Seeing Irving Layton in action was poetry as performance art. The phycicality, the gesticulation, the booming delivery, the sublimation, the modulation. A spectacle vascillating between erotic vulgarity, a sort of testosterone based infantilism, yet enigmatically mixed with the redemptive promise of his Judaism and a secular passion for social justice. It was art. A man torn between nihilistic abandon, about going to the brink of the abyss, then somehow bringing it back to emotional life. A desire to annihilate the individual, particularly women, then stopping short, unable to pull the trigger, resulting in a caricature of women that resembled formal constructions that were flat and possessing only human presence in the most primitive sense.
Kenneth Sherman: In Layton’s poems we hear the impudence of Villon, the raunchiness of the Earl of Rochester, the melancholy of Byron, the scorn of Heine, the meditative stillness of Cavafy. He drew into his work the dark wisdom of Nietzsche, the desolate late modernism of Sartre and Camus. Despite these echoes, Layton’s voice is unique. His humanism, his roots in the Jewish experience, his commitment to the body’s truths enabled him to withstand the pessimism of our time, and to remain, in the face of horror, affirmative:
“Affirm life,” I said, “affirm.
The triumphant grass
that covers the worm
And the flesh, the
That burns on its
stick of bone.”
But Layton, somehow, like a Modigliani, or a Soutine in the arts, was able to brush up against what was instinctive and able to balance opposing instinctual forces resulting in an esthetic achievement in poetry that though twisted and distorted, avoided the lure and seduction of the abstract; that is, creating through the sum of destructions, though maintaining his contradictory attitude to woman. Like so many artists, there is a lost in the wilderness and unable to determine the difference between an impulsive profane eroticism and contemplative sacred love. For Layton, woman is either all exhibitionistic animal body opposed to an equally unrealistic extreme of complete soul and interiority; the doom and fatalism of submitting to one’s instincts- to have Judith cut off the head of Holofernes- or a kind of unrealistic goddess complete with the saving gracefulness of a serious mind. Poetic distortion and abstraction to defend against the desire for women, and somewhat futilely in Layton’s case as his womanizing implies. An endless pursuit of love and the sense of sinning and self-betrayal.
Sherman: …His continuing relevance, a century after his birth, stems from his assertion that modern poetry had failed to respond to the crisis of man in the 20th century. He criticized, as he put it, “The sweatless paganism of Wallace Stevens … Eliot’s weary Anglicanism. Yeats’s fairytale Byzantium … Frost’s jaunty pastoralism.” None of these poets, according to Layton, had dealt with “man, tortured, humiliated and crucified.” None had provided a portrait of man “that might have stiffened us for the cruelty, perversion, systematic lying and monstrous hypocrisy of the totalitarian regimes … or the no less damnable perversions and hypocrisies of the European bourgeois and imperialist.” According to Layton, we should give our attention to writers who had gone to the edge — he spoke of Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Genet and Beckett in this regard — for they had articulated our current dilemma. In spirit, Layton most resembles those Eastern European poets from the second half of the 20th century — Milosz, Herbert, Holub — authors who demanded more of poetry and chided poets for staying above the fray. Surely, no Canadian poet, before or since, has dealt more deeply with our contemporary discomfort or worked more fervently to place poetry at the centre of our culture so that it might act as a curative. “Poetry,” Layton wrote, “by giving dignity and utterance to our distress, enables us to hope, makes compassion reasonable.” Read More:http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/03/09/irving-layton-at-100/
For Layton poetic form was a way of lifting out and burnishing inner human qualities, instead of some intriguing, preachy, pure thing in itself like a T.S. Eliot. Austerity of form , to Layton it would appear given his expansiveness, a betrayal of the feeling of what constitutes human. So, we are left with much pathos and humanness, and not a failure of excess feeling, but sometimes attaining an equilibrium of feeling while integrating the extremes of its intensity:
a synthesis of traditional humanism and modernist formalism as innovation; pure poetic form can have human relevance. Modern poetry, poetry after Auschwitz that articulated archetypal feelings, explicitly showing, as only modernists could, that feelings are intrinsically connected in instinct even as they give the sensation of being conscious of oneself and this ode to consciousness and selfhood is spiritual. The bravery of a Layton was to discard the easy route of decorative unity to confront a disruptive sense of the tragic.
Why Layton writes about women is simply put in his forward to Love Poems: he is turned on by them. While other poets, like Wordsworth, for instance, are inspired by daffodils, Layton treasures “the sight of firm-titted women walking on Avenue Road or St. Catherine St..” He is quick to point out that, like Wordsworth who did not pluck every daffodil he celebrated, he (Layton) has not plucked every woman for which he has written the poems which “lay gratefully between the covers of the book.” He goes on to say that Miss Benjamin, “the fleshly incarnation of . . . desire” has been reincarnated in all women he has known since then. What he has left unsaid, but what is clear to a careful reader of his work, is that, for him, women and sex are synonymous. Layton acknowledges, too, that his love poems could just as easily be called hate poems “for surely love and hate are two sides of the coin we call sexual interest or desire”. He attributes his ability to capture the “glory and carnage of the love emotion” to his personal knowledge of the “agony and exaltation” of love. An examination of Layton’s poetry for the juxtaposition of images of violence and death with images of women and sex, moreover, exposes a thinking which goes beyond the romantic idea of the agony and ecstasy of love.
Layton insists that all words in the English language should be available to the writer, and asserts that there can indeed be beauty, power and majesty in vulgarity. In this regard Layton played a crucial role
transforming Canadian standards. But the language of Layton’s poetry does more than break the puritan embargo on writing about sexuality in sexually explicit terms; it degrades both women and human sexuality. Read More:http://www.lib.unb.ca/Texts/SCL/bin/get.cgi?directory=vol13_2/&filename=Lewis.htm