Irving Layton’s A Wild Peculiar Joy

Irving Layton, perhaps Canada’s most acclaimed poet, was born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch, in Romania, to Jewish parents. Within a year of his birth, however, the entire family migrated to Montreal, in Catholic Quebec, creating the identity crisis that would shape him for the rest of his life: caught between the pious Judaism of his father and the intolerant Catholicism of his adopted country, he was a born outsider. And though we Canadians now love to claim him as our own, in his life he looked to the wider world for inspiration: “I’m not really a Canadian,” he wrote to one of his reviewers, “though I’ve lived here nearly all my life: I’m a European, and a Hebrew at that, much closer to France and Russia than I am to England.” So spake the recipient of both the Order of Canada and the Governor General’s Award! Watching the horrors of World War II unfold from the relative safety of Canada gave him his last and best identity, that of the human individual, unwilling to bow to religion or politics or ideology – let alone what he perceived to be the stuffy conservatism dominating Canadian letters. In an essay for The Globe Magazine, telling titled “Poets: The Conscience of Mankind,” he set forth his vision for the role of poetry:

There is no force more subversive than poetry and that is why tyrants have always feared it and sought to suppress it. But not only tyrants. Everyone who has a vested interest in preventing the individual from discovering the truth of his own self and his own capacities fears the liberating power that resides in poetry. Old and crippling creeds, suffocating conventions, the dishonest rationalizations and hypocrisies the defeated and joyless put forward in the name of virtue – to all these poetry turns a smiling, disdainful countenance.

Wise men have said the truth shall make you free. Yes, poetic truth – an awareness of the many-sided nature of Being that wars eternally against all metaphysical and political constructions claiming to free men from the need to doubt and explore.

Many of Layton’s poems wear this same “smiling, disdainful countenance,” whether they’re raging at the Holocaust or old age, or the god that permits both, and they do so with a rare and beautiful lyricism.

The Holocaust devastated not only the lives of its victims, but the faith in god and morality that had underpinned so much of Western thought. Layton almost wants to agree with Theodor Adorno that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” but he takes up the challenge all the same, and the resulting lyrics drip with anger and accusation. Here, for example, are the opening stanzas to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” the title of one of Mozart’s more famous compositions, which translates into “A little serenade”:

I was nowhere near
the syphilitic whore called Europe,
smelling of charnel houses and museums

And was not there
When you ripped open the bellies
of pregnant women

Nor when you laughed uproariously
at the spectres
clawing one another for offal

I was not there when you made skeletons
dance for you
and grief-crazed Jewesses to sing

With the title of this poem, Layton is indicting an entire culture, or at least drawing attention to a painful juxtaposition: that the same people who gave birth to Mozart could rip open the bellies of pregnant women or make skeletons dance. And what of Europe, that “syphilitic whore”? Guilty as well, perhaps. Layton invokes Adorno more explicitly in “After Auschwitz,” where we again get a sense of his profound pessimism in the face of human cruelty:

were made from the skins
of a people
preaching the gospel of love;
the ovens of Auschwitz and Belsen
are open testimony
to their folly

Despite memorial plaques
oh horror and contrition
repentance, my son,
is short-lived

An automatic rifle
a lifetime

This is one of a handful of poems preaching the virtues of preparedness and the folly of underestimating the human potential for evil, but they reside alongside uplifting, life-affirming lyrics as well.

In “Samantha Clara Layton,” Layton writes about his newborn daughter and the life he wishes for her, and we glimpse a tenderness Auschwitz could never extinguish:

Into the ordinary day you came,
giving your small nose and chin to the air
and blinded by the noise you could not see.

Your mother’s smile was your benediction;
my wonderment will accompany you
all your days. Dear little girl, what blessings
shall I ask for you? Strong limbs, a mind firm
that looking on this world without dismay
turns furious lust into love’s romance?

These, my child, and more. Grace keep you
queenly and kind, a comfort to the ill and poor,
your presence a bounty of joy to all
that have vision of you, as I have now
who hold your fingers in my trembling hand.

In a letter to his poet/editor friend Cid Corman, Layton expanded on the role of lyricism in his poetry, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he denigrated the role of concepts, thoughts and ideas: “For me, rhythm and imagery tell the story; I’m not much interested in any poet’s ideas unless he can make them dance for me, that is embody them in a rhythmic pattern of visual images, which is only another way of saying the same thing in different words.” The opening stanza of this poem encapsulates this interplay between sound and image, brought to our attention by a paradox: how can anyone be blinded by noise?

Judged on his own terms, however, I find Layton more successful on a line-by-line basis. Rare is the poem that sustains its lyrical punch for more than a few lines, and the few that do – “The Swimmer” and “The Cold Green Element” and “Love The Conqueror Worm” – are rightly famous. Still, he possesses that power all great poets have, of being able to bring you to your knees with a turn of phrase: “And Time flames like a paraffin stove / And what it burns are the minutes I live.” And sometimes that’s enough.