I have before me The Selected Poems of Irving Layton - the classic New Directions "paperbook" from 1977, introduced by respected critic Hugh Kenner, who knew a little something about Modern Poetry.
I've long been an advocate of Layton's work - and indeed met him on a few occasions. He was a "father" of modern verse in Canada, and a kind man: he telephoned me once to say the poems I'd sent him (as a young man) had promise. That being said, a revaluation is in order, one that begins to seriously read and reconsider the actual value of the poems left to us by such major forefathers, for these are Canadian poetry's common wealth, and they form our meagre canon, such as it is, or may be said to be.
I realize that Layton (pictured) came to write later poems, but his reputation - as a poet - surely rests on the 50 poems presented here, to an American audience. It is these poems (or some of them at least) which led William Carlos Williams to (famously - in Canada) say "what else are you going to say about a man whose work you wholeheartedly admire than that he is a good poet?".
Part of the problem has been the heart, not the head, leading much Canadian criticism, including some of my earlier reviews. Williams was right - Layton is a "good" poet. The word avoided is "great". It is this that must now be considered.
Layton needs to be judged by the terms with which we read Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Dylan Thomas, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin, or Ted Hughes. His work, in short, needs to be read in terms of formal command, mastery of style and music, and poise of theme; its intelligence, its flow, its skill, need all to be thought of. He must be read against, and within, the grain of the American but also British / Irish Tradtion. These mid-century poets are canonical to the mainstream in a way that Layton is not. They each wrote at least ten poems that one would not want to lose.
Layton's key poems are, it would seem to me: "The Swimmer"; "Paraclete"; "The Birth of Tragedy"; "The Cold Green Element"; "The Improved Binoculars"; "Song for Naomi"; "Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom"; "Cain"; "Butterfly On Rock"; "For Mao Tse-Tung: A Meditation On Flies and Kings"; "Berry Picking"; "Keine Lazarovitch 1870-1959"; "A Tall Man Executes A Jig" and perhaps "Shakespeare". Readers may have other favourites, but these are likely minor, and no doubt satiric or light pieces. The reality is, these are the works upon which Layton's reputation for expressive command and rhetorical force chiefly rest.
Of these, only a handful are perfect as poetry. "The Swimmer" seems, for all its flow and force, limited by certain unfortunate phrases such as "the gonad sea" or "the skull-like beach" - moments that are less than ideal, in an admittedly early lyric poem of some great beauty that reveals its juvenile source. "The Birth of Tragedy" which has, in parts, poetry to equal that of Auden or Dylan Thomas, seems hampered by a dying fall, a conclusion of some bathos: "blows birthday candles for the world" being somewhat anticlimactic in the diction department. "The Cold Green Element" - often taken to be a masterpiece - has phrases like "Hi, I tell him/ a great squall in the Pacific blew a dead poet/ out of the water" - which, while funny, mars the serious perfection of the whole performance and sounds more and more like bad Beat writing. Indeed, many of Layton's major poems (and all his minor ones, surely) are marred by this sometimes rebarbative comic turn (of course intentional but all the more unfortunate for that). His gestures at being a jester are off-putting where it matters most: line by line, the inch work that the poet needs to put in to be great. Even "Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom" - with its marvellous rhetoric - is damaged by the introduction of a preposterous vampire near the end (Layton has a bizarre B-Movie urge in him) that cuts across the imperious force of the lines preceding.
What we are left with is a handful of six perfected (if at times slight) poems, where Layton seems to have taken the time to be both craftsman and acrobat, visionary and artificer. These would be: "Paraclete"; "Song for Naomi"; "Butterfly On Rock"; "For Mao Tse-Tung: A Meditation On Flies and Kings"; "Berry Picking"; and "Keine Lazarovitch 1870-1959". Of these, the last two seem to me near-perfect, works of poetic genius. It is troubling to consider how rarely such heights were reached in later years, as the writing became prolix and self-perplexed or delighting in grandiose measure.
These half-dozen truly great 20th century poems may be less than Layton would have hoped for, but they are far greater in number and quality than most other Candian poets of the 20th century were able to leave to the world. And they are still, as far as I can tell, little known or admired beyond Canada, even in WCW's America.
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