Some Recent Layton Items

The Poems of Irving Layton, with an Introduction by Eli Mandel. New Canadian Library Original No. 12. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977, 63 pp. $1.95 paper.

Irving Layton, The Tightrope Dancer. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978. 112 pp. $5.95 paper.

Irving Layton, Taking Sides: The Collected Social and Political Writings, edited and with an Introduction by Howard Aster. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1977. 222 pp. $10.00 hard, $4.95 paper.

Wynne Francis, “The Farting Jesus: Layton and the Heroic Vitalists,” Wynne Francis. CVII, Vol. 3, No. 3 (January, 1978), 46-51.

Peter Hunt, “Irving Layton, Pseudo-Prophet — A reappraisal,” Canadian Poetry, No. 1 (Fall/Winter, 1977), 1-26.

Irving Layton: The Poet and His Critics, edited and with an Introduction by Seymour Mayne. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978. viii + 291 pp. $8.95 paper.

Kenneth Sherman, “An Interview with Irving Layton,” Essays on Canadian Writing, 10 (Spring, 1978), 7-18.

Kurt Wilt, “Neitzsche and Overcoming,” Essays on Canadian Writing, 10 (Spring, 1978), 19-42.

Howard Baker, “Jewish Themes in the Works of Irving Layton,” Essays on Canadian Writing, 10 (Spring, 1978), 43-54.

Irving Layton, There Were No Signs, [Fifteen poems with etchings by Aligi Sassu.] Toronto: Madison Gallery, 1979. $2000.00 portfolio edition.

The Irving Layton publishing industry has not been idle.  We have currently a number of items, both by and about the poet, in which weakness and strength abound.  Eli Mandel provides an excellent and pleasingly portable sampling of the prolific poet in a tiny New Canadian Library publication (McClelland and Stewart, 1977).  Mandel has always been serious and discriminating about Layton’s work; he praises its essential and unique qualities while understanding its problem in a wider, more realistic context than is usually the case.  The book richly displays Layton’s lyric and dramatic gifts, his far-reaching concerns.  The difficult shift in sensibility and vision to a more rhetorical poetry that would cope “with the meaning . . . of war, mass murder, genocide” is documented in the choices Mandel makes.  We are taken from Layton’s poetic self-conception as “The Swimmer,” marvelous, mystical, an underwater thief, to the spritely “Pole-Vaulter,” “spry and drugged with love.”  Late pieces, which observe sexual energy so ironically, and the dark disturbing fantasies, thick with warning, are especially gratifying.   Throughout, one hears a passionate man talking passionately.  The voice is intense, authentic, personal, universal.

     One must listen carefully to that voice in Layton’s 1978 McClelland and Stewart collection The Tightrope Dancer.  The poet can strike sparks on the page with brittle or pungent satire, sensual visionary lyrics, and strong moods.  The use of simile is often practiced and apt, as one expects.  However, the speaking voice redeems what may otherwise read as sentimental, anarchic, even fussily fabricated.  To over-simplify, Layton is a poet of the personality — irresistibly magnanimous and infuriatingly dogged at once.  We will continue to hear the same denunciations and praises as long as this writer wrestles with life; he will even risk parodying his own original expressions for those times when, apparently, extremity of vision overtakes artistic expression, when, to lift a phrase from Browning, the reach exceeds the grasp.  Finally, for Layton, man and mask are one; neither can exist fully without the other.  He may be a performer, but his poetry is not an act.  He really means what he says; even at his crudest, the conviction of the voice comes through as part of the constant, various chorus which, in the best poems, sings the song from beginning to end.

     Because Layton is the kind of writer who is served best by the whole picture, Taking Sides (Mosaic Press/Valley Editions), the 1977 collection of his occasional social and political writings would have been best published in some ultimate ‘Collected Works.’  Entries range from 1935 to the present decade and encompass such diversities as Marxist theory, film reviews, and travelogues.  The book’s publishers must take responsibility for a multitude of shoddy sins: misprints, spelling and grammatical errors, tedious repetition, the tiresomely sequential dating of items that intermix (for instance, the F.L.Q., G.B. Shaw, and India in an inconsiderate assault on the reader’s thought processes and an unfair example of Layton’s dilletantism). Taking Sides craves, at the very least, proper editing.

     Early pieces on some very old issues in Taking Sides give off a faint odour of museum must, yet paradoxically are written in a plainer prose than Layton later produces.  Most effective is the writing that concerns the poet’s consistent and genuine interest in modern Germany and Israel.  But all is not polemic.  There are moments of reflection, humility, and frank bafflement.  Edicts on the state of contemporary and Canadian poetry stimulate and aggravate the reader as the teacher in Layton must do for all students of literature.  Film opinions revolve around a basic body / spirit split which the poet feels his directors decry.  The result is limited (Layton reveals a marked preference for rather obvious symbolism) but more specific, and, therefore, contentious, than the majority of official reviews one reads in the weeklies or the daily papers.  The press is, in fact, a medium of vital interest to Layton.  His poems often start from current events and the best go much further.  This aspect of his work might make a worthwhile investigation.  Instead, we are exposed in Taking Sides to the pen of an inveterate writer of letters to the editor.  In papers such as the Montreal Star and the Toronto Star, the zealous crusader responds to issues large and small, many of which have been obscured by time.  The newspaper format is innately ephemeral; with few exceptions, its prose is neither lovely nor especially precise, but functions efficiently at the time of publication.  Perhaps newspaper prose should be left where it is.  Certainly Layton hammers poetic insight awkwardly into a journalism that is not meant for the kind of separate permanence accorded to it in Taking Sides.  For general consumption, then, the content of Taking Sides is contradictory and arbitrary, the style alternately careless and inspired, creating a maddeningly uneven combination.

     Layton’s anomalous position on our literary map is largely explained by Wynne Francis’ pivotal article (in the January, 1978 issue of CVII) linking this poet with the tradition of Heroic Vitalism.  Here is a key statement:  “To Layton the true poet is more than a wordsmith.  He is also a prophet with a fierce compulsion to deliver a message.”  In this context, Layton keeps company with the Old Testament prophets and their modern counterparts such as Blake, Carlyle, Nietzsche, Lawrence, and Yeats.  It is with such a lineage in mind that Layton can best be understood.  Kindred spirits from the contemporary world include Norman Mailer and Ted Hughes.  These literary figures, contends Professor Francis, are known for arrogance, individualism, unique (though not innovative) style, and an ardently genuine commitment to redeem mankind.  The vision of life expounded in their work is Heraclitean, emphasizing constant process and the unceasing development of human potential through conflict and contradition.  It is Dionysiac with a Nietzschean emphasis on the true ‘overman’ who is opposed by nature to all systems and abstractions inimical to man’s ultimate power.  Often the institutions of repression become the butt of crass humour in these writers, whereas the liberating laughter of real joy derives from an ecstacy born of painful disintegration.  The way to power often appears wilfully destructive.  It lies through suffering which ultimately strengthens the emergent creator, whether artist, lover, or enlightened leader.  A knowledge of Heroic Vitalism is essential to the understanding of continuity between the Romantic and modern literary periods (epitomized by a writer such as Layton), and in the future, any major study of the poet will have to take account of it.

     By contrast, in his very substantial article on Layton in the first issue of Canadian Poetry (Fall/Winter 1977), Peter Hunt uses conventional critical equipment to produce an evaluation of Layton’s work that is provocative but partial, even arbitrary.  This may be due to his packing much important argument into such a short space.  The attempt nevertheless should stimulate others.  The study begins by enumerating those very prestigious critics who have endorsed Layton, names as endemic to Canadian letters as Frye, Pacey, Woodcock, and Mandel.  Hunt challenges these judgements with the implication that Layton has never been viewed from the outside, in the light of international literatures.  Certainly, the poet has not publicly and consistently received even the close attention of textual analysis upon which larger conclusions must be based; certainly, too, Canadian literature is still largely a hothouse flower, not exposed to all critical seasons and weathers.  To his credit Hunt includes the scientific dissection of several central poems.  But a stringent and clear-headed overall examination which is quite illuminating on matters of craft is spoiled by some unnecessary vitriol.  Such may be the tone inevitable to a lone voice crying in the wilderness, for Hunt takes a determinedly traditionalistic stand.  Generally, he faults Layton on both form and content, denies him the fusion of morality and aesthetics that constitute a ‘great poet.’  Against Lawrence’s animal poetry, Layton’s is found wanting; against Lampman’s “City of the End of Things,” his prophetic vision pales.  Such comparisons must be made and published; we need many more of them.  Surely, Layton’s controversialism and volume alone demand vigorous ongoing debate.  The most serious charge levelled at Layton by Hunt is that of barbarism.  For Hunt, Layton does not dissociate himself sufficiently, in the very artistry of his poems, from the savagery he claims to deplore.  Defective sensibility, Hunt argues, allies itself with poor craftsmanship.  Layton the satirist does not measure up to a Swift or a Pope because, substituting for a “compassionate sense of human complexity,” mere cynicism, he becomes what he attacks.

     Peter Hunt’s article can be discredited on several counts.  Occasionally the piece is naively unsympathetic, missing, for instance, the good-natured mockery and back-handed affection in “Shakespeare,” the inventive imagery and gruff elegy of “Mohogany Red.”  More seriously, Hunt rather simplistically misinterprets the Nietzschean influences on Layton, wherein Layton’s morality, found lacking by the critic, is more than evident.  Nevertheless, each point needs answering, with equal diligence and intellectual independence.

     Irving Layton: The Poet and His Critics (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978) edited and fondly introduced by Seymour Mayne, while it cannot pretend to be all ‘hardcore’ criticism, does constitute a document in cultural history.  As a chronologically ordered collection of reviews and articles on the writer’s work, it inadvertently provides a history of Canadian literary sensibility from the ’forties to the present.  There is the familiar division with Louis Dudek, who describes the poet as a “misguided storyteller,” with a “macabre sense of humour,” full of “philosophical bombast” and “sensationalism,” as well as the changing evaluations of Northrop Frye.  This is a richly packed book, a comprehensive sampling—fascinating, informative and hugely convenient.  Again, one finds repetition but here it is constructive, a consolidation of critical opinion over the years.   There are some wonderful surprises—revelations of character and lifestyle, unexpected kinds of assessment.  In 1949 John Sutherland heralds Layton’s fiction over his poetry; a few years later, Northrop Frye unearths the real poet buried in Layton — “gentle, wistful, lonely, and rather frightened.”  Hayden Carruth deprives Layton of the Sublime with this immortal caricature:  “a careless, ebullient poetry that gives the impression of having been written off the cuff by an intelligent, well-educated, observant, cheerful gas-meter-inspector.”  We get some solid criticism as well as flights of fancy.  A.J.M. Smith makes his sturdy statements about metrical rightness, colloquial diction, the mastery of both lyric and classic forms. Milton Wilson provides fresh, important ideas.  There is Wynne Francis’ prelude to her article on Heroic Vitalism, “Layton and Nietzsche,” and there is George Woodcock’s perceptive “A Grab At Proteus.”  Important distinctions are made.  Frank Davey alligns Layton’s work with Souster’s, Nowlan’s, and Purdy’s as “message poetry,” not that of reflection, not the subtle rendering of a consciousness that one finds in Newlove, Bowering or Atwood.  Notices from outside the country offer both sensible objectivity and unreserved praise.  Layton supporter, William Carlos Williams is parodied by Kildare Dobbs as  that “professional cheer-leader.”  British poet Roy Fuller does not regard Layton as a didactic poet; for him content is modest but language daring, fixing the moment of experience “by wholly fresh comparisons.”  Hugh Kenner admires the “aggressive notation of raw particulars,” while deploring instances of arrogant masculinity that can “occasionally blow a whole poem to tatters.”  This issue becomes one of several unifying strands in the book.  The Australian poet A.D. Hope applauds Layton’s stridency which, he feels, isolates a male “metaphysic,” a phenomenon that “more comprehending poets muddle and obscure.”  In 1968, Mandel, reviewing The Shattered Plinths, with its impetus of political crisis, is convinced that Layton produces his best work when allowing his violent nature full expression.  Here are both support for Heroic Vitalist ideas and ammunition for its opponents.  Somebody must take up these challenges.  Despite such substance, however, too many short pieces provoke disappointment.  Their very brevity curtails the kind of satisfaction one enjoys from developed arguments.  Milton Wilson and Hugh Kenner imply that Canada’s literary “freedom from received procedures” provided Layton with a vast vacuum that only he has been able to fill.  (Peter Hunt makes the same observation rather less appreciatively.)  Charles Bukowsky laments Layton’s naiveté; Robin Skelton berates him for platitudes and clumsiness; Al Purdy wrestles with the notion of tonal monotony.  Although some of the contributions rather casually substitute impressionism, vivid as it is, for real criticism, there is some validly affectionate material in Irving Layton: The Poet and His Critics that will eventually make witty biography — the June Callwood piece, “Lusty Laureate From the Slums” and Steven Osterlund’s funny and moving profile.

     Although Irving Layton: The Poet and His Critics lacks, necessarily, stylistic or structural integration, it is the vital step in an enormous gathering and sorting process that must continue.  By comparison, the issue of Essays on Canadian Writing (pp. 7-54) devoted to Layton, pales.  It is a combination of essay and interview that turns up nothing really new and can be pretentious.

     A word must be said about special editions of Layton’s work; they are becoming numerous enough to demand attention.  Collaborations with artists and other languages are not new.  There has been an Italian version of The Cold Green Element and there has been The Love Poems of Irving Layton with original drawings from Graham Coughtry.  The most notable recent arrival is a limited portfolio edition (costing $2000) of fifteen Layton poems (old and new), illustrated by Aligi Sassu, the Italian artist of international repute.  The imaginative interpretation of one artist by another arouses interest and great curiosity.  In this case the results are alternately puzzling and exciting. An artist of moral passion, active professionally in the European Resistance, Sassu would naturally appeal to Layton as a soul in sympathy with his own.  Yet Sassu’s sensibility seems darkly romantic by contrast to Layton’s more usual irony and exuberance.  In the visual artist, there is an echo of the late Goya, something of Blake, and a touch of Picasso spriteliness.  It is startling when Sassu exhumes the morbid, even the grotesque, from certain pieces.  For “Women of Rome” we get Death perched on a pyramid, rather than a voluptuous female.  “De Bullion Street” inspires a nudely sardonic rendition of “public gain and shame,” leaving Layton’s atmospheric images to speak for themselves.  The book’s title poem, which is also Layton’s simple moving credo, “There Were No Signs” is accompanied by an impressively detailed vision of wild, winged horses and flaming, human form.  The visionary mode works well, too, in the depiction of desired but buried sensuality — the head of a godlike boy, eyes blind to bitter November (“Hidden Worlds”) — and in the whirling, animal-energy version of Layton’s “For Sassu and His Horse,” a very Laurencian piece but for “Buck Jones and Tom Mix.”  At times both artists are tenderly compassionate.  Layton’s poem, “The Galilean” is matched in its focus both on a confused and pathetic humanity and on real, though paradoxical, pain by Sassu’s intentionally ugly-Gothic, truly suffering Christ crucified.  Similarly, the pathos of “For 751-0329” is contained in the works of both artists.  Some enigmas remain such as an intriguingly complex, very worked picture to accompany the fine, clearly imaged poem “Flies,” and a powerful response to Layton’s “Plaza de Toros” that is actually a literal sequel to the poem-the bull’s thick dead black seeming to bear the weight of night.  Unpredictable and novel, this marriage of imaginations should engender new insight, and at the very least, guard against an over-standardized response to our most tireless of poets.

Patricia Keeney Smith