Thursday, January 05, 2006

Farewell, Irving

No, not John Irving but Irving Layton - one of Canada's most important - and controversial - poets. He was a Jewish writer from Montreal, contemporary with Mordecai Richler, A.M. Klein, Al Purdy, as well as mentor to later poets, particularly Leonard Cohen. He is a great favourite of mine, as he is, I feel, the Canadian equivalent to D.H. Lawrence. Read more about him here and here. In tribute, here's a favourite Layton poem of mine:

Whatever Else Poetry is Freedom

Whatever else poetry is freedom.
Forget the rhetoric, the trick of lying
All poets pick up sooner or later. From the river,
Rising like the thin voice of grey castratos - the mist;
Poplars and pines grow straight but oaks are gnarled;
Old codgers must speak of death, boys break windows,
Women lie honestly by their men at last.

And I who gave my Kate a blackened eye
Did to its vivid changing colours
Make up an incredible musical scale;
And now I balance on wooden stilts and dance
And thereby sing to the loftiest casements.
See how with polish I bow from the waist.
Space for these stilts! More space or I fail!

And a crown I say for my buffoon's head.
Yet no more fool am I than King Canute,
Lord of our tribe, who scanned and scorned;
Who half-deceived, believed; and, poet, missed
The first white waves come nuzzling at his feet;
Then damned the courtiers and the foolish trial
With a most bewildering and unkingly jest.

It was the mist. It lies inside one like a destiny.
A real Jonah it lies rotting like a lung.
And I know myself undone who am a clown
And wear a wreath of mist for a crown;
Mist with the scent of dead apples,
Mist swirling from black oily waters at evening,
Mist from the fraternal graves of cemeteries.

It shall drive me to beg my food and at last
Hurl me broken I know and prostrate on the road;
Like a huge toad I saw, entire but dead,
That Time mordantly had blacked; O pressed
To the moist earth it pled for entry.
I shall be I say that stiff toad for sick with mist
And crazed I smell the odour of mortality.

And Time flames like a paraffin stove
And what it burns are the minutes I live.
At certain middays I have watched the cars
Bring me from afar their windshield suns;
What lay to my hand were blue fenders,
The suns extinguished, the drivers wearing sunglasses.
And it made me think I had touched a hearse.

So whatever else poetry is freedom. Let
Far off the impatient cadences reveal
A padding for my breathless stilts. Swivel,
O hero, in the fleshy grooves, skin and glycerine,
And sing of lust, the sun's accompanying shadow
Like a vampire's wing, the stillness in dead feet -
Your stave brings resurrection, O aggrieved king.

"O Layton, your dead feet will never be so alive now that you are one with the earth. Breathless! It is the mist and the wind, blowing the mist across my face with such aggression and jealousy that I do not fall and bow. Whatever else, Layton, your poetry is freedom, and we your subjects."

1 comment:

Boyd said...

I remember studying Layton so long ago at Uof M. Layton was such a breath of fresh air. A sense that being Canadian was important. A sense that poetry could be life giving. This was at the time when the best (yawn) Canadian poet taught in schools was Bliss Carman and Archibald Lampman. Thru Layton [that is after I read his poems with some excitement and passion that he could talk about (sex) so openly]I read with joy and unreserved delight those others - Al Purdy, Raymond Souster, Margaret Atwood, bp nichol, Margaret Avison, Robert Kroetsch, Dorothy Livesay, Alden Nowlan, F.R.Scott, George Bowering and so many many more. It was Layton who opened my eyes to this incredible vault of writing. Irving Layton is a Canadian Hero. As significant as any giant. Even tho he has been taken away from us by Alzheimer's for so long, I weep at his passing this day.