The Love Poems: with Reverence and Delight

by Irving Layton
132 pages,
ISBN: 0889622469

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From Layton with Love
by Chris Jennings

It happens often enough that there must be some thrill in pronouncing the death of abstract things, of gods, or "the author", or irony. These pronouncements render moving targets static, making it easier to define them when delivering a eulogy; they revel in morbid eloquence rather than identifying signs of necrosis. Eliot's attitude toward burial, though, seems more hopeful about such things: "'That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?'" Gods, authors, irony, can survive underground for a time until the climate changes. That said, the love poem¨afflicted with virulent conventions, susceptible to melodrama, its emotional and technical resources exhausted¨seems ripe for pronouncement. It's a sign of the love poem's failing health that even Irving Layton's Love Poems suffers the malaise.
Irving Layton Layton seems intent on defining his legacy as a poet of love. He has been preparing his claim for years. Layton first published a selection of Love Poems in 1980, and this Mosaic edition first appeared in 1984. McClelland & Stewart produced a similar selection called Dance with Desire in 1986, and in 1992, Porcupine's Quill brought out an expanded edition of the same title. Earlier, Layton had edited an anthology of Canadian love poems for M&S called Love Where the Nights Are Long (1962). Twenty years later, when Exile Editions published a similar collection called Lords of Winter and of Love (1983), it included only three Layton poems, down from the five in Layton's own anthology with only one repetition, the absurd, marvelous, "The Day Aviva Came to Paris". Layton answered with four printings of two selections of his love poems in the twenty years following.
While there are poems in Love Poems that would be incendiary in entirely the wrong way if given to a beloved (gleeful poems of infidelity, for example), Layton's love poems, for all his skill, cannot escape the typical generic failings. Heather Reisman's recent decision to recommend them for a Valentine's Day promotion aside, this is not a new sentiment. Reviewing The Black Huntsman in 1952, Northrop Frye cited a "lack of spontaneity in the imagery ... betrayed by repetition," namely that "[o]ne can get as tired of buttocks in Mr. Layton as of buttercups in the Canadian Poetry Magazine." In his review of A Red Carpet for the Sun in the first issue of Canadian Literature (1959), Roy Fuller "found tedious" Layton's "Lawrentian praise of the body and celebration of his virility." More specifically, encountering the phrase "your rippling breasts", Fuller writes that "we cannot help feeling that the sentiment is as tired as the adjective." Kildare Dobbs called Layton's bawdiness "the bawdiness of a puritan standing on his head ... a rather forced, almost smug salaciousness that owes a good deal (as Mr. Layton generously acknowledges) to D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence, unfortunately, was a prig about sex." By Lovers and Lesser Men (1973), even bawdiness was a diminished virtue according to Edward Lacey, who remarked: "the changing mores of our era ...made [Layton] 'titillating' before they made him passT."
All of these reservations were made in the context of praise, all long before the first selection of Love Poems. And how odd is it that the substance of these reservations is precisely what Layton seems to have chosen as a focal point of his poetic legacy? To those who know him (I don't), perhaps it's not that odd. Like so many things generic, it's a question of conditioned approach. Consider the opening of Stan Dragland's generally censorious review of Lovers and Lesser Men: "Ever since I discovered that there's no dirty old man in 'To the Girls of My Graduating Class,' only a futile, desperately protective one, I've known to look behind the Layton mask, the ego." Go back further, to the end of James Reaney's 1958 review of Music on a Kazoo: "Layton takes the sex situation so wrapped up in serious pornography, science, Solomon, and D.H. Lawrence¨takes it and makes it into something that never was it, something mad and amusing." Both Reaney and Dragland suggest that there is something ontologically different between Layton's love poems and the usual clichTs, either sap-soaked or saccharine. A conventional love poem can mask a more complicated emotional core.
The difference lies in Layton's comprehension of his subject. In the foreward to Love Poems, he admits that many of these poems "with more propriety could be called hate poems, for surely love and hate are two sides of the coin we call sexual interest or desire." Interesting here that Layton chooses a (dead) metaphor that makes sexual desire a token of exchange, because in "What Canadians Don't Know About Love", the preface to Love Where the Nights Are Long, he opposes the "death wish" with "the love wish, the desire in each of us for superabundant power and immortality." This banal will to power takes us closer to the way Layton's best love poems work, poems whose subject is the way "Love's sweet torture transforms our grasping, unpleasant selves into temporary divinities and has us capering on the streets with the glory and arrogance of gods. ÓWe are transformed." Such a transformation might introduce a gap between the mask of ego and the face behind, revealing the hidden, unpleasantly vulnerable self. Layton wants to make his reader exclaim with understanding, amusement and sympathy: '[y]es, the writer of these verses knows what he's talking about. He has really been there, on those scarred slopes inhabited by La Belle Dame Sans Merci...Only someone who has been on those slopes can have reproduced so faithfully the glory and carnage of the love emotion.' A typical Layton lover, though, looks like a grotesque harlequin next to Keats' sickly loiterer.
"A Strange Turn" and "In Praise of Older Men" illustrate the way love serves as mask. In "A Strange Turn", an older man's presumably-younger lover scales down her sexual intensity because, he suspects, of his age:
A moment ago, in my embrace
She rode me like a Joan of Arc;
Then seeing my fifty-year-old face
Where Time's acids had burned deep their mark,
My head of hair coloured gray and rust,
And my old eyes wise with genial lust
She stiffened and held herself in check.

Like many poems filled with objectifying praise, this poem reveals more about the lover's preoccupations and fears than about the beloved. Here his fear is that her "[d]esire unspent had all but fled / [l]eaving behind its wraith, mere sentiment" because of his age: "Ah, if my flesh were but firm, not loose, / And I were young, how she'd ride and ride!" Wistful inadequacy replaces love as his disappointed, "genial lust" overlooks the tenderness of her actions. In the context of "the love-wish" as a desire for power and immortality, her sudden passivity signals not only encroaching mortality but that access to sexual passion as a temporary escape is also vanishing. There's a similar fear in "In Praise of Older Men", or maybe the same fear expressed further along a sequential path. There the lover's problem is relative youth when his "darling loves only old men, / grey-haired and decrepit":
Despite my sixty-odd years
my wrinkles are too few, my back's
not bent enough
my ways too rough and vigorous
to ravish my darling.
I must wait for the slow days
to pummel me into her fondness

Sexually, the situation is reversed, he is now too lively to access his beloved's passion, but the fear remains the same. The slow days will pummel him toward the decreptude she finds enticing and, should she leave him now, he will find himself again deprived.
Part of the poem's humour comes from its awareness of reversal, of the way it answers poems like "Misunderstanding" ű
I place
my hand
her thigh.

By the way
she moved
I could see
her devotion
to literature
was not
¨where an older man pursues younger sexual conquests. Such awareness gives an analytical dimension to both "A Strange Turn" and "In Praise of Older Men" that takes the lover, not love, as a subject. Love, or sexual desire, is the catalyst that draws out other strong emotions and basic motivations, but it is the result, not the cause, of such catalysis that is most interesting. Even in "The Day Aviva Came to Paris", love gives way to ridiculous joy:

It was again 1848,
They leaped as one mad colossal Frenchman from their cafT Pernods
Shouting, "Vive l'Australienne!
Vive Layton who brought her among us!
Let us erect monuments of black porphyry to them!
Let us bury them in the PanthTon!"

(Pas si vite, messieurs ; we are still alive)

In a Juvenalian poem like "Woman", who is "Vain, and not to trust", love and spite are intimate with (not justified by) vulnerability:
O not remembering
her derision of me,
I plunge like a corkscrew
into her softness,
her small wicked body
and there, beyond reproach,
I roar like a sick lion
Between her breasts.

It takes the second simile here to redeem the clichT or pun of the first, especially when followed by a euphemism as tired as "her softness." Lion alone would place the poem firmly in the realm of erotic ego, but a sick lion admits weakness or at least something less than power.
The clichTs are still there, though, and are often too successful in masking the analytical depths Layton was as adept at hiding as creating. They make it difficult to get past a poem's celebration of self to its engagement with love or beloved. In the Exile anthology, there's a poem by Robert Bringhurst that makes sense of this:

poems are as heartless as birdsong, as unmeant
as elm leaves, which if they love love only
the wide blue sky and the air and the idea
of elm leaves. Self-love is an ending, she said,
and not a beginning. Love means love
of the thing sung, not of the song or the
These poems, she said ...
You are, he said,
That is not love, she said rightly.
("These Poems, She Said")

This sums nicely the way Layton's Love Poems point to their genre's demise. ClichTs are a sure sign of a love poem more about the singer and the song than the thing sung. Self-love and the idea of elm leaves are thick on the ground in Love Poems, but cleansed of clichT and sentiment, the variety here shows how right Layton is to make love "the great theme"¨love of intimacy, of sexuality, of humanity and vulnerability as much as immortality and power, or of any part of the sensory, sensual world. Layton concludes his Foreward to Love Poems by affirming "that a universe containing this experience must have something grandly important going for it" and when he looks beyond the experience for grandeur he seems more faithful to this sense than he is in poems that dwell on how marvellous it must be to be Layton, and in love. ˛

Chris Jennings writes poems, reviews, and essays. He is completing a dissertation on Robert Browning, Richard Howard, and the dramatic monologue at the University of Toronto. Vacancies, a collection of poems, will be released in the spring.

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