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Ecstasy Like an Irritant in the Blood
by Carmine Starnino

To have written even one poem that speaks with rhythmic authority about matters that are enduringly important is something to be immensely, reverently thankful for-and I am intoxicated enough to think I have written more than one. Why should I deceive anyone by false modesty?

(Irving Layton)

David Solway and Gary Geddes each peg it at twenty. George Woodcock, at thirty-five. And Elspeth Cameron settles on the rather conservative figure of fifteen.

What's fascinating here isn't the answer but our chronic need to pose the question: How many good poems has Irving Layton written? As far as I know, no one has ever tested Gustafson, Klein, Page or Jones in this way (mind you, with Dudek the game might be a tad cruel). Maybe it's due to our irritability with Layton's fecund inspiration that we try to size up-or rather, size down-his genius (a Complete Poems will surely be an intimidating, multi-volume elephant-march across a shelf). Or maybe the query vouches for the postlapsarian condition of Layton's achievement, its fall from grace. It's no secret that Layton's afflatus eventually lapsed into a yearning that doggedly renewed itself against overwhelming odds-his weakness for self-worship, his waning abilities-and was consistently defeated, so that now, like literary Calvinists, we're desperate to rescue the "chosen" poems from the earthly failure of his oeuvre. And indeed, if Randall Jarrell's famous definition is one we can trust-"a good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times"-then the high numbers being tossed around casually suggest that Layton's career hums with the high-voltage excess of multiple hits.

We're familiar with the outcome of those Jarrellian storms: "The Birth of Tragedy", "The Cold Green Element", "A Tall Man Executes a Jig", "Berry Picking", "Butterfly on Rock", and "Keine Lazarovitch", among others. Like all true poems, these have now become, in Frost's words, "impossible to get rid of". This isn't unusual, since Layton often proclaimed his poetic practice to be the ultimate one of sepulchral seduction: wooing readers beyond his grave. Above literary reputation (although that, too, was obsessively on his mind), Layton harboured the Parnassian hope of eternity, of being read when other poems, to quote Layton, "lie quietly dead in the freezing arms of oblivion, their titles an occasional murmur of the wind".

Of course, that's not a prudent thing to admit to nowadays. But Layton's poetry, and the extraordinary ambition that goaded it into life, licenses us or, depending on one's lack of imagination, morally forces us to discuss his work using ideas that have all but evaporated in our sensible and routinized literary world. Maybe you feel his ambition provided Layton with poor counsel, and he should have heeded the level-headed advice of critics and reviewers. Yet a poet who can claim to "have only one establishment in mind:/that run by Homer and Shakespeare" will, understandably, refuse to be a plain-style poacher-that is, lower his lyrical sights and live with diminished expectations. He is after bigger game:

In me, nature's divided things-

tree, mould on tree-

have their fruition;

I am their core. Let them swap,

bandy, like a flame swerve.

I am their mouth; as a mouth I serve.

("The Birth of Tragedy")

The upshot is that Layton stood self-begotten and sovereign in his own imagination. His competitiveness bristled with regards to not only his contemporaries (i.e., his notorious nap during a reading by Atwood) but his poetic forebears as well. What we face in Layton, maybe for the first time in Canadian letters, is the "strong poet" of whom Harold Bloom wrote in his book, Anxiety of Influence; that is, the unintimidated poet who reads his precursors with a judgment equal or superior to, bowing to none of them. "I've written lyrics that make Rilke look like a stammerer and Keats like a deaf-mute," he gushed while he was working on The Whole Bloody Bird. Or, more definitively: "no poet, no modern or contemporary poet that is, that I have studied has a vision of the modern world as I have and of man's place in it. Not Yeats, nor Pound, and certainly not Eliot."

Of course, this is braggadocio that only posterity can corroborate. What can be attested to is that while much of the poetry written in this country seems to experience, upon publication, immediate obsolescence-the brief frisson of its newness embering into banality-Layton's best poems still catch our attention. Take the 1956 poem, "The Fertile Muck", for example. Here the poem's rhythmic musculature, as if injected by some anti-aging serum, endlessly rejuvenates itself underneath its skin of words, keeping the utterance lapidary enough to forever seize a reader's eye and ear:

There are brightest apples on those trees

but until I, fabulist, have spoken

they do not know their significance

or what other legends are hung like garlands

on their black boughs twisting

like a rumour. The wind's noise is empty.

Nor are the winged insects better off

though they wear my crafty eyes

wherever they alight. Stay here, my love;

you will see how delicately they deposit

me on the leaves of elms

or fold me in the orient dust of summer.

And if in August joiners and bricklayers

are thick as flies around us

building expensive bungalows for those

who do not need them, unless they release

me roaring from their moth-proofed cupboards

their buyers will have no joy, no ease.

I could extend their rooms for them without cost

and give them crazy sundials

to tell the time with, but I have noticed

how my irregular footprint horrifies them

evenings and Sunday afternoons:

they spray for hours to erase its shadow.

How to dominate reality? Love is one way;

imagination another. Sit here

beside me, sweet; take my hard hand in yours.

We'll mark the butterflies disappearing

over the hedge

with tiny wristwatches on their wings:

our fingers touching the earth, like two Buddhas.

Nothing gathers dust faster than bad poetry. Even accomplished work-work with a lifetime of preparation behind it-spoils at an alarming rate. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call "The Fertile Muck" deathless, but our forty-year-old familiarity with the poem has not staled a single one of its syllables, and, frankly, I can't see how its lines, loose-limbed and athletic, will ever lose the oracular fluency of their inventiveness. Our affection for this fluency is heightened by, in Owen Barfield's words, a "sense of difficulties overcome-of an obstreperous medium having been masterfully subdued." Or, as Hugh Kenner put it, "Layton's art is always to sound artless."

Now, it's difficult to say exactly when the discipline disappeared from Layton's voice, but the signs of his poetry's arrested development and demise into automatism are obvious. As Layton's poetry became a poetry of exhortation-a public quarrel against the puritanical regimes of modern life-the writing fattened into bombast. There was a switch of philosophical allegiances: Layton seemed to want to purchase his artlessness through Whitmanesque loafing rather than through Dickinsonian labour. Layton's expressive resources suffered the most damage. Once able to enunciate everything with preternatural precision, Layton now slurred his words, his new accent chewy and hard to follow:

Living on a Greek island

and swimming each day

in the health-giving Aegean

and having all the sweet ass

a man his years can safely handle,

when the landlady's rooster wakes him

at dawn

his first thought is:

do people out there

still read those twilight rooks

Yeats and Eliot?

those two sexless frauds

Frost and Auden?

and the hens hopping like mad

before the spry rooster

cluck `yah-k' `yah-k' `yah-k'

the world is sicker

than I supposed is his next thought

and goes back to sleep

This 1974 poem is called "Poet on Cos" and is an example of the sort of barbaric yawp Layton increasingly overestimated as he began to trust rhetoric to do the work of the imagination. Layton decided to challenge what he called "the great age of fakes, conmen and demagogues, of hustlers and human malformations thirsting for blood" by way of indecent satire, irreverence, acerbic wit, and out-and-out hostility-but not necessarily by writing well. At their worst, the poems have what David Solway has called "a grainy, low-budget feel": you-get-the-idea poetry where the steep costs of verbal bravura are abandoned in favor of penny-pinching-albeit spirited-paraphrase. That a poetic mind capable of scenting a poem with an image as heady as "the orient dust of summer" could settle for something as completely odourless as "the health-giving Aegean" still bewilders me. But when we compare the perfect touch and timing of "Fertile Muck" to the loose and baggy monsters that Layton started to free with great frequency, what we're liable to grouse about is the very crudity and bluster that revolutionized poetry in this country-just as it claimed Layton's divine gift as a casualty. It wasn't with his lyric sophistication but with his primitive fervour that this young, Jewish Dedalus set forth to forge the uncreated conscience of Canadian poetry. "My fear," snarled Layton,

is that envy, mediocrity, ignorance of the poet's true function and nature, and the prevailing neurotic joylessness may combine to extinguish whatever sparks of talent or genius may from time to time appear among us. It is so easy in this country for the castrated, the solid, and the seemingly wise to abash the callow young poet. It takes an unusual pugnacity to keep insisting the emperor has no clothes on. In Canada we have no tradition of brawling, irreverent poets-no Villons and Rimbauds. Only that of a bunch of squares. We need wild-eyed poets to remind us constantly that the sober men of learning or business enterprise come and go, their voices silenced by death forever, but a lyric that despair or love gave birth to will last as long as there are humans left on this planet to read and respond... Above all, we need them to remind us that poets are neither scholars nor gentlemen, but creatures with an undiscriminating appetite for life, for whom "good taste" is something to wipe one's unstodgy behind with.

The drama of this battle provided ready-made adrenaline for everything Layton penned. Not just poems, but letters, reviews, prefaces-all of it was put on military alert, the rant-troops trained to fight the good verbose fight. Anyone who has read any of Layton's "cadenced vituperations" (his phrase) has also learned to recognize the Layton lexicon, a vocabulary which he used in various combustive combinations and with great invective success: words like passionate, soul, sterile, complacent, emasculate, sickness, impotence, cretin, eunuch, phony, shit, ecstasy, castrato, passionless, murder, rage, balls, primitive, fart, mediocrity, and, of course, philistine.

Layton's brand of polemic, though, is an acquired taste. Its scatological disposition, fearsome viciousness, and penchant for highly dramatic effects ("adolescent prejudice, smugness and sheer irrelevance" is how Susan Musgrave, in a review, dismissed his preface to The Pole-Vaulter) are far removed from anything in the Canadian tradition. Even today, many people have mixed feelings about Layton's fulminations; more than once I've had to own up to the guilty pleasure of relishing the deliciously bilious energy of his critical prose. True, at its most melodramatic, it sounds like drunken speechifying, but at its reactionary best, Layton's prose generates a surly brilliance of which William Hazlitt, seventeenth-century England's own bad boy, would have approved:

Where is the poet who can make clear for us Belsen? Vorkuta? Hiroshima? The utter wickedness of Nazism and National-Communism? There is no poet in the English-speaking world who gives me the feeling that into his lines have entered the misery and crucifixion of our age... Nowhere is the image of man portrayed that might have stiffened us for the cruelty, perversion, systematic lying, and monstrous hypo crisy of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia... Pound's mid-Western blat about Social Credit? Eliot's weary Anglicanism? Yeats's fairytale Byzantium? In these vicious, revolutionary times? Don't make me laugh. Frost's jaunty pastoralism? Auden's sensationalistic mishmash of psychoanalysis, Marxism, and Christianity? What a sour, boring joke!

One cannot love life as much as I do, its thrust and colour and gladness, without abominating the pompous fools, the frustrated busybodies, the money-lusting acquisitive dull clods and lobotomized ideologues who make it difficult for the high-spirited to live joyously.

It takes a good deal of humour and energy not to be sickened...by all the patronizing arrogant twaddle I've had to endure in over a quarter century of poetic composition from erudite dwarfs, eunuchs, and oracular donkeys who for all their huffing and puffing can no more create a lasting poem than I can give birth to a typewriter.

In a world where dried-up prunes and nerveless pipsqueaks have the gall to teach poetry to the young, I will continue to assert that poems have a lot more to do with a hand traveling up a woman's thigh than with all their carefully cultivated sterilities.

These sentiments display Layton in fine fighting trim, and are garbed in his usual dress of smart-ass vigour and flamboyancy. That last sentence is an especially entertaining example of the-how shall I put this?-genital intensity of his combativeness. Layton, who was aptly described in one headline as "The Lusty Laureate", and who was blessed with the rumor-rich reputation of "having all the sweet ass/a man his age can safely handle", had a profoundly libidinal imagination. I don't only mean the randiness that, even by today's standards, is still rather shocking-

what you want most from the fates these days

is a hard phallus between your burnt legs

to loosen you up

and let you feel warm and human again

-but the way he gives his images the blithe indecency of a sexual coinage. Take "Ithaca", for example, where Layton compares a poem on the verge of being finished with "the imperial moment just before/the relieving ambiguities of ejaculation". Or "For Alexander Trocchi, Novelist", where "the sky ejaculated stars". Or "Figs", where the fruits are seen as "the tight green testicles/of a youth". Or "The Breaststroke", where the sea's "virginal foam breaks into bridal cries". A certain rhythmic lasciviousness is bred into the bone of Layton's style, so that much of his writing can't help but sport a rakish saunter. To paraphrase Frank O'Hara, Layton tried to wear his pants tight enough so that every reader would want to "sleep" with him.

And for a while the seduction worked. It's not hard to guess, though, that a prolonged exposure to this rabble-rousing instinct and robust vulgarity would unsettle the jeweller's patience needed for the miniaturist complexities of crafting a poem. Yet when the lyric temperature finally dropped and a windiness began to move through the work, the changed climate didn't seem to bother Layton. One of his pet peeves was "melody outrunning matter". He had the populist disgust of poetry that strove for well-executed, rhetorical suavity, and, in fact, hoped his contemporaries would produce "more satirical verse, even doggerel, anything to break down and shatter once and for all the formalistic emptiness, the `good poem' which the newer criticism has foisted upon our mid-century." For example, "Poet at Cos" reread is a rude riposte to the "good poems" of Yeats, Eliot, Frost, and Auden, a delegation whose "fancy-shmancy poses" he tried to ridicule every opportunity he could. But Layton must have also realized that if the good poems established his literary reputation as a major poet, it was the bad poems-the megalomaniacal flavour of their truancy-that secured his public persona as a major poet. When Layton's fame finally "broke the sound barrier", as he put it, it was his raffish charisma, which the bad poems were stylistically-and unabashedly-riding, that did most of the work.

The good news is that, for a short time, Layton's fame served to offset his poetic shortcomings by tapping into the growing public perception of his preeminence. At the height of Layton-mania, no matter what he decided to do (travel to Greece, drink a glass of wine, fall in love), "his unquestioning belief in the supreme rightness of his role", to use a sentence lifted from Earl Birney's description of Dylan Thomas, "raised his action to the level of bardic ritual".

The bad news is that as Layton's self-estimation abused the aesthetic prerogative, it was only a matter of time before he regarded his poems not so much as individual, crafted events in language-"momentary stays," so to speak-but as fragments of himself to be subsumed into the larger, more confident stride of his calling. Poetry, poet, and personality became one synergetic whole. Milton, you may recall, believed that a worthy poem was inextricable from the worth of the poet: "that he would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought him selfe to bee a true Poem." One could argue that Layton similarly aimed to be "a true poem" and wrote from the conviction that the ardour with which he lived his life-his ongoing "benediction over every green and growing thing", as he phrased it-and his absolute trust in his vocation were enough to award each poem its currency, if not its immortality.

Unfortunately, they weren't. Nor were they enough to outface his critics and their patronizing tendency to treat him like Mr. Edwards from Layton's own short-story, "A Plausible Story"-that is, a man who "mistook...his futile explosions for the rampings of a lion". There's no question that Layton's indefatigable enthusiasm for his poems ("For the last month or so I've had a rejuvenated muse in me working overtime. And what poems! Masterpieces! Gems! Jewels!") led to unbelievable dross. Read enough of Layton and you come to realize that he simply didn't have the patience for vigilance. In fact, he seems to have believed that ideas like economy and control were reassurances that real poets could forego. It was exactly this arrogance-the confidence that his excesses enjoyed a kind of outlaw immunity to the various don'ts, can'ts and mustn'ts of poetry-that exposed him to critical drubbing. "Can we be made to care," asks one exasperated reviewer, "that Layton thinks the Governor General's Award Committee for 1971-72 should eat his shit, drink his piss, choke on both?" Yet what behooves us to give Layton's maverick tendencies a wide berth is that they are the one unreliable but unmistakable mark of genius. After all, it was a similar lawlessness that led to such outrages as Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner", Hopkins' "Pied Beauty", and Hughes' Crow, and that, for Layton, led to pay-offs like "A Tall Man Executes a Jig".

Is even one great poem not worth a lifetime of blunders? "Blunders" is, perhaps, an uncharitable term. To be fair, if we agree that Layton's later poetry is the living archaeological fossil of the Edenic speech found in his first books, then poems like "The Garden" and "Sunflowers" do recreate moments of its earlier unfallen freedom and felicity. And to be even fairer, Layton wasn't completely missing a sense of sober accountability; he simply asserted that his one and only duty was to write the poems he needed to write and allow history to select, calmly and judiciously, the perdurable. This strikes me as a wise decision, especially since, judging by the intoxicating nature of this "need" and his euphoric method of composition, Layton seems to have had little choice in the matter. "With most of us," opined Hayden Carruth, "the problem is to turn on the poetic value, with [Layton] the problem is to turn it off."

This is where the blissed-out quality of the best poems comes from and, maybe, why many are often rambling and unfocused: they were written the very moment that Layton is taken by what the medievals called the furor poetica, or what Lorca called "duende"-a state of inspirational ecstasy that "kindles the blood like an irritant". With this in mind, the question of Layton's greatness can probably best be assessed in the terms that Longinus offered in his treatise on the superiority of imperfect sublimity over perfect mediocrity:

Is Eratosthenes in his Erigone, which is an entirely flawless little poem, a greater poet than Archilochus, whose verse is often ill-arranged, but who has surges of a divine inspiration which it would be difficult to bring under the control of rules? Furthermore, would you choose as a lyrical poet to be Bacchylides rather than Pindar? And in tragedy Ion of Chios rather than Sophocles? Bacchylides and Ion are, it is true, faultless and elegant writers in the polished manner. But Pindar and Sophocles seem at times in their impetuous career to burn up everything in their path, although their fire is often unaccountably quenched and they lapse into a most miserable flatness. Yet would anyone in his senses put the whole series of Ion's works on the same footing as the single play of Oedipus?

The continuing dilemma of how a supposedly great poet like Layton could write such dismal poems misevaluates the nature of Layton's flawed but gloriously throated voice. The species of great poet that Layton belongs to-the poet whose genius can't be anticipated, controlled or legislated-means that his greatness is fostered, and simultaneously threatened, by the same unpremeditated power, the way that Pindar's and Sophocles' considerable fire was "often unaccountably quenched and they laps[ed] into a most miserable flatness." Layton's Dionysiac raptures tested limits that, when overcome, resulted in poems like "The Fertile Muck" and, when not, left behind "Poet at Cos". Yet the very provisionality of Layton's brilliance-its sleeping capacity to rear up into sublimity and its ability to sustain the evocation when it did hit that visionary note-petitions for our admiration. To put a slightly Canadian spin on Longinus's lingering question: is there anyone in his right mind who would take a "faultless and elegant" writer like Margaret Atwood, a writer whose "polished manner" prevents her from translating any unruly inspirational "surges" into the glisten and odour of language, and put her lifework on the same footing as "A Tall Man Executes a Jig", a poem where the felicitous contact of word with word releases-through a kind of aural fission-a flash of God?

Layton's habit of overtopping himself into hyperbole certainly didn't help his congenitally unpredictable talents. But whatever one thinks of Layton's cocksure faith in his own regality, his Rabelaisian eccentricities remind us that nicely behaved egos rarely have the "balls" to confront the unrealized and unrealizable possibilities of art. When one squints around in the low-wattage thinking our poets currently write by, one fact should never be forgotten: the belief in poetry as that larger thing-buoyed by what Layton called an "excited awareness of the beauty and terror of existence"-lit up our country briefly in the figure of Irving Layton. This country's poetry, and the axioms it silently rides on, have been irrevocably altered because of him; we know differently now. We've learned from him what poetry is: "it transports us out of our habitual selves and allows the angels to sweep new knowledge into the vacated space". And we've been shamed by his contempt at what we've permitted poetry to become: "whines, reportage or metaphysics in shredded prose". Most importantly, we've been taught, by Layton's own splendid example, that a poet dedicates his life-the whole joyous, intolerant, and lunging force of it-to fighting poetry's enemies. He is the irresistible force pitched against the immovable object that is the world's intransigence. 

Carmine Starnino has published a book of poems, The New World (Véhicule Press, 1997). A book of essays and reviews, A Lover's Quarrel, is due out from Porcupine's Quill in Spring 2000.


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