Does anyone read the poetry of Irving Layton any more? Or has he faded from the PopCanLit consciousness like Robertson Davies did within a year or two of his death? Leonard Cohen is still filling the stadiums with his poetry, but will his words fall silent, ignored, when he shuffles off to the Tower of Song a final time? Layton was, in his time, big like his friend and student Cohen is now. If Leonard Cohen’s poetry lies dusty in the future, it will be as much a sad tragedy as is what I think is current neglect of Irving Layton’s brutally, beautifully flaying body of work.
I’ve just finished reading Layton’s 1965 Collected Poems, a big, manly, brutish, sensitive, bawdy, discomfiting, apocalyptic collection of 385 brilliant pieces of life. If you know Cohen’s work, reading Layton is like finding Cohen’s rough-edged but admired older brother. But the interest of Layton’s poetry is it’s own. Layton should be read, admired, loathed and savoured for his poetry, not just for his mentorship of Canada’s favourite old man poet rock star.
As Joel Deshay points out in “Celebrity and the Poetic Dialogue of Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen” Layton most often projects a persona of “Prophet” in contrast to Cohen’s “Saint”. Of course, Layton was an earthy prophet before Cohen came along, but Deshay is correct that the dialogue of the two poets concerning celebrity was a spur to poetic growth (perhaps more so for the younger Cohen) and I would argue it helped to cement the Prophet persona for Layton and perhaps the Saint for Cohen.
In any case, in Collected Poems Layton is in full-on Prophet mode, most explicitly (in two senses of the word) in “Whom I Write For”:
When reading me, I want you feel
as if I had ripped your skin off;
Or gouged out your eyes with my fingers . . .
I want you to feel as if I had slammed
your child’s head against a spike;
And cut off your member and stuck it in your
wife’s mouth to smoke like a cigar.
For I do not write to improve your soul . . .
I leave that to the fraternity of lying poets
–no prophets, but toadies and trained seals!
Layton’s side of the dialogue with Cohen is represented by a few pieces in Collected Poems, perhaps most noticeably with “Portrait of a Genius.” But Layton’s work is far wider than the his mentorship pieces. Most of the Collected Poems are deeply physical love poems, perhaps the finest being “The Day Aviva Came to Paris”. There are topical poems, such as “Free Djilas”, a blending of Cold War Yugoslavian unrest and skewering of the topical ignorance of Layton’s fellow Canadians. At times Layton almost becomes Wordsworthian, as in the word portrait “Ballad of the Old Spaniard” and in the chilling Wordsworthian reference to “my Lucy” in the very unWordsworthian “The Seduction”.
But almost always Layton is in prophetic mode of some sort, usually Dionysian, rarely Apollonian. It is this prophetic side — almost the whole of him — which I find most exciting about Layton’s poetry, whether an individual piece is successful or not. At times, as in the mentioned “Whom I Write For”, Layton rises to Apocalyptic heights similar to those Cohen found in “The Future”. But most often, Layton is a raging bull of maleness, charging or staggering through the staid world of mid-century urban Canada, Rome or Spain.
Six years before the publication of Collected Poems, Classicist Sir Maurice Bowra stood in London to give the Presidential Address to The English Association (an essay to which I have returned regularly in the thirty odd years since I stumbled on it in a second-hand bookstore). Titled “The Prophetic Element”, Bowra’s wide ranging essay — from Hesiod to Blake to contemporary poetry — is a fascinating lament that too few poets are prophets in our day:
Even in our time, when the need for prophetic poets is so amply justified, they are rare. Their special response to events is not what every poet feels, and despite their remarkable achievement, they are not very characteristic of the present age. They are sometimes derided for their majestic air, but without it they would be far less formidable and make a far feebler impact. They are also attacked because the issues which concern them are so much vaster than any personal predicament that they may seem to be remote from common experience. But we are all involved in the same troubles and have no right to shirk them. . . . In an age when the arts seem too often to have imprisoned themselves in their own technicalities and poetry finds it hard to leave the ground just because it is so occupied with its method and its manner, it is both a relief and a delight to find a class of poets who are indeed carried off their feet by their subject and find through its wide scope that freedom of utterance which is in danger of being forgotten in the intricacies of personal self-examination.
I think it safe to suggest that Bowra’s words still apply today. And I would argue that Irving Layton’s marvellous, earthy, graphic, vulgar, brilliant, beautiful and prophetic poetry, after half a century, has more relevance than ever.