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Irving Layton's "Rhine Boat Trip"

The sublime art of (playing) the Poet

Irving Layton is ninety this year. He is living in an old-age home in Montreal, declined in physical and mental health, enduring, as he once so poignantly and memorably put it, the “inescapable lousiness of growing old.” As happens with all established canonical figures, his contribution to literature will doubtless be assessed and reassessed over the course of the next years. As his once and future student, let me offer the following.

Layton’s was a strange career, as anomalous (and high-profile) in Canada as, say, George Barker’s or Robert Graves’ were in England. His output was enormous—a book a year (or more) for half a century. His presence as a public figure was abetted by constant self-promotion in film, television and newspapers, in the prefaces he wrote to his own books, and in the classroom. He seemed never to tire, nor to tire of himself. It was that particular brand of energy that he brought to his teaching at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University in 1967 and to the undergraduate poetry workshop for which I’d registered.

One afternoon, he brought in and dispensed photocopies of his poem “Rhine Boat Trip.” He had signed each of the dozen or so copies, having had the poem printed on an off-white bond paper—not the alcohol-redolent mimeographed throwaways we were used to. He read the poem aloud, delivering it with such stentorian bravura one could not take the information imparted as anything but Truth (the depth of the poetic Beauty apparently inherent in the piece was dealt with fulsomely in the explicatory talk given by its Author directly after the reading). Layton read all work, including our own student efforts, theatrically and sonorously: the effect of this was that all the poems seemed equally important; and that, perforce, we’d all managed to find ourselves, by some incredible stroke of luck, in a room of possibly the only real poets in Canada, one of whom, clearly primus inter pares, was the bearer of the mantle of greatness—if the monument of that signed offering was anything to go by.

If the voice was Richard Burtonesque, the costume was Burton Cummings-esque: thespian and rock-star elements inflected his manner and his dress. Confined uneasily under a jauntily angled Greek fisherman’s hat was a Beethov-enian spread of wiry greying hair.  More thatched itself thickly to his chest,  through which a gold medallion the size of a dinner gong glistened. His sleeves he rolled up to the elbow, union-organizer style, and thick black hair covered his forearms, the backs of his hands and his fingers, sparing only the knuckles. A number of women found him attractive.

His themes were Sex and Death—the Dionysian and the Apollonian. For thematic purposes of our own work, then, we were sent to see Empire of the Senses, a film wherein a woman fellates a man to orgasm; she later kills him and cuts off his genitals, putting them in a little sack she carries around for a bit. We saw several films that year, during the critical postmortems of which our teacher got quite excited—passionate, intellectually speaking. His physical theatricality (or theatrical physicality—one couldn’t always distinguish the difference) made for a wonderfully animated classroom hour, the high point in an otherwise dull week of school. Whatever else, his vitality and broad range of interests made him a fine and inspiring teacher; and his often outrageous pronunciamentos goaded whole classes into uproar. His was not a class one could doze through with equanimity.

Layton saw himself as a prophet—born, not made—often hinting broadly through a seemingly modest exegesis of particulars (and of one particular, in particular) that he was one of the chosen, blessed by powers greater even than the Muse, as he’d come into this world for all intents and purposes circumcised. He had been born without a foreskin! How could he therefore not live a charmed life, having been given this Message? (He, Isadore Lazarovitch by birth, had already outwitted the rabbis!) God knows something gave Layton the insuperable self-confidence that was so much a part of his persona. The explicatory and physiological details of this Sign, these he left to our collective imagination—although a number of the above-mentioned women might well have organized pilgrimages to that particular shrine, to see for themselves whether the miracle of his priapic condition was indeed true.

Layton fully believed in his own theatre, so much so that it coloured the writing of the poems themselves. Each poem was a theatrical event. In the classroom, he played all the parts—king, chorus, court jester—with the skill of the veteran actor. His exuberance was that of the travelling tourist who feels free enough of responsibilities and obligations, of all the baggage of the self, to look freshly and with a sense of wonder at everything he comes across—and everybody, including himself. If that Theatre of the Self is a complete thing, then one becomes the Compleat Tourist—abroad, at home in the midst of family, in the classroom and, quite possibly, in the act of writing itself: there is a snapshotlike, anecdotal spirit to Layton’s poetry. From the stage of his theatre, he is the observer, the anecdotalist, the tourist making his report to the folks at home. Everything feels “poetical,” in the same way a vacation produces rolls of quite discardable photos. Produce a thousand “memorable moments,” one or two will by default be kept for the album: the anecdote may serendipitously serve as a universal truth, the snapshot as a work of art.

Layton produced a handful of real poems—which is, of course, as much as one can ask of any poet. “Rhine Boat Trip” isn’t necessarily one of them—although it looks like the real thing.

The castles on the Rhine
are all haunted
by the ghosts of Jewish mothers
looking for their ghostly

And the clusters of grapes
in the sloping vineyards
are myriads of blinded eyes
staring at the blind sun

The tireless Lorelei
can never comb from their hair
the crimson beards
of murdered rabbis

However sweetly they sing
one hears only
the low wailing of cattle-cars
moving invisibly across the land.

This feels so poetic, indeed, that one would have to be a sociopath not to relate emotionally to “the ghosts of Jewish mothers / looking for their ghostly children”—or to shudder at the “low wailing of cattle-cars.” And one despairs sympathetically at the unmitigated brutality visited on the murdered rabbis whose “crimson beards” can never be combed from the hair of the “tireless Lorelei.” The problem is that this last image is a mixed metaphor of sorts, a double exposure: one superimposes the “actual” descriptive image of the rabbis’ beard hair onto the symbolic Lorelei’s; it is a melding of the concrete and the abstract, a little like being so lonely one has telephone wires running through one’s head. Same problem with the grapes, which are likened to “myriads of blinded eyes / staring at the blind sun.” And why is the sun blind?  Because, like the Old Testament God, it looks upon good and evil with equanimity? Or because, in this instance, “God” turns a blind eye? Are these images, then, meant to be read literally or metaphorically? Does the sun represent something to Layton personally—a symbol, perhaps, in his private theatre, his personal trove of Laytonic themes?

Layton has written much better poems than this one. I wonder now whether Layton (or George Barker or Robert Graves, for that matter) ever had a rigorous editor for his poetry books: surely producing too many poems muddies the water for the best of the work. Imagine Layton’s poetic legacy—and literary reputation—had he left sixty poems, instead of sixty books. All three of these men were, in their time, regarded as larger-than-life literary figures; it seems a shame that their personae often got in the way of a clear-eyed critical look at their best poetry.

Once he’d finished reading “Rhine Boat Trip”—declaiming, more like—and had made sure we’d understood its worthiness, Layton suggested we put the sheet carefully away for a while, as it would be worth good money in the future. We all laughed—partly at our teacher’s unapologetic and always astounding arrogance and self-pride, partly as co-conspirators in the great anti-philistine adventure that we, as poets, had embarked on—and then went home and carefully put the page away for the future. Which is, I guess, what this is.