Irving Layton & Robert Creeley:|
The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978
by Irving Layton, Robert Creeley, Ekbert Faas, Sabrina Reed,
Post Your Opinion
by David Donnell
THIS IS QUITE a handsomely produced book, as it should he for $32.95. It`s meticulously edited, there`s an introduction of some length, a substantial notes section possibly prepared by a willing graduate student -- and an exhaustive index.
But is this supposed to be a contribution to Canadian literary scholarship or to something quite different? George Bowering, who should know better, is quoted on the promotion sheet that accompanies the book as saying that it is a 11 significant contribution" to "contemporary culture as a whole..."
Sure, George, Italian shoe designers in Milan are going to change their shoe designs after reading this book, jean Genet will come hack from the dead, and Charles Olson will walk naked across Central Park in the early hours of the morning. I think my point is that the above-named would fall asleep at breakfast reading this book. These letters, except for a few of Creeley`s, are dull business letters, and generally most concerned about not being late for the mail. I`m glad Creeley`s The Divers Press published Layton`s In the Midst of My Fever in the early `50s; but as for the business letters concerning this, one almost wishes they had been late for the mail.
Gael Turnbull, that brilliant, good-hearted Scottish poet who came and lived in Montreal and Toronto for a period of time, quite an excellent writer, rates more page references in the index than Louis Zukovsky. Which is Surprising, in a Zukovsky is certainly considered Much more important, if we`re talking about the Black Mountain tradition, that is -- he converted objectivism into a narrative. But on the other hand, the uninteresting Martin Seymour-Smith rates more page references than Turnbull. I was checking because I thought I might find a point of view, a justification, a Clue to whatever cultural comment is being made here. Turnbull has a wonderful poem about a priest walking barefoot Linder his black soutane in the dusty streets of Paris in the `50s, but of course its not in the book; nor is the spirit, subtlety, or grace of such a poem, or its authenticity, to be found anywhere in this volume of correspondence. I`m not even sure if we can call it correspondence in the classical sense; these are really publishing dossier letters. Except for a few comments by Creeley, you won`t find anything that has very much to do with Black Mountain as a canon, standard, or tradition. And I think that`s important, because this book, in several ways, demonstrates that whether a lot of younger writers are coming into the Black Mountain tradition or not, a number of older professors -- who should be writing books that deserve to be written -- are culling the wastebaskets of libraries for easy-to-produce volumes.
The Complete Correspodence may be pretty dull, comparable to a plate of not very good potatoes, but there is, indeed, a splash of ketchup on top. Mr. Faas`s introduction to this volume of torpor is contentious. If we rake Mr. Faas`s introduction to these innocuous letters About having breakfast and being late for the mail (except for a few of Creeley`s letters which are more self-descriptive, more Majorca and 1953 and new ideas about "LItEraTure" and goddamn the "States," meaning down with. money), then the schema we are presented with, not in the letters but in the introduction, is one in which postmodernism is (I thought we were talking about Black Mountain; no, they`re not the same thing), and postmodernism is American.
When you stop to think about several sentences in the introduction a day later, the direction of this half visible idea in Faas`s introduction becomes not simply contentious but rather irritating and pseudo-imperialist. Dear, me. Postmodernism, which is American (how American, Ekbert, as American as Nolan Ryan or as American as french fries, as American as Sidney Poitier or Jack Kerouac?), comes to Canada. Mr. Faas appears to be labouring in a context in which there are maps of Upper and Lower Canada. We now understand the importance of publishing this Volume: the letters are an innocent front for a Nabisco cerealbox cultural explanation, or an in-brief explanation of cultural links. As schemas go, this explanation of Mr. Faas`s looks a great deal more like Gidget going to Hawaii, in the form of suitcases, letters, and stuff like that, than a cultural explanation of how Irving Layton became a brilliantly atypical "late modernist" by reading widely diverse people.
Creeley`s remarks about the weather and Robert Graves`s oddities, while profoundly ontological, don`t seem to me to be in the same category as thousands of books that were being published in Canada in the 1950s. I don`t mean Margaret Laurence, although I think she is a formidable writer. I mean Kerouac, Kafka, Celine, Svevo, et al. This isn`t the fault of Creeley or Layton, both of whom are honourable men -- after all, people don`t usually write great letters. Hemingway and Faulkner didn`t. Perhaps Lawrence; Pound and Joyce, okay, but it`s unusual. Mine are dishonourable scrawls, little better, Mr. Faas, than a child being asked to he excused from algebra.
Aren`t we being a little silly here? We all know perfectly well that postmodernism, not as a set of social conditions, but as an art movement, came to America from Europe. That`s where almost all the serious art movements have come from so far. Faas`s introduction wants to say that perhaps postmodernism begins some where in America. (Well, Ekbert, it sure
ain`t in the Constitution.) Or perhaps it came from Europe to Massachusetts, and then it came to Canada. Or perhaps it went from New York to Texas, that`s possible, and north to Massachusetts, and then it came to Canada. Doesn`t this get a little irritating? Sure, Hemingway taught the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante how to write, and Wyndham Lewis taught McLuhan how to look at paintings - Break your glasses, Marshall, and then hold them in front of the picture, see, it makes Eakins look like a Cubist.
I think postmodernism came to Canada from Europe. Modernism came to Canada from England, and then from Europe. But to the best of my knowledge, postmodernism came to Canada from France, Germany, and Italy. I don`t think Layton and Creeley had anything to do with it. Think about films, Ekbert, think about magazines, think about publishing series.
It`s interesting to speculate what sort of pamphlet this introduction would make if it were to be published separately in one of those Black Sparrow pamphlets that used to come out from time to time. I don`t think it Would fly too well. The Complete Correspondence is not a very useful or interesting book for a serious Black Mountain reader.