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.
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.”
Rreview of Here and Now (1945)
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.”
Review of Now is the Place
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.”
Review of The Black Huntsmen
|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
By the way
I could see
|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.”
Review of the Long Pea-Shooter (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.”
In the Midst of my Fever.
|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
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.”
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.
|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
In fourteen years
of married bliss
not once have I been disloyal
to my wife;
and you, I am told, are still
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
deliberately vulgar and often
very funny—are for the kazoo.”
Music on a Kazoo.