Reviewed by Andrea Gyenge
The Shattered Plinths. McClelland and Stewart, 1968.
On the back of McClelland and Stewart’s 1968 publication of Irving Layton’s The Shattered Plinths, the description announces that “there is hardly one [of the poems] that is not committed, not immediate in impact, not as up-to-date as the headlines of today’s newspapers.” Yet in 2012, McClelland and Stewart’s celebration of this collection for its razor-like diagnosis of Layton’s contemporary age may serve to bury him under a series of damning judgments: out-of-date, archaic and stale. If he rejected W.H. Auden and Ezra Pound for their failure to speak to the “political fact”(15) that Layton insisted saturated daily life, the question now turns to Layton’s poems themselves, forty-three years later. But across the breadth of these sixty poems, Layton is still our prosecutor and criminal, apologist and condemner.
From the Suez Canal to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the hypocrisy of post-war Europe to guerilla warfare and civil rights, the concerns of Layton’s poems are wide-ranging. But the collection is as much about the “shattered plinth” of the poetic tradition as it is about the political failures of Western civilization. Indeed, these two topics are linked as the contemporary writer faces two realities: one in which the poet, with his tradition of Western literature and his belief in beauty, has perished because of the destruction Layton witnessed in his lifetime (Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Soviet gulags), and one in which the poet, unlike those who came before him, acquires a critical importance as he documents “the grim, unpalatable truths about ourselves” (15). The poet is many things at once: dispensable yet crucial, nostalgic, helpless, and a chronicler. In spite of this complexity, it seems accurate to hypothesize that, however paradoxically, Layton generally hated poets. “To a Generation of Poets” skewers unnamed writers: “truthfulness compels me to say / I find jars / of pickled foetuses / more interesting in every way / than the self-lacerated hearts / you display in your verses” (67). If Homer had an allotted position in Ancient Greece and Pound and Frost held court in the modern age, the poet of Layton’s world has lost his right to that place. In “Love Poem with an Odd Twist,” the poet’s attention to love relates to his political failure. He is doomed to remain “merely a poet” (23):
that for as long
as I love you
I shall stay
merely a poet,
a babbler & word-spinner
[…] my self-revulsion
twisted into dagger. (23)
Likewise, in “Modern Greek Poet,” the poet suffers from a lack of credibility until he can prove that he has participated in the tragedies of his time: “I wasn’t the least bit eager / to see any of his poems / until he told me / how in the late civil war / he had single-handedly / killed twelve guerillas: / the fallen apostles he called them / Then I begged him / to show me / everything he had written” (20). The fact that Layton dedicated the collection to Lyndon B. Johnson—the American president ushered in after John F. Kennedy’s death—speaks to the disappearance of the modern poet in the face of the brute reality of the political. But without an assigned place, poetry is moved from the prison of lyricism and social irrelevance to a greater responsibility. Poetry, Layton seems to say, is now only poetry if it can match the devastating fragility of human life that marked the “anguished awareness” (13) of post-war horror.
Poetry must say everything and say it, Layton does. Even within our own political milieu, the poems are still scandalous. From the poem in which he tells his sons to be “gunners in the Israeli Air Force” (51) to “On a Negro Rioter in Buffalo,” in which the narrator chastises the rioter: “you behave / like a mad dog in a manger” (64), Layton’s masculinist writing bruises easily. But for every line that rankles, Layton writes an antidote. For example, “Brief Dialogue Between Negro Father and Son”: "What dat in yoh hand, son? / A switchblade. / What yuh want dat foh, son? / To carve myself some human dignity” (54) and in “Arabs”: “The 20th century / ticks in all the ominous corners / of your unswept courtyards: / “you are not contemporary, go away” / and in your defeat / I see my own” (68). Indeed, the poet that Layton sought to become, whose labour of poetry could no longer peddle in innocent rhymes, aesthetic freedom or literary illusions, is a poet that resounds with an urgency not lessened. Suffice it to say, our world, as carved out by economic collapse, political failure and collective despair as his, still needs Irving Layton: deadly and ruthless but still, in the words of his enemy, W. H. Auden, an affirming flame.
At press time: Andrea Gyenge is a SSHRC-supported doctoral student in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota where she studies continental philosophy, critical theory and literary modernism(s). Her dissertation will be on concepts of text and image in semiotics, psychoanalysis and French philosophy. She has a BA in Cultural Studies from Trent University and is at work on a manuscript of ekphrastic poems on experimental cinema. Her favourite Canadian poet is Al Purdy.
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