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Fighting words

Editorial by Bruce Wark


Pa used to recite an old Puritanical rhyme: “I slept and dreamed that life was Beauty/But woke to find that life was Duty.” No wonder he loathed Irving Layton, the Canadian poet who died last week at 93. “Whatever else poetry is freedom,” Layton wrote, adding years later: “A poem is an Alka-Seltzer tablet: orthodoxies begin to fizz when one is dropped into their midst.” Yes, Irving Layton was the Roaring Boy who burst onto the literary scene in the late 1950s. He used everyday language to drag Canadian poetry out of academic lecture halls and into the streets and bedrooms of the nation. For him, poetry was ecstasy, “a crazy dance on a heap of burning coals.” A satire by John Mills that was partly based on Layton unkindly described the poet as “short, stocky, pugnacious, huge-headed, bushy-maned with violent, half-crazed eyes which impaled you like Klieg lights.”

In his heyday during the early ’60s, Layton proclaimed himself a genius whose work ranked with the best of Shakespeare and Keats. But he also admitted that, “Every great writer writes quantities of unedifying shit, embarrassing to his admirers.” That last quote and the one from John Mills are from Elspeth Cameron’s warts-and-all biography published in 1985. Layton hated the book so much he tried to destroy Cameron’s career. “He wrote hundreds of letters all over the place trying to get me fired from the University of Toronto,” Cameron told CBC Radio, “trying to get various granting agencies never to give me money again, getting magazines that I wrote for never to have me write for them and this kind of thing. He went on a real rampage.”

That “rampage” was typical of Layton, who grew up poor in a Jewish part of Montreal. “Before I encountered critics and reviewers,” Layton wrote to a friend, “I had fistfights every day of my public school life with the toughs that flourished in the slum neighbourhood, and sometimes, in fact frequently, it was bottles and jackknives. I learned to give as good as I got—and never to whimper.” In later life, Layton used words instead of broken bottles. Displeased by a review penned by fellow poet Earle Birney, Layton fired off an angry letter in which he told Birney, “I am currently engaged in writing a poem called ‘The Ballad of the Clotted Arsehair.’ I have allotted several memorable verses to yourself.”

Layton was frequently crude, rude and lewd. But this “quiet madman, never far from tears,” also wrote movingly about “the green air the trees inhabit,” “the children’s laughter among the leaves,” “the inescapable lousiness of growing old,” and of course, the joys of sex. “William Wordsworth was turned on by daffodils; I’m turned on by women,” Layton wrote in the foreword to a book of love poems. He was right, of course, to rail against the sexual repression of the 1950s and early ’60s, but the aging tom paid a high price for helping lead the free-love parade: a string of broken marriages and frequent separation from his kids. Elspeth Cameron reports that Layton was sometimes tormented by guilt. One longtime partner found him “inhibited sexually, puritanical, not at home in his own body.” The man who passionately loved women was also the misogynist who denounced them as cunning castrators.

Yet Layton’s poetry could rise above arid male chauvinism, as it does in “The Bull Calf.” The proud newborn animal, barely able to stand, is taken from his mother and clubbed to death because, as the farmer says, “there’s no money in bull calves.” Thrown into a deep pit, the dead calf “made a wet sound, a sepulchral gurgle,/as the warm sides bulged and flattened./Settled, the bull calf lay as if asleep,/one foreleg over the other,/bereft of pride and so beautiful now,/without movement, perfectly still in the cool pit,/I turned away and wept.”

Goodbye Brother Layton. May you rest in peace.

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