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Five Pieces For Irving Layton
by Kenneth Sherman

Irving Layton

"It is good to wish for strong models."
Elias Canetti

* 1 *

In 1969, as I was about to leave for Israel where I would work for the summer as a volunteer on a Kibbutz, enlightened friends of my parents bought me a gift: the 1969 edition of Irving Layton's Selected Poems. The book was electrifying. I was immediately struck by the highly charged, visceral texture of Layton's language, the urgency of his voice. Here was a persona as open to experience and emotion as the declamatory newsboy, the subject of one of Layton's earliest published poems:

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 and incapacity to love
While he, a Joshua before their walls,
Sells newspapers to the gods and geldings.

If poets can be compared to animals, then I pictured Layton as a dog. Here was a poet who loved to run across the ground, sticking his damp nose into everything. Tireless, easily roused to fury, driven by some inexplicable hunger, he could never get enough, nor could he get it fast enough. Layton was one of those poets¨like Villon, like Byron¨whose genius was rooted in his restlessness. In candor he resembled the Beats¨we can think of Ferlinghetti's Dog¨but his poems were more structured than theirs, the mind behind them more incisive. The poetry of the Beats was diffuse. Layton's poems contain their energy like a time bomb.

At the age of nineteen, I'd seen enough of middle-class suburban life to understand what Layton meant by "the mindless vacancies of suburbia." I too was contending with the stifling philistinism and moneytheism he railed against. When I spoke my mind, my parents accused me of being ungrateful, wrong-minded. Things between us were quickly deteriorating. One of the advantages of alienation from one's family is that you begin to look for other authorities¨i.e. authors. By 1969 I had read much of Hemingway, as well as works by Camus and Sartre, and had developed an appreciation for the dark and caustic element in Layton's poetry. It was a poetry that, in the words of Czeslaw Milosz, "did not cheat thought." That distinguished it from the narrowness and anti-intellectualism of most Canadian poetry. Layton's work, even the weakest of it, had a psychological edge, a willingness to probe uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. He provided the right antidote to Dylan Thomas, with whom I was enamoured at the time.

* 2 *

The Jewish Agency, sponsors of my impending trip to Israel, organized a meeting for the student participants. It was held in the basement rec room of my friend's house. Layton, who was in Toronto hunting for an apartment so that he could begin a teaching appointment at York University, agreed to speak to us.

What physical image did I have of Layton? There was the strong, darkly handsome face in serial replication on the cover of the Selected Poems; there was the goateed Layton looking like Satyr or Satan on the cover of Balls for a One-Armed Juggler; there was the sublime profile on Periods of the Moon in whose cover a reflective Layton resembles a somber middle-European Jewish philosopher. These images matched the various facets of the poetic persona. Perhaps the same gap that exists between reality and printed words exists between a person's living presence and his photographed image. Is this why we are shocked when someone we know from photographs walks into the room?

Short, stocky, Layton reminded me of the Warner Brothers' Tasmanian Devil. He walked with the deft movement of a wrestler awaiting an attack, an image reinforced by his pugilist's nose. His eyes, however, offset the impression of toughness. They seemed to me to be receptive, childlike, wonderstruck. But perhaps I saw them through the filter of his poetic persona, which was essentially romantic. He wore his thick grey hair long, and that made him seem either savage¨or sage.

His physical voice¨which I would come to know intimately in seminar room and lecture hall¨was as impressive as his poetic voice. It was deep and sonorous. His language was highly articulate: earthy and erudite, imagistic and philosophical. He revealed, as he spoke, the arabesque twists and turns of a poet's thought processes and this made him a fascinating teacher.

When he spoke, everything¨voice, vocabulary, hand gestures, facial expressions¨was designed to convince, to win over the opponent. For Layton, speaking was an opportunity to persuade, chastise, enchant. He was a highly competitive man who saw his relationship with an audience, and often with individuals, as a battle. He owed this attitude not just to Nietzsche and the Greeks, but also to his own beleaguered childhood in the streets of Montreal. The battle now was not over territory or racial slurs, but over higher concerns of the self. With his passionate, nineteenth century style of oratory, Layton defied the cool, detached manner adopted by most contemporary speakers. His style was messianic, prophetic. And while one might term it anachronistic, the message was wholly relevant. Years after I had him as a teacher, I invited him to address an assembly of students at my college. He rebuked them for their somnambulism, their unwillingness to embrace the deeper issues. The next day the local newspaper ran the headline: "You're sheep," Layton tells flock.

In my friend's basement in 1969, Layton was preaching to the converted. We were already committed to Zion. Yet we were spellbound because Layton spoke about Jewish history, culture, and philosophy, not from the often-predictable stance of a rabbi or religious schoolteacher, but from that of an artist and intellectual. Having read his poetry and his editorials, I knew that this was a man who had wrestled with his Judaism, whose view of it was unorthodox and complex to say the least. For most of us, used to the uninspired drones coming from the podiums of our oversized synagogues, Layton was an awakening. Besides, he already had a reputation: I had heard a rabbi at one Toronto synagogue refer to him as "craven and lusty."

* 3 *

When I returned from Israel, I decided to attend York University instead of the University of Toronto where I'd been accepted because at York I might work with a poet I admired. I had tried to write poetry throughout my teenage years and at age nineteen had assembled a manuscript of sonnets, aphorisms and slices of anecdotal free verse¨a hodge-podge of over-emotionalism, stolen ideas, and stale imagery. Typed with great care and collected in a lime green duo-tang, the collection bore the seemingly modest but in reality, overly confident title, Poems. I stood, with sweating hands and pounding heart, outside Layton's office on the seventh floor of the Ross Building, that monolith of poured concrete nicknamed The Ministry of Truth. Layton invited me in and asked me to sit down. He asked me a few questions about my background and courses I was taking, then he leaned back in his chair and began reading. Thinking back on the manuscript that I handed him, I am amazed at the mixture of nerve, ignorance, and hope I must have possessed to show it. But Layton was kind. Whenever he came upon an image or turn of phrase that he liked he read it aloud in that marvelous voice that could make a shopping list sound impressive. I don't know what he saw in those pseudo-poems but he invited me to join his writing workshop (a second year course, not open to first year students). Like most writing workshops, it was a strange mix. "Honest Ed" Mirvish's wife was in it (Layton called her, simply, "Mirvish"). A John Lennon look-alike told us that he buried his poems late at night in different parts of the city. A girl who had worked as a prostitute before attending university wrote rhyming couplets about her experiences.

Layton was generous with his time. I know I was not the only student who spent countless hours each week in his office at York. He urged me to read books that made a deep and lasting impression: Di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Kosinski's The Painted Bird, Otto Rank's Art and Artist, and many others. His reading extended far beyond literature, into psychology, sociology, and philosophy. When I was in graduate school at the University of Toronto some years later, I was delighted to find that he knew the works of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker and could discuss them with me in detail. Hegel, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche¨he knew them not in the way an academic does. He had ingested them; these greats argued within him, adding to his restlessness, forming the groundwork for much of his poetry.

* 4 *

Layton loved film and expressed regret that he had not become a filmmaker. He would often walk into class and begin a detailed exegesis of a popular movie. He read film with the same insightfulness that he read poetry. The most brilliant critique I heard him give was of Five Easy Pieces. "Did you notice the name of the gas station at the end of the film?" he asked excitedly after discovering that most of us had seen the film but obviously not understood it. No one, it seems, had noted the name. "Gulf," he answered, victorious. And then noting that we hadn't "gotten it" he explained that Gulf was synonymous for the abyss, that region of unremitting despair where Jack Nicholson's character finds himself at the end of the film. "And what about the truck that takes Nicholson away? Did you notice the load it was carrying?" Again, blank faces and his incredulity. "Logs. Bare logs. No roots, no fruits. The condition, dear class, of modern man."

Often, after explicating a film or piece of literature, Layton was overly pleased with himself and you were keenly aware that he'd gifted you with insight while simultaneously taking away a portion of your self-esteem. Some students found this side of his personality difficult, but for me, the minor put-downs were worth the insights. He wasn't merely passing on information. He was giving you the same thing he gave as a poet¨a different way of seeing. He thought of teaching as "poetry by other means." His mastery at explicating a work of literature was as great as that of Northrop Frye, a teacher I would encounter later. In some ways Layton's talks on literature were even more stimulating than Frye's because they were not solely confined to the history of literature and mythology but drew perceptively from all disciplines. They were timely, and like the title of his very first book, resonated with the Here and Now. He always made me think of Dante's comment that the teacher is actually younger than the student because his mind runs faster. And not just his mind. When I consider that he was fifty-eight years old when I met him, I am astonished. His appetite, vivaciousness, and quickness for a man of that age were remarkable. He seemed to never tire. He could be solemn, ruminative, but rarely depressed. He seemed a happy man. The happiness most likely came from his ability to keep writing, even through the darker periods of his life.

Happy people are the most generous. In 1976 my wife and I had rented a small, one-bedroom apartment in a modest low-rise on Eglinton Avenue, just west of Bathurst Street. At the time, Layton was living with his fourth wife Harriet in her parents' house, only a five-minute walk from our apartment. Whenever he wanted a break from his wife and in-laws (which seemed to be often) he crossed Eglinton and paid us a visit. One day he arrived while I was working on a poem. Impressed by my pile of revisions¨which he took as a sign of my devotion to craft¨he complimented me and asked for a glass of wine. I had to tell him I had none. I'd recently become unemployed and wine was the last thing I would have thought of buying. Layton was incredulous.

The next day there was a knock at our door. By the time I opened it whoever knocked had vanished; I looked down to find a case with twelve assorted bottles of wine¨Italian, Spanish, French¨and a note that read, "One of the saddest spectacles is a poet with no bottles of wine." It was signed Irving.

* 5 *

It is difficult to write honestly about one's models. Ambivalence lingers: on the one hand, gratitude and admiration¨on the other, the shame of having lived under the spell of another's personality. And yet what young writer has not done so? In the psyche of every young writer there is a temple precinct strewn with smashed and toppled idols.

Though Layton was helpful, his own status as a poet proved to be an obstacle. David Solway was right in calling him "nemesis/benefactor" (in his Framing Layton). During those early years at York, I thought of his poetic oeuvre as a daunting mountain peak. The sheer number of his poems, their vividness and energy, were imposing, especially when you were yet to publish a single volume. Only now, with volumes of my own behind me, can I understand Layton's accomplishment and appreciate how we differ as poets.

Layton was both a visionary and a realist. His imaginative perception of existence arose out of his presentation of the daily world he encountered: The men and women on the streets of Montreal, on the beaches of Nice, in the villages of Lesbos, all live in his poems. He was not interested, like Eliot, in mapping an interior desacralized landscape, in giving us shivery accounts of a wasted psyche. His goal was to confront the reality of his time, which explains why he wrote so much about politics, railed against Soviet tyranny and the chloroforming effect of North American materialism. He did this in part because he knew that poetry, and literature in general, was proving to be less and less effective in presenting the reality of our epoch. Prescient, he understood that literature, divorced from the larger issues, would decline into an autonomous activity of language¨Tcriture¨a game played by post-modernist writers and critics. Unlike James Joyce and Wallace Stevens, Layton did not believe that literature had become a substitute for religion. In the face of the Real, poetry had its limitations. Like those eastern-European poets whose lenses were cleansed by the horrors of Hitlerism and Stalinism, he knew that while art transcends pain and tragedy, it does not negate them, does not make them disappear. "Poetry," as he said, "does not exorcise historical dynamism, macabre cruelty, guilt, perversity, and the pain of consciousness."

A poet's largeness is dependent on the contradictions he is willing to bear: romantic/anti-romantic, Hebrew/pagan, tender lover/misogynist. With Layton, the list goes on. He slams the materialist, the bourgeois businessman, and then extols the will-to-power and bracing realism of Aristotle Onassis. Those who wished consistency from Layton had no notion of how poetry is fuelled. His enterprise was a working out of his own tensions. His inconsistency illustrated the degree to which he was willing to discomfit himself. His reward for asking the larger questions and for being the gadfly in the Canadian ear was to be turned into a clown by the media and eventually disregarded by the literati. His literary stock has already plummeted and no one can say if it will rise again.

An early model like Layton serves as a life-long goad. By temperament I am a different man and a different sort of poet. As the saying goes, "Different birds, different songs." Yet even now I would like to bring over into my work Layton's intuitive grasp of political and social issues, his tough-minded philosophizing, his unceasing scorn. At times I fear that I have been one of those poets whom Layton condemned as "too patient, courteous, civilized," one of his "waffling poets."

Yet if I chastise myself too much, I can always turn for consolation to these words of his, from the preface to The Laughing Rooster.

In this country the poet has always had to fight for his survival. He lives in a middle-class milieu whose values of money-getting, respectability, and success are hostile to the kind of integrity and authenticity that is at the core of his endeavourÓSeeing intelligence, intuition, and primal joy destroyed by a society that values them less than gadgetry or a car in the garage, the poet becomes a social criticÓ Indeed his very existence as a creative personality is an act of defiance, an act of uncompromising criticism.

Kenneth Sherman teaches at Sheridan College and York University. He is poetry editor at Mosaic Press and has published nine books of poetry.


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