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Remembering Layton
by Michael Harris, David Solway, Peter Van Toorn, Andy Wainwright, Jeffery Donaldson

Unfortunately, I watched Don Winkler's fine film biography of Irving Layton-A Red Carpet for the Sun-on TV last night until about 2 in the morning, after which I browsed through the bulk of Layton's Selected Poems until the sun came up. I say "unfortunately," as I'd intended at some point to write out what I'd wanted to say this morning about Layton as a teacher. I had the sense then, in the small hours, that I might well have managed a moving, fact-filled, brilliant piece of writing. Unfortunately, I fell asleep, and my cat chewed through most of the sheet of paper on which I'd scribbled a few preliminary notes. All that remains of the night is this fragment, which I now offer as the best homage I can muster, to the one man who set me on the road to writing poetry, to editing some 60-odd books of other people's poetry, and to teaching poetry to some 6000 students over 30 years in the classroom. In short, Irving Layton set me on the road to learning to live on such a miserly pension that to make ends meet I've had to start up a rare and used book business, specializing mostly in poetry and, lining the shelves of poetry, mostly Layton. Somewhere in there is a very mangled notion of "poetic justice".
Here is what the cat left of that sheet of paper:
Abraham Klein. Jewish, and with a full head of hair.
Irving Layton. Jewish. More and wilder hair than Ben-Gurion on Independence Day.
Leonard Cohen. Jewish - although with some other inclinations. A Greek moustache in youth. Less hair now, likely having to do with the years spent in the energy field of Mt. Baldy.
David Solway. Jewish, and improving. As he is my friend and paid for my dinner at the Molivos restaurant last night, I will not, at this time, address the matter of his hair. Later, perhaps, in private.
Seymour Mayne, Jewish or not, hairy or no, moved out of Montreal to Ottawa very early on, and thus did not count in the deliberations I wrestled with during my first class with Layton at Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University), in 1960-I'd prefer not to remember exactly. Whatever else happened that first hour, I realized that all the poets I admired then in Montreal had fulsomely adult portions of hair, and were Jewish. I couldn't have grown a beard to save my life. And I was about as WASP as they come. How then, against all odds and with such disadvantages, could I become a true Montreal poet?
Layton cured me in about three months: Blake, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Layton. Tennyson, Spenser, Wordsworth, Layton. Bishop, Lorca, Lowell, Emily Dickinson, Layton. And at the end of term, his one-line crit. on my first portfolio: "Put more hair on these." In three months he had read (beautifully, as if he had believed in them all equally) and dumped into my head hundreds of the best poems in the language. And then, with one phrase, taught me how to make my own. For which, dear Irving, a lifetime of thanks. And now, to complete my conversion: Is there a rabbi in the house?
Michael Harris

Stephen Spender wrote in a famous poem that he thought continually of those who were truly great. I do not think continually of those who were truly great, and I rarely think of Spender, but Irving was always a background presence even during the years when he was reduced to silence . . . Those of us who do not see ourselves as part of the contemporary Canadian establishment, nor, especially, as members in good standing of the Canadian literary consortium, will always revere him for showing us that the poetic impulse need not surrender to the national palsy and that greatness may still arise out of the swamp of national mediocrity.
This is one of the reasons that he appeared as something of a monster to many of our good citizens, both lay and professional, but we should remember that the word "monster" originally meant something out of the ordinary, something unprecedented, and, in its Latin etymology, monstrum, a portent, from monere, to warn. Irving was, indeed, a double portent, signifying both the ever-present danger of intellectual and moral desuetude, but at the same time the possibility of personal afflatus and poetic vitality, if only one had the confidence and the chutzpa to follow, so to speak, in one's own footsteps. His poetry constituted, in the main, a warning against pedantry, against timidity and diffidence, against the temptations of consensus in all its diverse embodiments, against what Milosz in one of his essays called ketman, the false stance adopted by a person "in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone." Irving struggled all his life against ketman, setting his teeth against a culture of literary and social thought predicated on the evasion of flamboyance (which is, of course, very different from theatricality), uniqueness, audacity and fortitude. And Irving was all of these: flamboyant, one of a kind, audacious and steadfast. Irving has taught us through his precepts not to be like others; he has taught us through his work not to follow the party line; and he has taught us through his practice not to be like him except insofar as we labour to be ourselves. He was, for all his flaws and human lapses, a great poet and an extraordinary individual. He showed us what is possible even in the most unprepossessing of circumstances. And for this reason he will survive those who have survived him.
In the immense profusion of his oeuvre, there were inevitably many poems that fell into the category of "filler" and many others that dealt with merely closet twitches and animadversions. Truth requires us to admit that much of his later production was vitiated by accelerated writing and perhaps a tendency to self-indulgence. But in the light of his essential achievement this is little more than a cavil. At the core of his work we find a significant number of world-class poems-more by a wide margin than in any of his Canadian predecessors, contemporaries and successors or than all of them put together-but also poems that engaged with the major issues of his time. His poems addressed the subjects of war, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, the vulnerability and isolation of truly personal life, the callow and unjustified hatred of both America and Israel which has risen to a crescendo that even Irving may not have imagined, the prolonged and internecine campaign against the authentic civilizing imperative waged by those for whom civilization was nothing more, as he described it in "Signs and Portents", than "a pissoir with paintings by Rubens and Picasso on the walls," the advent of the terrorists whom, as far back as his 1971 collection Nail Polish, he had already flagged as "the bad poets of this century," and the pusillanimity of the Western intellectual tradition as it manifests in the current historical moment.
Irving would never have held with that strident and ubiquitous band of postmodern avatars who throng the universities and the media today. For Irving, truth was not one more undecidable amidst a plurality of equally valid affirmations; truth was not a matter of words alone with no ultimate purchase on reality, an expression of the current political power structure or the prevalent notion of common sense, or merely a function of epistemological relativism. On the contrary, truth was ascertainable, or at least certain truths were, lit by the fires of Auschwitz, cherished in "the slave camps or Kolymna mines" ("For Andrei Amalrik"), kept alive in the lucidity of embattled minds, smouldering like fuses threading the foundations of ruthless dictatorships, assailed by those "cowards who kill for a cause" ("The Terrorist") no less than by those who today would "problematize" the very concept of truth itself. Irving would have endorsed the Periclean maxim at the heart of the great Funeral Oration, that "the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy's onslaught." Indeed, Irving was appalled not only by the savagery of oppressive regimes but by the creeping infantilism which pervades our "developed" societies shying collectively away from the quest for truth and the honourable moral posture it sustains. And it was the obligation of the poet to speak the truth clearly and imperishably and without vacillation, in words "as private as a sigh, though the whole world hear it" ("What I Told the Ghost of Harold Laski"). It is in such private ruminations meant to be overheard that we have received Irving's legacy.
In these poems we sense the subject pressing hard at the language and the language pressing back against the subject, inviting us, compelling us, to take account of the real, objective, intractable world beyond the vehicle of the poem. Irving had long ago mastered the technical aspects of his craft-he could, to cite from another piece, "draw the rose leaf perfectly"-but he knew that technique, indispensible as it might be, was only a means to a larger end. The poem, he understood, should strive to make a difference in the world; otherwise it was nothing more than a mere belletristic plaything. He knew that a poem must not only glitter in its artifactual construction; it should also glow in the darkness of the wilderness we inhabit. A poem conveyed a message to other people-people who were not necessarily poets-but the message could not be compromised by sentimentality, false decorum, ideological posturing or propaganda. Of course, Irving could bluster with the best of them, but his muscularity was generally flexed for the right purposes. A good poem, he knew, if it is to command our attention and justify its existence, interrogates the zeitgeist. It is this, finally, which sets him apart from the majority of his congeners, both in this country as well as beyond its borders. It is this which has made Irving Layton a man for our times by being a man against our times, independent of mind, voluble, always challenging, and unafraid to take his stand and to assert his vision in his poetry, his teaching, and his abrasive yet warm-hearted presence among us. He wrote in "The Unwavering Eye" about Nietzsche, "hero and martyr," who died "innocent, a gentle lunatic." I did not share Irving's passion for Nietzsche, but I cannot forget the moving conclusion of this poem:

Now I cannot look
at a solitary sunlit stone
and not think of Nietzsche's unwavering eye.

Imagining his solitary stone, it is Irving's unwavering eye I think of now.
David Solway

I stayed with Irving and Aviva in their home in Toronto once. At the end of my stay, as I was leaving, Irving said to me, "Peter, you're the most gentlemanly poet I've ever met. You borrowed money and paid it back, you didn't try and sleep with my wife, and you didn't try and use my influence to get published." I knew right there I'd failed the poetry test. Another time, I was walking at night (it was very dark and cold out) on Van Horne near Cote de Neiges, and I was approached by a young man and asked to be a tenth man at a minion nearby. Once inside the place of worship, I felt uneasy about my legitimacy there. However I need not have worried, because in my pocket I had Irving's book, For my brother Jesus. In it Irving had written, "In this century, everyone's a Yid." This incident proved to me that Shelley was right to insist that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
Peter Van Toorn
I met Irving in 1968 in Montreal. He invited me to stay with him to discuss a book I was editing and for which I wanted a contribution from him. He didn't give me anything, but it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that lasted 37 years. He called me an "elegiac WASP" and I called him "zeyda". We spent many good times together in Greece during the 1970s, on the island of Lesbos, in the village of Molibos, talking about poetry, books, films, anything cultural and political. A group of us would go down to the beach to sit and talk, to read, and occasionally to swim. There was an old abandoned olive oil factory about a hundred metres down the beach from where we sat, with a dilapidated wharf sticking out into the sea. We would swim down to the wharf and back as a measure of our swimming prowess. Irving did the breast stroke and swam very slowly. It was like watching leaves turn colour. You knew it happened but you didn't see it. You would read a chapter of War and Peace and look up to see he had advanced a few metres. Later in the afternoon, after finishing War and Peace you would look up again to see Irving making his way back through the water from the wharf. Eventually he would emerge from the sea, the water dripping from his shoulders like a cuirass, walk across the sand, and say to us, "Ah, there's nothing like a quick dip."
Andy Wainwright

Reflections on Layton
Among the Montrealers, Layton has been, and will probably continue to be, the abiding Promethean spirit, the man-god who was willing to transgress restrictive laws and conventions in the service of fulfilling a deeper human potential, where he himself was the prophet, if not the confident incarnation, of that potential. Layton wrote in one of his letters, "I am not really Canadian," and he was probably right. If Canadian poets can be said to share a tonal register, it would have to be in our shying away from the explicitly prophetic. Though we certainly sidle up with Layton on the revolutionary potential of a transgressive irony, our penchant for satire and the deflation of oppressive conventions, when it comes actually to donning the crown of thorns and taking the world on our shoulders ("Arrogantly I cursed the fig tree / the scribes and pharisees, / my eyes flashing with fierce certitude / my voice made confident by rage"), we get conspicuously weak-kneed.
Layton's advantage in playing the prophet's card was that he was strong on bravado and light on self-consciousness or fence-sitting ambivalence. He was willing to push at the limits of excess and bathos, sometimes with mixed results, and accept the attendant risks. At his best, Layton embodied the energy of Dylan Thomas's "force that through the green fuse drives the flower": "A cold-eyed skinflint it now was, and not / The manifest of that joyful wisdom, / The mirth and arrogant green flame of life; / Or earth's vivid tongue that flicked in praise of earth." It is, as Layton laments in the second line, the absence of Nietzsche's Fr÷hliche Wissenschaft, that compromises our time, and the absence of those who are willing to say as much that makes our poetry less than it could be. I say that Layton lacked self-consciousness, but he could in his own terms be very playful in his sense of how we might summon the _bermensch among us. His satirical "Paging Mr. Superman" appears to suggest, for instance, that in a world where the super hero is not likely to answer our calls for him, it is those with the courage at least to "page" him that will preserve in the prophet's role a nonchalant, workaday dignity.
If there is a side to Layton where I think the sense of prophetic calling costs him more than the verve is worth, it is in his own stated ideological commitments. His poems on the holocaust and on the Jewish condition after the war show Layton, as Sam Solecki puts it, "in fine form as a writer of jeremiads and satires." Yet they also often test the limit of the poet's right to political bias, exhortation and incitement to action. "After Auschwitz": "My son, / don't be a waffling poet; / let each word you write / be direct and honest / like the crack of a gun," "Despite memorial plaques / of horror and contrition / repentance, my son, / is short-lived // An automatic rifle / endures / a lifetime." "Recipe for a long and happy life": "Give all your nights / to the study of the Talmud // By day practise / shooting from the hip." Certainly Layton could be more nuanced than here in his cries for change and revolution, but I think the great poets of ideological oppression in the 20th century-Mandelstam, for instance, or more recently the Polish Nobel laureate Wyslawa Szymborska-have shown that one can write from inside a politics, culture, ideology without espousing ideological conclusions. Our job at the critical point, they seem to suggest, is to resist ideological forces in all its expressions. Wisdom's secret, Northrop Frye has said, is detachment, not withdrawal. I sometimes wonder whether Layton's considerable and effervescent erotics, in its celebration of the Lawrentian creative juices that drive through us, also tip the balance too far in the direction of compulsion and exploitation, especially where the poems read like Don Giovanni's long lists of the conquered.
For me Layton's most successful poems have to do with the slaughter of innocence, as in some of his Holocaust poems, but especially in his animal fables of destruction, "The Bull Calf", the dead frog in his nuanced "Cain", the murdered fox in the subtle and moving "Predator". It is in these latter poems that I see Layton standing at the divide of his own sympathies and drives. In "The Bull Calf", the poet can admire the animal's pride, "the promise of sovereignty in the way / his head moved to take us in." We ourselves are moved to identify with the innocent cockiness of such willful, unassuming creatures. They perhaps go to the heart of Layton's own self-image. At the same time, in each instance there is a certain relish in their destruction, in the necessary and unsentimental breaking of their naive pretensions; the moments of their death appear almost as a refreshing verbal surprise in each poem: "Struck, / the bull calf drew in his thin forelegs"; "the silent ball hit the frog's back an inch / Below the head. He jumped at the surprise / of it"; "Stung, / the white mouse reared up." When at the end of "The Bull Calf", the poet turns away to weep, is it the loss of innocence that he laments, or are the tears the expression of a guilty grieving, an anxious confession of the poet's own destructive powers, who can lay low a prideful boast with a single word? When I think of the creative tension in Irving Layton's poetry, I think of the bull calf lying dead on its side, or what Layton saw as a too-prideful and naive Canadian poetry laid equally low, with the mallet-swinging poet, half surprised that he only had to thunk it once, wondering if he has done the right thing after all.
Jeffery Donaldson

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