Post Your Opinion
The Classroom Battle Between Ego and Genius
by John Oughton

Love Where the Nights Are Long, an anthology of Canadian love poetry, seized my imagination when I was a callow poet in high school. It convinced me that Canadians could write poetry that was seductive, playful, passionate-and accomplished. The editor, Irving Layton, had contributed an impassioned foreword decrying abstraction in poetry and praising Dionysian energy. I resolved to study with him.

My chance came in the fall of 1970. York University was then a hotbed of poet-professors: Eli Mandel, Miriam Waddington, Frank Davey, and the francophone poet-critic, Hedi Bouraoui, among them. And then there was Layton, generally regarded as the bad-boy star of Canadian poetry.

So I submitted a few poems, hoping to be accepted into his Poetry Workshop, and happily joined fourteen other successful candidates-one of them a glamorous high-school girl who was a protégé of Layton's, and somewhat of a prodigy already writing terrifyingly good stuff. Each week, we'd trek across the sterile, eternally-under-construction York landscape to an outlying college where Layton would expound on the craft and aesthetics of poetry, and we'd critique each other's work.

Although shorter than I expected from his leonine book-cover portraits, Layton was a charismatic presence. He'd lean back, a huge medallion suspended on his broad chest, and gesture powerfully, or stride around the room denouncing the sorry state of most poetry with his characteristic blend of perception and bombast. His passion was never in doubt. He was more of a lecturer than a facilitator in the classroom, but he did make the occasional effort to draw us out. Workshop gossip had it he'd put the make on one woman student, who had turned him down in outrage. When she workshopped a searing poem about a thinly-disguised "toad", he pushed us to comment on its imagery and force of language. An unpredictable, improvisational flavour kept the workshop alive.

Although hardly the most experimental of poets, Layton respected honest work that pushed boundaries. One of his dicta that stuck with me is: "Being a contemporary poet means that you can use any style or form, classical or modern, that damn well pleases you."

I've described the workshop in a poem dedicated to Layton as "the classroom battle between your ego and your genius." I recall the time he used "Laytonian" as an adjective without hesitation, much as one would say "Shakespearean". Once I waited in his office while he badgered his McClelland & Stewart editor over the telephone to add some just-unearthed early poems to a collection that was ready to go to press. I thought how hard it would be to say, "Irving, you don't have to print everything you write."

Layton's warmth, passion, and evident commitment to writing poetry as a way of life did inspire his students. In the little anthology he edited from our workshop output, I side up, he asked, "Are Poetry Workshops of any damn use? I think yes but it's possible I am prejudiced..." The number of works subsequently published by the 1970-71 alumni confirms his opinion. With his energetic, prophetic, and, yes, Laytonian intensity, Layton encouraged us to write well about what moved us most. 

John Oughton is the author of Counting Out the Millennium (Pecan Grove Press, 1997) and three other books of poetry. He lives in Toronto.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us