Irving Layton R.I.P. 

Irving Layton R.I.P.

I haven't read much Canadian literature for years, but I read quite a bit, including poetry, in high school and undergraduate days.

From Layton, "The Bull Calf":

Below the hill's crest
the river snuffled on the improvised beach.
We dug a deep pit and threw the dead calf into it.
It made a wet sound, a sepulchral gurgle,
as the warm sides bulged and flattened.
Settled, the bull calf lay as if asleep,
one foreleg over the other,
bereft of pride and so beautiful now,
without movement, perfectly still in the cool pit,
I turned away and wept.

At least part of the message here seems to be: "See, this is what happens to guys like me." Layton believed completely in the persona of the poet, larger than life, angry and passionate, breaking many rules (although probably trying to spend most nights in bed with a woman, rather than in prison). Yet of course he largely lived a bourgeois life, stayed free from disease and out of prison, and lived to a ripe old age (probably too old, given the Alzheimer's).

In the life of Nelson I just read, the author (Andrew Lambert) discusses the treatment of Nelson by Byron, among other authors. His conclusion: "In truth Nelson was the original Romantic hero and Byron the imitator: after all, what glory is there in the poet's art?"

This is a harsh thing to say to a lot of professors who like to think they are the most dashing thing going. It's especially hard on a Canadian poet. Er, no armed forces to speak of? No wars? Sorry.

No doubt in the 50s it seemed extremely daring for a teacher to bed young women. It was transgressive--parents would be furious if they found out, and members of the clergy might get involved. Holy of holies--there was a real risk of pregnancy? And just by being in the thick of things, you kept on proving that you still had it.

But with the sixties, it apparently became a lot easier to just ask a young woman, and she was quite likely to say yes. No fuss or muss. The changeover happened, as Philip Larkin wrote, in an "annus mirabilis." But if almost every adult male is scoring, especially if he has some income/has published/has manners or what not, then how special is Layton, Larkin or Byron?

Today a member of Canada's junior hockey team, which just won the world championship, is quoted as saying "chicks like a guy with a medal; they like a guy with a tooth missing and some scars." Well, Layton would probably get into fights in bars.

I've always had a soft spot for this poem, which I guess was classed as a children's poem. I probably don't have it exactly right:

A spider danced a cozy jig
Upon a frail trapeze
And in a far-off clover field
An ant was heard to sneeze.

And kings that day were wise and just
And stones began to bleed
A dead man rose to tell a tale
A bigot changed his creed.

The stable boy forgot his pride
The queen confessed an itch
And lo, more wonderful than all
The poor man blessed the rich.

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