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On Selecting Irving Layton’s Seductive Invective; or, an Addendum to Trehearne

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 2, June 2012
pp. 103-135 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0023

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I

Born israel pinku lazarovitch in Targu Neamt, Romania, then raised in Montreal, Quebec, in an immigrant Jewish household amid a Catholic-inflected, European neighbourhood (with First Nations peoples on the margins), the Anglicized Irving Layton (1912–2006) recalled a childhood of fisticuffs versus “hostile” Gentiles1 as well as his precocious lusts for a presumably Jewish teacher (“Miss Benjamin”2) and the assorted shiksas—or damsels—of his locale.3 He learned early that life is “a Dionysian cock-and-cunt affair” (cp np) and “also battle” (cp np).4 These 1971 statements serve to underline the received wisdom that Layton iterates the teachings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) about Dionysian creative chaos versus Apollonian majesty and order, and it is practical to begin to arrange—or arraign—Layton’s works just so. Yet, as scholar Brian Trehearne posits in his introduction to Layton’s Fornalutx (1992), the result is that “Nietzschean Layton”—“the Layton of the universities”—is rendered a “philosophical poet whose anger is containable and referable to an established intellectual and poetic tradition” (xviii). In a sense, Apollonian sunlight dims the lustre of Dionysian fire.5 So, Trehearne frets that, circa 1992, the rude Layton, unsuited for bourgeois approbation and assimilation, a poet “far more various and less decorous than the anthologies persuade us—has been disappearing from critical view of late” (xviii). To remedy this perceived freezing out of the volcanic Layton from the frigid, Canadian canon, Trehearne serves readers lyrics that are “passionate, uncontainable, and discomfiting” (xix). Perhaps Fornalutx achieves this recherché aggression. However, much depends on its audience, as well as on the editor’s acumen in making the most appealingly appalling selection. This truth puts us face-to-knife with a strategic problem in Layton: How do we select from his mass—even morass—of materials those lyrics nasty and dirty, or disgusting and lecherous, or vile and venereal, enough to break the polite, academic frame encasing Layton? Trehearne’s answer is to showcase Layton’s “war of expansive metaphor against materialist literalism” (xxxi). There’s something to that. It does appear that his sheer volume of publication as well as his full-volume style figure Layton’s attempt to blunderbuss mortality, critics, anti-Semites, blue-pencil prudes, and even those bluestocking ladies resistant to his pugnacious tenderness. Strikingly, by the time The Collected Poems of Irving Layton appeared in 1971, Layton had already published, since 1945, about twenty-five books, including Selected Poems (1967), Collected Poems (1965), a set of poems and stories (1961), a tri-authored poetry volume (1952), and two edited anthologies of Canadian poetry (1952 and 1962). In sum, Layton released, on average, a book a year between 1945 and 1971. Such fertility can easily be more fecal than fecund, and when one needs a forklift to move the work, one is less likely to apply to it a judicious scalpel. To arrive at his own gleaning of Layton’s most robust poems, Trehearne could have canvassed more than two-score Layton titles. That he chose 150 poems from some thousand-plus publicly available spells out Trehearne’s passion for Layton and prudence in his pickings.6 Given that Fornalutx has now been in print for a generation, the back-cover hope that “These are the poems for which Layton will be remembered” cannot be counted as forlorn. Still, Trehearne’s endorsement of the two-time Nobel Prize in Literature nominee as having produced “a great body of poetry” (xxxvi) is significant in not having been worded, more correctly, one prays, as a body of great poetry.7 Now I come to the point of this essay: we cannot hope to know the extent of Layton’s greatness, if the noun is deserved, until we have learned to read him sans censorship. We need to accept, as Trehearne’s weighing suggests, that much of Layton’s most urgent poetry is caustic and obscene, pungent and noxious. Yet, Trehearne reads Layton as voicing “an instinctual readiness for joy and its persistent confounding by the sour earth on which he finds himself” (xv) or as demonstrating “the endless preparedness for joy and its regeneration that he will...


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