Quite a mixed bag in looking at Irving Lyton on his 100th birthday. Not everything was gold, but there was in sum, a spiritual consciousness with the man, a leaving to the control of the instinct as sign of his acceptance of humanity, capable of a spontaneous empathy that connects with the deep; something traditional and sentimental despite the dabbling in nihilism and trying to craft with a sum of destructions.
Ultimately, Layton had too much respect for the emotions of human beings to transform them into vulgar hostile monsters. His subjects are rarely completely evil and confrontational,and Layton was able, like his darkest emotions, to push them into the recesses of their inner selves, sometimes to become one with their own set of complex feelings, and avoiding the impulse to futilely express the mindless feeling of rage and the whole charade of enacting rage as infantile gesture, to dip into the waters of pataphysics and Alfred Jarry, Rimbaud and something of the art of a Larry Rivers who would be a contemporary of Layton. Again, at the edge of nihilism before turning back to re-connect and discard the sickness of negativity and the glorification of the death informed with or without formal innovation.
( See Link) :The upshot is that Layton stood self-begotten and sovereign in his own imagination. His competitiveness bristled with regards to not only his contemporaries (i.e., his notorious nap during a reading by Atwood) but his poetic forebears as well. What we face in Layton, maybe for the first time in Canadian letters, is the “strong poet” of whom Harold Bloom wrote in his book, Anxiety of Influence; that is, the unintimidated poet who reads his precursors with a judgment equal or superior to, bowing to none of them. “I’ve written lyrics that make Rilke look like a stammerer and Keats like a deaf-mute,” he gushed while he was working on The Whole Bloody Bird. Or, more definitively: “no poet, no modern or contemporary poet that is, that I have studied has a vision of the modern world as I have and of man’s place in it. Not Yeats, nor Pound, and certainly not Eliot.” Read More:http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=1224
True, at its most melodramatic, it sounds like drunken speechifying, but at its reactionary best, Layton’s prose generates a surly brilliance of which William Hazlitt, seventeenth-century England’s own bad boy, would have approved:
Where is the poet who can make clear for us Belsen? Vorkuta? Hiroshima? The utter wickedness of Nazism and National-Communism? There is no poet in the English-speaking world who gives me the feeling that into his lines have entered the misery and crucifixion of our age… Nowhere is the image of man portrayed that might have stiffened us for the cruelty, perversion, systematic lying, and monstrous hypo crisy of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia… Pound’s mid-Western blat about Social Credit? Eliot’s weary Anglicanism? Yeats’s fairytale Byzantium? In these vicious, revolutionary times? Don’t make me laugh. Frost’s jaunty pastoralism? Auden’s sensationalistic mishmash of psychoanalysis, Marxism, and Christianity? What a sour, boring joke!…
…The bad news is that as Layton’s self-estimation abused the aesthetic prerogative, it was only a matter of time before he regarded his poems not so much as individual, crafted events in language-”momentary stays,” so to speak-but as fragments of himself to be subsumed into the larger, more confident stride of his calling. Poetry, poet, and personality became one synergetic whole. Milton, you may recall, believed that a worthy poem was inextricable from the worth of the poet: “that he would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought him selfe to bee a true Poem.” One could argue that Layton similarly aimed to be “a true poem” and wrote from the conviction that the ardour with which he lived his life-his ongoing “benediction over every green and growing thing”, as he phrased it-and his absolute trust in his vocation were enough to award each poem its currency, if not its immortality….Read More:http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=1224
Layton was smart enough when he toned down the ratcheted rhetoric and conventional anger, to see through people to the pathos within them, transforming what he saw, just enough, to convey it without attacking their dignity, unlike say in painting a Willem de Kooning would or Picasso, the master of caricature form. There in Layton, a sensitivity to others , at bottom a respectful response to human beings, though it was generally at their most sensually exciting, there was also a sense of the tragic disruptive, the desperation at the lack of response and a gaping wound of betrayal at the most fundamental level. Layton did have mystical inclinations, but were in check, held in check by a certain morality, or a morality within the immorality. He did not succumb to idealizing form at the expense of the human and communal; Layton maintained an enduring respect for individual experience ,allowing him an esthetic strength to resist its drowning and death in the experience of form. Maybe for Layton this symbolized the antiquity of Judaism, a reluctance to sacrifice spirituality that may have originated at the begin
of time. As we see, modernist formalism is inherently of a short term expiry date and there is no shortage of bad poetry catering to limited goals, mainly materialistic in nature without the expected spiritual dividend arising from decorative unity. At heart in Layton there was always a nostalgic Jewishness searching to escape, escape through the rays of light entering through the cracks in the foundation.