of his society's cultural values,” sounding indictments—against complacency, self-deception, mediocrity—in voices which range from the wry to the peevish to the scornful to the reflective. He remains, too, the celebrant, rejoicing in passion and creativity, delighting in love. He contemplates the “comedy” of life, with its death masks, its “weavings of weddings and holocausts,” its forebodings of doomsday, striking, by turns, postures of defiance or detachment, even equanimity.
Although the volume shows no encompassing design or structure, the poems follow a careful ordering, forming groups and pairs of poems which comment on one another. The volume opens, for example, with “Dionysians in a Bad Time,” a poem tracing the decline of two writers, Strindberg and Kazantzakis, into guilt and angst and a Christianity which kills heart, spirit, and desire: “At the end,” one closed his eyes and “mumbled pieties”; the other “crowed once and fell silent, / numbed by the stellar chill, the vacuity / human swarms make / beneath immense star clusters moving in empty space.” These artists admit defeat and defeat themselves by closing their eyes and falling silent. In the next poem, “Carmen,” Layton sets Carmen's passion, “lawless, always off-limits,” against fear and rage and the murderous repression of desire which, in the end, “translates” Carmen's “insolent lust / into the chill perfection of death.” Until that happens, says the poet, “let fair Carmen prance and dance.” Carmen's triumph, however, her life-affirming dance, remains provisional, destined to end in her murder at each performance, and her spiritedness remains an unthinking, instinctual resistance to all that would stifle and suppress. The next poem reflects upon the first two by suggesting that the artist can resist wittingly and so, perhaps, enduringly. In “For Ettore, With Love and Admiration,” Layton speaks of an artist whose religious vision is far removed from conventional pieties, and whose landscapes acknowledge nature's indifference, nature as “primal terrorist,” but who does not, so to speak, fall silent in the face of vacuity: “above the gloom and doom of your dark lawns,” says Layton, rises the “laughter of your wild white roses, / your hollyhock and thistle and chickory.” “Dear friend,” Layton concludes, “one day you will bury [death] in one of your landscapes.” An artist like this can triumph, as Carmen cannot, as the artists described in the first two poems emphatically do not, and as the artist in the next poem, “Tristezza,” fails to do. Not without skill or discipline, this artist, who paints “canvas after canvas after canvas” of the Po and “of the same young woman whose hair / he colored differently, each time / doing some altering thing / to her neck or mouth,” does not see into the life of things, does not see what the narrator sees, that “the river could be the woman's unshed tears.” Most tellingly, his art has no resonance; it engenders only silence.
Such a vision of what constitutes an adequate artistic response implicitly makes large claims for art's enduring vitality and efficacy. At other moments, Layton adopts a stance which renders human endeavour transitory, and resistance meaningless. In “Etruscan Tombs,” the poet visits ancient tombs with a friend who spent his “best years” in a concentration camp, “menaced … with gun and whip / … made [to] slaver for crusts / urine-soiled and stale; / … made to kneel in shit.” The poet draws away from that grimly particularized image of suffering and here at “this remote scene” draws comfort—and abstractions—from the perspective afforded by the tombs:
these blank eyes sculpted from grove and hill and rock before which the centuries have passed unseen comfort me; inuring me, I say, to the sorrows our humanity compels us to inflict on each other. They teach me to live the free hours with gusto.
The poem closes on a balanced note which forges an equivalence between the friend's pain and the poet's pleasure: “Nothing endures for ever. / Your pain, my pleasure, the seconds bear away.” That the poet, near the start of the poem, asks his friend's “pardon” for his “abstracted gaze,” suggests that he perceives something sinful in reducing to “seconds” the “years” of his friend's pain, in retreating from grimly immediate detail to the abstract diction which permits him to contemplate sorrow from an unfeeling distance. In its own way, the poet's “abstracted gaze” signals a retreat from any messianic mission, a retreat as marked as that of Strindberg and Kazantzakis.
In “Twentieth Century Gothic,” Layton returns to the stance of a messianic poet—he's “God's recording angel loosed in a roaring desert”—but he is reduced to silence, dismayed by the fanaticism of holy men who “beseech the deaf walls,” dismayed even more by fanaticism's opposite, by the sensibility which “turns everything commonplace, / diminishes the most barbarous event into a happening / in search of a camera.” Faced with such imperviousness, the poet-prophet can only “gape at the blind lens.”
For Layton, love remains a source of strength. At the centre of the volume are three love poems standing like a kind of sanctuary for the poet, celebrating love's power to recreate him, first as man, then as god, and finally as poet. The series traces, too, a shifting sense of the relationship between this sanctuary and the world beyond. The first of the poems, “A Madrigal for Anna,” celebrates love's power to humanize, but it does so in stanzas carefully structured to suggest the nearly overwhelming force of the world's destructive powers. The first stanza exemplifies this:
The lioness leaps upon her prey. The tyrant's teeth are white and strong. The Apocalypse is on its way. Saintliness keeps no one safe from wrong. I, knowing the unloved man's a clod, Let a woman's kisses warm my blood.
The first four lines, strongly end-stopped and moving from natural through moral and spiritual destruction to the inadequacy of human response, weigh heavily upon the lyrical, amatory moment at the end of the stanza. In the next poem, love makes of the poet's world an Eden, while in the third poem of the series, the outside world attends joyously upon the love poet: “The sun reels into my room like a pazzo,” “and butterflies alight / on the windowsill / to catch my metaphors / between their bright Sicilian wings.”
Elsewhere in the volume, Layton moves out from such sanctuary to, among other things, take aim at what he sees as the mediocrity and malice of academics and the literati, to castigate self-deceivers, to praise the heroic, to elegize, to derive comfort from the unceasing cycle of life and death, to characterize life, with its “mean compromises,” as a comedy “not worth a frog's fart.” In his final reckoning, he calls upon Zeus to “Preserve all poets mad and marvellous, / guard them from the fury of envious dust.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5269
SOURCE: Bernstein, Michael André. “Usurpations: A Poetics of Catastrophe and the Language of Jewish History.” Triquarterly, no. 79 (fall 1990): 207-19.
[In the following essay, Bernstein analyzes similarities between the rhetoric of contemporary Israeli society and the themes of Fortunate Exile, highlighting the pessimistic relationship between post-1967 Jewish poetry and Judaic history.]
I've yoked together my large silence and my small outcry.
—Yehuda Amichai, And That Is Your Glory
Give all your nights to the study of Talmud
By day practice shooting from the hip
—Irving Layton (“Recipe for a Long and Happy Life”)
Initially, one of the most arresting features of many Orthodox settlements erected in the occupied West Bank since 1967 is their large percentage of North American and British-born members. Still more striking, though, is the fact that these late-coming pioneers, often fundamentalist in their religion and far-right in their politics, characteristically arrived in Israel only after, and in part as a response to, the spectacular dangers and victories of the Six-Day War. Yet when we hear their voices, New Jersey or Toronto intonations still unmistakable in-and-through the shared Biblical provenance of their affirmations, what emerges is a seamless tale of a people persecuted and hated even in their own land, victims of an unbroken chain of atrocities from the destruction of the Second Temple to the Arab Riots of the late 1930's. And, invoked as a kind of ultimate exemplary warning, there is the still more catastrophic story of European Jewry, hurtled from pogroms to expulsions until a millennial anti-Semitism culminated in the utter horror of the Shoah.
Now, in a fundamental sense, it is true that all of these narratives are a central portion of every Jew's heritage. But their specific historical, psychological and ethical proportion, as one element in the enormously complex and variegated unfolding of post-Exilic Jewish experience, needs to be assessed with tremendous care and with a continuing sense of concrete distinctions, in order to avoid misappropriating their meaning. Too many vital questions are elided when the litany of catastrophes is invoked so regularly and rapidly, whether alone to oneself, to native Israeli writers and political figures on the Left, or to the foreign press and television commentators.
The first question, surely, is as much a poetic—in the deepest meaning of imaginative recreation—as a political puzzle. How and by what psychological or spiritual mechanisms can these children of the prosperous suburbs speak with such total identification—as though they had actually been there—about, for example, the February 1948 Arab attacks on the three settlements of Ein Hanatziv, Sde Eliahu and Tirat Tzvi, let alone about the, in every sense unimaginable, universe of the death camps? The usual “liberal” explanation for this phenomenon is that the invocation of these horrors has a strictly polemical aim: to justify a policy of No Retreat from the Territories, No Surrender of an Inch [af sha'al is one of the official slogans of the ultra-orthodox Gush Emunim movement] of Sacred Land on the grounds that in a world of murderous anti-Semites negotiation is in every case a futile, if not a suicidal, delusion. Each concession, in this view, simply gives renewed hope to men who want only to exterminate all Jews.
Undoubtedly such tactical considerations do play an important part in the way Jewish catastrophes are drawn upon, and political observers are right to underline that Menachem Begin was the first Israeli prime minister to invoke the Holocaust in almost every major address defending his policies both to his critics at home and, more particularly, to the entire American Jewish community. Today, as anyone who hears Begin's successors and disciples soon realizes, there is indeed a depressing trend in which it is primarily the history of anti-Semitic persecution and the fear of constantly new eruptions of the same contagion that justifies and legitimizes the actions of the Jewish state rather than its own positive historical values and traditions. There is a demoralizing sense in which current symptoms of such hatred, whether the Austrian support of Kurt Waldheim or the popular success of a new translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Japan are emphatically welcomed by many of the younger right-wingers as clear evidence of another impending catastrophe which only the most unyielding Israeli militancy has a chance to stave off. Thus, although I think that his account is more anecdotal than analytic, and his formulations too neat for a problem of such complexity, Thomas L. Friedman's strictures against “the ‘Yad Vasheming’ of Israel” in his recent book From Beirut to Jerusalem (e.g., his “Israel today is becoming Yad Vashem [the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem] with an airforce”) are becoming depressingly more accurate with each year. What is hard for even a sophisticated political journalist like Friedman to recognize, however, is that whether based on historical testimony or contemporary newspapers, the imagination reaches deeper than tactics and comes from more potent roots, and the sincerity of the, strictly speaking, “fictive” testimonies to a horror the speakers never witnessed for themselves, belies any purely strategic explanation. Zakhor, the Biblical commandment to remember, as Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's brilliant study by that name reminds us, has shaped Jewish consciousness throughout history, often providing the imaginative structures through which events were rendered comprehensible by fitting them into the framework of already-familiar narratives. (Thus, for example, Yerushalmi traces how, for all the enormous differences in the situation of the Jews in Eastern Europe during the seventeenth-century pogroms from that of the twelfth-century Rhineland Jews, “the two were homologized, and the writers depicted the slaughter of 1648 as a repetition of the martyrdom of the Crusades.”) Even more telling, an unsentimental reading of the Passover Haggadah as a narrative of commemoration would intensify our awareness of just how constitutive—and by the same token how historically and psychologically problematic—is the impulse in Jewish thought to see present and past as intertwined manifestations of a single pattern. Such considerations ought, perhaps, to temper our critique of the artificiality and tendentiousness of the various recent pronouncements about Jewish victimization that I have been criticizing. But finally, the impulse to qualify one's judgments must give way to the inescapable sense of sentimentalization, exploitation and personal self-aggrandizement that makes itself heard repeatedly in the cataloging of Jewish persecution as a justification for new acts of militancy and unyieldingness.
Two immediate and mutually linked differences between the kinds of temperaments Yerushalmi chronicles and the settlers with whom I am concerned are that 1) rather than being members of a scattered, militarily helpless and politically weak minority, these men are in positions of relative power and autonomy unknown since long before the destruction of the Second Temple, and 2) even more strikingly, they themselves have often never experienced any of the persecutions and hardships they invoke so luridly. Zakhor, to put the matter as concisely and polemically as possible, may be the crucial imperative of individual and communal self-identification, but it is not a political argument, a land-deed, or a license to impose one's will upon others. But, to return to my opening premises, I suspect that what is at issue here has less to do with the kind of narrative and intellectual/theological patterning that Yerushalmi analyzes and more with a kind of distinctly modern ill-ease about identity and value that may, for all its Biblical resonance, actually be quite remote from the rhythms of traditional Jewish thought.
Instead, it seems to me that for a certain kind of North American Jew, and perhaps even for Western European ones born after 1945, the very fact of having escaped the Shoah entirely, of having lived, only a few years after the liberation of the camps, amidst an unparalleled degree of physical security, religious freedom and economic prosperity, is registered as a sort of wound, a failure to bear witness or give comfort when the very survival of the Jewish people hung in the balance and the rest of the world did little or nothing to help. Once such younger Jews return to an orthodoxy their parents never practiced, and make aliyah to an Israel the same parents only visit as a privileged tourist site, tribal memories become as present and real as any purely personal history. If then, one of these men should describe in vivid detail the December 1947 murder at Ben Shemen of fourteen Jews who were taking supplies to a children's village, to make clear just why he patrols his enclave armed to the teeth with Army-issue machine guns, it is because, in the mysterious ways the human imagination parallels exactly the creation and elaboration of a faith, he has, in his mind and nerves, actually lived those earlier combats and is determined to fight them again and again until nothing remains of the galut or diaspora Jew except contempt for those whose loyalties follow different images. Or, in the most fiercely comic episode of Philip Roth's best novel, The Counterlife, the quickest way to stop being Alexander Portnoy is to metamorphose into Hanoch Zuckerman, resident of the (fictional) West Bank village of Agor and follower of the nationalist zealot Mordecai Lippman (a composite figure, part Ariel Sharon, part Meir Kahane). It is, one need hardly add, a distinctly disturbing metamorphosis.
Precisely, then, because the issues I am trying to describe are grounded, fundamentally and constitutively, in questions of the imagination and its identifications, perhaps the best way to approach them is to respect their origin sufficiently to stay within the domain of the imaginary. It may even prove especially fruitful to resist focusing on either the necessarily self-justificatory speeches of a public leader or on an overwhelmingly powerful literary work, but, instead, to locate a more modest and readily describable manifestation of the central problem we need to learn how to characterize accurately. Through its very shortcomings one such exemplum can make evident many of the features of what I have come to regard as a fundamentally corrupt relationship between a certain kind of poetics (understood in the widest sense of the term) and the exigencies of Jewish history.
Irving Layton's collection of poems, Fortunate Exile, the text I have decided to look at in this light, will not be familiar to most readers of poetry in the United States, although it is by one of Canada's most prolific and widely praised writers. Layton was born in Neamtz, Rumania, in 1912 and immigrated with his family to Montreal in 1913. Since the appearance of his first book, Here and Now, in 1945, Layton has remained intensely active in Canadian letters, but his work has also appeared in most of the principal literary journals edited in the United States, including, during its brief but historically decisive run, Robert Creeley's and Charles Olson's The Black Mountain Review. This year, McGill-Queen's University Press in Canada is scheduled to bring out Irving Layton and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, which ought to provide a fascinating glimpse of the relationship between Layton and the American poetic avant-garde. Indeed, an earlier selection of Layton's poetry called The Improved Binoculars was printed by Jonathan Williams's Jargon Books (the original publisher of Olson's Maximus Poems) in 1956 with a preface by William Carlos Williams. In Fortunate Exile, though, Layton has chosen, in his own words, to gather together all of his earlier “poems reflecting the Jews' unique and tragic encounter with history.” As such, this book promises a particularly revealing test case for exactly the question we have been posing all along and, in its unfolding, Fortunate Exile should help us to recognize better the distinctive lineaments—the responsibilities as well as the risks—of the themes that constitute its imaginative core.
Yet I suspect that by now the questions I raised in the first section about the West Bank settlers and the rhetoric of justification by the Israeli right seem quite remote from any discussion of a book of verse like Fortunate Exile. If so, however, we can begin by considering a poem like “Recipe for a Long and Happy Life,” quoted in its entirety at the outset of this essay, or these concluding lines from “For My Sons, Max and David”:
The Jew every Christian hates, having shattered his self-esteem and planted the seeds of doubt in his soul The Jew everyone seeks to destroy, having instilled self-division in the heathen
Be none of these, my sons My sons, be none of these Be gunners in the Israeli Air Force.
Layton's vision consists almost exclusively of images of the goyim's unremitting longing to exterminate the Jews (and here the contemptuous term for gentiles is the only appropriate one for his perspective), of the need to be perpetually vigilant to forestall another Shoah, and in a strained and rather sad compensatory move, of a desire for a language as violent, direct and brutal as were the instruments with which Jews were put to the slaughter:
When reading me, I want you to feel as if I had ripped your skin off; Or gouged out your eyes with my fingers; Or scalped you, and afterwards burnt your hair in the staring sockets; having first filled them with fluid from your son's lighter. I want you to feel as if I had slammed your child's head against a spike; And cut off your member and stuck it in your wife's mouth to smoke like a cigar.
(“Whom I Write For”)
Stanzas like this are less a genuine historical or racial memory than Grand Guignol-like attempts to create an emotional shock that seems entirely unearned and offensive in its gratuitousness. Although the images claim to be drawn from the storehouse of Jewish experience, their resonance is entirely solipsistic, the tropes of communal anguish brought in merely as a shrill and unearned correlative to the poet's self-aggrandizement. Layton's real fear, I suspect, a fear that, in the event, is well justified, is that his reader will feel nothing when reading him beyond a smoldering anger at his pretensions to voicing any aspect of Jewish history at all. I have yet to read, in the accounts of those who have themselves suffered at the hands of an oppressor, anyone who would commit such lines to paper or indulge in such lumpishly indiscriminate fantasies of revenge. (Imagine, for a moment, what a Primo Levi or a Jean Améry, exemplary survivors of, and witnesses to, the Shoah, would make of this stanza.) In their articulation, what such lines effect is exactly to reverse the proportions Yehuda Amichai recommends in the lines I chose for my epigraph; they have, that is, yoked together an enormously shrill outcry and a very small silence. And in so doing, even horror has become an empty cliché and outrage a hollow gesture. No doubt a psychoanalytically informed reader, coming across the lines I have already quoted or this typical opening and closing stanza from a poem called “After Auschwitz”: “My son / don't be a waffling poet; / let each word you write / be direct and honest / like the crack of a gun / … / An automatic rifle / endures / a lifetime” would be tempted to think of a diagnosis like “identifying with the aggressor,” and regard Layton's violent language as the perfect internalization of the anti-Semites' brutality. But I think that any sense of an identity constituted fundamentally by victimization is an extraordinarily problematic basis for either an individual or a group to build upon, and the sad truth is that, in contrast to the celebrated opening of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, it is “unhappy” consciousnesses that so much resemble one another in their misery. (Indeed, as Primo Levi points out, one of the cardinal sins committed by those who inflict great suffering upon others is the distortions of character with which they permanently disfigure those who were once in their power, and surely one of the primary goals of Zionism has always been precisely the overcoming of this aspect of Jewish self-characterization. How ironic, then, to see it invoked so often, not merely in Diaspora poets like Layton, but within Israel itself, and not least in its official political rhetoric.) But if the poetry of victimization, irrespective of its origin, all too often seems to press each individual expression to resemble its predecessor, there is something still more amiss when its conventions are ransacked in so arbitrary and willful a manner. Ultimately, the poems in Fortunate Exile are, in spite of their thematic preoccupation with Jewish history, exactly what Verlaine meant by the dismissive designation de la littérature—merely empty words—and their loud claims to be more only helps confirm their secondary stature.
Although it is clear that I can't help regarding Fortunate Exile as, at every level, an appalling volume imaginatively, morally and technically, the issues that it fails to confront adequately are too important not to spell out clearly. Layton's stance is symptomatic of a whole series of usurpations of Jewish history for poetic intensity, and as a negative exemplum his work assumes a kind of emblematic significance. What is cumulatively trivialized by the shrillness of all such usurpations is poetry's hope to find a language able to speak meaningfully about the hardest and most painful of human events, and what is surrendered in its easy rhetoric is the project of discovering the forms in which the history of a people can still be given memorable speech.
If the logic of my implicit comparison between Layton's poses and a certain rhetoric common to many of the post-1967 West Bank settlers should now be clear, it is just as important to emphasize the differences between the two. Most obvious, of course, is the absence of anything like a religious dimension to Layton's thought. In fact, he is proud to announce that he has freed himself from any theological doctrine or ritual observance: “From my heart I rooted out Jehovah / I spurned Moses and his Tables of Law” (“To Maoists”), and writes a number of tonally unfocused poems to Jesus, who is figured as the persecuted “brother” of the outraged and wounded artist. But what is most troubling in Layton's historical vision, and where his fantasies do intersect with one strand in the contemporary Jewish imagination, is his inability to see the unfolding of Jewish life throughout time as anything other than a wrenching from horror to horror. It is exactly against this notion of Jewish history as nothing but a Jammergeschichte, an endless tale of woe, that Gershom Sholem began his studies of Jewish kabbalistic and mystical thought, that Salo Baron undertook his monumental studies, The Jewish Community and A Social and Religious History of the Jews (18 volumes; New York: Columbia University Press, 1952-1983), and that Robert Alter, in a crucial essay on the “Deformations of the Holocaust” warned that “it is as important to study how the Jews lived as how they died.” That such warnings should be required, as indeed they all too unfortunately still are, is an index of how strong and prevalent remains the temptation to “deform” the Shoah into the center of one's conception of what it means to be a Jew. For Layton, and authors like him, there are ultimately only two kinds of Jews: the standard list of “world historical” figures whose stature everyone has long since acknowledged, and the nameless, identityless and passive victims of the world's contempt. Repeatedly, Layton makes clear that he is to be reckoned among the former, and there are times, as in these lines from “The Search,” when the naivete of his self-identifications is almost touching in its shamelessness: “Iconoclasts, dreamers, men who stood alone: / Freud and Marx, the great Maimonides / and Spinoza who defied even his own. / In my veins runs their rebellious blood.” But Layton's self-selected family romance does not stop with the list from “Jesus to Freud,” although one would have thought that a sufficiently distinguished ancestry. It is a grouping flexible enough to accommodate any Jew, so long as he is adequately famous and/or persecuted, and a murdered poet like Osip Mandelstam is instantly claimed as kin: “we yet speak to each other, brother to brother,” without any indication of where the fraternal likeness supposedly resides. But the daily life of the Jews with whose destinies Layton claims to feel such affinity is a curious blank in the volume, and they are invoked only as ghosts and ashes, empty ciphers to substantiate the enormity of Jewish victimization. Ultimately, it is a sense of life itself, in any concretely imagined density, that is desperately missing in Fortunate Exile, and without it no amount of calling on the history of Jewish martyrdom for support can make his images persuasive.
Especially revealing about the way Jewish themes are treated in this collection is how easily Layton assimilates this theme to his familiar pose of the daring, sexually charged and passionately solitary artist in a world of nerveless Philistines. The opposition of poet to bourgeois is surely one of the most exhausted of all literary tropes, and one, moreover, which received its definitive treatment precisely in German literature (Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse). Nonetheless, it remains a staple of Layton's emotional repertoire. The difficulty is that relying on such secondhand attitudes is bound to lead to secondhand (and at times wildly sexist) verse, and the volume is full of such flat pronouncements as: “I know my fellow Canadians, Osip; / … / they chew branflakes and crabmeat, gossip, make love, / take out insurance against fires and death / while our poetesses explore their depressions / in delicate complaints regular as menstruation / or eviscerate a dead god for metaphors.”
It is the very ease of such oppositions, the facility with which they can be translated from one register to another (i.e., the Jew is to the goyim as the poet is to the Philistines), that reveals how little they have been endowed with the kind of imaginative specificity upon which all art depends. But poetry finds its own ways of exposing any negligence, and here it does so by underlining the book's imaginative failures at the basic level of technique and craftsmanship. As the examples I have quoted make clear, these poems are often remarkably clumsy, distorting normal syntax and word order for the sake of a rhyme (e.g., “Tell them 'twas brother Saul's cloddish mistake; / To burn all altars and all sceptres break”); resorting to awkward archaisms in order to keep the meter (the use of words like “'twas”); and, in the poems written in free verse, introducing line breaks and indentations for no rhythmically or logically discernible reason (e.g., in the stanza I quoted earlier, “And cut off your member and stuck it in your / wife's mouth to smoke like a cigar”).
It is important, though, to be as scrupulous as possible here, especially since whatever the relationship between the esthetic achievement of a poem and its thematic content or ideological stance may be, it is not amenable to any generalizable rule. In this century alone, the examples of poets like Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats on the right, or of Bertolt Brecht and Louis Aragon on the left, remind us how readily works of indisputable significance can espouse morally and politically pernicious positions, and all too often discussions of poetry's political significance have done little more than catalog judgments about the ideological stance of a given work according to the particular critic's fixed conception of which attitudes merit approval and which deserve censure. In the Israeli context, no matter how dubious one may be about Uri Zvi Greenberg's “passionate identification of personal experience with Jewish messianic destiny, and a deep-rooted belief in the eternal enmity between ‘the Star of David’ and ‘the Cross and the Crescent,’” (the description is T. Carmi's), his poetry would have to be included in any account of important twentieth-century Hebrew verse. What is different in Layton's case is that unlike the other authors I have listed, his language is not “made new” or even distinctly his own in response to a newly felt exigency: the tropes and rhythms of his putatively Jewish verse are merely, as in the transfer from the sexual or the bourgeois-versus-poet clichés I quoted, shifted inappropriately and arbitrarily from one register to another. It is a combination of the sense of self as simultaneously eternal victim and exemplary hero that so powerfully attracts Layton in his selective browsing through Jewish history, and if I spoke earlier about the traditional Jewish injunction “to remember,” it is, perhaps, now also worth pointing out that memory itself is as vulnerable to usurpation as any other human imperative, and, still more worrisome, that within the sphere of zakhor itself there is an ever-present risk of an inability or refusal to recognize and thus to engage the present in its singularity and difference. It is this same tendency that is so disturbing in many of the pronouncements one hears issuing from various far-right groups in Israel today, and it is why I believe it so important to analyze the kinds of emotional manipulation such rhetoric attempts to mobilize in its audiences.
In the event, Fortunate Exile was never composed as a single volume, and its individual pieces were written over a period of several decades and in an apparently widely diverse range of styles and poetic modes. Perhaps, then, it is unfair to respond to this unfortunate gathering of commonplaces as though it were intended to sustain a single vision or advance a coherent perspective. But the responsibility for issuing such a book clearly remains with the poet, and the single poems that make up the collection, in spite of the gaps in their chronology and their surface variety of forms, are remarkably homogeneous in tone, stance and degree of craftsmanship. Indeed, there are times when I began to think that Layton, with consummate irony, intended the collection primarily to prove the justice of Theodore Adorno's by now much-too-readily-quoted dictum that after Auschwitz there can be no more poetry.
But since such an ironic recuperation of Fortunate Exile is clearly not tenable, does this mean Adorno was finally right? Yes, in the sense that the Shoah is a kind of limit-case of human experience which cannot be figured in verse as one more amidst a generally available image trove of suffering. In this sense the famous lines from Sylvia Plath's “Daddy”: “An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew. / A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. / I began to talk like a Jew. / I think I may well be a Jew,” are as morally obtuse as anything in Layton's volume. As Seamus Heaney wrote in a recent discussion of Plath, “A poem like ‘Daddy,’ however brilliant a tour de force it can be acknowledged to be … rampages so permissively in the history of other people's sorrows that it overdraws its rights to our sympathy.” I would question only Heaney's assumption that the crucial issue is the ethnic identity of the speaker and the victimized people, as though a similar metaphoric use of the Shoah by a Jewish Sylvia Plath would not, in the context of a poem like “Daddy,” be equally appalling. If Layton's volume teaches us anything, it is that no one, gentile or Jew, can appropriate the Shoah as a source of metaphors for his own private anguish without falling into the identical falsification and self-aggrandizement. At the same time, though, as the poetry of Paul Celan shows, it is possible to write about the experience of the camps, and to be compelled by one's own native linguistic inheritance and genius to do so in the very language of the murderers—indeed to make out of that terrible necessity the fulcrum of what remains the one indispensable body of verse written by a Western European during the past thirty years. But if Celan finally created, and it is scarcely necessary to insist at how terrible a price in personal suffering, a poetics commensurate with the bitterest destiny of his people, there are other contemporary poets who have found a more clement voice in which to register both a wider sweep of Jewish history and a more livable hope for the future of the tribe. I want again to invoke one of these, Yehuda Amichai, both because he seems to me the strongest writer of his generation in Israel, and one of the preeminent poets active in any tongue today, and, more specifically, because his work so strenuously resists the twin urges towards an apocalyptic or lamentatory rhetoric. It is no accident that Amichai immigrated to Israel from Germany in 1936 as a twelve-year old adolescent. He was old enough, in other words, to have witnessed himself the growing savagery of his native country without having to endure, like Celan, the ultimate horrors that savagery inflicted upon the Jews. Amichai, too, served with the Jewish Brigade in the Second World War; he fought as an infantryman in the Jewish War of Independence and so saw enough combat and bloodshed to be thoroughly repelled by Layton's desire for a poetic equivalence to instruments of slaughter. But if I want to end this essay with the exemplary figure of Amichai, rather than, say, with Paul Celan's more intense but also more lonely and austere vision, it is because, at his best, he is exemplary of a range, tone and articulated sensibility that has found a way to make Jewish history an integral part of his poetry without melodrama or falsification. In one of his poems, “Tourists,” Amichai describes the usual visitors to Jerusalem “sitting around at the Holocaust Memorial, putting on a serious face / at the Wailing Wall, / … They get themselves photographed with the important dead / at Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb, and up on Ammunition Hill,” and the reader begins to be afraid that the rest of the poem will proceed by a series of facile antitheses between the insensitive, even exploitative, tourists and the passionate Jerusalemite whose knowledge of what these shrines really mean is intended to put the travelers' reactions to shame—in other words, by yet another variation on the structure of a sensitive poet confronting ignorant Philistines. The poem is almost, we anxiously wonder, modulating into a Laytonesque terrain, although expressed with far more immediate and plausible imagery. But listen, instead, to how Amichai ends “Tourists,” undermining the facile antitheses it evoked precisely, as we now realize, in order to expose their inadequacy. And then, if you think back to the discussion of the settlers with which I began, it will be clear why I am also willing to stop here, letting the poet's words serve as the best evidence that a different poetic relationship to Jewish history is possible than we have thus far heard, a poetics in which both the legacy and the hope for a different future find their rightful measures:
Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David's Citadel and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me. A group of tourists stood there around their guide, and I became their point of reference. “You see that man over there with the baskets? A little to the right of his head there's an arch from the Roman period. A little to the right of his head.” “But he's moving, he's moving!” I said to myself: Redemption will come only when they are told, “Do you see that arch over there from the Roman period? It doesn't matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there's a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
(from The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.)
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SOURCE: Solecki, Sam. Review of Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton, edited by Francis Mansbridge, University of Toronto Quarterly 60, no. 1 (fall 1990): 162-63.
[In the following review, Solecki recommends Wild Gooseberries for its insights on twentieth-century Canadian letters and culture as well as its glimpses into Layton's psyche.]
Since Irving Layton is one of the most important Canadian poets (Al Purdy is his only peer), nothing that he writes can be without some interest for us, even if that interest is sometimes primarily historical. Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton is a case in point. While few would claim on the basis of these selected letters that Layton is among the great letter writers, there is little doubt that the volume is among the indispensable books we have about Canadian writing and culture of the past half-century (the first letter is dated 1939, the last 1989).
Like Earle Birney's memoir, The Cow Jumped over the Moon, the letters chronicle the making of modern poetry in Canada. For any who still believe the old legend that modernism arrived with W. W. E. Ross, F. R. Scott, and A. J. M. Smith, Layton's letters offer a challenging reminder that the battle for modernism was still being fought in the 1940s and 1950s. Of particular interest here are the diplomatic—in several senses of the word—letters to Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson which show Layton trying to establish lifelines with modern poets whose work he can't quite bring himself to admire wholeheartedly. His wrestle with Olson is particularly interesting in that it shows an essentially European sensibility—Layton's—resisting the pull of an essentially American one—Olson's.
In contrast to Purdy, whose best work is weathered by Canadian or North American history and pre-history, Layton, in his letters as in his poems, turns resolutely to European culture and European history. Drawing his own genealogy, he begins with the Hebrew prophets, invokes Dante, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche, and closes with Mandelstam among others. As one would expect in correspondence, some of this is simply playful bravado for the recipient of the letter. But more often than not, such an emphasis shows Layton's impatience with the limitations of Canadian culture and society. As he admits to more than one correspondent, he often played the Lawrentian wild man or poet as outlaw in order to secure a hearing for his kind of poetry.
There's little doubt that over the years Layton has paid a price for this. Elspeth Cameron's recent gossipy portrait is simply the most obvious expression of an attitude which assumes that the poet is more interesting—because controversial—than the poems. Feminism's recent spectacular rise to dominance in criticism will also probably ensure that a writer as masculine in orientation as Layton will fail to receive a fair reading or hearing in the immediate future.
This would be unfortunate, since even when he plays some of his more predictable roles, Layton is never less than intelligent, engaged, interesting, and always capable of surprising. The letters dealing with romanticism, Marxism, modernism, and film, for example, reveal an absolutely individual sensibility distinguished by a passionate intelligence. For those interested in discovering a less public, less combative poet, the late letters to Harriet Bernstein about the custody of their daughter reveal a side of Layton few would have suspected after reading Cameron's biography.
Layton's letters may not be in the same class as Gustave Flaubert's, D. H. Lawrence's, or William James's, but they are among the most interesting yet published in Canada.
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SOURCE: Irmscher, Christoph. “Building Lives.” Canadian Literature, no. 134 (autumn 1992): 138-40.
[In the following review, Irmscher comments on two different biographies of William Carlos Williams before highlighting the contents of Irving Layton and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, a volume Irmscher believes holds more value for biographers than literary theorists.]
Paul Mariani's biography of Williams [William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked] first came out in 1981 and was soon recognized as a landmark in literary biography. This Norton paperback edition is, alas, unrevised, so that the (admittedly few) factual errors of the first edition remain. Nevertheless, it provides a good opportunity to see how Mariani's biographical technique—complete empathy with the subject—has stood the test of time. A decade on, Mariani's massive work, in his own proud words the document of a “ten-year obsession with another man's life,” still reads well, although some of the passages where the author's desire to merge with his subject leads to linguistic mimicry (“Art was no effete aesthetic game, damn it …,” “Hell, what could the English show the Americans now?”), seem less palatable today. Mariani himself sensed the potential embarrassment of this approach when he conceded in the book's preface that in his search for “the inner life of Williams himself” he might have infused too much of his own life into that of his subject: the poet's biography had, in some ways, also served the critic's auto-biographical impulses.
If Mariani wanted to unearth the poet's “inner life,” Ann Fisher-Wirth argues in [William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature] that Williams himself had been doing nothing much else most of the time—that, in short, the poet himself had been his own most eager and consistent biographer. “Autobiography,” in the comprehensive sense which Fisher-Wirth gives to the term, marks the “place in which a writer discovers his or her inner standing.” Unsurprising as this definition might seem, Fisher-Wirth's approach to the Williams canon does at first promise some fresh insights, and were it just for the unusual selection and arrangement of the texts she discusses—her argument moves from the elusive Autobiography (1952) back to Williams's play A Dream of Love (1948) and the very early poetic fragment which Fisher-Wirth entitles “Philip and Oradie” and then forward again to poems like “Love Song” (1915) and “The Crimson Cyclamen” (1936) and, finally, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (1955).
Yet Fisher-Wirth's text raises serious questions as well, and not only because, unlike Mariani, she never really addresses the problem of her own, the critic's, “standing.” Fisher-Wirth's almost wholesale rejection of Williams's Autobiography in the first two chapters of her book as not satisfyingly “autobiographical” (especially when compared with a work like Paterson) ignores differences of genre and, more importantly, also makes us wonder about Fisher-Wirth's own definition of biographical “truth.” How do we know that some texts are more “true” than others, and is it really the purpose of autobiographical literature to reveal the writer, as Fisher-Wirth seems to believe, in “all the truth of nature”? Williams himself apparently did not always think so and warned the readers of his autobiography: “I was a liar and would always be one, sauve qui peut!” Incidentally, the rather late essay from which Fisher's epigraph is taken (“The artist is always and forever painting only one thing: a self-portrait”), suggests that the artist's truest self-portrait may be the one which is most hidden: “It is his own face in the terms of another face” (“Emanuel Romano: The Portrait,” 1951). According to Fisher's logic, “innocence” is, since nobody can really be “innocent” this side of paradise, bad, mere show, a role, while “nakedness” (one of the most frequently used terms in the book) is good, since it implies, in the biblical sense, knowledge and therefore also forgiveness. The poet who declines to speak about “sin” must, in these terms, be less truthful, believable and “brave” than the one who anguishedly admits it. The important methodological distinction between the author's biographical self and the author-as-textual-subject is, at any rate, ignored throughout the book.
For all Fisher-Wirth's talk about sex and “fornication,” it is clear that her argument, which disparages the “conventionality” of Williams's Autobiography, finally itself subscribes to a rather homely Christian view of autobiography: “pain brings forth joy,” as Fisher-Wirth writes later in the book. Even in the section on “Asphodel,” which might very well be the most detailed explanation we have of the poem, too much of Fisher-Wirth's argument is either just plain statement (“This is what it feels like to be human,”) or poetic paraphrase of extensive quotations (“… the deathless imagination flowers without ceasing …”), and too little of it is grounded in careful analysis. We still lack an adequate comment on Williams's readiness to acknowledge what would count, by the same conventional standards which Fisher-Wirth thinks apply to the Autobiography, as definitely “unpleasant,” as, Fisher-Wirth would say, “surliness,” “bitterness” or “self-hatred.” Passages in which the unrepentant author calls himself a “liar,” in which the doctor repeatedly admits that he would rather treat his patients as “material for a work of art” than as persons to be “cured,” and notably the gruesome account of “Pop Williams's” death, brought about by the son's own “unjustifiable” medical intervention, make The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams a much darker text than Fisher-Wirth realizes. This would also hold true for the doctor stories or a poem like “The Ogre,” presenting as it does the thinly veiled scandalous fantasies of a pediatrician (some important insights on this topic are contained in Marjorie Perloff's 1980 Georgia Review essay). As Williams very well knew, the foregrounding of the mask—in this case, the mask of the doctor who exploits his patients' nakedness for other than medical purposes—can itself turn into a mask. Interestingly enough, right at the beginning of his Autobiography, Williams casts doubt on the validity of the whole project itself: “the hidden core of my life will not easily be deciphered.” Or, as Williams wrote in a little-known but interesting autobiographical text that is not mentioned in Fisher-Wirth's book: “I reserve myself for myself” (“Three Professional Studies,” 1917).
This is not to say that Williams was aloof. Fortified by generous quotations from Williams's unpublished correspondence, Mariani makes a strong case for the sympathy Williams would show towards younger American poets like Robert Creeley or Allen Ginsberg who he felt were carrying on his search for a new idiom in poetry. Thus, Williams also wrote letters of encouragement to Irving Layton, the Canadian poet who was writing in an altogether different tradition, and his “Note on Layton” served as an introduction to the younger writer's The Improved Binoculars (1956). Letters indeed are the very stuff of literary biography, and not surprisingly the more interesting passages in the correspondence of Layton and Creeley, which has now been made available in an edition by Ekbert Faas and Sabrina Reed, [Irving Layton and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978] have already appeared in Elspeth Cameron's 1985 biography of the Canadian poet. The annotations to the present edition are generally helpful, although some readers might want to question the need of pointing out to an audience interested in Layton, a writer notoriously wary of tags, that Mark Twain was an “American,” Kafka an “Austrian writer” and Sigmund Freud a “neurologist”—why not also identify Shakespeare or Mozart, then? (Louis Zukofsky by the way, is consistently misspelled as “Zukovsky”).
Are these letters (the earliest goes back to February 17, 1953; the last hurried note is dated November 14, 1978) auto-biographically relevant or interesting? Creeley and Layton did not meet in person until 1963, so their dialogue for a large part took place on paper only. Technical questions surrounding the publication of Layton's collection In the Midst of My Fever (1954) are thoroughly and sometimes a little cryptically discussed, unless one keeps all the abbreviations in mind (“Some more IMOF came from BMC …”), and Layton and Creeley also exchange criticisms and suggestions for the revision of each other's texts to be published in magazines like Layton's CIV/n or Creeley's The Black Mountain Review. Without a “mag,” Layton points out, Canada, “this huge country of ours,” would be just a literary wasteland, “a derisive epithet.” In a different context, Layton once boasted that he put Canadian poetry on the map by first of all putting himself on it, and the “immediate presence” of the Canadian, which, although he had never seen him, so greatly impressed Creeley, can be felt even in this correspondence. One would look in vain, however, for Fisher-Wirth's “truth of nature” in these exchanges, obsessed as they are with such details as the missing period at the end of a line or the hyphen after the word that ought to have been a dash. As Layton writes to Creeley, “high thinking and deep feeling belong to a bygone age.” Disappointing as these letters may sometimes seem to the literary theorist as well as to the biographer more interested in, say, the juicy details of Layton's tempestuous life, they help us to realize that writing can be a way of life too—from the first, very private idea for a good metaphor all they say through to finding the right publisher, proofreading and, finally, the excitement of seeing one's own text in print. “With careful fragments,” as Layton once put it (“Providence”), do we build lives.”
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SOURCE: Trehearne, Brian. “A Partial Correspondence.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 47 (fall 1992): 82-89.
[In the following review, Trehearne assesses the literary and biographical significance of Irving Layton and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978, in light of American poet Creeley's influence on Layton's artistic development.]
The noteworthy documentary projects of Canadian literary scholars are too often parcelled out and undermined by the limited resources of the nation's academic publishers. A heartening exception is the exhaustively compiled and nearly complete works of A. M. Klein emerging from the University of Toronto Press during the past decade. A multivolume, complete collection of the letters of Irving Layton is similarly among the desiderata of our period in literary-critical history, but the letters are necessarily made public instead in a handful of independently published volumes such as Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton (1989) and the present item of review, Irving Layton and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978. The volume's interest and usefulness are unfortunately limited by the editors' cost-enforced decision to select from Layton's innumerable correspondents of the 1950s another “great man”; their prudent choice of an American poet doubles the volume's potential market. The better reason for the choice of Creeley is that he provides the pipeline between Layton (hence Canadian poetry) and Black Mountain poetics, one of the vexed questions that this volume stands to illuminate. It can nevertheless be frustrating to hear of this crucial period of Layton's creativity solely from the distorted perspective of his loaded relations with Creeley.
The editors of this collection, Ekbert Faas and Sabrina Reed, could have battled those distortions with an introduction that situated the correspondence within the wider aesthetic debates of the period. Instead, a rather bloodless 20 pages provide little beyond synopses of key exchanges in the letters. One series of questions the introduction never raises that I consider begged by the correspondence is: What stage had Layton reached in his poetic development before exchanging letters with Creeley? What can one argue was the effect on his poetry of that correspondence? When the correspondence ceased, was Layton's poetry altered again? This lacuna is particularly odd in that the editors obviously consider their material important precisely because the years of the correspondence were striking in Layton's creative growth. Their unwillingness to take up such an issue is an absconsion from one of the editorial responsibilities peculiar to the present period of Canadian publishing.
The editors are far more successful in their annotations and index, which I constantly found useful as I proceeded through the text, especially since Creeley's intimates were unfamiliar to me. Annotations to the letters let nothing pass, and the editors' infrequent failures to identify figures referred to are acknowledged with a summary of the possibilities. Faas and Reed have done a great deal of this historical work, and its burdens must not be minimized, or its rewards for the reader. The index is similarly detailed, accurate, and useful. The volume thus offers greater access to and illumination of the letters in its conclusive than in its introductory apparatus.
The letters themselves make stimulating enough reading, although far too many of them are taken up with the interminably boring details of book and magazine production. The real span of the volume is the period from 1953, when Creeley first contacted Layton, to mid-summer 1955, when Creeley's separation from his wife and subsequent wanderungen ended the stability of place and literary purpose that had fuelled his letters. (After that two-and-a-half year period less than two dozen letters were sent through to 1978, so the book's subtitle is misleading.) At first Creeley was the more energetic correspondent; it was his habit to fire off two or three letters in a row without waiting for responses, an exuberance that can make for difficult cross-referencing as one tries to follow the exchanges. Layton was the more careful, thorough, infrequent writer; during the school year his backbreaking routine crippled the correspondence. From September 1953 to January 1954, for example, 17 letters from Creeley were exchanged with 7 from Layton. When Creeley left Mallorca to teach at Black Mountain College, however, his academic duties greatly reduced his letter writing, so much so that Layton had to write two or three times, often on urgent matters, to receive a reply. By the fall of 1955, the chief subject of the correspondence was the frequency of the correspondence—a sure sign of imminent postal death.
As stylists, the two men offer fascinating contrasts. Creeley gives the effect of great spontaneity; he deploys curious interjections (“OK,” “well,” “voilà”) like grapeshot and clearly never bothers to organize his thoughts before writing. This can give his reader a feeling of greater access to “the real man”; Layton's letters are more consciously and carefully structured and styled. A juxtaposition of the two styles indicates significant differences of temperament and (oddly enough, given Layton's persona) energy:
I had damn well sworn not to write till I had got a poem for you. Which is stupid, etc., etc. Ok. And to hell with that. Did I send you letter about (or in answer to) yr poems for booklet, i.e., I had one here but don't know whether or not it got mailed, in chaos, etc. Don't damn well mind. I'll write again soon, i.e., I want to put out another mailing piece along with O/s book (late October), and will need title for yrs, etc.
(Creeley to Layton, 18 Sept. 1953, 42-43)
By the sound of your short note which came this morning, I think you didn't receive my last letter to you, which was a substantial one and which contained about five new poems. Judging by your previous letters, I feel certain that you would not have left them go by without some comment; all the more so, since two or three of them were among my happiest efforts. A pity. How does one go about tracing a lost letter?
(Layton to Creeley, 23 Sept. 1953, 43)
This battle of expletive parataxis and defensive hypotaxis continues throughout the letters, although in late exchanges Layton's loud familiar voice begins to sound. Early on, however, he clearly feels that he must interpose syntax and polish between himself and his correspondent.
This matter of style relates to the roles the two men took up in relation to one another, and the difficulties of enacting those roles for long. At the beginning Creeley is clearly mentor and Layton ephebe (despite the American's juniority). Layton, neglected and impoverished in an indifferent country, was grateful for and flattered by Creeley's notice. He subjected himself happily to Creeley's critique, referring to him quickly as the “ideal reader” he had been looking for all along (8). Creeley wisely shrugged off the appellation (13), but continued for numerous letters to offer detailed responses to Layton's poetry. He was in fact astonishingly generous in the time he gave it; I suspect however that he was disappointed if not hurt by Layton's inability or unwillingness to do the same. Poems Creeley sent to Layton received little more than polite admiration (33, 37, 40-41, 44). And when Creeley urged Layton to involve himself in detail in the editing of the Black Mountain Review, Layton never really intervened. To Layton, Creeley's international literary contacts were daunting evidence of the American's having “arrived”; he felt himself noticed by a far more respected poet than was in fact the case. This explains his reticence, but as Creeley thought himself as much marginalized and ignored in Mallorca as Layton in Canada, he must have hoped for a more equal meeting of minds.
By the time Layton felt confident enough to engage Creeley more candidly, the correspondence was waning. The difficulties of Creeley's personal life were taking all his attention, and he was not able to respond in kind. After Creeley's Divers Press published Layton's In the Midst of My Fever in 1954, Layton became more argumentative, partly because of the volume's success, partly because he and Creeley were now on more even terms. He prepared the ground with a major offensive against the obscurities of Creeley's prose style, aligning them incautiously with the stylistic affectations of Charles Olson and Cid Corman (168). He then proceeded to stake out poetic territory for himself more forthrightly, acknowledging that his was different from Creeley's and suggesting frankly that they would not be able to agree on all issues (169-70). Although Creeley responded in relatively good humour, his letters came farther and farther apart, the urgency of the friendship having—for him at least—passed.
Creeley's readings of Layton tend to be technical; an interesting early exchange over Layton's “Vexata Quaestio” reveals the predilections of the two minds (6-9). When asked by Creeley if the poem was “self-satire” (8), Layton replied windily, “subject or theme, Hebraism vs. Hellenism; modern man torn between the Hebraic/Christian impulse toward good and the Greek impulse toward beauty and self-expression …” (9). To this Creeley responded, “You don't ever want to speak for ‘Everyman,' when you can speak so damn finely for yourself” (13). He charted the ironies of the poem and concluded,
For myself, there is an active line or movement all thru [“Vexata Quaestio”], i.e., a present action, etc. That makes the tension, etc. Here [in “Composition in Late Spring”], not so much. And bunches of simile & metaphor then apt to bog, since action isn't pulling them along thru. Well, fuck it.
Creeley's attempt to work a new lean structure into American poetry made him respond to Layton's own cleanness of line, and his comments on Layton's poetry are primarily useful today if we share an interest in Creeley's aesthetics.
As self-critic Layton was not usually so obtuse as he was about “Vexata Quaestio” (the earliness of that exchange perhaps initiating a desire to impress Creeley). As the letters increased in frequency, he became more articulate and exacting in his sense of his own writing and subsumed Creeley's interest in technical matters. I suspect that these self-commentaries will provide the meat and potatoes of the book for its scholarly audience, as future readings of Layton poems will necessarily address Layton's own thoughts at the time of their composition. When, for instance, he lists “the main ideas” of “The Birth of Tragedy” as
the necessary antinomies of action and thought, love and death, the relationship between intellect and passion (“the sensual moths,” “the insurgent blood,” the ascending orders), poetry that holds everything in suspension and reconciles all contradictions, the “genius” of the universe (I'm no mystic, though) who blows birthday candles for the world (N[ietzsche]'s doctrine of eternal recurrence) and for the artist.
Layton shows himself to be an acute reader of his own poem and usefully illuminates some of its more difficult images. Each of the book's readers will decide the critical status of such pronouncements; those going in fear of intentionalism will eschew them. I have found it useful to have in this volume a compendium of Layton's comments on his own poems, juxtaposed with careful examination of the various drafts of the poems concerned. These letters will indeed provide some real insights into the nature of his creativity.
Another scholarly virtue of the book will be its biographical news. Layton's life during the period of intense correspondence was stable and relatively quiet; his marriage to Betty Sutherland was still on an even keel, and his professional situation was constant. We hear amusing titbits about a rather flat “orgy” held to celebrate an issue of CIV/n (131), we have a full portrait of the publication history of In the Midst of My Fever (184), we get new insights, however cryptic, into the notorious squabble between Layton and Louis Dudek (216), and wonder whether Creeley's devastating opinion of Dudek's poetry fomented the rupture (74-83); but we really have no profound news here about the Layton biography. Of Creeley, on the other hand, we have a dramatic portrait of a turbulent life, leading him from Mallorca and marriage via Black Mountain College to Bohemia, divorce and Vancouver. We see him as poet, publisher, editor, and academic, as well as literary networker extraordinaire. I suspect that Creeley scholars will have the more exciting “read” from the book for these reasons.
As for my question of influences, it will take careful examination before we can conclude that Creeley influenced Layton's poetics substantially, or failed to. (The question of the broader Black Mountain influence upon him is pretty well settled here; he responds negatively to Olson and “projective verse” throughout the correspondence. If there was such an influence from Black Mountain poetics it was mediated almost entirely by Creeley.) There is one example of Layton adopting Creeley's poetics so clearly that the American poet responded a little diffidently (166-67), but the case is isolated. And, as I have remarked, later in the correspondence Layton became far more resistant to Creeley's readings of his poetry and of poetic form in general. This debate will continue. One thing we can conclude safely for the time being is that the contact with Creeley stimulated Layton's creativity enormously: any student of Layton will remark the coincidence of Layton's greatest period, the years of “The Birth of Tragedy,” “The Cold Green Element,” “First Snow: Lake Achigan,” and “In the Midst of My Fever,” with the years of exchange with Creeley. But these were also the years of Contact and Contact Press and CIV/n, years of marital stability and relative prosperity. Creeley may not account solely for the Layton anni mirabilis, but he figures large in the sources of that achievement.
For me the most fascinating current in the letters, however, is the gradual emergence of what we now think of as the popular Layton persona. In late 1954 the diffidence, politeness, and stylish syntaxes of his early letters decreased, and the brusque and challenging tones of the counter-philistine emerged. By the end of the volume, we have heard familiar tirades against the favourite Layton targets, from critics and academics to politicians and governments, in the familiar Layton mood of nose-thumbing and bombast. Contrast the polite style I noted above with the following diatribe:
For this country the shits and pisses etc., the sex and scatology are a necessary antidote to the prevalent gentility and false idealism. Aside from the purely local and geographical I am convinced that the only protest, the only effective protest that a man can make today to the pressures seeking to annihilate him either physically or spiritually is the biological one. … The teachings of a vaporous Christian idealism for almost two thousand years has [sic] falsified our position; to remind ourselves that men in addition to being God-seekers and truth-seekers are also farting and excreting animals is a piece of wisdom that might save us from the follies of pride and over-weening ambition.
(Layton to Creeley, 20 Mar. 1955, 221)
The passage would slip easily into any of the forewords and prologues Layton was to compose in the following years. It's difficult to say whether this is a truly new note in the 1955 Layton persona or whether unfamiliarity with Creeley made him repress it earlier, but other shifts in his personality at the time suggest the former alternative. It was at about this time that he really began to resist Creeley's responses to his poetry; that he began to apotheosize sexuality as a clearer of the spiritual air (177); that he noted his rupture with Dudek, another major determinant of his later persona (216); that he began to write simplistic poetry celebrating his salacious reputation, enclosing “Admonition and Reply,” for example, in a letter to Creeley, circa early February 1955 (208); and that he began to rationalize the publication of any and all poems, throwaways, and squibs, bad with good (214). These typical aspects of Layton's notoriety are distinctly absent from the first year and a half of his correspondence with Creeley. It is noteworthy moreover that Creeley's declining interest in the correspondence coincides roughly with these changes. Certainly some of them would have displeased him: Layton's using Canadian gentility as an excuse for verse scatology, for instance, would have struck him as parochial, and Creeley was meticulously discriminating in his policy of inclusion in collections of poems (hence the success, indeed, of In the Midst of My Fever, for the arrangement and selection of which he was mostly responsible). It may be that Creeley's divorce and subsequent rootlessness were the superficial reasons for an end to a correspondence that had become difficult for other reasons. At any rate, the spectacular emergence of the newly constructed Layton ego in these letters is one of the volume's chief pleasures for those who do not take that ego as the basis of a judgement of Layton's literary achievement (all too small a constituency).
Other critical agendas will no doubt prompt more and less favourable responses to the matter available in these letters. I find enough of interest in them to justify their publication and to promote some interesting speculations, but I persist in feeling that a different net might have caught some more nourishing fish. This volume provides an important documentary source for Creeley and Layton scholars, and will continue to be referred to until it is superseded by complete editions of the letters of both men. It does indicate, however—and this as a last word—how much needed in Canadian letters exactly that supersession is, so that we can one day edit the works of important writers in the exhaustive, comprehensive and critical way that is now possible in other English-speaking literary traditions.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6303
SOURCE: Trehearne, Brian. “‘Scanned and Scorned’: Freedom and Fame in Layton.” In Inside the Poem: Essays and Poems in Honour of Donald Stephens, edited by W. H. New, pp. 139-50. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Trehearne outlines the professional significance of “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom” in Layton's career, highlighting the strategies and motives underlying his public pursuit of fame.]
Irving Layton's “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom” has received minimal explication in the three-and-a-half decades since its first appearance in The Canadian Forum, despite Layton's conviction that it “expresses better than any other poem of [his], what [his] whole life has been about” (Thomas, 68). Such a signature deserves thorough and various critical response, but the poem's riddling nature—freedom from what?—and deliberate refusal of rationality and structural unity have stymied Layton's readers, who offer only brief commentaries on the poem's obvious dialectics of creativity and mortality. “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom” begs extra-textual contexts in its deliberate echoes of other Layton masterpieces, in its reliance on symbolism established in other poems to create present meanings, in its cryptic allusions to Canute and Lear and The Taming of the Shrew, and in its Heracliteanism. A perhaps less obvious context of the poem, however, lies in its resonant relation to the history of Layton's fame. As an intuition and projection of his imminent notoriety, “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom” allowed Layton to articulate an ethics of creativity which denies the audience's ability to fix and categorize the poet with its institutions of literary acceptance and reward. The poem trumpets the poet's Canute-like independence from the “twentieth century game of fame” (as Michael Ondaatje has it),1 even as he joins the game by assuming that his fame is not only imminent, but deserved. Thus he avoids the sterile fixity of public “reputation” without wholly sacrificing fame itself.
Layton's career and indeed the private life as we have it in Elspeth Cameron's Irving Layton: A Portrait strongly suggest his urgent, perhaps unconscious, need to adopt, critique, and then abandon fixed positions of all categories. In his political thinking, for instance, there is a distinct pattern of fervent adherence to doctrine followed by radical rejection of it, in his early Stalinism and later rejection of Stalin, in his admiration and eventual denunciation of Mao Tse-Tung, in his passionate support of Israel during the Arab-Israeli wars and his present-day condemnation of its administration of the Palestinian West Bank. His creative response to his Judaism is similarly rhythmic—it was not apparent in his poetry in the first decade of his work, then gradually emerged, and was suddenly celebrated during the 1960s and 1970s. The notoriety of his relation to his earliest literary friend Louis Dudek depends in part on the earnestness of its early years, the extreme bitterness of its breakdown during the 1950s, and Layton's poetic invitations to mutual forgiveness that appeared during the 1980s. The history of his sexual and romantic life as he has himself candidly described it—one does not need Cameron's biography in this regard—suggests a restlessness of passion that clearly reflects these political, religious, and personal affiliations. Layton has never been a poet to adhere to particular poetics in distinct creative periods, so such rhythms of acceptance and rejection are not remarkable in his developing style; although his very indifference to aesthetic “consistency” similarly suggests the sacred right to perpetual change that has been so central to his self-understandings.
Such a reading of Layton's progress from the Depression to the fin-de-siècle illuminates more in his poetry than its eclecticism of form. Seymour Mayne has argued a parallel cyclical progress in Layton's creative development, in which he regularly returned to the inspiration of earlier poems and “re-wrote” those visions into new poetic forms, in keeping with contemporary aesthetic experiment (Mayne, 3). Such a reading highlights the poet's conscious distance from an earlier self and desire to re-present himself in distinction—and so in implicit relation—to that younger artist. Emergent from Mayne's view is a dynamic poet keenly aware of the need to assert his own growth, to insist that his increasing age is well-balanced by increasing genius. Eli Mandel's treatment of Layton depends on a conviction that “the only unifying principle in Layton's work is his refusal to be categorized” (Mandel, 17), a view confirming the implications of Mayne's approach and of the above outline of Layton's intellectual history. Most rewardingly, Kurt Van Wilt has interpreted the Layton career in relation to “over-coming,” a process of self-definition by dialectical growth that distinguishes the Nietzschean übermensch.2
Layton has himself encouraged such a transformative reading of his creative and personal development in a variety of self-representations, most striking among them “There Were No Signs,” selected to introduce The Collected Poems of Irving Layton in 1971:
By walking I found out Where I was going.
By intensely hating, how to love. By loving, whom and what to love
Almost now I know who I am. Almost I have the boldness to be that man.
Another step And I shall be where I started from.
Despite the circularity and closure implied in its last line, the poem denies a telos for Layton's divagations. In the wished-for return to the point of origin he merely reaffirms the need for perpetual beginning. The poetic “self” is a continual becoming; it can never be fixed for interpretation so long as the poet retains his creative authenticity. The division of the poet's consciousness into “I” and “that [younger] man” reflects Mayne's view that Layton is always rewriting his past art and projecting it into his future. The poem suggests that authenticity is to be found in a “courageous” accommodation with one's past selves but does not admit closure once “be[ing] that man” is achieved. The past Laytons are indeed dead, though their vitality is retained.
The transformative model of selfhood is echoed in one of Layton's most striking formulations of his creative development, the “Foreword” to A Red Carpet for the Sun:
The poems in this collection are all leaves from the same tree. A certain man living between 1942 and 1958 wrote them. That man is now dead, and even if he could be resurrected wouldn't be able to write them in the way they were written. Nor would he want to. They belong to a period of my life that is now behind me: a period of testing, confusion, ecstasy. Now there is only the ecstasy of an angry middle-aged man growing into courage and truth.
To this very dramatic statement Layton was forced to add a later ironic gloss, when his first volume of Collected Poems appeared in 1965:
When I wrote my foreword for the poems in A Red Carpet for the Sun, some rash imp pushed me to state that “A certain man living between 1942 and 1958 wrote them. That man is now dead. …” I never once thought these words would be taken literally … the poet dies with every poem he writes, with every volume he publishes. That is, if he is alive, to put the matter paradoxically.
Both versions clearly reflect Layton's urge to identify, delimit, and set aside a past self which he no longer finds sufficient to his needs—the second passage geometrically affirming the pattern by implicitly correcting the first statement of the idea. He thereby implies that the present Layton is a newly invigorated and rejuvenated individual, more than equal to the day's new passions and to the denunciations he anticipates from his readership.
This strain in Layton's “self-fashioning” is essential to an understanding of his poetry's growth from the impersonal, rather cluttered Audenesque poetics of the 1940s (“Newsboy,” for example) to the masterpieces of the 1950s that would earn him a Governor General's Award in 1959. One of those masterpieces, “The Cold Green Element” (1955), is remarkable for its achievement of a poetic structure that directly reflects Layton's philosophy of dynamic personal growth, the younger personae here rendered as the “murdered selves” of the poet-speaker. “The Cold Green Element” cannot be read linearly, logically, or rationally. The poem moves forward according to a transformative aesthetic parallel to the notion of selfhood the poem articulates. Each vivid or surreal image gives rise, dreamlike, to the next, which is in turn transformed into a subsequent image; between the first and the third there may be no more apparent connection than their mutual relation to the second. In effect, each image is “murdered,” but incorporated at least subliminally into the next, the total effect baffling but intensely suggestive of creative vitality and liberty. This notion of poetic structure is perfectly in keeping with the self-transformations of the persona as he too proceeds through discrete stages of dismemberment, sympathy, ageing, fear of death, and an eventual rejuvenation when he is “misled by the cries of young boys.” These youths might well be the “murdered selves” of the poet's past, their voices still resonating in his perpetual return to “breathless[ness].”
“The Cold Green Element” situates these aesthetic and personal transformations in two broader contexts. The first of these, the mortality symbolized by the “black-hatted undertaker,” is easy enough to align with the transformative aesthetics above: the poet's consciousness of his own death makes him yearn here for a perpetual rejuvenation. The second context is evoked in a parable of bourgeois audience indifference to the corpse of a dead poet, blown by “a great squall” from the bottom of the Pacific to “hang from the city's gates.” The resonance of these images with the poet's transformative selfhood is harder to perceive: it was already routine for Layton to decry the ignorance of his Canadian readership, but in what sense does that ignorance necessitate the poet's dynamic refusal of fixed and permanent self-definition?
“The Cold Green Element” does not elaborate as full a response as does “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom” two years later, but Layton's prose of the period once again illuminates this emerging triangulation of regenerative poet, bourgeois audience, and inevitable mortality. In the same decade that saw him develop the figure of the “murdered selves” as a response to his own earlier poetry, Layton began the assault on his Canadian readership that reverberates in his reputation to this day. One of the fascinations of the recently published correspondence with Robert Creeley is the visible emergence of the denunciatory Layton at war with his necessary audience:
For this country the shits and pisses etc., the sex and scatology are a necessary antidote to the prevalent gentility and false idealism. Aside from the purely local and geographical I am convinced that the only protest, the only effective protest that a man can make today to the pressures seeking to annihilate him either physically or spiritually is the biological one. … The teachings of a vaporous Christian idealism for almost two thousand years has [sic] falsified our position; to remind ourselves that men in addition to being God-seekers and truth-seekers are also farting and excreting animals is a piece of wisdom that might save us from the follies of pride and overweening ambition.
(Layton to Creeley, 20/3/55; Faas, 221)
Layton contends that his radical sensuality is a self-differentiation necessary to épater le bourgeois Canadien, but one might accurately figure the process in reverse and remark that the poet's behaviour is determined by his audience's reaction: that he is trapped by his antinomianism in the sensualist displays that shock his readership.
Layton was aware that his extremist response to his audience made him as dependent on them for self-definition as were the more conventional artists who predicated their creativity on the audience's expectations. He began in a series of prose commentaries to conceive literary reputation—that is, wide audience approval—as a kind of death knell for true creativity, as in the “Foreword” to the Collected Poems: “Literature is the revenge society takes on the poet, its muted polite hosannah over the fact that it has blunted his shafts and rendered them harmless” (xx). In “Poets: the Conscience of Mankind” he suggests that totalitarian states suppress the poet's freedom because poetry's power is recognized and feared in those societies, whereas in the United States and Canada poetry is rewarded with public reputation because it is considered a harmless and irrelevant art form by which the mass sensibility cannot be stirred.3 And in the “Preface” to The Laughing Rooster (1964) Layton recognizes that the poet's real enemies are those to whom he turns for encouragement:
Yet I can't help feeling sometimes that the greater threat to the poet comes today not so much from his middle-class environment (by now this enemy has an easily recognizable face) as from those who wish to appear his friends and allies. … They're the ones who wish to bracket the poet between Culture and Education … should this notion that the poet is the servant of Culture and Education gain adherents in and out of the universities you can kiss poetry a fond good-bye. The poet is doomed.
The earliest formulations of this thinking emerge in the period of Layton's neglect by the literary establishment, so it is not surprising that he should find the means at such a time of devaluing fame; but the line of argument continues well after the consolidation of his fame and suggests that he was as disturbed by the implications of reputation as he was frustrated by its initial elusiveness.
In so figuring the burdens of fame, however, Layton enforces two consequent pressures on his creativity: first, he must maintain a negative view of his audience's value as readership and as culture (else their approval might indeed be requisite to his well-being), and second, he must perpetually renovate his ability to shock that audience and earn its disapproval by seeking more and more extremist matter for the poems he offers them. These pressures have forced Layton into some odd rhetorical swerves. In the “Foreword” to Love Where the Nights Are Long (1962), for example, he deploys a striking dual manoeuvre in defining and defying his Canadian audience:
But Canada is not one of the great centres of civilization … we do not kill and mutilate and torture each other as is done in the more advanced countries of the world. The dehumanizing forces are not so irresistibly powerful here as they are in the United States or Soviet Russia or Great Britain—not yet. They will, of course, mature and ripen in time and will be as devastating to Canadians as they have been to the denizens of New York, Moscow, and London.
The initial compliment to Canada is rather a slip, because in the model of fame he has initiated, any positive comment on his readership increases its right to define and entrap him with its approval of his artistry. Thus, the second corrective prophecy—that Canada will improve its powers of dehumanization—restores the negative audience relation, demands denunciatory verse, and guarantees, in effect, that his future “shafts” will not be “blunted” by its approval.
It is now possible to triangulate the imagery of “The Cold Green Element”—self-transformation, mortality, and audience-relation—in a manner that anticipates its full elaboration in “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom.” The poet faces mortality as do we all, but to the death of his body's vitality is added the possible prior death of his creative vitality. This is especially at risk in his necessary attempt to find and relate to a readership, whether in the period of his obscurity, when the audience ignores him, or in the period of his reputation, when the audience's approval of his achievement leads to false definition, expectation, and fixity. As he is unwilling to retreat in a high modernist scorn of the marketplace, he must find the means of simultaneously winning and rejecting his audience: earning their temporary approval of short-term images of his self which he can then “murder” and transcend in new incarnations located beyond the boundary of the audience's brief applause. That new self will win its eventual praise and will then require abandonment in turn. This dialectic of mutual acceptance and rejection by poet and audience preserves the poet's radicalism without denying the crucial function of the audience relation in his self-creation.
In 1957, when Layton was working on “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom,” this nexus of ideas was not entirely codified in his thinking, although he had articulated its various components in poetry and prose during the previous several years. The period of the poem's composition is significant in that Layton was on the edge of his public triumph with A Red Carpet for the Sun, then under contract with McClelland and Stewart. Of course he could not have anticipated the volume's unprecedented success, but he must certainly have felt the significance of a collection of two decades of creative industry under the imprint of Canada's most important publishing house. The years of publication at his own expense were to come to an end; a national and limited international readership was guaranteed. Moreover, he had won the approval of such major American poets as William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson, especially for In the Midst of My Fever, published by Creeley's Divers Press in 1956. Such contacts left him less reliant on his Canadian literary friendships for encouragement and understanding, and perhaps gave him intimations of the striking success that awaited A Red Carpet for the Sun.
Elspeth Cameron relates the concerns of “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom” to the personal crisis of this same period that would end Layton's marriage to Betty Sutherland and eliminate his relatively stable family life (Cameron, 266). She suggests that the couple's pursuit of independent love affairs emerges in the poet's insistence on his right to perpetual freedom, and she remarks other poems of the period which, in her reading, reflect similar concerns. So little of the poem has to do with marital, sexual, or romantic relations, however, that Cameron's reading is regrettable. Its unidimensional biographical approach ignores the bulk of the poem's declarations and offers for its contextualization only a single facet of Layton's private life. A more compelling contextualization of the poem is offered by the complex of Layton's responses to the consequences of fame sketched above: an equally biographical approach, indeed, but one which will more fruitfully open up the multiple layers of imagery and meaning in the poem. Although Layton was not yet a “famous poet,” he was already able to scent the first fumes of his imminent lionizing and translate them into the numerous repugnant olfactory images of the poem he sat down to write while waiting for A Red Carpet for the Sun to appear.
The first concern of “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom” is with “the rhetoric, the trick of lying / All poets pick up sooner or later” (2-3). The lines not only provide a first gloss on the poem's title (true poetry is free of rhetoric and lying) but also anticipate the theme of inevitability that concludes the first stanza: “Poplars and pines grow straight but oaks are gnarled; / Old codgers must speak of death, boys break windows, / Women lie honestly by their men at last” (5-7). If “all poets” pick up “rhetoric” and “lying” eventually, so must Layton; nothing and no one can avoid the organic processes of growth, completion, and decay. Intervening between these lines is the first image of “the mist,” “Rising like the thin voice of grey castratos” (4) and thus enforcing the ambivalence that grounds the whole of the poem: rhetoric, lying, gnarled skin, and death are all, like castration, an elimination of potency, but they are as inevitable, indeed as random, as the breaking of windows by playing boys.
Rhetoric and lying in poetry are therefore like a castration of the male that “thins” the “voice”; this is the premise with which the poem opens, and it remains the implied context of all that follows. But why is such a faltering of poetic potency inevitable, and how may poetry itself offer freedom? The second stanza initiates an attempt to elaborate these paradoxes. In it, the poet, having “ma[d]e up an incredible musical scale” to the “vivid changing colours” of his wife's eye after he has struck her—a powerfully objectionable image to which I will return later—performs his music “on wooden stilts” that allow him to “sing to the loftiest casements” (9-12). Note that the image implies a surreptitious bedroom audience for the poet even as it elevates him artificially above a “lower” audience. When he cries at the end of the stanza, “Space for these stilts! More space or I fail!” (14), he implies a crowd of gawkers who are so impressed with his “dance” that they threaten its performance by their very eagerness to surround him. This invisible audience, unnamed and unportrayed, is the first indication that “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom”; is an articulation of the disturbing relation between the falsely elevated poet and the uncomprehending crowd he addresses.
No reading of the poem has satisfactorily accounted for the presence of the Canute legend in the third stanza, but its pivotal role in the poem and its invocation for closure in the last line suggest that an interpretation of the story is crucial to a full treatment of the poem. The story is first evoked by the speaker's call for his own coronation, despite the “buffoon's head” (15) that has led him to his clownish stilt-performance in the previous lines. He then aligns himself with the Danish king of England by claiming that their folly—and implied wisdom—is equal. Canute was the “Lord of our tribe,” the tribe of poets “who scanned and scorned” (17): a powerful figure that includes Canute's sweeping gaze over the sea and scorn for his courtiers as well as the poet's scansion of his rhythms and scorn for his audience. In this sense, Canute's “courtiers” are his readership. When they inflate his importance by treating him as a god, he renders himself a fool by placing his throne at the sea's edge and rebuking the approaching tide. When the “first white waves come nuzzling at his feet” (19) and so confirm his mortality, the audience's excessive adulation is punctured and Canute is restored to the free humanity that lies outside of their conception of him. Canute had been “half-deceived” (18) by the courtiers' apotheosis, as the poet may be by excessive fame; but both are restored when the misled self is murdered and the authentic poet faces the undeniable fact of his own mortality.
The mist has thus far been aligned with the false rhetoric that comes to “all poets” and with the inevitable processes of completion and decay that await all life's energy. In the fourth stanza the implications of the mist broaden as a result of the Canute legend. “It was the mist” (22) that led him to be “deceived” (18) by his courtiers, and it is now located “inside” the king and other poets, “rotting like a lung” (23), denying the inspiration and afflatus necessary to creativity. It is associated with “the scent of dead apples,” the pollution of “black oily waters at evening,” and “the fraternal graves of cemeteries” (26-8). But it is also “a crown” for the poet, who “wear[s] a wreath of mist” (25) even though he is “undone” and “a clown” (24). Clearly the mist is increasing in ambiguity. As a figure of death, it lies within us and leads us to be “deceived” into thinking ourselves immortal; but as a “crown,” it is a symbol of circularity, completion, and royalty, indeed the basis of the poet's important identification with King Canute.
The mist takes on this dual meaning largely because of its misconception in the hands of the shadowy audiences that surround the scenes of the poem. When the courtiers of Canute, like the readers of the poet, proclaim his immortality, they render him a fixed fact and deny him further freedom to change. They also flout the patterns of mortal inevitability that underpin the poem's vision. But the poet-king cannot allow these misapprehensions of immortality to prevent him from seeking the more authentic immortality of his poet's “crown.” He must continue, “half-deceived,” to believe in his truer quest for a crown despite, and in the very teeth of, the false crowns held out to him by an ignorant audience. Acknowledging his own inevitable death, he will nevertheless struggle for a perpetual rejuvenation, casting aside the “murdered selves” that have won him mundane acclaim one after the other, and thus defying the audience's successive versions of his creativity. In doing so he lives his life in a way that will render his eventual death the “crowning” transformation of a dialectical process of fame and scorn that leaves his audiences powerless to contain him.
But this affirmative response to death in life does not alter the fact of our mortality, nor our fear of it, nor does it imply that the poet is ever finally free of his audiences. He must engage in a perpetual struggle with their expectations, briefly satisfying, abruptly alienating; to eschew their approval altogether is to lose the sense of false closure that fuels his desperate rejuvenation. So with death itself: living (like Canute after the legend) with the fact of death for a crown in no way reduces one's fear of the end; indeed, a loss of that fear would similarly eliminate the urgency of self-recreation that is crucial to the poet's energy. Thus, the images of the next two stanzas are bitter with mortality and recrimination; in them, death is restored to its “crazing” terror and the audience to its stifling power.
Although it has crowned him, the speaker knows that the mist of rhetoric and death will hound him to the end: “It shall drive me to beg my food and at last / Hurl me broken I know and prostrate on the road” (29-30). His continual escapes from his audience's pleasure will take away the means of his subsistence, and a more literal death will shatter him and leave him like refuse on the road side, ignored by the passing cars of his erstwhile readers, visualized in the subsequent stanza. As a major ironic undermining of his earlier crowning, he now identifies with a “huge toad” that he saw, “entire but dead, / That Time mordantly had blacked” (31-2). But the metaphoric transformation from king to toad still resonates with the earlier self-celebration; this toad, though “dead,” is “entire” in death (31), only “Time” having killed it: it has presumably not been crushed under the wheels of the passing cars. And indeed, after the speaker asserts a future identity with the toad, he adopts for them both the language of another King of Britain, Lear: “for sick with mist / And crazed I smell the odour of mortality” (34-5). When, in Shakespeare, the blinded Gloucester seeks to kiss the hand of Lear and perpetuate his sovereign's lost royalty, Lear's “crazed” rejoinder is, “Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality” (IV, vi, 128). So kingship is not lost in Layton's poem; rather it is reconciled with the poet's starvation and abandonment by the spurned audience.
The Heraclitean premises of the following lines (“And Time flames”) are obviously appropriate to the poem's vision; they serve further to unfold the complex sixth stanza, which depends for some of its meaning on the reader's familiarity with other Layton poems. In this sense the stanza ironically projects Layton's reliance on his own fame. By no other means can we interpret the elaborate sun imagery than by referring it to the solar symbolism Layton had already developed in numerous poems from the 1950s. Here, the sun, Layton's favoured symbol of Dionysian exuberance, invited down to earth by those who “lift feet of fire from fire” and so “weave a red carpet” for its approach, is perverted by the uncomprehending masses into a false replica: “At certain middays I have watched the cars / Bring me from afar their windshield suns; / What lay to my hand were blue fenders, / The suns extinguished, the drivers wearing sunglasses. / And it made me think I had touched a hearse” (38-42). The cars that passed the toad “entire but dead” on the roadway are driven by those who hide from the sun behind sunglasses, afraid of intensity. With their false reflection they can “half-deceive” the poet into “believing” himself close to the true sunlight, but when he reaches for this false prize he touches the material world, and the sensation is of a contact with death. Once again, the misguiding audience offers its false coronations, and once again, the result for the poet is a brush with creative stifling.
In the first period of the poem's composition, this was as far as Layton could reach toward a fusion of the poem's ideas. He ironically asserted a quality of proof to its progress by offering the phrase “So whatever else poetry is freedom” as a seventh stanza, and it was this truncated version of the poem that appeared in The Canadian Forum in February 1958. According to Cameron “it took him six months to find a concluding stanza” (266), but he had done so in time for its inclusion, complete, in A Red Carpet for the Sun in the following year. This textual history obviously draws particular attention to the seventh stanza, which Layton had some trouble discovering and which, once written, presumably seemed to him an appropriate conclusion to an elaborate and difficult poem.
The opening “So” proclaims the poem's logicality, and although it is an ironic logic, the subsequent lines do indeed brilliantly gather up the threads of “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom.” First the speaker calls for “the impatient cadences,” “far off,” to “reveal / A padding for [his] breathless stilts” (44-5). (The lines are resonant with other Layton phrasing: in “The Birth of Tragedy” “someone from afar off / blows birthday candles for the world,” and in “The Cold Green Element” the poet's final transformation leaves him a “breathless swimmer.”) Perhaps then his own poems, evoked intertextually here, are the “impatient cadences” that will pad his stilts and protect him from the excessive enthusiasm of his audiences, even as his reliance on our hearing these echoes suggests his confidence in our having read him well. The “cadences” may also be the rhythms of the tide that swamped Canute or the “thin voice of grey castratos” that rose with the mist from the river. In these readings, the casing for his stilts is a padding of mortality, true death protecting him from false, not unlike the “wreath of mist” that crowned him earlier. What follows is an imperative to himself and to Canute and, by extension, to all poets of “our tribe” who “scan and scorn”: “Swivel, / O hero, in the fleshy groves, skin and glycerine, / And sing of lust, the sun's accompanying shadow / Like a vampire's wing, the stillness in dead feet— / Your stave brings resurrection, O aggrievèd king” (45-9). This peroration subsumes the poem's images and transliterates them into a suggestive program for the poet's ongoing self-salvation. “Swivel” suggests both the turn-and-turn-about of the poet struggling towards and away from his audience and his pivoting dance on the false elevation of “breathless stilts.” The “fleshy groves” not only assert the poet's mortality but also gather up the “poplars,” “pines,” and “oaks” attaining their organic form. “Glycerine” echoes the artificiality of emotion “all poets pick up sooner or later,” as in “glycerine tears.” “The sun” here is now the true sun, not the spurious reflection from the vehicles of the readership; its “shadow”—and of course the sun can have no shadow—“accompanies” the poet even as its rise and fall sucks away his blood, “like a vampire's wing.” These incorporations of the poem's imagery give the final stanza its summary and corrective impact: the poet will earn “resurrection” from creative death only by a passionate singing, of his own mortality, his fleshiness, in the full light—and intense burning—of the sun. His song will not exclude but will resonate with “the stillness in dead feet,” even if with that inclusion he risks occasional rhythmic flaccidity, the “dead feet” of a conventional metre.
The “stave” that “brings resurrection” has been variously glossed; its meanings include “sceptre,” appropriate to the “aggrievèd king” who wields it; “stanza,” the vehicle of the poet; and “phallus,” the symbol of the male poet's urge both to entrap himself and to free himself from entrapment. In the latter sense the king's “resurrection” is his “res-erection,” the pun suggestive of the powerful link now established between creative salvation and the poet's libido. This polysemous image thus continues, indeed triumphantly, the concluding stanza's successful concatenation of the poem's meanings. Only at this point can the audience be said to be eclipsed from the poem: the “aggrievèd king” stands alone at its conclusion, his rebirth guaranteed by his “stave” and his kingdom assured by his rejection of the false court. The “resurrection” asserted here is ambiguous: the burden of the poem emphatically insists that it is not a transfiguration of the poet in this life, wherein his fate is a perpetual dialectical struggle with his praisers and decriers. Perhaps instead, it is the “resurrection” of a truer immortality, the “loftiest” readership after his death, who will be forced to accommodate all of his “selves”—indeed his very principle of self-transformation—if they wish to read him at all. In this sense the final crowning, the “wreath of mist,” is the only valued one; before death the poet is a stilt-lifted clown, “half-deceived” by his own inevitable “trick of lying.”
So poetry is freedom from Poetry, from the “muted polite hosannah” of the satisfied audience. When Paul Verlaine wrote, “Et tout le reste est littérature,” he was expressing a similar scorn for public institutional means of silencing the poet's radical vision. Layton was perhaps not aware of these implications of “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom”; his fame had not yet—not quite—been thrust upon him. But the poem powerfully prefigures the eventual dynamic relation to his audience that he would achieve and codify in the coming years, and exemplify for the balance of his career. If his poetry is now passing through a period of critical neglect, it is in part an affirmation of the vision of the poet, clown and king, worked out here; and it perhaps suggests, by inversion, the later crowning that he promised to Canute.
As a final and practical exemplification of the poem's insistence on its own freedom I wish to return briefly to what must surely be its most outrageous image: “And I who gave my Kate a blackened eye / Did to its vivid changing colours / Make up an incredible musical scale” (8-10). Layton cannot have known that he was placing in the poem an image that would become so objectionable to a later audience that the poem is now, for some, unreadable. After all he composed it in part for a popular culture that routinely minimized the presence, damage, and political nature of conjugal violence. A popular Hollywood musical of 1956, Carousel, would find its “happy” ending with a mother telling her daughter that a man's violence can sometimes feel to a woman like an act of love. But I suspect that, if challenged on the image, Layton would find in it the ideal exemplification of the poem's point about the nature of fame and poetic freedom. In 1992 “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom” aggressively asserts its own absolute liberty and defies the ethical and political codes that would question its content. As audience, we have of course the power of rejection, but we do not have the power to change the poem. We can take away the fame but not the freedom; and we will have to admit, as the poem takes for granted, that we are not the final arbiters of Layton's fame anyway.
The phrase summarizes the dialectic of creativity and audience expectation that energizes, paralyses, and finally destroys Buddy Bolden in Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter. Ondaatje's powerful figuration of those relations and their manifestation in Bolden's “extremist” art has necessarily inspired, without I hope distorting, my reading of Layton's relation to his own fame.
Material that has been important to Van Wilt will also figure in my interpretation of Layton's development, and his useful Nietzschean reading of the poet's sense of selfhood stands squarely behind my inquiry into Layton's relation to his own fame. Van Wilt's interest, however, is more exactly in the self-overcoming of the Nietzschean artist. The model is effective, but it does leave out the crucial role played by Layton's audience—and by his doubled responses to it—in his self-representations.
Pp. 46-7. Layton completes the article by a triumphant citation of “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom,” thus supplying an explicitly political—if somewhat limiting—gloss on the poem's cryptic title.
Cameron, Elspeth. Irving Layton: A Portrait. Toronto: Stoddart, 1985.
Faas, Ekbert and Sabrina Reed, eds. Irving Layton & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1990.
Layton, Irving. Collected Poems. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1965.
———. The Collected Poems of Irving Layton. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971.
———. In the Midst of My Fever. Mallorca: Divers Press, 1956.
———. The Laughing Rooster. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964.
———. “Poets: the Conscience of Mankind.” Globe Magazine, 15 June 1963; rpt. in Engagements: The Prose of Irving Layton. Seymour Mayne, ed. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972: 46-50.
———. A Red Carpet for the Sun. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1959.
———. “What Canadians Don't Know about Love.” Foreword to Love Where the Nights Are Long. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1962. Rpt. in Engagements, 98-103.
———. “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom.” The Canadian Forum 37 (Feb. 1958): 252.
Mandel, Eli. Irving Layton. Toronto: Forum House, 1969.
Mayne, Seymour. “Introduction” to Irving Layton: The Poet and His Critics. Seymour Mayne, ed. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978: 1-22.
Ondaatje, Michael. Coming Through Slaughter. Toronto: Anansi, 1976.
Thomas, Clara. “A Conversation About Literature: An Interview with Margaret Laurence and
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6983
SOURCE: Solecki, Sam. “D. H. Lawrence, Irving Layton, and Al Purdy: In the Canadian Grain.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 49 (summer 1993) 93-110.
[In the following essay, Solecki compares the works of D. H. Lawrence to the works of Layton and poet Al Purdy in the context of Canadian literature.]
We own the country we grow up in, or we are aliens and invaders.
La vrai terre natale est celle où on a eu sa première émotion forte.
—Remy de Gourmont
This essay has two concerns whose connection will become apparent only gradually: D. H. Lawrence’s influence on Irving Layton and Al Purdy, and the different conceptions or visions of a national literature and identity—what Dennis Lee calls an “imaginative patrimony” (390)—implicit in the bodies of work of the two Canadians. Although I will refer throughout to Lawrence’s “influence,” the word I really want and can’t find would indicate something more than affinity or resemblance and less than influence. Use suggests itself but carries too strong an overtone of a willed or self-conscious attitude on the part of the user. Influence is therefore almost inevitable, although today it is especially problematic because it brings with it the influential Nietzschean and Freudian shadow of Harold Bloom, for whom it refers quite specifically to the relationship between two “strong” poets, the later of whom writes a poem that is a “misprision” or creative misreading of one by his predecessor (thus Wordsworth’s great “Ode” is “a misprision of Lycidas” [Map 144]). Without restricting myself to Bloom’s elaborate theoretical framework, I will nevertheless adopt his wide definition of influence as a complex relationship between personalities involving much more than verbal resemblance or stylistic mannerisms.1
My concern with influence, however, has a specifically social, historical, and national dimension. This dimension is absent from Bloom’s theory, which is ultimately interested only in the history of encounters between strong poets who struggle over imaginative space.2 History in Bloom is always poetic history (of poets and poems), and the only tradition of interest to him is the great tradition of the greatest poets in the language: Milton, the High Romantics, Browning, Whitman, Dickinson, Hardy, and Stevens. In this essay, by contrast, the term history will refer primarily to the history of a national poetic tradition and a national literature. I should also point out at the outset that I am adopting Bloom’s adjective—“strong”—in order to apply it, contra-Bloom, to poets such as Layton and Purdy who, I argue, are “strong” not only because they wrestle, as all poets must, with the major poets of the Anglo-American tradition, but also because for them that struggle is inseparable from the attempt to make themselves into modern poets and to create a body of work that is simultaneously—though they couldn’t have foreseen it—a vision of a national literature, and therefore of a national identity.3 Implicit in their body of work is an effort to determine that the major line in the national poetic tradition will either originate with, or pass through, them. Strength, I am suggesting, is a quality evident in writers who have a sense of national concern, proprietorship, and patrimony, and who indicate through their poems’ content or personae or forms of address that their implicit audience is the nation. In Purdy’s case, this can be seen even in such small gestures as the repeated use of the word country in his poems “The Country North of Belleville,” or in his characteristic encompassing references to the past and the future (“My Grandfather’s Country”); in Layton’s it is there in the combative stance as well as in the propensity to generalize on the basis of his own experiences. In both, what seems at the start a typical lyric monologue often ends as an admonition or address to implied others. Within this context E. J. Pratt, Irving Layton, Al Purdy, and Margaret Atwood are strong poets, while Archibald Lampman, A. J. M. Smith, Margaret Avison, and Michael Ondaatje aren’t.
Lawrence’s role in this scenario is important yet relatively simple; his work and the example of his life are used by Layton and Purdy at crucial periods in their careers to help them escape from the colonial Canadian tradition into modernism.4 In Layton’s case, the engagement with Lawrence is part of an almost complete turning away from the Canadian historical and cultural past; in Purdy’s, it involves using Lawrence—described in a letter as “in some ways … the most interesting poet alive or dead” (Purdy and Woodcock 160)5—in a gradual coming to terms with the very history Layton finds unusable. In the engagement with Lawrence, which is critical to the young poets’ attempts to find themselves, each implicitly denies the importance and influence of his national predecessors: they become the road not taken. Purdy’s first volume, The Enchanted Echo (1944), sounds like distilled Carman, but that tradition and influence will later be referred to, if at all, as a mistake. Lawrence, the earlier “strong” English poet, is read and rewritten (and therefore even resurrected) in order that the younger Canadians may live. The relationship combines two of Bloom’s “revisionary ratios”: tessera (“completion and antithesis”) and apophrades (“return of the dead”) (Anxiety 14, 15). It does so, however, in a completion that Bloom would probably find unacceptable since, in this case, neither involves genuine revision or “misprision” (misreading) of the earlier figure’s poems, although both poets will produce Lawrentian poems that he couldn’t have written.
The debt to Lawrence is obvious enough in the work of both writers, and neither has denied or tried to disguise it. Layton’s letters, prefaces, and reviews, for example, contain many references to Lawrence, who is often used by Layton as a touchstone of health and sanity in an insane, repressed, and rationalized bourgeois world.6 Together with Blake, Nietzsche, and a handful of others, Lawrence represents the type of great, often visionary artist who is also a prophet or sage and whose work is a jeremiad against “the frightful hideousness of contemporary man. … Man, without a soul; man, robotized; man tortured, humiliated, and crucified; man, driven into slave camps and death factories by devils and perverts; man, the dirtiest predator of all” (Layton, foreword, Balls [Balls for a One-Armed Juggler] xix).7 In Layton’s prose, Lawrence’s is one of a personal pantheon of nearly talismanic names that function as a symbolic shorthand indicating the kind of writing and the vision of the self and society Layton favours. Of course, he is simultaneously pointing us in the direction of the tradition within which he wants his own work placed. The most emphatic and revealing reference of this kind comes in Waiting for the Messiah, Layton’s Canadian gloss on the Old Testament with himself as our belated Lawrentian Moses. In his account of literary influences—none of which, incidentally, are Canadian—Layton singles Lawrence out at one point as a sort of John the Baptist to his own anti-Canadian Christ.
I began to read [Lawrence’s] poetry and fiction, his criticism, and indeed everything he wrote, with increasing astonishment and reverence. Lawrence despised English gentility and puritanism as much as I did. No writer, I felt, had his ear closer to the febrile heartbeat of our sick civilization than did Lawrence. He confirmed my outlook to such a degree that many times, when reading him, I felt spooked. I was completely at one with him in his philosophy of sex and views of Christianity. Lawrence’s criticism of Christianity, particularly of its romanticism and sexual repressiveness, is every bit as forceful as Nietzsche’s. For this reason, Lawrence, for me, became the archetypal anti-Canuck.
(Layton and O’Rourke 223)
The passage simultaneously announces indebtedness and quietly qualifies the admission; the struggle between influence and affinity culminates in a final sentence that, even as it announces Layton as a Lawrentian, subtly turns Lawrence into a Canadian (an “anti-Canuck” Laytonian).
This aspect of Layton has been remarked on by various critics and reviewers including A. J. M. Smith, Northrop Frye, George Woodcock, and Purdy himself. Woodcock, for example, refers to the difficulties involved in reviewing
a body of work by a notoriously irascible writer which varies so remarkably from the atrocious to the excellent, and which shows a failure of self-evaluation as monstrous as that displayed by D. H. Lawrence, who in so many ways resembled, anticipated and influenced Layton.
Some of the anticipation, resemblance, or influence may be seen in Layton’s often sacramental attitude to sexuality and his attacks on puritanism; in his commitment, in form and content, to what Lawrence, in his introduction to the American edition of New Poems (1918), called “the poetry of the present”;9 in his fascination with the Dionysian, though his Dionysus, unlike Lawrence’s, belongs less to The Birth of Tragedy (1872) than to the later Nietzsche; in his imagery of sun, flesh, nature, animals; and in his travel poems. It is worth noting, however, that for all the implicit points of contact with Lawrence, Layton rarely sounds like Lawrence, and his writing contains almost no verbal echoes of, allusions to, or quotations from Lawrence’s work (although he does mention Lawrence in “On Seeing the Statuettes of Ezekiel and Jeremiah in the Church of Notre Dame” and in “Ambiguities of Conduct,” and a handful of poems sound the Lawrentian note—“Man and Wife,” “The Laughing Rooster,” and “Zoroastrian”). It’s as if the poet, having heard Lawrence praised generously and exuberantly in the prose, recognizes the need to keep the strong predecessor at arm’s length lest he take over the poetry. As a result, the poems of Layton’s major period—and this is no small achievement—are Lawrentian without Lawrence.10
In recent years Layton’s resemblance to Lawrence has been most obvious in his short, often satiric lyrics. There are jeremiads against a variety of related targets, from “xians” and “idds” to modern bourgeois society and twentieth-century man. These poems frequently seem like the feelings and ideas of a moment recorded almost as though they were entries in a notebook, and they gain their authority both from the cumulative force of the volume and from our awareness of the source. The affinity between them and some of the poems Lawrence called “pansies” is obvious enough if we read Lawrence’s description of the latter while keeping in mind Layton’s later work.
This little bunch of fragments is offered as a bunch of pensées, anglicé pansies; a handful of thoughts. Or, if you will have the other derivation of pansy, from panser, to dress or soothe a wound; these are my tender administrations to the mental and emotional wounds we suffer from. …
Each little piece is a thought; not a bare idea or an opinion or a didactic statement, but a true thought, which comes as much from the heart and the genitals as from the head. A thought with its own blood of emotion and instinct running in it like the fire in a fire-opal, if I may be so bold. Perhaps if you hold up my pansies properly to the light, they may show a running vein of fire. At least, they do not pretend to be half-baked lyrics or melodies in American measure. They are thoughts which run through the modern mind and body, each having its own separate existence, yet each of them combining with all the others to make up a complete state of mind.
(Lawrence, Complete Poems 417)
There is nothing said here that couldn’t also be said of many of Layton’s poems—love lyrics, travel poems, and satires—in For My Brother Jesus (1976), Droppings from Heaven (1979), For My Neighbours in Hell (1980), Europe and Other Bad News (1981), and The Gucci Bag (1983) (which, with some justification, could have been titled Look! We Have Not Come Through!).11 The voice in Layton’s later work is different from Lawrence’s but the uses to which each poet puts poetry are the same, and in the case of each we waste our time criticizing a poem for not being “a well-wrought urn” or “treasured, gemlike lyric.” Compare these two poems, the first by Lawrence, the second by Layton:
How beastly the bourgeois is especially the male of the species—
Presentable eminently presentable— shall I make you a present of him?
Isn’t he handsome? isn’t he healthy? Isn’t he a fine specimen? doesn’t he look the fresh clean englishman, outside? Isn’t it god’s own image? tramping his thirty miles a day after partridges, or a little rubber ball? wouldn’t you like to be like that, well off, and quite the thing?
(“How Beastly the Bourgeois Is,” Complete Poems 430)
Three fudge stores two bookstores a clean library uncontaminated by Commentary or Encounter English beer English biddies the Prince of Wales the Buttery tourist shops on both sides of Queen Street selling Canadian identity bracelets children with red cheeks, white sneakers and blue eyes, not an unhealthy thought among them; vineyards, orchards & Orangemen and a tower clock that rings out the hours and tells everyone when to stop yawning and go to bed.
(“Niagara-on-the-Lake,” For My Neighbours 48)
The poems are in different voices, but there’s little doubt that each is written from the point of view, in Layton’s words, of “a Dionysian / at a gathering of WASPs” or “a fox in a chicken coop” (“The Mildewed Maple,” For My Neighbours 35).
The predictable critical response to much of Layton’s later work has been that the poems show an obvious falling off from the major lyrics of the fifties and sixties (“The Cold Green Element,” “A Tall Man Executes a Jig,” “Keine Lazarovitch 1870-1959”). There’s some truth in that judgement, but it’s not the whole truth. That is, if the critic is looking for poems that are single achieved works of art suitable for anthologies, then he or she is searching in the wrong place and has made what could be called a poetic category error: the critic wants High Romantic lyric, and Layton is no longer interested in writing that kind of poem. The worldview and the conception of poetry (“Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom”) are still the same, but the medium has been opened up as Layton tries to extend the range of what his poems can do by making them speak more directly about a handful of crucial public and private concerns. It’s as if personal and public pressures have made him impatient with the art and artifice of his early and middle periods. In Lawrence’s words, the later poems are “thoughts” with the “blood of emotion and instinct” running through them, and as a group they are intended to show “a complete state of mind” (Complete Poems 417), rather like a poetic diary or notebook. It’s not irrelevant that the foreword to The Gucci Bag laments the absence of “substance” in contemporary poetry since what the Layton of the seventies and eighties may lack in obvious artifice he tries to compensate for with substance.
The Lawrentian strain appears in Purdy’s poetry much later than it does in Layton’s. In his essay “Poets in Montreal,” published in No Other Country (1977), Purdy mentions seeing a shrine to Lawrence in Layton’s Montreal apartment in 1956 (118), but it is only with The Stone Bird (1981) that Lawrence can be heard and seen clearly in Purdy. The following poems in that collection and in Piling Blood (1984), for example, either echo or refer to Lawrence: “Bestiary,” “D. H. Lawrence at Lake Chapala,”12 “Moses at Darwin Station,” “Moonspell,” “In the Beginning Was the Word,” “Adam and No Eve,” “Birds and Beasts,” “Death of DHL,” “Lawrence’s Pictures,” and “Bestiary .” Since Lawrence seems more obviously important to Purdy than to Layton as a poet—Layton tends to value him as a prophet or sage—I have the impression that Purdy could only risk writing out of and about Lawrence when he was sufficiently confident in his own poetic.13 At that point he could engage Lawrence on common ground by entering into dialogue with him (“D. H. Lawrence at Lake Chapala”), rewriting some of his animal and travel poems (“Bestiary” and “Adam and No Eve”), and paying explicit homage to his great predecessor (“Lawrence’s Pictures” and “Death of DHL”). By the time of Collected Poems of Al Purdy (1986) he could even write that “If I had to name two of the most important influences, D. H. Lawrence and Irving Layton would qualify. As examples, not tutors” (xviii).
Purdy’s Lawrentian poems are written out of the poet’s confidence that they can stand comparison with Lawrence’s own poems, and neither overwhelm nor be overwhelmed by them; they are simultaneously homage and assertion of independence, and never simply parody or pastiche. This seems to me true even when, as in “Lawrence’s Pictures” and “Death of DHL,” the poems’ images and words are taken from Lawrence: the voice is still unmistakably Purdy’s. Here, Purdy’s “wrestling with the great dead” (Bloom’s powerfully evocative phrase [Map 24]) results in Lawrentian poems only Purdy could have written. “Bestiary” provides another, slightly different example of what I mean. I quote the penultimate stanza.
Rooster boast two short and one long syllable sends blood plummeting skyward where he can no longer go and declares in rooster earth is best earth is best and heart knows that isn’t true the brag-song is a grief-cry earth at best is second-best he mourns the sky the lost sky with a metal windvane rooster dodging lightning atop a northern barn he is sky-lost the white stovelid a lost glory poor flightless bird
(Purdy, Collected Poems 260)
The first line is a strong echo of Lawrence’s “Tortoise Shout,” and the playful, sympathetic, nearly empathetic, evocation of the animal world calls to mind some of Lawrence’s poems. Yet as a whole the poem doesn’t seem indebted to Lawrence. Purdy has absorbed his predecessor’s animal poems to the point that he can use their example to write original animal poems of his own. He creates his own imaginative space in the reader’s mind with un-Lawrentian verbal mannerisms and locutions such as “brag-song” or (in the first stanza) “jewsharpgutstretchingmouthfartingmusic” to describe the burro’s song (259), as well as with his typical reference in the poem’s close to “the Cambrian / and Precambrian when there were no wolves / no housepets” (260). Lawrence, in “Tortoise Shout,” refers characteristically to “life’s unfathomable dawn” (Complete Poems 364).
What should be obvious from the above is that Purdy and Layton, while agreeing on Lawrence’s importance and even on some of the reasons for it, ultimately put him to very different uses. Layton’s Lawrence is a social critic, a Dionysian prophet of sexuality and spirit, and a Nietzschean iconoclast who, to an extent Nietzsche would have found unsettling, was also a deeply religious individual—like Layton. And while Layton’s poetry is rarely overtly influenced by Lawrence’s, their world views are almost identical. We should also notice that although Layton’s memoir, Waiting for the Messiah, discusses Layton and Lawrence within the context of the provincial Canada of the 1930s and 1940s, it leaves the impression that Layton is less a Canadian than a European writer—in other words, like Lawrence. The book’s subtext is an elegy and a cry of longing for European civilization, from which the young Layton has been dispossessed. In a manner of speaking, then, being a Romanian Jew saved him from becoming a colonial Canadian, or—put another way—it determined that his personal cultural library would contain volumes by the Hebrew prophets, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and Lawrence but not by Susanna Moodie, Ralph Connor, Stephen Leacock, and Hugh MacLennan. It’s no accident that Waiting for the Messiah only mentions Canadian writers in order to dismiss them. Layton’s Lawrence, therefore, is important for a number of reasons not the least of which is that he is a representative of a branch of the great tradition of European writing—Goethe and Arnold’s world literature—to which the Canadian Layton aspires because he thinks of Canadian literature as an extension of it.
Purdy’s Lawrence, on the other hand, is the writer of Etruscan Places, Studies in Classic American Literature, and Mornings in Mexico, the man who turned his back on modern Europe and was fascinated by prehistory and America. This is the Lawrence of the “open road,” “blood-consciousness,” “the poetry of the present,” and of an “America” (this includes Mexico) whose “spirit of place” is uncontaminated by European influence. Lawrence’s justly famous description of the spirit of place occurs in the powerful, polemical first chapter of Studies in Classic American Literature:
Every continent has its own great spirit of place. Every people is polarized in some particular locality, which is home, the homeland. Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality. The Nile valley produced not only the corn, but the terrific religions of Egypt. China produces the Chinese, and will go on doing so. … There was a tremendous polarity in Italy, in the city of Rome. And this seems to have died. For even places die. The Island of Great Britain had a wonderful terrestrial magnetism or polarity of its own, which made the British people. For the moment, this polarity seems to be breaking. Can England die? And what if England dies?
Anyone too quickly tempted to dismiss this as too mystical to be taken seriously should recall that with slight shifts in diction and a greater emphasis on history, there is little here that we won’t find in Vico, Montesquieu, Herder, Whitman, and Olson, all of whom suggest a close genetic connection between the values, ideas, and worldview of a people or nation and their geography.
Purdy, as much as Lawrence, insists on the importance of “the spirit of place,” but unlike Lawrence he also emphasizes the influence of personal, familial, and public history in its formation. Place in Purdy’s work is both what we create and what we perceive, as we can see in the disturbing “Man without a Country,” a poem that begins by describing a man who believes that “I am no man because— / because this is not a country” (Collected Poems 313). The poem’s speaker contrasts this individual to himself, a man with a country because his history is in this place and because, ultimately, he carries it within himself:
These are my history the story of myself for I am the land and the land has become me
Years later I think of that wandering exile —and being an exile is beginning to understand yourself as he is beginning to know that history is asleep in all our bones the long history of becoming He is beginning to know that the ruined grey cities of Europe and eastern lands and ingrown culture of the world mean nothing without a sense of place the knowledge of here which is the centre of all things of being a boy fishing for sunfish in a river and always forever after knowing the direction of home of things that resist telling the gods coded deep in memory arriving here in total where the sun stands still at noon
(Collected Poems 314)
The self in Purdy’s poems and prose is at the intersection of geography and history, place and culture, the gods and man. In other words, if I write that I find “the spirit of place” (or of “our place”) evoked more powerfully in Purdy’s poetry than anywhere else in our literature, I want to make it clear that this isn’t just some sentimental, pastoral, or mystical formulation—a sort of geographical ontology or metaphysics. It involves geography and history, land and the events of human significance that have taken place on it. The poem refers to the self’s experiences as “what must escape telling and become feeling alone” (314), but it nevertheless is a telling that is an evocation of how a certain complex set of emotions, attitudes, and ideas was created in response to a particular situation and place.
The doubleness at play in the poem—“play” because Purdy’s poems often move simultaneously towards overcoming separation and recognizing its inevitability—finds particularly concise expression in the title of the introduction to No Other Country, “The Cartography of Myself.” Here the self that, in a manner of speaking, has cultivated and mapped the land is suggestively figured as mirroring the country in a way that leaves it unclear where one begins and the other ends. This radical identification is only possible because of the self’s historical and imaginative engagement with place, an engagement ultimately completed by the poem, which, like the self, is involved in the ambiguous metaphor of cartography.
A crucial part of this engagement can be seen in the history and geography called up in the poems whenever Purdy, inevitably recalling epic catalogues and Whitman’s lists, summons names from the family past or names of towns and places around Ameliasburg or Belleville. “The Country North of Belleville” is by now a classic example:
Herschel Monteagle and Faraday lakeland rockland and hill country a little adjacent to where the world is a little north of where the cities are and sometime we may go back there
to the country of our defeat Wollaston Elzevir and Dungannon and Weslemkoon lake land where the high townships of Cashel
McClure and Marmora once were— But it’s been a long time since and we must enquire the way of strangers—
(Collected Poems 62)
The names stumble and roll off the tongue and show the individual (and those behind and before him) naming and therefore taking physical and spiritual possession of the land, even as he is, inevitably, possessed by it: names on maps and signatures on deeds become, a century or two later, names in the poem’s cartography of self and land as well as in the titles of poems themselves. Poems such as “The Country North of Belleville,” “Boundaries,” “Shot Glass Made from a Bull’s Horn,” and “Roblin’s Mills” are ultimately cartographies of self, place, and country, and figures for what our—that is, the reader’s—relationship to this place either has been or might be. When assembled, as they are in the superb autobiographical memoir, Morning and Its Summer (1983), they become Purdy’s equivalent of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Purdy’s Loyalist family romance, less febrile and tense than Lowell’s, is coextensive with a Lawrentian engagement with America and serves as a prelude to a return to histories other than Canadian. It’s as if confidently rooted in Canadian history—Ameliasburg is the imagined capital of Canada—his imagination is liberated for the more comprehensive encounter with what lies beyond it, whether this involves Mycenaean history, the Dorsets, Indian rock painters at Lake Superior, a monastery in Kiev, or the Cuban Revolution (see “News Reports at Ameliasburg”). By diving deeply into his, and therefore the Canadian, past (“In search of Owen Roblin / I discovered a whole era / that was really a backward extension of myself / built lines of communication across two centuries” [Search n. pag.]), he connects it to history and prehistory.
To call this aspect of Purdy’s vision Lawrentian, therefore, is not quite accurate since Purdy’s spirit of place—however religious in its ultimate orientation—is more realistic, historical, and historically grounded than Lawrence’s. His “place,” as was mentioned earlier, is usually imagined in relation to some inhabitants and human events, so that, for example, the Arctic (in North of Summer) is inseparable from the Inuit who live there, and Ontario is both landscape and farm. Similarly, the spirit of place of the prehistoric past of poems such as “Lament for the Dorsets” and “The Runners” is usually imagined through a human response to it. The spirit of place, in other words, is always geography and history for Purdy, even if he has to bring history to it or imagine a history for it. Or, as Dennis Lee puts it, the spirit of spirit of place, its “tremendum—the encounter with holy otherness … is always mediated through things of the world” (383).
Both Layton and Purdy, then, relate Canada to Europe, but they do so from clearly opposed—and therefore complementary—points of view. Layton sees and imagines the Canadian experience and Canadian culture within the matrix of the European tradition; Purdy, reversing the perspective, looks at Europe through Canadian or North American binoculars and is almost surprised to discover something there. Layton’s Lawrence is both the Dionysus, today forgotten or repressed at the heart of Western civilization, and the Dionysian writer in the great tradition; Purdy’s is the Lawrence who occasionally turned his back on Europe and tried to go Indian, though always with notebook in hand and wearing hat, suit, and tie. I have no doubt that Layton and Purdy would agree about the various reasons for Lawrence’s importance as man and writer, but in his relationship with the English writer each of these Canadian poets has instinctively responded primarily to those aspects he would find useful in his own writing. As a result, two of the most important bodies of work in Canadian literature—each implicitly a vision of what that literature as a whole might be—bear traces of Lawrence’s life and work.
Because Purdy’s poetry is more conspicuously North American in its idiom and orientation and more comprehensive in its engagement with Canada—one can’t imagine Layton living among the Inuit—it’s tempting to follow Dennis Lee’s tacit judgement that Purdy is the central poet of our tradition:
Purdy has claimed, and in many ways created, an indigenous imaginative patrimony in English Canada. There have been many Canadian writers whose excellence is unmistakable, but in his rootedness, his largeness, and his impulse to forge a native idiom for the imagination, Purdy is one of a distinct breed: the heroic founders, who give their people a voice as they go about their own necessities.
Although I find Lee’s view of Purdy generally persuasive, I wonder whether he isn’t simplifying the very complex notion of a postcolonial national literature or tradition such as Canada’s by reducing it to “native terms” and “native idiom,” both of which seem to me figures of speech (and forms of desire) for the indigenous national language and people that Canada simply doesn’t have. Haunted (as all of us inevitably are) by the nineteenth-century idea (and ideal) of a nation and a national literature given unity by an indigenous language (Russian, French, Czech), Lee reads Canadian literature on the lookout for a postcolonial writer resembling one of the nationalist nineteenth-century writers and musicians—Mickiewicz, Petöfi, Dvořák—in whose work a nation found its voice. In Lee’s evocative phrasing these are
The titans … who first broke through to indigenous articulacy, who subverted and recast the forms of the metropolitan imagination so as to utter the truths of the hinterland in native terms. Generally they’ve done so with a rare fusion of high artistry and folk, even populist imagination. It’s clear that Whitman, Melville, Neruda, Garciá Márquez are among the great founders who have claimed a nation’s patrimony this way, and in the process recast the whole imaginative vocabulary of their medium.
Within the terms of Lee’s definition, then, only one kind of Canadian poet—a variant of A. J. M. Smith’s “native” poet—can give voice to the national identity. To revert to the terms of the opening of this essay, only one kind of poet can be “strong” within Lee’s scenario for a Canadian literary history: a poet like Purdy.14
I want to suggest, however, that if we don’t accept Lee’s seductive premises or, at most, see them as valid for only part of our historical tradition, then it’s possible to envision or argue for another equally convincing though less centred version of a national literature and national identity: Layton’s.15 Let me emphasize that I’m not arguing that we need to choose between Purdy and Layton, only that the visions of both are an inescapable part of the national heritage. For immigrants such as myself, who read “Man without a Country” with a slight uneasiness and a frisson of partial self-recognition, Lee and Purdy’s vision of Canada is an ideal—rooted in their particularly rich history—that can be looked towards with envy and desire. Layton’s poetry, by contrast, offers a complementary though more immediately recognizable or familiar rootedness, Canadian identity as inextricable from the matrix of European civilization and Western sensibility.
For better or worse, many of us find ourselves encountering both of these equally valid and equally indispensable visions of the Canadian experience almost simultaneously; what appears to be an either-or, then, is really a both-and: Purdy and Layton.16 Ironically, Lawrence, that most English of English writers, is central to each.
For a simple example of verbal or stylistic resemblance see Purdy’s use of Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” in “Red Fox on Highway 500.” Noyes’s poem is also twice alluded to in “Pour.”
My concern is only with strong poets, major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death. Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?”
(Bloom, Anxiety 5)
In A Map of Misreading Bloom argues that:
What I offer through my six tropes are six interpretations of influence … six ways that intend to combine into a single scheme of complete interpretation, at once rhetorical, psychological, imagistic and historical, though this is an historicism that deliberately reduces to the interplay of personalities.
(71; emphasis added)
Layton and Purdy are not “strong” in Bloom’s sense of the word since they don’t effect any obvious change in the tradition of poetry in English, and Lawrence is one of the “Great poets,” like Yeats and Frost, who “fail of continuous strength” (Map 9).
Dennis Lee refers to the colonial or premodern tradition as “a minor, dated, and artificial tradition” (372).
The full reference, from a letter dated 5 August 1977, runs as follows:
I’d love to write a good poem on death, but there is no way to do it unless everything works for you. Incidentally, I think Lawrence’s “Ship of Death” is a silly repetitive farrage, even if the repetition was deliberate. Not that I put down Lawrence, because in some ways he’s the most interesting poet alive or dead. But so damned uneven, as I guess we all are.
(Purdy and Woodcock 160)
As you well know, I’ve never hidden my admiration and my love for DHL. He confirmed many of my own intuitions about life and the struggle to make it meaningful long before I was able to articulate them in poems and stories. He’s been a sustaining influence and my dependable ally in nearly half-a-century of writing. Purdy’s coupling me with Lawrence [in his preface to his Collected Poems xviii] is a gracious and, I hope, deserved compliment.
A small connection between Layton and Lawrence: a copy of one of Lawrence’s books appears in the background of a photo of Layton’s children in Elspeth Cameron’s Irving Layton: A Portrait, between pages 370 and 371.
This passage continues: “The novelist, Kafka, Dostoievsky, Lawrence, Faulkner; the playwrights: Beckett, Genet, Ionesco—almost every page of theirs is a condemnation and a warning.” And after listing and dismissing “Eliot’s weary Anglicanism,” “Yeats’s fairy-tale Byzantium,” “Auden’s sensationalistic mishmash of psychoanalysis, Marxism and Christianity,” he asserts that “With only a few exceptions—Lawrence, Rimbaud—the modern poet has been an empty windbag and a chatterer” (Layton, foreword, Balls xix).
The other reviews referred to are also included in Woodcock’s useful anthology; the references to Lawrence in Smith, Frye, and Purdy occur on pages 46, 56, and 130.
The poetry of the beginning and the poetry of the end must have that exquisite finality, perfection which belongs to all that is far off. It is in the realm of all that is perfect. It is of the nature of all that is complete and consummate. This completeness, this consummateness, the finality and the perfection are conveyed in exquisite form: the perfect symmetry, the rhythm which returns upon itself like a dance where the hands link and loosen and link for the supreme moment of the end. Perfected bygone moments, perfected moments in the glimmering futurity, these are the treasured gem-like lyrics of Shelley and Keats.
But there is another kind of poetry: the poetry of that which is at hand: the immediate present. In the immediate present there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished. The strands are all flying, quivering, intermingling into the web, the waters are shaking the moon.
(Lawrence, Complete Poems 181-82)
Layton also resembles Lawrence in the price he has paid for playing a Lawrentian role in his society. No other major Canadian writer has seen his work received with such overt hostility or reluctant praise as he has. His books haven’t been banned, but they certainly haven’t been welcomed with open arms.
The establishment’s favourable reception of Elspeth Cameron's sexist, spiteful, and critically valueless portrait of Layton is inexplicable unless it is interpreted as a gleeful settling of accounts with the Dionysian Jewish bad boy of Canadian literature. None of the reviewers seemed to notice that this five-hundred-page biography of one of our literary giants has almost nothing of value to say about his best poems. Perhaps, however, one should be grateful for the omission since Cameron’s biography of Hugh MacLennan seems to suggest that he is one of the major figures of twentieth-century fiction.
The foreword to the last contains a typical reference to Lawrence:
It’s almost impossible in the welter of anonymous voices to distinguish one poetaster from another. Such puny, timorous, crepitant voices. Wherever Pushkin, Byron, Rimbaud, Whitman, and Lawrence are, they must be having a tremendous laugh—if they’re not sorrowing over the fabrication of poems that are so completely lacking in individual mood, flavour, and substance that one surmises their authors have surreptitiously made use of computers.
A framed photograph of Lawrence’s house at Lake Chapala hangs on the wall of the Purdy living room in Ameliasburg. A different sort of connection between the two exists in the fact that Purdy’s wife, Eurithe, plays roughly the same role in Purdy’s poems that Frieda does in Lawrence’s.
With this in mind it would be interesting to know on what date Purdy acquired the bust of Lawrence sitting on his desk in Ameliasburg and the Lawrence letters pinned to his wall.
The American equivalents would be Whitman in poetry and Charles Ives in music.
I agree with Northrop Frye, by the way, that there is no more tedious topic for literary or cultural discussion than the question of Canadian identity. Unfortunately, like many tedious and unanswerable questions, it refuses to disappear. For those of us for whom being swallowed by the St. Lawrence is more than a poetic figure in Frye or Donald Creighton, reading Canadian literature will always be a search for self and a search for Canada. Intellectually we can agree that discussions about “identity” are ultimately useless, but “along the blood” (Lawrence’s phrase) we know that the only ones who can afford to ignore the topic are those such as Frye, Davies, Purdy, Hood, and Lee, who have a confident and strongly rooted sense of what it means to be Canadian.
For those who see Purdy and Layton as just two more representatives of A. J. M. Smith’s “native and cosmopolitan” or Philip Rahv’s “paleface and redskin” tradition, I would say that both poets strike me as transcending that duality. If one of the distinguishing traits of the “cosmopolitan” is an interest in ideas and worldwide perspectives, then Purdy, especially in the poetry of the seventies and eighties, is a cosmopolitan poet. If the “native” poet is often emotional and unintellectual, then there is little doubt that Layton, who according to my argument is European in his orientation, is as “native” on occasion as Purdy.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. London: Oxford UP, 1973.
———. A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.
Cameron, Elspeth. Irving Layton: A Portrait. Toronto: Stoddart, 1985.
Lawrence, D. H. The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. Vol. 1. New York: Viking, 1964. 2 vols.
———. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Viking, 1961.
Layton, Irving. For My Neighbours in Hell. Oakville, ON: Mosaic-Valley, .
———. Foreword. Balls for a One-Armed Juggler. Toronto: McClelland, 1963. xviii-xxii.
———. Foreword. The Gucci Bag. Toronto: McClelland, 1983. 1-5.
———. Letter to the author. 17 Oct. 1988.
———, and David O’Rourke. Waiting for the Messiah: A Memoir. Toronto: McClelland, 1985.
Lee, Dennis. “The Poetry of Al Purdy: An Afterword.” Purdy, Collected Poems. 371-91.
Ondaatje, Michael. Running in the Family. Toronto: McClelland, 1982.
Purdy, Al. The Collected Poems of Al Purdy. Ed. Russell Brown. Toronto: McClelland, 1986.
———. In Search of Owen Roblin. Toronto: McClelland, 1974.
———. No Other Country. Toronto: McClelland, 1977.
———, and George Woodcock. The Purdy-Woodcock Letters. Ed. George Galt. Toronto: ECW, 1988.
Woodcock, George. “A Grab at Proteus.” Irving Layton: The Poet and His Critics. Ed. Seymour Mayne. Critical Views on Canadian Writers. Toronto: McGraw, 1978. 156-73.
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SOURCE: Ravvin, Norman. “Poet & Polis.” Canadian Literature, nos. 138-39 (fall-winter 1993): 150-51.
[In the following review, Ravvin questions why Dance with Desire, a collection with almost the same contents as a volume released earlier, was published as a separate work. Ravvin also challenges the classification of Layton's poems as love poetry, believing the hostile elements in the poetry to push even the widest boundaries of the genre.]
Irving Layton's early volumes—angry, incendiary books all—could not have prepared us for the tendency in recent years to collect Layton as a love poet. It is almost as if there is a movement afoot to replace our image of the man as purveyor of Nietzschean gestures condemning cultural hypocrisy and anti-semitic pretension, with the image of the poet aging randily, an ever-fixated sexual adventurer. The latter persona is played to the hilt in Dance with Desire: Selected Love Poems. The collection is prefaced with one of Layton's provocative forewords—in this case a celebration of his Grade Six teacher, Miss Benjamin, who is said to have “awakened” his “erotic impulses.” The collection is also handsomely illustrated with Richard Gorman's drawings of bodies at love.
Before offering a response to the poetry itself, I must say that in trying to decide how this collection fits into Layton's impressive oeuvre, I discovered that the text itself has quite a history. Among the collections devoted to Layton that have appeared since 1980, Dance with Desire has had, in various forms, three previous incarnations. The present text is an almost exact reprint of a 1986 collection, issued by McClelland & Stewart under the title Dance with Desire: Love Poems. The editors at the Porcupine's Quill have made minute changes to the order of the poems, added three works, and included Layton's bawdy paean to Miss Benjamin. The latter piece, however, appeared in a 1980 [McClelland & Stewart] collection called The Love Poems of Irving Layton, which was itself resurrected in almost identical form in a 1984 edition from Mosaic Press.
With my interests in Layton being anything but bibliographical, I must say that this curious repetition within such a short period of very similar manuscripts, did prove a distraction in my reading of the most recent version. What has been the impetus behind republishing such similar collections; and beyond this, why the urge to gather up Layton's “love poems” and make of them a special breed? The motive behind the latter project appears forced at best upon reading the most recent effort at celebrating Layton's dances with desire.
In an introduction to Fornalutx: Selected Poems, the other major collection of Layton's work published in 1992, Brian Trehearne is correct in his appraisal that no “other Canadian poet has written so many poems of damnation and disgust. …” Even Layton's poems of desire are often staged as broadly ironic barbs, as the kind of outburst of honesty and dynamism that is rarely found in the wider tradition of love poetry. In this way, he has brought a unique vitality to the genre, but what he has wrought has very likely exploded the genre, and an unreflective gathering of such emotional shrapnel may not serve the poet or his readers very well. Trehearne castigates Layton's critics for striving to canonize the poet as a “romantic individualist,” leaving no room for “the social, political and economic excoriations” he has been launching since the beginning of his career. Such excoriations erupt constantly throughout Dance with Desire. At their most extreme, these eruptions are shocking reminders of how much Layton is willing to throw at the reader in a few spare and haunting lines:
I can make poems only out of chaos, out of hurt and pain. I sing loudest when my throat is cut.
I would even go so far—at the risk of sounding like Miss Benjamin—as to argue that a poem like Layton's much collected “The Convertible” is anything but a love poem. There is, in this virtuoso piece, a good measure of self-love, but beyond this the reader is reminded of Layton's many missiles of contempt aimed at what he sees as the hypocrisies of bourgeois culture.
If Dance with Desire offers a glance backward over what becomes of a poet's work, David Lewis Stein's Taking Power provides a portrait of what becomes of a city. Taking Power is Stein's first novel, though he has been a chronicler of Toronto life for the Toronto Star for a couple decades. His novel is Dickensian in sweep, capturing the turbulent and prosperous seventies form the point of view of a large cast of characters. Beginning with a portrait of a group of activists who succeed at blocking a proposed expressway that would turn Toronto's downtown neighbourhoods into a ghost town, then retraining his sights on the politicians, lawyers and real estate moguls involved in the battle, Stein shows us a vast panorama of civic life. The voices that make up this tableau almost always ring true, and Stein assuredly owes his sharp ear for biker slang, hookers' complaint and lawyers' logic to his years on the city beat.
The rejection of the Spadina Expressway—Stein, for no apparent reason, calls it the Berryman—represented a turning point in civic planning in Toronto; the eclipse of suburb-minded council members who saw moving traffic in and out of the city's core as their preeminent job. There is no doubt that the future that awaited Toronto with the expressway can be viewed in Detroit, where neighbourhoods, bisected by causeways, withered and lost their vitality as soon as they became commuter corridors.
Stein follows the participants involved in the expressway battle through a decade of personal challenge and change, maintaining a sensitivity—at times measured, at other times whole-hearted—for the predicaments of individuals on both sides of the fight. Clearly though, he is inhabited by a reformist spirit, the urge to preserve, to hold citizens' interests dear, and by a belief in a city where the public speaks and is heard.
One effect of Stein's breadth of social vision is a loosening of the novel's focus on Toronto. Once the expressway battle is won, much of what his characters experience could take place in any large Canadian city, and in this way, an opportunity to deepen the portrait of Canada's most often derided metropolitan area may have been lost. But to its credit, I finished reading Taking Power on a late March afternoon when spring had finally come to Spadina Avenue; there was a buzz in the air of life returning and of a revelling in the light and warmth, and assuredly, there are moments in Stein's novel that capture that buzz.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6667
SOURCE: Layton, David. “Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, and Other Recurring Nightmares.” Saturday Night 111, no. 2 (March 1996): 32-43.
[In the following essay, Layton—the son of Irving Layton—discusses his relationship with his father and the Layton family's relationship with poet Leonard Cohen.]
There are two observations I need to make about the week I spent in LA: first, it rained every day I was there, and second, it was the Tibetan New Year. Neither event was related to the other, except that together they conspired to prevent me from achieving the purpose of my visit—interviewing my godfather, the poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen. I had some notion of doing an article on the performer’s capacity for personal relationships, and I think Leonard knew I also wanted him to talk about my father, though I’d written him only that I wanted him to talk about himself.
“He is up in the mountain,” was how my mother put it. I was staying at her house in West Hollywood. The mountain in question was Mount Baldy, one of the many snow-capped peaks that glitter in the California sun. I tried to locate it on a map, tracing the rumpled geographical folds northward towards Washington State and British Columbia. That’s where I always imagine the Rocky Mountains to be, rising inland of the Pacific rainforest. Despite my many visits I always forget that pristine mountains hover within reach of the crowded Spanish bungalows and car-choked highways of Los Angeles.
It was around the second or third day into my visit that I first heard about the Tibetan New Year and the possible connection between this event and Leonard’s absence. He was up on Mount Baldy, meditating. And the rain, it turned out, was keeping him there. The news was full of stories about swollen rivers, collapsing bridges, and flooded highways. Leonard would not, could not, come back down.
That, at least, was the comfortable answer. Unfortunately, there was a more disturbing possibility—that Leonard was avoiding me. I wasn’t here as his godson, to pay him a friendly visit, but as a journalist, to interview him, and it was conceivable that he'd had second thoughts about the whole idea, much as I was now having.
“He’s an intensely private man,” my mother said. This statement was meant to describe a general trait of Leonard’s but it also encompassed his present absence from LA, which in turn hinted at another of the reasons I wished to interview him. I wanted his speaking voice on tape. Despite my childhood memories and more recent conversations with Leonard, I couldn’t for the life of me remember more than three consecutive words he’d strung together. Stranger still, my mother had the same problem and she’d known Leonard since he was twenty. She could remember his then plump face and awkward smile, and she could remember, in later years, the endless and constant conversations between my father and Leonard, but not a word or phrase in his own accents could she muster. Talking to Leonard was like listening to a melody that you couldn’t capture the next day.
After eight days of watching the rain fall, of damp sheets, and disturbed sleep, I decided to leave for Toronto. My mother, always anxious to dissipate family-induced anxiety, especially if it’s being induced in her son, assured me that she would speak to Leonard when he got down from his mountain. I decided to leave it in her hands. When it came to either my godfather or my father, it was often smarter to leave it in her hands.
My father is the poet Irving Layton. He too is a performer although in his case he performs nonstop. His role is the potent genius. He truly believes that he belongs in the pantheon with Socrates and Homer and Dante and Shakespeare, and he never ceases to live up to his status. Besides me, Irving has an older son and daughter by his second wife, and a small daughter by his fourth. Up in the attic, my father enters the pantheon and out come poems about his wives. And his children. “Be gunners in the Israeli airforce,” his line goes in a poem titled “For My Sons, Max and David.” Or he stands on the podium and says, “This is for my son David.” People come up afterwards and say, “Your father must love you very much.” But I am not—none of us is—as close to him as Leonard Cohen. My father who first spotted him doing a reading in a Montreal coffee house, calls him the “golden boy.”
They’re not at all alike. Leonard requires himself to be considerate and polite in all encounters, even if he has to fake it. That doesn’t keep him, too, from taking his private dramas and shaping them into poems and songs for public consumption. Long ago, there was Marianne, who wanted to marry him. He wrote her a song saying So Long. But Leonard’s style is gentle, even patrician. My father’s is not. Leonard’s clothes always fitted beautifully, whereas my father dressed like a Romanian factory worker. “You see this shirt!” he’d say proudly, pinching the polyester cloth with his thumb and forefinger. “It cost me thirty dollars.” My earliest recollection of Leonard was being driven around in his brand-new sports car. I must have been about six years old. The first car I remember my father driving was a Datsun with a roof so low that a permanent grease stain marked the spot over his head.
There were other differences, age one of them, since my father was two decades older than Leonard. Their backgrounds were another. My father had been born into terrible poverty, Leonard into the wealth and privilege of Westmount. But for all that they had one great thing in common—they were artists. And if my father’s opinion was anything to go by they were much more—they were among the elect. Their poems and music would never die but would, like the severed head of Orpheus, sing for all eternity.
Leonard is also close to my mother. Not only was Leonard the first of his friends my father introduced to her, for months he was the only one. My mother, Aviva, is the third of Irving’s five wives, though they never actually got married. They came close once. A few years before my birth my father announced one morning, a morning seemingly no different from any other, that he would marry my mother. They called Leonard and all three marched down to a jewelry shop in old Montreal where, incredibly, all Irving did was purchase a silver clasp for his previous wife and head out of the shop. My mother, the disinherited bride-to-be, stood over the glass counter and found herself unable to breathe.
Leonard, with that winsome smile of his, bought the ring my mother coveted, slipped it over her finger, and said, “Aviva, now you’re married.” During the twenty-five years that my mother spent with Irving, she never once took that ring off her finger.
You can see from all this why the nature of the artist, and the nature of fame, and the effects of both on human relationships—on the possibility of intimacy—are subjects that interest me. And also why I can never get personal about my father without bringing in Leonard, or personal about my godfather without bringing in Irving.
In our house the personal went something like this: I have homework and my mother pretends not to understand grade-four math, this from a woman who has a Ph.D. in English Literature. “Go ask your father.” And up I’d go, to the attic, while my mother, safe in her kitchen, would glow with pride at her little, normal family. I’d knock and wait for the thunderclap. “What!” “I have some math homework,” I’d say. Then Zeus would heave himself from his throne and admit me into his lair which stank of words and pipe tobacco. His forced benevolence would soon wear thin. “What’s wrong with you, man?” His finger would jab at the open textbook.
What was wrong with me? It was a good question. I, the son of a great poet, would sit in the back of the classroom and be admonished for picking my nose. When not in class, I’d try to shove my hand between the legs of pink-cheeked girls. This last habit landed me a two-day suspension from school and a handsome accolade from my father. “That’s my boy!” he’d shout. “Stick your hands up the dark mysteries of life.” And then he’d thrust his own hand into the air and wiggle his fingers. “You see that?” he’d say to my mother, “he has the hands of an artist.”
But now, as I tucked the unwieldy math book under my arm, and fled towards my mother’s comforts, I knew that the approval had been withdrawn and forgotten.
“Did it go all right?” my mother would ask. I’d nod my head and tell her that everything was wonderful. “Dad really helped me,” I’d say. But as she leaned over to kiss me, I could tell that she knew the truth.
When my father came down from Mount Olympus it was usually for food and an audience. Any audience would do. As I watched the mounds of meat and peas pass from the plate to his belly, my father would rail against the “Philistines” and “ass-lickers” who populated the literary landscape of Canada. If my mother came to the defence of any given writer, it would be dismissed with a wave of his hand and the words “literary tapeworm.” Then my father would start to laugh, and he’d laugh until he choked.
The more excited my father became, the less food made it down his throat. It would come exploding out of his mouth, along with his invective, until at last the table would be littered with the organic matter that, in my young imagination, was the decayed remains of all those Philistines my father had chewed out.
He was different when we had real guests. Then my father would strain his head forward and listen. Carefully. And he’d wait until the conversation began to meander and then he’d mount a pointed interrogation. “What do you think the role of the artist is, exactly?” Then he’d fold his arms and wait again until it was time for him to become the Great Summarizer. He would gather in all the half-baked, drunken, confused, fragmented ideas that had eddied around him and begin to tell his audience what they had all been saying. It was a tour de force.
My father was eighty-one before I had an insight into his technique. We were sitting in an outdoor café, on a summer’s evening in Toronto, when an attractive waitress came to our table.
“You’re beautiful!” my father exclaimed. “Do you read books?” The woman said she did.
“You like reading, then.” My father had a way of making the obvious sound ominous. “What do you read?”
The waitress said something like “things,” and became embarrassed.
“Have you studied?”
The waitress said she had received her bachelor’s degree in English Literature.
“English Literature! Bravo. Do you read poetry? A. M. Klein, have you read him?”
The waitress looked increasingly uncomfortable as my father rattled off the names of several obscure Canadian poets.
“Irving Layton. Have you read Irving Layton?” Irving Layton asked.
To my extreme discomfort the waitress said she hadn’t heard of him. I became nervous, but I didn’t yet understand.
My father eyed her suspiciously, then said, “Leonard Cohen, have you heard of him?”
The waitress broke out into a radiant smile. “I love Leonard Cohen,” she said.
“Good! Good! He’s a wonderful writer.” My father ordered another bottle of wine and we watched her walk away. I felt a slap on my arm. It was from my father.
“You see that, my boy, first you pull the rug from under them and then, when you give them a few crumbs, they think it’s manna from heaven.” My father sighed. “I’m too old for all this beauty.”
After I failed grade four, we packed our bags and, with no explanation offered, headed for Asia. At first I thought it was a summer vacation but after six months of travelling I became suspicious. Where the hell were we? A place called India, my mother would tell me. But I kept on asking. “Where are we?” India. The word held no meaning, explained nothing, couldn’t possibly make me understand why we’d go off every night to a park in New Delhi and meet my “friend,” the one whom I initially mistook for a dog. We’d call out his name and he’d come running towards us. On all fours. The crippled dog-boy, the one with the magnificent smile, the one we’d feed. Dog-boy and I would run towards the Red Fort and when I’d look back there would be my father, sitting on a bench, writing.
My father wouldn’t hear of any “luxuries.” This apparently included sheets for our beds, light bulbs, and clean food. I became sick. Every half-hour what felt like a knife would rip through my belly. After several weeks, I was shitting on street corners. There would be my father, with an iron constitution, impatient with child and wife. He’d stride into the crowds, with a book in his armpit, and a sea of humanity would close behind him. In my pocket was a small note that became smudged with perspiration. It said: My name is David Layton. If I’m lost please take me to the Canadian Embassy at—. Attached to the note were a few rupees my mother had added.
Calcutta, Kuala Lumpur, Lahore, Jakarta. Names to be sick by. Names to fear. My father would be there one minute and disappear the next. When I was alone with my mother we would go to Western restaurants and gorge on fruits and vegetables.
We finally came to rest at some beach resort in some country that wasn’t India. I spent an entire day building a giant castle with a moat and a pop-drink label for a flag. Towards the end of the day, some dark-skinned, menacing boys with rags for clothes came by and began to kick my walls down. They grabbed stones and swooped by, making artillery sounds as they released their ammunition. My father, sitting farther up the beach, merely watched. With a sense of resignation I walked over towards him as he cleared a space beside himself and patted the spot where I was to sit. Together we watched as a day’s worth of labour was destroyed. The sun was setting in front of us and behind the boys who came, one by one, to kick my castle down.
“Look carefully, son, and learn. What you create men will come and destroy.”
A year went by before we returned to where our “vacation” had begun: Greece. Our first port of call was Leonard Cohen’s house on the island of Hydra. I’d been to Greece before, and had spent time in this very house. I felt safe, and desperately relieved to be back in a country whose name had a meaning that I could understand. Part of my relief was also attached to Leonard himself. He was like a calm sea where my father’s boat could rest. With Leonard, my father ceased to be the Great Summarizer. He still made speeches, but he never prefaced those speeches with an interrogation.
As I played with my toys in Leonard’s courtyard, I’d watch the two of them, their Greek sailors’ hats perched rakishly on their heads, their drinks in hand, their bare chests exposed to the sun. I was just old enough to recognize a strange anomaly in the way they spoke to one another. If, as would sometimes happen, Leonard talked about his latest romantic failure my father would laugh and say, “Leonard, are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?” But right after that the conversation would switch to the third person, for Irving would then launch into a discussion about the poet. He’d speak about the poet as being conflicted. They’d examine the poet as archetype—albeit a vanishing one, along with the priest and the warrior—and about the poet as Lover. The poet, I’d hear my father say, “makes love to the world.”
This last concept held a particular significance for me. Whenever my father roared this one out to my mother, I knew there was big trouble brewing. “Goddammit, woman, I’m a poet!” Which meant ipso facto that he was a Lover. This, my mother would point out, was precisely the issue: whose scent was on his shirt this time? My father would become infuriated. “I’m not a lover to a woman but a lover of Women,” he’d say, as often as not launching into a speech about breasts as mounds of earth, vaginas as forests. He had no time for a petty mind, he’d say, meaning that he had no time for an unpoetical mind. I began at an early age to connect the word “lover” with my father’s wrath.
Unlike my father, Leonard was a man who never seemed to raise his voice. He merely … disappeared. It was just off this very courtyard in Hydra, my father used to tell me, that Leonard had dropped himself and his typewriter into a pit and refused to come out. Marianne, who was living with him at the time, would implore him to come back inside but he continued to work on his second novel, Beautiful Losers. With tears in her eyes Marianne would drop food baskets into his hole. Leonard kept on writing until his fingers seized up. Now Marianne was gone.
For my father, this was as it should be. “Leonard happy?” I can hear him saying. “How can he be happy?” Leonard’s destiny was to be more than a poet but a poet first. Let Leonard have everything, be anything: as a poet he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. My father always seemed quite delighted by Leonard’s predicament, but his delight was never vindictive. Far from it—in my father’s eyes it was the fulfilment of all that Leonard was fated to be.
Thus it only stood to reason that Leonard should lose his interest in sex at the very height of his fame. Women in elevators would throw themselves at him, would arrive at his hotel door with nothing on but a mink coat, but Leonard could give only an affirmative answer to my father’s mirthful question, “Leonard, are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?”
It seems it was my father who, one evening in Montreal, hit on a ribald solution to Leonard’s predicament. A little healthy competition between two great Lovers would spur Leonard’s prick to life. Niema Ash, a woman who dressed only in purple, leapt in and offered to sit between the two men and, with their poetic members in her hand, stir the creative juices. “We need some inspiration,” my father commanded. And so my mother, the erotic figurehead, balanced herself on the edge of the couch and thrust her bare breasts into the air.
Leonard won the competition.
It was my father’s reported delight in his own defeat that gave me pause. For the first time, when Niema told me the story, it crossed my mind that for Irving to call Leonard “golden boy” was tantamount to calling him “golden son.”
After Marianne there had been Suzanne. Actually I remember Suzanne quite well because I had a crush on her. In our house we had a photo of Suzanne and Leonard taken outside in our front yard. If I looked carefully at the picture, and I did, I could see Leonard’s fingers inching their way around the hemline of her very short skirt. Leonard, no doubt, had the hands of an artist.
There is another memory I have of Suzanne. One day when we arrived at Leonard’s house in Montreal, Suzanne was changing her son’s diaper. While bare to the world the child began to pee. I was astonished at the power of his bladder. The yellow liquid shot out of his penis, made a magnificent arc over his head, and landed on Suzanne’s cotton blouse. I followed the whole amazing performance with my eyes but, as I looked up at Suzanne’s face, I saw what could only have been an expression of acute disgust. My mother hurried over to help her diaper the baby before her disgust turned to rage. As for my father and godfather, if memory serves me, they were huddled in a corner, talking in third-person pronouns.
But where was Suzanne now? Where were Leonard’s children? Not here, in his house on Hydra. They had disappeared and while I missed Suzanne I was happy to have the kids out of the way. To my father, who constantly burdened himself with wife, children, and mortgage, Leonard’s recurrent solitude, even loneliness, must have seemed both appealing and exotic.
That was the autumn the Yom Kippur war broke out. Now the two of them, my father and godfather, would sit on Leonard’s patio listening to the sombre voice of the BBC World Service, swivelling the aerial whenever the short-wave lost its focus. While I had only a vague notion of what was going on, “There were people hurting one another,” was how my mother put it, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how my father and Leonard discussed the war as if it were a personal matter. As in fact it was. The Israelis commandeered a Hercules transport plane to fly Leonard and his guitar to the front lines.
Not to be outdone, my father marched my mother and me down to the Israeli embassy in Athens and offered his services as a warrior and poet. They politely asked for a monetary donation.
This had less of an effect on my father than one might imagine. In his mind it was their loss, not his. The Israelis believed that they needed Leonard much as my father believed that the Israelis needed him. It somehow amounted to the same thing. As famous men, as poets, no event, no matter how enormous, was outside their personal jurisdiction.
While they stretched out their arms to embrace the world, their wives, children, and lovers kept slipping through the ever-widening circle.
It was in Greece again, four years later, that my mother finally decided to get a “divorce.” There was a new man in our life. He had eyes the colour of coal and a moustache whose ends he’d twirl with his fingers. I’d see him in the village, usually with my mother, sitting in a taverna. My mother introduced him as a “friend” and she kept on using this euphemism for three entire months.
The village wrapped itself around the side of a hill and at its top, like a crown, stood the remains of a Byzantine fortress. Those who had money found homes in the lower part of the village, those who didn’t found themselves in the shadow of the castle wall. The man with the moustache lived in the shadow. I don’t think my mother ever looked better than that summer, what with having to run up the hill every night and run down the hill every morning, always remembering to stop at the bakery for the fresh bread and yogurt that her demanding family expected. That summer my father began to shuffle. He’d shuffle into the kitchen, where my mother would prepare breakfast, and then he’d shuffle back to his room. My mother wanted to pretend that what was happening wasn’t really happening, so it was my father who told me, one morning when he’d shuffled into the kitchen and found no breakfast and no wife, only an empty space filled partly by a thirteen-year-old son, that things weren’t going well between him and my mother. I had a towel slung over my shoulder and was anxious to meet Dania, the first love of my life, down at the beach. After what I thought an appropriate period of mourning I asked to be excused. As I skipped down the cobble-stone streets, my father shuffled back into his room to contemplate his own demise.
My mother thought it right that my father and the man with the moustache, who I later found out was named Leon, have a “meeting.” In full view of the artistic cabal that congregated every summer in the village, the two men made their way up the street, arm in arm, to an out-of-the-way taverna. Leon, who was expecting the full fury and pain of a man whose wife had been stolen and family destroyed, waited nervously for the explosion.
My father began to explain about the poet as a conflicted being.
“Poets,” said my father, “don’t make good husbands.” Aviva needed to be set free. She needed a good man and Leon, my father implied, was a good man. Leon moved uneasily in his seat. He knew what he was being told: he might be good enough for Aviva, but he could never make love to Women.
My father moved from a treacherous benevolence—“Take her, she deserves better!”—to a rage that could not find a person but only a concept to attach itself to. “Be careful, Leon, women are castrating bitches. If they see one ounce, one OUNCE, of talent in you they’ll rip your balls off.”
That summer, my father was left with an audience of one. After the “meeting” he began to barge into my room where, with a fresh page of words in his hand, he’d sit beside my bed and carefully read me his newest poem.
Meanwhile another picture of Suzanne and Leonard came to my attention. I stared at it for hours. There was Suzanne, looking beautiful and slightly cruel—exactly the same look of distaste on her face as when her son had pissed all over her. Only now the look had been transferred to Leonard.
For some reason it made me think of another story my father used to tell: about how Leonard once innocently tried to place a collect long-distance call through a Montreal operator “From Leonard Cohen to Suzanne, please.” The operator was clearly stunned. Before she recovered Leonard asked her out on a date. Once lucky, he decided to try again, this time with another operator. Thinking that he was on to a good thing, he kept on with this game, until the night he found himself alone in a room dialling operator after operator, waiting for the breathless recognition he could move in on. It never came.
Now, in the picture, Suzanne was sitting in a beautiful restaurant with high-backed banquettes and long-stemmed wineglasses for the red wine. And there was Leonard, sitting beside her, looking miserable. “I’ve had,” Leonard once told me, “that sense most of my life, that it isn’t working.” In the picture, he was like a stain on the white tablecloth, a reminder that an accident had happened. Above the picture were the words, “Death of a Lady’s Man.” It was the title of his new book and album.
Things, it occurred to me, were falling apart a bit for Leonard. Suzanne had left, and his own music was beginning to be defined as defining an era, something that should be played to remind you of what was and not what is. I hadn’t yet learned that performers like Irving and Leonard have nine lives.
At twenty-two I was living alone in a basement apartment in downtown Toronto. My mother and Leon were in Los Angeles. My godfather was just somewhere. Who knew with Leonard? It could have been LA, Paris, or Tahiti, and my father was in Montreal living with a twenty-eight-year-old woman named Anna. I’d see him on television talking about Love and Poetry and wonder if he’d actually been in town and not phoned. Sometimes, a friend would ring to tell me that he’d seen my father walking down the street. “Yes,” I’d say, “he’s in town for a few days.” Which was in fact the case—I did, after all, read the newspaper.
Sometimes my father’s face would slip through a crack in the door. He had once received, from an admirer, 1,000 envelopes with his face stamped onto them. His stern, unforgiving face, with hair tousled by the wind, would pop through my mail slot and out would fall a series of press clippings: “Irving Layton, Still Fighting Fire With Fire,” “The Passion of Irving Layton.” These headlines could denote either a speech made to the honourable members of the University of Chicago or a poetry reading given to the Housewives’ Association of Mississauga. If there was a letter, it was always typewritten. “The battle has yet to be won,” he’d write, and then, if I owed him fifty dollars, he’d speak of the moral imperative to pay back one’s debts. And on the reverse side of the letter I could usually detect the carbon smudge left from the duplicate copy he’d made and then sent to the Irving Layton Collection at Concordia University.
It seemed a normal relationship with my father was impossible. Many years ago, when Leonard had given him two hits of acid, the books in my father’s library had come out of their bookcase and bowed to one another. It was a ballet as Baudelaire stepped out and was introduced, by my father, to Ben Jonson and Edgar Allan Poe. “Leonard,” he said, “I’ve been here many, many times.” The place he was describing was the pantheon. He was there. With Socrates and Homer. He was breathing that air.
Leonard told me this story. He insisted that it was not something my father was putting on. “These,” Leonard added, “are his concerns.”
This was what I was afraid of.
Prominently displayed on my father’s living-room table, whenever either of his sons came to visit, was an anthology of the writings of Freud. Irving’s idea, his myth, of fatherhood was that we had come either to bless him or to kill him. His money was on kill. He was just letting us know. One time, I went there to face him down about it. I watched his fingers start their journey across the table and come to rest upon Freud’s stern forehead in the cover photo.
“I hear you’ve been having some problems,” he said.
“I need to talk to you,” I answered. His fingers began to massage Freud’s bald pate with a rhythmic drumming of his fingers.
I began to tell him that we needed to find some common ground. Perhaps, I suggested, if we told each other what we wanted and expected from each other, some kind of arrangement could be worked out. After sitting for fifteen minutes with arms folded, my father suddenly brought his open hand down on the table.
“What the hell are you talking about? ‘Arrangements,’ ‘contracts.’ Don’t use these words with me. I’m very sorry for you, my son, but your father is not a lawyer, he’s not a dentist. He’s a poet! Men are vipers, villains, jackals, hyenas. If I’ve taught my children this one thing and this one thing only, then I have done my duty!”
My father leaned back in his chair. There was no point in trying to outperform the performer. I’d lose. But if I wasn’t careful he’d start reading his poems to me.
I told him that for his sake I hoped he was one of the immortals but that I myself only wanted to be on some normal footing with my father. “And,” I added, “I have another confession to make. I’ve never read any of your poems.”
My father looked at me.
“You’ve never read any of my poems?”
He started to laugh. He laughed until he choked. “Bravo!” We spent the rest of the day smoking cigars and drinking port.
I moved out of the basement and into a third-floor loft. I enrolled in university as a mature student and used the Christmas breaks to visit my mother and Leon in LA. If Leonard was in town, I’d go and see him for an hour or two and we’d talk about women, Greece, and the mysteries of good coffee. I also started making the occasional trip to Montreal to see my father. I’d talk. He’d summarize. On one occasion I told him that a woman had left me. “Son,” he said, “the worst thing you can find out about yourself is that you’re replaceable.” I never failed to come away feeling I’d been party to a historic event.
One day in Toronto I received a call from my half-brother's ex-girlfriend, now a well-known painter, who had said there was a book launch for my father's new Selected, Collected something or other. Would I like to come? she asked. Hell, why not?
“My boy!” my father bellowed. “Look at you!” The reception was in full swing by the time I arrived. I grabbed a drink and began to talk to Anna, my father's new wife. While we talked faces would push themselves into the conversation. “David? Is that you?” and I'd say, “Yes, it's me,” and then they'd move on. But I'd been invited. Here was the intimate embrace: the invitation. My father, standing on the podium saying, “This is for my son, David.”
Halfway through the evening, an awed silence descended. I turned around and saw him. It was Leonard Cohen, who had come from some corner of the globe to surprise my father.
“Leonard, my boy!” my father bellowed. “Look at you.” I stood by the entrance, with a drink in my hand, and waited to say hello to my godfather, and thank you to my father. After thirty minutes, the two, linked arm in arm, moved towards me, strode on past, and entered the hotel elevator where I watched them ascend to the heights.
This time I booked my appointment with Leonard through his personal assistant. Leonard had a “window” on Saturday, in the late morning. That was three days away.
When I touched down at LAX there was only a thin strip of ozone where thick storm clouds had been on my last visit. I arrived at my mother's house on Friday evening and I thought about phoning Leonard. But then why tempt fate? I waited until the hour of my appointment.
“Leonard?” The door to his house was slightly ajar. Before I'd even managed to pass the threshold, he was there, moving towards me, with that gorgeous smile of his. I couldn't help feeling that his presence was somehow attributable to my delicate magic. David Layton, the conjurer of shy spirits.
Leonard quickly deduced that we were short of certain materials. We jumped into his Nissan Pathfinder and headed for the liquor store. Leonard's clothes weren't as elegant as I remembered them; he wore a pair of grubby jeans. I noticed this fact as he moved down the liquor aisle. He spent an enormous amount of time looking at the tequila rack and peering into aromatic cigar boxes. He took the kind of time that indicates a man's occupation. No-one who has spent a lifetime working nine to five would be able to develop such a luxurious spirit.
There was Leonard, searching for bottles in a deserted liquor store. With his ill-fitting pants and studious interest he reminded me of an ageing professor searching for books in an obscure and neglected part of the library. The effect didn't make him appear old, just vulnerable.
Back at his house, Leonard offered me a ginseng-soaked cognac. He also placed a cup of coffee on the kitchen table and handed me a fat, lighted Dominican cigar. Before I'd taken my second puff, Lorca, his daughter with Suzanne, dropped by to see us. I've only known Lorca for a few years but even so I have a strange urge to treat her as my younger sister, which is no doubt partly attributable to my mother's desire to treat her like a long-lost daughter. But our links are tenuous and, as with all things in our family, ill defined.
Time passed. I placed my tape recorder on the table and tried to let it speak for me. I couldn't bring myself to ask Lorca to leave. We were the children of famous men and it was we who were always asked to leave.
Lorca, thankfully, saved me from my predicament by taking the initiative and leaving her father and me to conduct the interview. We were alone.
“I don't have much time,” he said.
I pushed the play button.
“The relationship I had with Irving was not personal but it was intimate. We weren't friends in the sense that we knew or cared about each other's lives. We did know and care about each other's lives, but that wasn't what it was about. That's a personal relationship. This relationship was the poet talking to the poet about poetry. It was more intimate than a personal relationship could ever be. That kind of intimacy has sustained me my whole life and anything that is not that has always been troublesome.”
On his table is a picture of Roshi, the spiritual leader of Leonard's retreat on Mount Baldy. He looks like an Oriental version of my father; the fleshy face, the truculent expression, and, behind it all, the unmistakable hint of mischief. They have the faces of boxers, of men who know about getting in the ring and beating the immortal shit out of each other without hatred.
I couldn't help thinking the connection was more than a passing coincidence. Leonard invited the comparison. Leonard said, “When I study with Roshi, it's consciousness speaking to consciousness about consciousness.” And anything else, I thought, is troublesome. A godson is trouble, children are trouble, and wives are the genesis of all trouble.
Speaking of consciousness, I was losing mine. The ginseng was hallucinogenic and the cigar smoke was making me exceptionally sick. “Leonard,” I said, “I don't think I can drive home right now.” “I know,” Leonard answered. “The ginseng has been soaking in the cognac for six months. It's very potent.” Leonard smiled. Then, just sitting across the table from me, he began to sing. All by itself Leonard's voice began to make my upper lip quiver. I cupped my hand over my mouth and when he had finished singing I excused myself and ran for the bathroom where, like some hormonally flushed teenager, I splashed cold water over my face.
When I returned to the kitchen Leonard was on his way out. He had to go, he said, but I could stay for as long as I liked.
He'd given me his intimate embrace: the performance. Now I was stoned and alone in his house. I looked for a picture of my father but couldn't find one. I started laughing, and once I started I couldn't stop. “Leonard!” I shouted. “Leonard, you bastard, you've done it again. You've disappeared.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1219
SOURCE: Flynn, Kevin. “Balanced on Wooden Stilts and Dancing: What Irving Layton Taught Me about Leonard Cohen.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 69 (winter 1999): 9-11.
[In the following essay, Flynn recounts Layton's presence at a dinner party they both attended.]
“Do you know what the problem with Leonard Cohen is?”
I'd heard this question before, usually as the preface to some ill-conceived rant on Cohen's sexism, or his Buddhism, or (to coin a phrase) his gravelly-voice-ism. On most occasions, the question would elicit little more from me than a roll of the eyes and an uninterested “No. What?” as I braced myself for the Cohen bashing that was sure to follow. But on this occasion I leaned forward to pay careful attention, because the person asking the question was Irving Layton. And he seemed to have something to say.
We were gathered, a handful of us, at the Montreal home of Brian Trehearne, a professor of English at McGill University and the host of that Saturday night's small dinner party, to which a number of his graduate students had been invited but at which Layton was, to say the least, the main attraction. I had arrived a little late and was surprised to find that something had cast a pall over the room. There were no smiles, none of the nervous laughter that one might expect from a group of CanLit graduate students in the presence of an icon in their field. What I didn't know, until Professor Trehearne asked me if I'd heard, was that Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated after a peace rally earlier that November day. The news had made its way from Israel to the heart of our gathering that night, where it weighed on Layton like a millstone. He was glum, dispirited, incapable of summoning up even a sign of his legendary orneriness. I'd seen him read a few years earlier and had been amazed at his combination of frailty and energy. Tonight all I could see was frailty. Rabin's assassin had been doubly cruel.
After an awkward conversation composed as much of silences as of words, we moved to the dining room and took our places. Layton was seated at the head of the table, with a young woman on each side. He reintroduced himself to them, and his spirit seemed to be warmed by the exercise of his Laytonic charm. After a while, he was peppering us with questions. Who were we? What had we read recently? Did we write poetry? Why? We peppered him right back, asking him about his poetry and his life. His answers were often cryptic and meandering, his train of thought interrupted each time he took a sip of wine, lifted a spoonful of soup to his mouth, or decided to reacquaint himself with the two women on either side of him. But it was, nonetheless, a virtuoso performance, finally full of all the energy I had seen and felt in him a few years earlier.
Layton told us some wonderful stories that evening, but two or three are particularly memorable. There was the time many years ago, for instance, that he rescued a drunken Dylan Thomas from a bar shortly before his death. He got Thomas home somehow and steered him toward the couch, flopping him down and watching in fascination as this broken poet roused himself from his stupor to stand up and recite his poetry in a strong, clear voice. We could all see the amazement in Layton's eyes as he described the majesty of Thomas's poetry and his own wonder at bearing witness to it. A little later that evening, Layton told us the story of his handball match with Louis Dudek to determine who was the greater poet. Although he'd been shrunk down into his chair for most of the evening, Layton stood as he told this story and began swinging his arm, telling us of smiting that handball a mighty blow before declaring himself the victor. As a reenactment of the game itself, it was marvellous; he was breathing life into Canadian literary mythology before our very eyes. As an unintentional reenactment of the story of Thomas—with Layton himself now playing the role of the drunk poet—it was breathtaking and a little sad. News of the death of Rabin was still thick in the room, and we were all aware that Layton, who had fallen on hard times, would not be around forever to tell these stories.
But the evening wasn't all high seriousness. One of the highlights for me came when Layton, in the midst of another story and apropos of nothing, mentioned that he'd been born circumcised. I threw down my knife and fork and said “Hallelujah!” I'd first heard about this physiological oddity in high school, and I'd always wondered whether it, along with the legend that Layton took it as a sign that he was the Messiah, was true. At that Layton reading a few years earlier, I had almost got up enough courage to ask him about it. But given that the reading had been held in Professor Trehearne's undergraduate class in Canadian poetry, in which I had been a student, that hadn't seemed a particularly prudent course of action. So, hallelujah, here was my chance. Before anyone (including myself) could stop me, I blurted it out: “So you were born circumcised?”
“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly.
“So … what did you take this to mean?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what was its significance to you? You know, how did you interpret it?”
He leaned over and looked at me with those dark, penetrating eyes of his and asked me again. “What do you mean, how did I interpret it?”
“Okay. You were born circumcised,” I said, beginning to feel exasperated (and more than a little foolish; it's not every day, after all, that you discuss the penis of one of Canada's greatest poets with him over dinner). “Did that have any special significance? What did it mean to you?”
“Well,” he replied, “that I was Messiah. What else could it mean?”
We all laughed at his reply until he fixed that unwavering eye on me again, swallowed a mouthful of wine, and said, cannily, “Of course, I only know that I was born circumcised because that's what my mother told me.”
So the evening went. We enjoyed a good meal and good company as our conversation ranged far and wide about places we'd been to, poems we loved, and books we had read. The subject turned, inevitably, to Leonard Cohen, whom Layton had befriended and adopted as a kindred poetic spirit many years earlier. Had he heard from Cohen recently? What did he think of Cohen's decision to turn to music? Did he still consider him a poet?
It was at this point that Layton asked us his question: “Do you know what the problem with Leonard Cohen is?”
Silence. Seven people hanging on every word, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It did.
“Leonard Cohen is a narcissist who hates himself.”
He didn't say anything else. He didn't have to. On a day bled dry of joy by the death of Rabin, Irving Layton grabbed hold of the night and poured life into it as no one else could.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4397
SOURCE: Smith, Rowland. “Now Are the Winged Insects Better Off: Nature, Imagery, and Reflection in Archibald Lampman and Irving Layton.” World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 283-88.
[In the following essay, Smith argues that a culturally derived “poetic instinct” bridges the work of Layton and fellow Canadian poet Archibald Lampman.]
At first glance, Archibald Lampman and Irving Layton would appear to share little except nationality. The differences in the moods and tones of their poetry are so pronounced that they could be seen to represent, irreconcilably, the milieus of their respective ages: the Confederation poet dreaming away in a rhapsodic communion with the larger-than-life Canada of the late nineteenth century, and the egotistical Montreal slum child celebrating his own vitality in opposition to the stifling conformity and materialism of mid-twentieth-century mass culture. And there would be some truth in this view.
My aim in this essay is, nevertheless, to show that Lampman and Layton share a poetic instinct. Layton's trait of developing a closely focused image or series of images into a sustained reflection (on imagination, or endurance, or on human relation to the numinous) is remarkably similar to the typically “Canadian” habit of the Confederation poets of using the sensuous perception of a natural scene to launch into a discussion with transcendental connotations.
The general thesis I have just enunciated has been similarly propounded, but has not been developed in the same way as I intend to develop it. My discussion occurs, nevertheless, in the context established by John Ower in his essay “Portraits of the Landscape as Poet: Canadian Nature as Aesthetic Symbol in Three Confederation Writers.” In it he writes:
Our Confederation poets can be broadly described as post-Romantics, and there are two aspects of the Romantic movement which in particular persist as vital issues into the Twentieth Century. These are the attainment of an intricate virtuosity of symbolic technique, and the concentration of the artist upon his own creative act in varying degrees of isolation from or atonement with his surroundings.
And he follows these general remarks—about the relation of nineteenth-century Canadian poets to twentieth-century poetic concerns—with a concise statement about the “Canadianness” of the instincts of the Confederation poets:
It may then begin to emerge that far from being a ‘Group of Four,’ whose ideas if any are merely embarrassing manifestations of a ‘late provincial Victorianism,’ the Confederation writers are indeed authentic founders of a national literary tradition.
It is not the purpose of this short essay to investigate a “national literary tradition,” but the similarities I shall examine in the work of two such outwardly different poets are noteworthy as part of a poetic instinct that is culturally based. That cultural base is poetic, not philosophical. Layton's philosophical and political interests (Marx, Nietzsche, Jewishness) are obviously different from Lampman's Emersonian and Wordsworthian affinities. What the poets share is to be found in the progress of the poem itself (from observation to thought to statement) and in the easy relation between the observing poet, the natural scene, and the smallest observed details in that scene. These are given microscopic treatment within a sense of surrounding vastness. I hope to demonstrate my point by juxtaposing passages from well-known poems by Layton and Lampman, my emphasis throughout being a closely focused discussion of the relation among image, experience imaged, and poetic protagonist.
There is no final point proved in a discussion such as this. What will emerge is a similarity of concern in works that are dissimilar in many other ways, written by authors who share little more than a physical environment and the culture that grows from it—grows, that is, both from the natural setting itself and from the way other writers have reacted to it. Even when most independent of an earlier generation, writers such as Layton are deeply affected by poetic memories that derive from that generation. In his “Foreword” to A Red Carpet for the Sun Layton speaks of his ambivalent attitude toward the visionary: “My father was an ineffectual visionary; he saw God's footprint in a cloud and lived only for his books and meditations” (“Foreword,” 175). At the same time, Layton affirms the importance of poetry itself in his search for a balance between the “reality” of his contemporary world and the imaginative domain of his romantic and visionary background (which is both personal and cultural):
Unlike Keats, I have not wished to escape into the unreal domain of the nightingale nor to flee, as the more cowardly do, from imagination to fact. Mercifully all poetry, in the final analysis, is about poetry itself; creating through its myriad forms a world in which the elements of reality are sundered; are, as it were, preserved for a time in suspension.
Whether or not all poetry is about poetry itself,1 Layton's mixture of concerns in this passage is revealing. He zigzags from one gravitational pull to the other and then takes refuge in a transcendent state (although he does not call it that) in which poetry both sunders and preserves the opposing influences in his own present and past. And even his words sundered and preserves echo at one remove the “destroyer and preserver” of a romantic poet whose traditions are part of the web that holds Layton himself. That he should depict himself confronted with the dichotomy of fact or reality on the one hand and vision or imagination on the other is part of his cultural heritage, just as his visionary father in the blistering slum tenement is part of his personal past. (Lampman was obsessed with the reality of the “dream.”).
But what of Layton's poetic practice? How do these opposing liens affect the texture of his verse, especially verse that deals with his poetic craft or imaginative predicament? “The Fertile Muck” offers a useful starting point. The poem is assertive and yet unvainglorious, the wit of its conceits sardonic enough to keep Layton's claims within the decorum of his depiction of the fabulous. His subject is creative imagination, and his imagery shows the mixed antecedents I have been discussing.
Among those antecedents, Nietzsche plays a pivotal role, and “The Fertile Muck” shows the ease with which Layton adapts that philosophic underpinning. Wynne Francis discusses the effect on Layton of The Birth of Tragedy. In that book, she argues, Nietzsche makes use of two Greek art-sponsoring deities:
The first of these is Apollo the sun god, god of light and reason and of all the plastic arts, especially poetry. Most significantly, Apollo is the god of transfiguration: it is Apollo's gift of ‘fair illusion’ which enables man to apprehend reality, to find meaning in nature and significance in life.
(“Layton and Nietzsche,” 43)
The relevance of these comments to “The Fertile Muck” is obvious; in that poem, the creative and active power of the writer's imagination is the focus of attention from the opening lines:
There are brightest apples on those trees but until I, fabulist, have spoken they do not know their significance or what other legends are hung like garlands on their black boughs twisting like a rumour. The wind's noise is empty.
There are obviously twentieth-century features in the verse: its sardonic manner with its deliberately lighthearted seriousness; an almost owlish pedantry of tone that stylizes the mode of the schoolteacher in order to conceal quite how assertive the sentiment in the lines really is; the imagistic simile, “twisting like a rumour,” suggesting a post-Auden sensibility; and “The wind's noise is empty,” revealing a post-Eliot sentence. Nevertheless, the grand theme of the stanza is the creative power of the imagination, and the poet chooses the natural world as the object of his object lesson. His powers as a creator of fable and legend are most incisive, not in allowing humans to understand themselves better, but in granting apples the opportunity of understanding their own significance. Of course, the ponderousness in apples' “knowing” their significance is part of the wit I have already mentioned as a tactical device to defuse the portentous elements in Layton's argument, but it is typical of his poetic instinct that he should allow that wit to play upon the relation between poet and natural world, the perceiver and the perceived, where what is perceived is non-human natural life. And just as a Confederation poet would “observe” the insect life in a set piece as well as static elements like apples, so Layton moves on to include insects in his mentor-like role:
Nor are the winged insects better off though they wear my crafty eyes wherever they alight. Stay here, my love; you will see how delicately they deposit me on the leaves of elms or fold me in the orient dust of summer.
The archaic diction can be seen as a created part of the “fabulous” quality in the fabulist's art. His ancient craft is of a piece with traditional poetic experience, and in that context the poeticism of “winged” can be seen as an aspect of the stylization in the poet's explanation to his “love”—equally stylized—of his creative role. At the same time, “winged insects” and “orient dust” would find a natural home in a poem by Lampman.
Even the contrast between the aridity of the city and the recuperative powers of the country, so popular (via Tintern Abbey) with the Confederation poets, finds it way—ironically—into Layton's poem. In “The Fertile Muck” the city and all it stands for have been transformed into the suburb and all it stands for:
And if in August joiners and bricklayers are thick as flies around us building expensive bungalows for those who do not need them, unless they release me roaring from their moth-proofed cupboards their buyers will have no joy, no ease.
Life without ease in this context is both a crassly material existence lacking imagination and a manufacturing wilderness (joiners and bricklayers) in which “flies” are not, like the earlier winged insects, wearing the poet's crafty eyes, but simply a proverbial cluster, “thick as flies.”
In Layton's closing stanza the message is surprisingly explicit: “How to dominate reality? Love is one way; / imagination another …” (28). His early stanzas have avoided so open a statement by incorporating his theme into an ironical metaphor. And he returns, after this rather sonorous statement, to another playful conceit:
… Sit here beside me, sweet; take my hard hand in yours. We'll mark the butterflies disappearing over the hedge with tiny wristwatches on their wings: our fingers touching the earth, like two Buddhas.
Although the identification of poet with butterfly is not insistent here, as it would be at the poem's opening, the imaginative zest in his depiction of the bewristwatched creatures exemplifies the liberating effect of his fabulous art. And that embodiment of imagination in the lines offsets the sonority of his lesson in how to dominate reality.
Wit is what transforms the elements of Nietzsche in “The Fertile Muck.” Wynne Francis includes “The Fertile Muck” in the list of “several of his finest and best-known poems of the 1950s,” which “reflect Nietzsche's view that ‘only as an esthetic product can the world be justified to all eternity’” (“Irving Layton,” 180). What is remarkable is how well Layton downplays the potential earnestness in expressing such a belief—and how much Layton's Nietzschean interests resemble Lampman's obsession with the power of the imagination.
It is the tone of “The Fertile Muck” that sets it apart from Confederation verse, but once the difference in tone is acknowledged, the underlying similarities are marked. In “Among the Timothy” Archibald Lampman also reflects on the relation of his observing presence to the scene he observes, and he further contrasts the mood of peace he encounters among the Timothy with the turmoil of non-natural, manufactured life in the city. The conflict between rural quietude and urban unease has been at the heart of Western pastoral verse since Tibullus, and it would be fatuous to point to that fact per se as a similarity between Lampman and Layton. There is, however, a deeper affinity in approach than that. Here is Lampman:
For when the noon was turning, and the heat Fell down most heavily on field and wood, I too came hither, borne on restless feet, Seeking some comfort for an aching mood. Ah! I was weary of the drifting hours, The echoing city towers, The blind gray streets, the jingle of the throng, Weary of hope that like a shape of stone Sat near at hand without a smile or moan, And weary most of song.
(“Among the Timothy,” Poems, 14)
Lampman's pompous rhetoric is a world away from Layton's self-mocking irony, but the failure or success of either the fabulist or the poet's “song” is at the heart of the contrast in each poem between the emptiness of a life without poetic inspiration or imagination and the imaginatively charged landscape when a fabulist allows his art to inform both his “song” and his perception.
Turning aside from a pursuit of arid thought unconnected to perception, Lampman bids his “over-tasked brain” to forsake the “crossing pathways of unbourned thought” and do something that would be in keeping with both the mood and content of “The Fertile Muck”:
But let it go, as one that hath no skill, To take what shape it will, An ant slow-burrowing in the earthy gloom, A spider bathing in the dew at morn, Or a brown bee in wayward fancy borne From hidden bloom to bloom.
This sharing in sensuous enjoyment of the scene merges the poet with insect life as part of a creative as opposed to passive mode of perception. D. M. R. Bentley has argued persuasively that Lampman continually focuses his images in “Among the Timothy,” and discards the wayward fancy of this attempt to shake off his cares; even though his strategy is appropriately “earth-oriented” at this point, so Bentley argues, it “is also potentially irresponsible, because careless as opposed to carefree” (“Watchful Dream II,” 20). Bentley's point does not affect the comparison with Layton. Despite the fact that this simple, instinctive merging of the poet-protagonist with nature is only a first step toward quietude in “Among the Timothy” (and other well-known poems)—that he later sharpens his perception from vague enjoyment to significant understanding by insisting on thought and brain as well as sympathetic instinct2—it is only the poet with imaginative perception who can reach either stage. And this is the instinct that a Lampman protagonist shares with Layton's seer-protagonists.
In “A Tall Man Executes a Jig” Layton's protagonist is demonstrably different in one respect from the short poet himself. But his tallness and imaginative perception of setting give him a godlike creative energy similar to that of the first-person fabulist of “The Fertile Muck.” The description of his situating himself in the opening of “A Tall Man” is redolent of the siting of the poet-protagonist in Lampman's “Heat.” Both in aura and in consequence the lines create a heightened state of awareness. Here is Layton:
So the man spread his blanket on the field And watched the shafts of light between the tufts And felt the sun push the grass towards him; The noise he heard was that of whizzing flies, The whistlings of some small imprudent birds, And the ambiguous rumbles of cars That made him look up at the sky, aware Of the gnats that tilted against the wind And in the sunlight turned to jigging motes.
And here is Lampman. In each passage a sense of awareness grows out of the active looking, then thinking, of the protagonist. That mental activity follows a more passive sensuous merging with the scene:
In intervals of dreams I hear The cricket from the droughty ground; The grasshoppers spin into mine ear A small innumerable sound I lift mine eyes sometimes to gaze: The burning sky-line blinds my sight: The woods far off are blue with haze: The hills are drenched in light And yet to me not this or that Is always sharp or always sweet; In the sloped shadow of my hat I lean at rest, and drain the heat; Nay more, I think some blessed power Hath brought me wandering idly here: In the full furnace of this hour My thoughts grow keen and clear.
Lampman's Wordsworthian “blessed power”4 is given more vigorous presence in “A Tall Man,” but Layton is celebrating the same consequence of the relation of protagonist to setting as is Lampman. And both lift their eyes from the observed earth-bound scene to the numinous sky in the best Wordsworthian fashion. Here is Layton. After observing his swarm of gnats and “supplying” all kinds of mental attributes to them, the tall man rises from his blanket on the field:
He stood up and felt himself enormous. Felt as might Donatello over stone, Or Plato, or as a man who has held A loved and lovely woman in his arms And feels his forehead touch the emptied sky Where all antimonies flood into light.
Again, the manner of the twentieth-century poet is so different from that of the Confederation poet that the striking similarities in physical and philosophical circumstance are easily overlooked.5
The transformation of the tall man into a godlike creator after his transcendental experience—both sensuous and imaginative—with the gnats is followed by a series of revelatory sights in which the man connects the landscape with the sky, although in Layton's case that sky is not as quiet as in Wordsworth's. The pairing of sense perception with mental ordering remains similar in Wordsworth, Layton, and Lampman, however.
Layton uses three different visions of the sky to indicate the effect on the tall man's psyche of what he has seen on earth. It is not my purpose here to discuss their role in the development of the argument in “A Tall Man,” but merely to point to a final similarity with Lampman in this use of skyline and sunset imagery.
There is a Nietzschean basis for much of Layton's sun imagery. Apollo is the sun god as well as the god of poetry. Wynne Francis has argued that although Layton has “made the sun a central symbol in his work,” his poems can be read “without recourse to Nietzsche.” Stating that “as a poet he owes no more to Nietzsche than T. S. Eliot does to Christianity,” she sees Layton's “Nietzschean thrust” in a similar light: “What Eliot found in Christianity was a store of images which he felt to be true and a mythic structure upon which to articulate his vision.” This instinctive recourse to Nietzschean imagery can easily, then, exist side by side with the Romantic or Wordsworthian thrust I have been suggesting. Francis writes:
He has made the sun a central symbol in his work and has elaborated an intricate and thoroughly consistent pattern of fire and flame imagery to support it. Once the significance of the sun symbolism is fully recognized, literally hundreds of Layton's poems can be read with great insight without recourse to Nietzsche. Yet the basic Nietzschean structure is there.
(“Layton and Nietzsche,” 42)
The tall man's first sight of sunset is itself revelatory, although he has already been transformed by his previous illumination involving the gnats:
He doffed his aureole of gnats and moved Out of the field as the sun sank down, A dying god upon the blood-red hills. Ambition, pride, the ecstasy of sex, And all circumstance of delight and grief, That blood upon the mountain's side, that flood Washed into a clear incredible pool Below the ruddied peaks that pierced the sun.
Standing still, the protagonist is convinced that, “If ever / The hour of revelation was come / It was now, here on the transfigured steep.” And in this he bears more than a passing resemblance to the protagonist in Lampman's “Winter Hues Recalled,” who pauses, in winter snow, outside “the city” and sees a revelatory sunset. Here is Lampman:
And as I looked lost memory of the frost, Transfixed with wonder, overborne with joy. I saw them in their silence and their beauty, Swept by the sunset's rapid hand of fire, Sudden, mysterious, every moment deepening To some new majesty of rose or flame.
Layton associates the sunset with all kinds of divinity: Eastern, Christian (it produces a “halo of mountains”), and ultimately mythological. But its sense of revelation and transcendence is at all times related to the human protagonist's ability to respond rationally as well as emotionally to the pyrotechnics of the scene. The final vision in the sky is one “transforming all.” Lampman's protagonist is also transformed by his sunset—he “awoke / As from a dream, and from my shoulders shook / The warning chill, till then unfelt, unfeared” (30)—and he too associates what he sees with the divine:
Like one spell-bound Caught in the presence of some god, I stood, Nor felt the keen wind and the deadly air, But watched the sun go down, and watched the gold Fade from the town and the withdrawing hills.
It is what the protagonist makes of natural sights and sounds that transforms all in both Lampman and Layton. They share the mature Wordsworthian need for a remoter charm supplied by thought and for interests unborrowed from the eye. But they share more than that. They share a Canadian tradition of adapting Wordsworthian habits to make sense of the immensity of their own kind of “Nature.” And in sharing the joy and wonder of that tradition, they demonstrate how narrow and one-sided is a well-worn dictum of Northrop Frye: “Canadian poetry is at its best a poetry of incubus and cauchemar, the source of which is the unusually exposed contact of the poet with nature which Canada provides. … Nature is consistently sinister and menacing in Canadian poetry.”6
The well-known comment about Lampman by L. R. Early is strangely relevant here: “If Lampman escaped anywhere, it was into nature poetry, not nature” (Early, 145).
“The conditions for achieving such a state of equipoise are that the body is stationary—a still centre—in the natural (as opposed to urban and non-organic) realm and that the mind be active and, hence, able to balance close observation (watchfulness) with coherent reverie (dream).” D. M. R. Bentley, “Watchful Dreams [sic] and Sweet Unrest: An Essay on the Vision of Archibald Lampman,” part 1, Studies in Canadian Literature, 6 (1981), p. 191. Anne Compton quotes from Bentley's essay (part 2) and goes on to make a comparison with “Tintern Abbey”: “The boon of this attentiveness is ‘an eye made quiet,’ as Wordsworth describes a similar effect (‘Tintern Abbey’), regardful, now that fret has passed, and capable of impressions.” Anne Compton, “The Poet-Impressionist: Some Landscapes by Archibald Lampman,” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 34 (1994), p. 52.
Eric Ball has made one of the most succinct comments on these lines:
The meaning of these remarkable lines, of which numerous, far-reaching interpretations have been put forward, is, perhaps, not very obscure. It is that, despite the apparently inhospitable condition of nature, the speaker not only finds comfort but also experiences a transformation of consciousness which clears or purifies his mind, making him one, in terms of his awareness, with his surroundings.
Eric Ball, “Life ‘Only Sweet’: The Significance of the Sequence in Lampman's Lyrics of Earth,” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 25 (1989), p. 5.
L. R. Early has pointed to the connection between Lampman, Wordsworth, and the Romantic tradition: “Like Wordsworth, he is a halted wayfarer whose imagination finally transcends the light of sense” (Early, 69); “His account in ‘Among the Timothy’ of those ‘moods’ of which he has been for the moment dispossessed, tallies in every detail with accounts of the imagination given in English romantic poetry” (Early, 71).
Not overlooked by George Woodcock, however. In his introduction to volume 5 of Canadian Writers and Their Works, Woodcock quotes the last verse of “A Tall Man” and comments:
This is, admittedly, as self-consciously poetic in its choice of image and diction as anything written by the Confederation poets or by the so-called mythopoeic poets like James Reaney who have been Layton's contemporaries. But it rises above both through a power over language and a sense of poignant imagery which, when Layton is at his best, coalesce dynamically to project the intensity of the Nietzschean vision that inspires him.
George Woodcock, “Introduction,” in Canadian Writers and Their Works, vol. 5, eds. Robert Lecker & Jack David & Ellen Quigley, Toronto, ECW, 1985, p. 15.
Northrop Frye, “Canada and Its Poetry,” in The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, Toronto, Anansi, 1971, pp. 141-42. His comments on Archibald Lampman are more in keeping with the argument of my essay:
[Lampman] talks less than his contemporaries and strives harder for the uniting of subject and object in the imaginative experience. This union takes place in the contact of individual poet and a landscape uninhabited except for Wordsworth's ‘huge and mighty forms’. … Again as in Wordsworth, this uniting of individual mind and nature is an experience from which human society, as such, is excluded.
Northrop Frye, “Conclusion to A Literary History of Canada,” The Bush Garden, pp. 245-46.
Ball, Eric. “Life ‘Only Sweet’: The Significance of the Sequence in Lampman's Lyrics of Earth.” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 25 (1989), pp. 1-20, and 26 (1990), pp. 19-42.
Bentley, D. M. R. “Watchful Dreams and Sweet Unrest: An Essay on the Vision of Archibald Lampman.” Studies in Canadian Literature, 6 (1981), pp. 188-210, and 7 (1982), pp. 5-26.
Compton, Anne. “The Poet-Impressionist: Some Landscapes by Archibald Lampman.” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 34 (1994), pp. 33-56.
Early, L. R. Archibald Lampman. Boston. Twayne. 1986.
Francis, Wynne. “Layton and Nietzsche.” Canadian Literature, 67 (1976), pp. 39-52.
———. “Irving Layton.” In Canadian Writers and Their Works. Volume 5. Robert Lecker, Jack David, Ellen Quigley, eds. Toronto. ECW. 1985. Pp. 143-234.
Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto. Anansi. 1971.
Lampman, Archibald. The Poems of Archibald Lampman (including At the Long Sault). Margaret Coulby Whitridge, intro. Toronto. University of Toronto Press. 1974.
Layton, Irving. “Foreword to A Red Carpet for the Sun.” In The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada. Louis Dudek, Michael Gnarowski, ed. Toronto. Ryerson. 1967.
———. The Collected Poems of Irving Layton. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1971. (CP)
Ower, John. “Portraits of the Landscape as Poet: Canadian Nature as Aesthetic Symbol in Three Confederation Writers.” In Twentieth Century Essays on Confederation Literature. Lorraine McMullen, ed. Ottawa. Tecumseh. 1976. Pp. 140-43.
Woodcock, George. “Introduction.” In Canadian Writers and Their Works. Volume 5. Robert Lecker, Jack David, Ellen Quigley, eds. Toronto. ECW. 1985. Pp. 1-23.
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Baker, Howard. “Jewish Themes in the Works of Irving Layton.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 10 (spring 1978): 43-54.
Baker explicates Jewish themes within Layton's poetry, noting that Layton is against organized religion in general and “believes the most meaningful aspect of Jewish experience is the secular one.”
Johnson, Brian D. “A Bull in the Literary China Shop.” Maclean's 98, no. 43 (28 October 1995): 64.
Johnson compares Elspeth Cameron’s biography, Irving Layton: A Portrait, with Layton’s own memoir, Waiting for the Messiah.
Kertes, Joseph. “‘Brief Are the Days of Beauty’: The Wisdom of Irving Layton's ‘The Gucci Bag.’” Canadian Literature, no. 105 (summer 1985): 32-42.
Kertes delineates Layton's vision of the real, the imagined, and the human condition in The Gucci Bag, drawing frequent comparisons to William Butler Yeats's insights on the same phenomena.
Martin, Sandra. “Irving Layton: Bull, Boxer, and Poet.” Quill & Quire 59, no. 7 (July 1993): 46.
Martin examines two collections of Layton’s poetry—Fornalutx and Dance with Desire—and a collection of reminiscences about the poet titled Raging Like a Fire: A Celebration of Irving Layton.
Newman, Peter C. “The Frightening Vision of a Leading Poet.” Maclean's 103, no. 47 (19 November 1990): 45.
Newman features Layton's assessments of contemporary Canadian identity and culture as well as the state of national unity.
Additional coverage of Layton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 33, 43, 66; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 15; Contemporary Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 88; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry for Students, Vol. 12; and Reference Guide to English Literature.