Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Powerful Expression (and Layton poems), Jan 10 06

posted Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Irving Layton (1912-2006)

Irving Layton was a towering figure in twentieth century Canadian literature. He was born into a Jewish family in Rumania in 1912, shortly before they immigrated to Canada the following year. He was a prolific writer, publishing over 40 books during half a century of writing. Layton was best known for his poetry, much of which was written in a loose, confessional mode. In the mid-century he helped lead the rebellion against a stuffy, genteel Canadian poetic tradition which aped British verse.

Irving Layton never exactly went out of his way to cultivate a British readership, remarking in his poem ‘The Baroness’ - in a characteristically confrontational manner - “Take it from me, English poetry when it isn’t the death wish / is voyeurism and cuntsniffing / but done with so much aplomb you take it / for spirituality or a concern with art and the good life”. Discuss. One hour. (Well, as a point of view it certainly makes a refreshing change from the tepid stuff you read in the Guardian Saturday book section.)

My memory of Layton is of a big man, tanned, who was wearing a cool safari outfit with epaulettes on the shoulder. I’m shocked to realise how old he was: when I met him he seemed so much younger than he really was. Layton was an energetic larger-than-life character with a very combative personality - though to a young fan like me he was extremely genial and not at all abrasive. Somewhere I have a record of our conversation; if I ever find it I’ll post it.

Once a fiery young socialist who was banned from entering the USA for 15 years, Layton became an outspoken right-winger in later years. He liked to provoke. Lines like “not being handicapped in the least by vision or creativity, women are by far the stronger sex” were not designed to endear him to a female readership. But the laconic tongue-in-cheek bellicosity sometimes, alas, shaded over into sheer nastiness. At his best, Layton joyously celebrated sex, love, travel, life, people; at his worst, he gave way to a sour malice, occasionally expressed in intemperate and unpleasant language. His great friend Leonard Cohen once aptly compared him to Timon of Athens.

Yet sometimes Layton’s ferocity and anger hit the spot. At a time when Maoism was flavour of the month among some gullible European intellectuals, Layton came up with this withering, and to my mind very effective expression of his contempt:

To Maoists

From my heart I rooted out Jehovah;
I spurned Moses and his Tables of Law
And tore up my father’s phylacteries.
I did not turn from dragons to live with fleas.

Layton was acutely aware of his identity as a Jew and one of my favourite poems of his is ‘The Final Solution’, about a visit to Germany in the 1970s. It powerfully expresses his appalled horror at the normality of modern German life. After the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust, life goes on. The ordinary supplants the tragic monstrosity of the past. The speaker feels himself surrounded by the ghosts of dead Jews and contrasts the lost vitality of Europe before the Third Reich with bland, banal colourless modern Germany. This is the poem I prefer to remember Layton by: there is sourness here but also sadness. His characteristic sense of disgust and anger is muted and shaped into a fine, wistful poem. In the last line there is, I think, a humane acceptance of the inevitability of this social condition, no matter how revolting its context.

The Final Solution

It’s all been cleared away, not a trace:
laughter keeps the ghosts in the cold ovens
and who can hear the whimpering of small children
or of beaten men and women, the hovering echoes,
when the nickelodeons play all day the latest Berliner
love ballads, not too loudly, just right?
Taste the blood in the perfect Rhenish wine
or smell the odour of fear when such lovely
well-scented frauleins are fiddling with the knobs
and smiling at the open-faced soldier in the corner?

History was having one if its fits – so what?
What does one do with a mad dog? One shoots it
finally and returns armless and bemedalled
to wife and children or goes to a Chaplin film
where in the accomodating dark the girlfriend
unzips your fly to warm her hands on your scrotum.
Heroes and villains, goodies and baddies, what
will you have to drink with the goulash? In art museums
together they’re shown the mad beast wagging its tail
at a double-hooked nose that dissolves into ash

And appraised by gentlemen with clean fingernails
who admire a well-executed composition or pointed to
in hushed tones so that nothing of the novel frisson
be lost. Europe blew out its brains
for that frisson: gone forever are the poets and actors
the audacious comics that made Vienna and Warsaw
hold their sides with laughter. Gone, gone forever.
They will never return, these wild extravagant souls:
mediocrity stopped up their witty mouths,
envy salted the ground with their own sweet blood

Sealed up their light in the lightless halls of death.
Alas, the world cannot endure too much poetry:
a single cracked syllable – with a cognac – suffices.
I have seen the children of reingemacht Europe, their
queer incurious dead eyes and handsome blank faces,
leather straps and long matted hair their sole madness.
They have no need of wit or extravagance, they have
their knapsacks, their colourful all-purpose knapsacks.
The nickelodeon grinds on like fate, six fatties play cards:
the day is too ordinary for ghosts or griefs


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