A Wild Peculiar Joy: the Selected Poems

by Irving Layton
ISBN: 077104948X

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A Review of: A Wild Peculiar Joy: The Selected Poems
by Zach Wells

Irving Layton is Canada's greatest poet and was, at one time, easily the most famous-or infamous-and popular of our writers. He has been a Yeatsian "public man" in a way that no other Canadian poet has. His work, which evinces an ambition for, and faith in, the transformative potential of art sorely absent in most of our contemporary verse, has been translated into a dozen languages and he was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize (by South Korea and Italy). He has written at least a couple of dozen poems that merit favourable comparison with any best of twentieth century poet's efforts.
Although limited selections of his work have remained in print since he stopped writing-due to age and illness-in 1989, his reputation has suffered over the past couple of decades. The blame for this is attributable, in no small part, to Layton himself. As his fame peaked, he left his skills to drift and became indiscriminate in publishing his output. When his prolific work no longer shocked an increasingly liberal-minded and cosmopolitan Canadian populace, he went to greater lengths to be shocking. His poetry and his personae elided one another and politically correct ideologues began dismissing the poetry as the product of an arrogant misanthrope and sexist boor. Even those who remember him fondly are apt to speak more of how charismatic and sexy he was than of the brilliance of his poems.
Now, fifteen years since Layton laid down his pen-at 92, in the grip of advanced Alzheimer's, he lives in a nursing home in Montreal-we should be able to start carding Layton the man from Layton the poet. This is precisely why I'm disappointed to see a reprint of A Wild Peculiar Joy. Aside from a brief introduction by academic Sam Solecki and a selection of prose excerpts of Layton on poetry, the text is identical to the 1989 edition, in which Layton contributed to the editorial process. There are many sub-par later poems included here and many fine earlier pieces left out. Reading, in particular, his bellicose Zionist rhetoric, such as "For My Sons, Max and David", in which he advises the eponymous lads to "Be gunners in the Israeli Air Force", one is tempted to ask of Layton, as he did of Neruda's softness on Stalin, where his "shit-detector" was. To be sure, most of the poems that made Layton's name are here, but if a single volume of his work was to be re-issued, A Red Carpet for the Sun, his selected poems published in 1959, would have been a better, less diluted, choice.
What is really needed is a substantial re-engagement with Layton's entire oeuvre. Because of his prodigious and variegated output-what George Woodcock aptly characterized as his protean nature-Layton is not a poet well-suited to slim selections, which are bound to betray an editor's bias towards one Layton or another. As Layton himself said in "Expurgated Edition", "No way could you make a selection,/ choosing this detail and censoring that." What is needed now, as daunting as the prospect might be, is a complete edition of Layton's work, along the lines of Wilkinson's Heresies. If any of our poets has earned such a treatment, it is he, but we will no doubt have to wait until Layton the man leaves us for this to happen. In the meantime, A Wild Peculiar Joy is the best we've got. Readers looking for a more concentrated distillation of the poet's earlier work should seek out The Porcupine's Quill re-issue of The Improved Binoculars, still in print, or secondhand copies of A Red Carpet for the Sun.

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