Sunday, January 08, 2006

Unequivocal by Toronto's Poet Laureate, Toronto Star, Jan 8 06

The unequivocal Irving Layton, 1912-2006
Jan. 8, 2006. 04:23 PM

Embraced by the media, shunned by the prudes of Can Lit, worshipped by lovers, reviled by feminists, loved by his students, Irving Layton was the only household name associated with Canadian poetry in the 1960s and '70s. Leonard Cohen (who had been his discovery) was a pop guru outside the discourse of Canadian letters. Al Purdy minded the fort of Canadian idiom, respected but low-keyed. Margaret Atwood was the priestess of the culturati. But Layton was the public figure who introduced the poet to the airwaves, available always to rant on national television about the self-defeating ways of the country he loved, eager to rail against the WASP witchery that nagged his meteoric presence from day one; above all, ready to stand up as the voice of the unequivocal to both poetasters and philistines alike.

The "unequivocal" was Irving's great gift to Canadiana; conviction threaded through his heart and mind and found spontaneity in a love of discourse, a love of play, compelled by the notion that silence could only breed misunderstanding and Canadian self-doubt. He was made for a country beginning to see itself, articulating itself, in need of those who were proud to be a breed of their own. Everyone was putting their dibs in for cultural identity — the west coasters with their landscape and disdain for the east; the Prairie writers forging mythologies from a pioneer archive; the east coasters with their commemorative folklore; Toronto in those days was more a clearing house for Canadian culture; Montreal was the darling archive of Jewish, Quebec romance where Irving had begun with John Sutherland, A.M. Klein, Louis Dudek — but none of these circles had dared the international, liaised with continental authors, published with American houses or been translated into several languages. Long before Canadian writing became a major export, Irving had made the Canadian presence felt in Europe and the U.S.

His poetry was anomalous. It had no roots in the measured registers of Canadian poetry. It disdained the topicality of landscape and the myths of wilderness and northness. The only thing homegrown about Irving's poetry was the Dionysian flavour of his passion, self-generated and unbeholden to the vagaries of time, place and generation.

And that's why people identified with it. People; not the markets of literature, not the classes of the educated, not the political pundits of identity, but people who wanted to know that a poet could remind them of the fervour that survives daily life. His subjects were love, sex, death, and more love... the defiance of time, the lust for life, and more love... contempt for the small-minded, contempt for tyranny, and more love.

He was a student of love, and if this love got packaged in the immoderate, in the unpolished — if his love exceeded the forms of verse or constraints of rhetoric — like Neruda, his generosity of spirit seduced the reader to the poetry in the man.

For it was the poetry of life we wanted from Irving, the clues about how to be larger than ourselves, a lesson we wanted as Canadians, in spite of our reservations.

He was larger than life, if garish in his presentations, as if to offset the fear of the indecorous that besieged Canadian expression at every turn in those days. He invited the Canadian establishment to throw caution to the winds on the off chance that exaggeration was the next best thing to courage in a time of cultural anemia.

So it was fitting that one night the powers-that-be in Toronto threw a surprise party for Irving at Casa Loma (as if you could surprise Irving with anything but a gesture of joy).

Sylvia Fraser came out of a birthday cake; Jack McClelland gave ovations for a man not unlike himself who had attempted to put colour into the drab protocol of Canadian publishing.

It was a night unlike Toronto in the '70s; the luminaries came out and feted Irving in a style that might be commonplace in the Toronto of today, but in those days it was a statement of joy in a town that didn't associate the arts with public joy. Irving took it in stride with his typical sense, contagious to all of us, that an appetite for life was the reward of aesthetic industry.

My memories pale; reality stings at the thought of Irving having languished in a nursing home in his last years, ravaged by the complexions of Alzheimer's, the occasional pilgrim piercing his reveries with thankfulness and recollection. It is only the epiphanies that survive our narratives, well past our own remembering and chronologies. His happy days at Niagara-on-the-Lake, his jousts in Italy with the first Italian publication of a Canadian poet, the rallying of so many to nominate him as the first Canadian worthy of a Nobel prize; all these trajectories are chiefly distilled into my picture of a man who mixed vanity with talent in such a way as to convince me that the celebration of the ego was the extent to which the heart's muscle could expand.

If he had heart, it was because he could love himself; if he could love himself it was because he had faith that a man's worth was about forgiving his own foolishness, to reach the extraordinary — a lesson still on the curriculum of national consciousness.

Irving is not vastly popular among the post-modern novices of current poetry. He is still controversial where his reach exceeded his grasp. His voice of bombast was cheek to cheek with his forgiveness for the human condition, and his statement was the poignancy of all things human — a library of passion still unrivalled in Canadian poetry.

He didn't believe in many realities and many versions of compassion and the many ways to live life safely as a politically correct animal.

He had one embracing heart and a voice to match it, and his generosity to younger writers is a legacy to be studied.

He was international before the global ever came around, and if young writers can assume they can speak globally without the agony of Canadian timidness, it is partly because of the flexed muscles of a historical angel called Irving Layton.

Pier Giorgio Di Cicco is Toronto's poet laureate.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Giorgio for your kind words
about Irving Layton. You remind me
of this poet who taught me creative
writing at York University in 1970.
As you point out he was the first
Canadian poet translated into Italian.
He did much to promote Canadian Literature and identity.

It is appropriate then that you,
Poet Laureat of Toronto, should make
us remember this poet from Montreal.
-- Joseph Pivato, Edmonton

2:01 PM  

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