Exhibit: Early Layton and His Critics


    Early Layton and his Critics juxtaposes poems from Irving Layton’s first ten collections of poetry with quotes from reviews of those collections. Prolific, political and polemical, Layton drew strong responses from his critics as he set out to shift the axis of Canadian poetry towards a home-grown poetics, albeit one strongly influence by literary developments south of the border. Layton’s reviewers are a ‘who’s who’ of Canadian poets and literary critics of the mid-century, and their writings demonstrate the high-standard of literary criticism in newspapers and journals during the period when Layton made his reputation as a poet.

    The works on display are taken from Memorial University's Irving Layton Collection.


    Layton, Irving. Here and Now. Montreal: First Statement Press, 1945.


    Neither tribal nor trivial he shouts
    From the city’s centre where tramcars move
    Like stained bacilli across the eyeballs;
    Where people spore in composite buildings
    From their protective gelatine of doubts,
    Old ills, an incapacity to love
    While he, a Joshua before their walls,
    Sells newspapers to gods and geldings.

    Intrusive as a collision, he is
    The Zeitgeist’s too public interpreter,
    A voice multiplex and democratic,
    The people’s voice or the monopolists’;
    Who with last-edition omniscience
    Plays Clotho to each gaping customer
    With halcyon colt, sex crimes in the attic,
    the story of the twice-jailed bigamist.

    For him the mitred cardinals sweat in
    Conclaves domed; the spy is shot. Empiric;
    And obstreperous confidant of kings,
    Rude despiser of the anonymous,
    Danubes of blood wash up his bulletins
    While he domesticates disaster like
    A wheat in pampas of prescriptive things
    With cries animal and ambiguous.

    His dialectics will assault the brain,
    Contrive men to voyage or murder,
    Dip the periscope of their public lives
    To the green level of acidic caves;
    Fever their health, or heal them of ruin,
    Or with lies dangerous as a letter:
    Finally to enwrap the season’s cloves,
    Cover a somnolent face on Sundays.
    Comment: “These, surely, are lines
    which give to things contemporary
    a grandeur Elizabethan. They make,
    because sifted through the poet’s
    imagination, illuminated by his
    insights, poetry out of what
    nine out of ten would consider
    material crass and prosaic.”

    A.M. Klein.
    Rreview of Here and Now (1945)


    2. Layton, Irving. Now is the Place. Montreal: First Statement Press, 1948.

    The Swimmer

    Afternoon foreclosing, see
    The swimmer plunges from his raft,
    Opening the spray corollas at his act of war -
    The snake heads strike
    Quickly and are silent.

    Emerging see how for a moment,
    A brown weed with marvellous bulbs,
    He lies imminent upon the water
    While light and sound come with a sharp passion
    From the gonad sea around the Poles
    And break in bright cockle-shells about his ears.

    He dives, floats, goes under like a thief
    Where his blood sings to the tiger shadows
    In the scentless greenery that leads him home,
    A male salmon down fretted stairways
    Through underwater slums....

    Stunned by the memory of lost gills
    He frames gestures of self-absorption
    Upon the skull-like beach;
    Observes with instigated eyes
    The sun that empties itself upon the water,
    And the last wave romping in
    To throw its boyhood upon the marble sand.
    Comment: “It also seems obvious
    that Mr. Layton’s talents lie
    in fiction rather than poetry.
    While about three-quarters
    of the poems are of small value
    except as restoratives from
    our puritanical drought, about four
    of them probably indicate
    that Mr. Layton is a poet of
    some sort. That these four
    should happen to be poetry has
    something to do with the
    purely academic connection between
    their author and Wordsworth:
    their joint capacity for emotion
    recollected in tranquillity.
    The difference is that, while
    Wordsworth recollected daffodils,
    abbeys, etc., this poet
    recollects selling newspapers,
    buying bad fish, walking
    innumerable times under the
    obscene cross squatting on Montreal
    Mountain, and similar emotions.
    Moreover, his tranquillity takes
    the form of anger.”

    John Sutherland
    Review of Now is the Place


    3. Layton, Irving. The Black Huntsmen. Montreal: Self-published, 1951.

    Proof Reader

    I whose eyes are a transmission belt,
    The words depositing like strips of steel,
    Think Cyclops luckier in his wounded cave:
    Death comes to brothers like Bela Lugosi,
    My brothers dying in a Roman hedge;
    Their ache is frozen into proper type,
    For no blood dries along the metal’s edge,
    As marshals peering through binoculars
    Drive their offensives through my hollow mind.

    O my eyes are like extravagant bees
    Hugging paper gardens where words are weeds.

    For at my back daily the compositors—
    Aproned morticians that with lacquered sticks
    Lay out the columns like coffins—hammer
    Upon the bones of heretics, martyrs,
    Nepmen and the conquerors finally
    The clockwork victims of insolvent guns;
    As I, an egret in a mere of ink,
    Surface the black frogs thick with speech
    When having eyes but no ears history
    Like a dissolute Tzar runs,
    Taper in hand, to fire a sleeping city.
    Comment: “Most of Mr. Layton’s
    book is the work, not of the poet
    in him, but of a noisy hot-gospeller
    who has no real respect for poetry.
    The latter speaks in a violent
    rhetoric which is deliberately
    summoned up, an incantation that
    tries to make devils reveal
    themselves but succeeds only
    in nagging the air.”

    Northrop Frye:
    Review of The Black Huntsmen


    4. Layton, Irving. love the conqueror worm. Toronto: Contact Press, 1953.

    To the Girls of My Graduation Class

    Wanting for their young limbs praise,
    Their thighs, hips, and saintly breasts,
    They grow from awkwardness to delight,
    Their mouths made perfect with the air
    About them and the sweet rage in the blood,
    The delicate trouble in their veins.

    Intolerant as happiness, suddenly
    They'll dart like bewildered birds;
    For there's no mercy in that bugler Time
    That excites against their virginity
    The massed infantry of days, nor in the tendrils
    Greening on their enchanted battlements.

    Golda, Fruma, Dinnie, Elinor,
    My saintly wantons, passionate nuns;
    O light-footed daughters, your unopened
    Brittle beauty troubles an aging man
    Who hobbles after you a little way
    Fierce and ridiculous.
    Comment: “Irving Layton is
    a talented writer of integrity,
    whose best work has been written
    in a deep and expressive anger
    with injustice and hypocrisy.
    This makes it more regrettable
    that for the second time
    in a row he has brought out
    a disappointing new collection.”

    Anne Marriott, Review of
    love the conqueror worm


    5. Layton, Irving. The Long Pea-Shooter. Montreal: Laocoon Press, 1954.


    I placed
    my hand
    her thigh.

    By the way
    she moved
    I could see
    her devotion
    to literature
    was not
    Comment: “I find Layton’s poetry
    less satisfactory in emotional
    and intellectual attitudes;
    many of the poems dealing with
    sex and society are marred
    by an inverted didacticism
    all too apt to be misunderstood
    and to become tedious.”

    Fred Cogswell
    Review of the Long Pea-Shooter (1954)


    6. Layton, Irving. In The Midst Of My Fever. Palma de Mallorca: The Divers Press, 1954.

    The Birth of Tragedy

    And me happiest when I compose poems.
    Love, power, the huzza of battle
    are something, are much;
    yet a poem includes them like a pool
    water and reflection.
    In me, nature’s divided things—
    tree, mould on a tree—
    have their fruition;
    I am their core. Let them swap,
    bandy, like a flame swerve
    I am their mouth; as a mouth I serve.

    And I observe how the sensual moths
    big with odour and sunshine
    dart in the perilous shrubbery;
    or drop their visiting shadows
    upon the garden I one year made
    of flowering stone to be a footstool
    for the perfect gods
    who, friends to the ascending orders,
    will sustain this passionate meditation
    and call down pardons
    for the insurgent blood.

    A quiet madman, never far from tears,
    I lie like a slain thing
    under the green air the trees
    inhabit, or rest upon a chair
    towards which the inflammable air
    tumbles on many robins’ wings;
    noting how seasonably
    leaf and blossom uncurl
    and living things arrange their death,
    while someone from afar off
    blows birthday candles for the world.
    Comment: “At last it is possible
    to see what kind of poet Mr. Layton
    is, and he proves not to be a
    satirist at all, but an erudite
    elegiac poet, whose technique turns
    on an alignment of the romantic
    and the ironic...And whatever
    lapses in expression one may find
    are of little importance when
    one is so constantly in touch
    with a poetic mind of genuine
    dignity and power.”

    Northrop Frye
    Review of
    In the Midst of my Fever.


    7. Layton, Irving. the cold green element. Toronto: Contact Press, 1955.

    the cold green element

    At the end of the garden walk
    the wind and its satellite wait for me;
    their meaning I will not know
    until I go there,
    but the black-hatted undertaker

    who, passing, saw my heart beating in the grass,
    is also going there. Hi, I tell him,
    a great squall in the Pacific blew a dead poet
    out of the water,
    who now hangs from the city’s gates.

    Crowds depart daily to see it, and return
    with grimaces and incomprehension;
    if its limbs twitched in the air
    they would sit at its feet
    peeling their oranges.

    And turning over I embrace like a lover
    the trunk of a tree, one of those
    for whom the lightning was too much
    and grew a brilliant
    hunchback with a crown of leaves.

    The ailments escaped from the labels
    of medicine bottles are all fled to the wind;
    I’ve seen myself lately in the eyes
    of old women,
    spent streams mourning my manhood,

    in whose old pupils the sun became
    a bloodsmear on broad catalpa leaves
    and hanging from ancient twigs,
    my murdered selves
    sparked the air like muted collisions

    of fruit. A black dog howls down my blood,
    a black dog with yellow eyes;
    he too by someone’s inadvertence
    saw bloodsmear
    on the broad catalpa leaves.

    But the furies clear a path for me to the worm
    who sang for an hour in the throat of a robin
    and misled by the cries of young boys
    I am again
    a breathless swimmer in the cold green element.
    Comment: “I feel that Mr. Smith,
    by reiteration of his point that
    Mr. Layton’s early poems showed
    very little sign of his great
    virtue at present (acquired within
    two years), is secretly excusing
    his own failure, for some fifteen
    years, in perceiving the strength
    and energy of this poet, so
    shamefully neglected by reviewers
    and critics until now. But why
    distort the estimate of a poet
    to save the face of a critic?”

    Louis Dudek “Layton Now and Then:
    Our Critical Assumptions.”


    8. Layton, Irving. The Blue Propeller. Toronto: Contact Press, 1955.


    Pay small attention to the chin
    And the stiff Loyalist mouth
    And the pallid complexion:
    These are flesh or of flesh. Begin

    Rather with the rimless glasses
    Showing faintly, with restraint,
    The wearer’s openness
    To the universal values

    (Let there be no boundaries
    Between the heart
    And what the heart desires)

    Then mark the dry abstracted brow
    Above the austere glasses
    Where others, equally joyless,
    Have left and enduring shadow.

    Crazed these many years dwells Right
    In the tower above the high pink nose
    Drawbridge to this remote schloss
    Archaic in the level sunlight.
    Comment: “The terms of approval from
    the prestige-conferring culture (the
    key to the Loyalist-derived and
    genteel tradition in Canada) are
    elegance, a well-tailored look,
    an apparent complexity (that conceals
    a real poverty of ideas), much
    verbal and scholarly show,
    a high tone, maturity, serenity,
    etc., etc.: art with the mystery
    concealed in its bosom— “one of us”.
    The test of the new poetry is its
    relevance to life, not to the art
    museums; its energy, not its static
    impressiveness. The break with the
    old tradition can come as well
    from those of Anglo-Saxon descent
    (Souster, Sutherland) as from others—
    it is not a racial issue, though it
    may temporarily be a class one.
    Mr. Layton, however, is an intruder
    on both counts.”

    Louis Dudek Layton
    Now and Then: Our Critical Assumptions.


    9. Layton, Irving. The Bull Calf and Other Poems. Toronto: Contact Press, 1956.

    The Fertile Muck

    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.

    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.

    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.

    I could extend their rooms for them without cost
    and give them crazy sundials
    to tell the time with, but I have noticed
    how my irregular footprint horrifies them
    evenings and Sunday afternoons:
    they spray for hours to erase its shadow.

    How to dominate reality? Love is one way;
    imagination another. 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.
    Comment: “Irving Layton is a man of
    many masks. He can be tender, sensual,
    arrogant, self-pitying, humorous,
    coarse. But behind all the masks
    is one constant element: vitality.
    If the poet is, as I believe F.R.
    Leavis once declared him to be,
    “a man fully alive in his own age,”
    then Layton is a poet. His stature
    as a poet is perhaps the result
    of the fact that he is both fully
    alive and fully ready to declare
    his aliveness. He is not afraid of
    anything, particularly [sic] of
    public opinion. If the spirit moves
    him to be arrogant and sensual,
    he will express arrogance and
    sensuality with all the force
    at his command.”

    Desmond Pacey Review of
    The Bull Calf and Other Poems


    10.Layton, Irving. Music on a Kazoo. Toronto: Contact Press, 1956


    In fourteen years
    of married bliss
    not once have I been disloyal
    to my wife;
    and you, I am told, are still
    a virgin.

    If you are set
    to barter your maidenhead
    for my unheard-of fidelity,
    call me between three and five tomorrow
    and it is done.
    Comment: “A kazoo is something
    you buy in a box of popcorn;
    in order to play it all you need
    to know is how to hum. These
    poems—violently satirical,
    deliberately vulgar and often
    very funny—are for the kazoo.”

    James Reaney.
    Review of
    Music on a Kazoo.


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