Trade Customers click here
← Back to Book Main Page



IN EARLY SUMMER, 1965, I WAS COASTING ALONG in a Nordair DC8, bound for Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island. It was about 4 a.m. and most of the other passengers were asleep, but I was peering from the window watching the small reflection of our aeroplane skimming over the blue water and floating ice of Frobisher Bay, several thousand feet down. Low hills on either side of us were patched with snow, like Jersey cows. The water was so blue that the colour looked phony; the sun had been up for about an hour.

Far beneath the noisy DC8, ice floes reeled away south. Black-and-white Arctic hills surrounded us. This was the first time I had been to the Arctic, and I was so excited that I could hardly sit still. In Cuba, England, France, and other countries I'd felt like a stranger; but here, I'd never left home. And I thought what an odd feeling it was in a region that most people think is desolate and alien. But I felt that the Arctic was just a northern extension of southern Canada. Baffin Island:

A club-shaped word
a land most unlike Cathay or Paradise
but a place the birds return to
a name I've remembered since childhood
in the first books I read -
('The Turning Point")

I have this same feeling of enjoyment, of being at home, all over Canada. Maybe part of the reason comes from an earlier feeling of being trapped forever in the town of Trenton, Ontario, when I was a child; then the tremendous sense of release when I escaped, riding the freight trains west during the Depression. Also, I take a double view of history, for then and now merge somewhat in my mind. Winnipeg is also Fort Garry and Seven Oaks. Adolphustown, not far from where I live in Prince Edward County, is the spot where the United Empire Loyalists landed nearly 200 years ago. The restored fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton makes me feel like a living ghost, especially when looking at the tombstone of Captain Israel Newton who died there, a member of the colonial army from New England. And driving along Toronto's Don Valley Parkway, I think of the old Indian trails that take the same route under black asphalt. In cities everywhere, grass tries to push aside the concrete barriers of sidewalks.

I think especially of people in connection with places. Working on a highway near Penticton, British Columbia, with a fellow wanderer named Jim, shovelling gravel atop boiling tar: a speeding car ignored warning signs and nearly killed us; the big road foreman blistered that driver's hide until his face turned dull red.

And walking through the Okanagan Valley with my friend, picking cherries from orchards for food, sleeping wherever we could: sometimes in vacant sheds, and once buried in the pungent shavings of a sawmill. Then going to work for two weeks on a mountain farm, for a man whose naine sounded like "Skimmerhorn." I got five dollars for those two weeks, cutting down trees with Jim and splitting them with wedges. At night, we listened to John McCormack sing 'The Far Away Bells Are Ringing" on a wind-up phonograph. Jim stayed behind to work for a stake, but I gave up and rode the freights west to Vancouver. I never saw him again.

One of my favourite Canadian places is the area around Hazelton and Woodcock on the big bend of the Skeena River in British Columbia. I was stationed at Woodcock in 1943, helping to build a landing field as part of the defences for an expected japanese invasion. Snow-covered mountains surrounded the barracks sheds, with the Skeena River racing down the green valley on its way to Prince Rupert. Sometimes there were eagles, circling overhead nearly as high as the sun. And on weekend passes, airmen from the base would hop freight trains to Hazelton or Smithers to drink beer and terrorize pleasurably the local female population.

In 1960 I went back to the big bend of the Skeena to do some writing about the Tsimshian Indians around Hazelton and Kispiox. I was driving a '48 Pontiac that coughed its way up and down. the mountain roads, threatening to expire at any minute. But I managed to reach Kispiox on the Indian reservation, with its carved house fronts and rotting totem poles. The place seemed entirely deserted, so I drove past the village and down to the Kispiox River. Standing in the shallows, wearing hip waders and baseball caps, were some twenty American fishermen with station wagons parked nearby.

There are other places stored on my mind's memory tapes. Places where I feel comfortable, at home: the battlefield at Batoche, in Saskatchewan, where I camped in a trailer; the highline tracks of the CPR near Field, BC, where I'd walked after a cop kicked me off a freight at Golden, then became a CPR labourer on a landslide blocking passage east for forty-eight hours, then rode in legal luxury to Calgary on a work train. And once there was a mile-long Arctic island, my home for three weeks of summer: I lay with my ear flat against the monstrous stone silence of the island, listening to the deep core of the world - silence unending and elemental, leaked from a billion-year period before and after the season of man.

I think back to all the places I've been, the people I've met and the things I've done. Having written and edited some twenty books, I hope to write a dozen more - to follow all the unknown roads I have not explored, until they branch off and become other roads in my mind . . .

There is a map in my head that I've carried there ever since I left school, and I connect it, oddly, with Leo Tolstoy. He wrote a short story called "How Much Land Does a Man Need," in which a man was given title, free and clear, to as much land as he could encircle on foot between sunup and sundown. The man was too greedy for land, tried to walk around too much of it, and died of exhaustion just before the sun went down.

But I have as much land as I need right now. There is a tireless runner in my blood that encircles the borderlands of Canada through the night hours, and sleeps when day arrives. Then my mind awakes and the race continues. West
with the long and lamentably undefended American border; north along the jagged British Columbia coast to the whale-coloured Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Islands; south in past Baffin and Newfoundland to the Maritimes and sea
lands of the Grand Banks. This is the map of myself, what I was and what I became. It is a cartography of feeling and sensibility: and I think the man who is not affected at all by this map of himself that is his country of origin, that man is emotionally crippled.

My own country seems to me not aggressive, nor in search of war or conquest of any kind. It is exploring the broken calm of its domestic affairs. Slowly it investigates its own somewhat backward technology, and sets up committees on how not to do what for whom. My country is trying to resolve the internal contradictions of the Indian and French-Canadian nations it contains. In rather bewildered and stupid fashion it stares myopically at the United States, unable to, assess the danger to the south - a danger that continually changes in economic character, and finally confronts us from within our own borders.

This is the map of my country, the cartography of myself.


Balls for a One-Armed Juggler

QUESTION: IS IT POSSIBLE TO SITUATE IRVING LAYTON anywhere in the general "tradition" of Canadian poetry?

ANSWER: I don't think so, in spite of the fact that he's here. There has never been anyone quite like Layton - for good or bad - in Canadian poetry. He's the sport and anomaly of tradition

Q: Layton bas been called an innovator and a meticulous craftsman. Is this true?

A: He is not an innovator - unless you consider that his subject matter and language are innovation. Which in a sense I do. But given the tradition of preaching Christ-like sensualists and moralists such as Nietzsche, Lawrence and Shaw - then Layton is a fine craftsman. And this is relevant in an odd way. It allows Layton to swing expertly and acrobatically around the fixed trapeze of his own and other men's certainties.

Q.: To what poets or group of present day writers has he most affinity?

A: Leaving out the dead men for whom Layton professes admiration, one has to point to the Americans whom Layton affects to despise, such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, etc. - the Beats. But Layton has a singing magnificence in his earlier work which I find absent from theirs.

Q: There is preoccupation with physical violence and cruelty in many Layton poems. What does this indicate?

A: That he is a moralist. The reader may generally draw a conclusion or point a moral with Layton's poems of animal death and human violence.

Q: How good is he?

A: The best in the country.

There is much to be said for the idea that Layton is his own mythology. He stalks through most of the poems in Balls for a One-Armed Juggler much larger than life-size, far more angry than it's possible to sustain in the living flesh and bone of the human mind. So that his poems are frozen anger, solidified passion--set rigidly into forms which do not allow this anger to dissipate away into sleep or lessen into human anti-climax.

Of course there are modulations and degrees of printed emotion. There are also rare flashes of the characteristic early lyricism, which now seems to be fading away in the poet's impassioned middle age. Label this excerpt pity:
for I loved you from the first
who know what they do not know,
seeing in your death a tragic portent
for all of us who crawl and die
under the wheeling disappearing stars;
("Elegy for Marilyn Monroe")

Humour in Layton is liable to be savage as an executioner laughing at his victims. The philosophic moments are hardly ever calm, but generally vital:
Yet vitality proves nothing except that
something is alive
So is a pole-cat; so is a water-rat
("On Rereading the Beats")

I don't think I've ever met a human being with such impressive qualities of being right all the time as Irving Layton. And in this regard man and poems are inseparable. In a sense that's admirable. I admire the passion and bluster and candour it gives to the poems. In another sense I don't like anybody to be so right all the time. For it is not a very human quality; it withdraws its possessor from participation in the storms and passions of the actual world, makes him a mere angry supreme court spectator. It turns a man into a megalomaniac god. I think some readers share this dislike of the absolute, and certainly the tendency of a few is to rebel against it.

However, that is ungrateful. God pities the dead little fox in "Predator." God explains "Why I Can't Sleep Nights" in the poem of that title. God condemns and castigates the sinful individual in "Epigram for Roy Daniells." And God has written parables for his worshippers - "Butterfly on Rock" and "A Tall Man Executes a Jig," (of which Irving said to me once, "AI, in ten years you'Il be able to understand this poem. In twenty you might be able to write one as good." I was moved to a great humbleness by this statement.)

But I'm not one of Layton's detractors. Balls is an excellent book of poems. It deserves to be read by all - especially those to whom Layton addresses the poems specifically. And I notice that even those who dislike Layton always read him - if only to rush indignantly to their typewriters. For perhaps I'm wrong about this god-idea, and the anger of some of Layton's critics is the only indication they are alive.

The Collected Poems of Irving Layton
THE COLLECTED POEMS OF IRVING LAYTON is a large blockbuster of a book. It takes in most of Layton's published work for the last twenty years, replaces the earlier Red Carpet for the Sun from the standpoint of quantity, and allows the reader to indulge in some wide generalizations.

For instance, some people believe that Layton has been slipping badly as a poet, perhaps ever since about 1960 when he was receiving greatest recognition. In fact I shared this belief myself and mentioned it to Milton Wilson. But Wilson said he saw no change one way or the other in Layton's work (this is only an approximate quote), and that very likely it was the poetry reader who had changed - not Layton.

Looking at the present Collected Poems I now think Milton Wilson was right. Since reading Layton for the first time I've changed, at least my own attitudes have; and other readers too have retreated somewhat from an earlier enthusiasm.

I find that curious. One might suppose that a work of art endures unchanged in one's own mind forever, or the personal equivalent of forever. Not so. And it does chill me a little to think that perhaps one day I may tire of Peter Breughel, W.B. Yeats, the French Impressionists etc.

The question is: why has my own attitude (as well as that of some other people) changed regarding Layton's poems? For he is in many obvious ways, the great trail-blazer in Canadian poetry. He antedated and outdid the blessedly unborn American Beats as long ago as 1950. He broke the sound barrier of taboo and prudery thru his use of words relating to the sexual act, at a time when many young poets now using his methods and perhaps believing themselves excessively daring were yet unborn. (In Vancouver during the early fifties the poems of this then unknown poet of Montreal affected me like a personal revelation, thru which I thought life had been stripped down to its basics of delight and honesty.)

The trouble is that Layton is still doing the same things today. He has not changed. And on closer inspection what looked daring then seems commonplace now. The sexual words turn out to be those found in textbooks, phallus, penis, and the like. And I have been inoculated to some degree against Layton by repeated and massive doses of Layton. Whereas the younger generation has not been so inoculated. He is fresh and new to them: which is erha it h Id be, for he is a poet of youth and the flesh, the quick and easy judgment, immediate praise or condemnation whatever the grounds for either.

Layton's critics select specific objectives at which to aim their criticism. For instance, Robin Skelton says he rants, brags and boasts tiresomely. This is true, and can be substantiated by quoting particu lar poems. Louis Dudek says, among other things, that Layton's awkward juxtapositions of words in order to make them conform to a metric scheme result in Layton being a species of literary troglodyte. Again, this is true, and could be demonstrated by means of quoting Layton's poems. But the verdict that follows such logic is not necessarily true, for it is as one-sided and unjust as the immediate magisterial verdicts Layton himself hands down in his poems.

For these knowledgeable critics have selected Layton's worst and most awkward poems in order to make their point effectively. Skelton and Dudek have been largely correct with their specific complaints. However, there is a great deal more to be said of Layton than these comparatively minor points, true as the particular criticism may be.

As I look at 350 odd pages of Collected Poems, beginning with verse published in Layton's first book (Here and Now, 1945), I find a most curious homogenized texture from first to last. The early themes - sex, Jewishness, love of life, bitter complaints about philistinism, and many others - are there now and still in the saine abundance. Of course the poet became a bit more technically expert in handling his themes, but the themes themselves are the saine. And for that matter, I don't see why they shouldn't be.

And during Layton's mid-period, say around the early 1950s, lie produced his finest poems, things like "The Birth of Tragedy," which he affects to dislike as academic thesis fodder, but which I am sure delight him in reality.

In attempting to explain this "homogeneity" previously mentioned I'm forced to settle for the word "tone." And I don't mean idiom. The best way I can explain what I mean by "tone" is to give a precariously related example. Suppose a man yells aloud every day for 20 years, and each time a scientific device registers his volume as, say, 467 decibels. The exact number doesn't matter, and besides I don't know how many decibels amount to a whisper. Anyhow, transfer this metaphor to Layton's poems, and say he's been giving vent to a stentorian yowl of exactly 467 decibels every day for the last 20 years.

I'd like to be as metaphorically exact as I can. Therefore - the 467 decibels (of course) comprise other things beside volume. Included also are cocksureness, conceit, delicacy, a modicum ofwisdom, and occasional magnificence. (This last being very rare in any poet.) And all thru those 20 years, the "tone," the decibels, yowl of stance and attitude have been largely the saine.

Take the following two lines: "Here private lust is public gain and shame;" 'When evil has become our normal climate." The first is from a poem in Here and Now, Layton's first book; the second is from "On the Assassination of President Kennedy." The "tone," the "decibels," the voltage, call it what you like, seem to me the saine.

Of course I'm doing here exactly the saine thing I say Skelton and Dudek are doing - selecting appropriate passages to prove my particular point. But I don't maintain there are not slight variations in the overall tone. "A Tall Man Executes a Jig" is certainly one of those variations. Here Layton lowers his tone and intensity about 200 decibels with corresponding benefit to the poem. But these poems are exceptions. And while it might seem that a poet ought to have an "unmistakable voice," as Layton does, the actual possession of one makes for monotony over 20 years.

Another thing that has always troubled me about Layton's poems, after the early euphoric sensation wore thin, is that I am seldom able to share his personal feeling and emotion, when attempting to relate my own feelings to the circumstance of the poem. (Of course I wasn't there.) Just once in a while, when Layton is joyously "lord of all the marquees" and "the traffic cop moving his lips/Like a poet composing/Whistles a discovery of sparrows." Such moments are the "happy time," that I think all members of the human race must share, at least once in a whiie. And for tribute to the man who puts it into words all I can say is: Wow!

But generally speaking, I admire the rhetoric from outside, as if watching a very good actor perform, tho not quite good enough. What Layton says is much too frequently a little off to one side of the way I think things actually are, not quite my truth, tho I suppose Layton's' truth.

As an example of this feeling of mine, take the last line in "The Bull Calf" - a much admired Layton poem: "I turned away and wept." Now I'm as sentimental a person as the next, but can't conceive myself in these circumstances of death. Tho some can. I can only conclude there may have been other things, other feelings in Layton, himself, which he has failed to communicate to me. Or perhaps I'm just insensitive. And the reference to the late President Kennedy as 'our noble prince" strikes me as maudlin and a little embarrassing.

Nor do I subscribe to the trivia of "In Memory of Stephen Ward" or the "Earth Goddess" poem for Marilyn Monroe (tho I wrote one myself and regret it). But they and others are by-products of Layton's poetic renderings. Against trivia you can balance and overbalance occasional genuine magnificence.

Another commonly held theory about Layton is that he is a marvellous craftsman (this is true in some degree) and a technical innovator. The last is sheer nonsense. Layton picked up and developed his form and tone from fairly obvious sources, perhaps Horace Gregory's translations of Catullus being most easily apparent. The enjambments and juxtapositions of much modern poetry are, in Layton, conspicuous by their absence. To me lie is a traditionalist, with a good ear for the modern idiom.

As in most of the poets, iambs throng in his work like veteran marching armies who have conquered before and certainly will again. Nor is this reprehensible in any way. A poet would have to be insane to discard entirely the arts and technical craft that have taken a thousand years to develop, but yet continue to change and move forward.

With Layton a soliloquy generally amounts to a harangue. On page 308 begins a short sequence of poems concerning, presumably,' marital infidelity. And I'm amused to note that in these poems Layton condemns the woman as vociferously as he does modern culture in general. The woman is "evil"; the man, it is taken for granted, is virtuous and blameless. Apart from ye olde double standard, such judgments are predictable, and after a while very monotonous.

It makes you wonder if there is no possibility of the man being wrong. Is everything one-sided, simple and transparent to this angry all-wise sage? Yes it is.

But it's unfair to carp and cavil all thru Layton's Collected Poems. I hope I haven't seemed entirely too one-sided in my criticism, as Layton sometimes is in his poems. Despite obvious faults, these poems are the most substantial body of good work published in the, country. You have to accept the bad with the good, and be thankful: for both, for they're interrelated and mutually dependent.
But decide for yourself which is which. Don't let Layton overpower you, either with rhetoric or personality, or the dogmatism that makes him a prize example of his own pet theory about the despised', academics.

Layton is a fine poet, and if I disbelieve his genius-assessment of himself, there's enough justice and/or truth in what he says to make me think about the possibility seriously before I make up my own mind. Which is my 10 (minor) decibels worth.