Rant for Irving Layton


The Winnipeg Review sponsored our city’s Irving Layton Centenary celebration on the evening of March 12, at the Yellow Dog Tavern. Similar celebrations were held in cities across Canada and in Paris, France.

Jan Horner reads Layton's "On Seeing the Statuettes..."

Layton’s poems were read and discussed by five Winnipeg writers: John Toone, Jan Horner, Alison Gillmor, Clarise Foster, and Victor Enns. The editor of The Winnipeg Review, Maurice Mierau, delivered the following rant.


Yesterday I asked a twenty-five-year-old, a history major with a straight A average at the University of Manitoba, if he knew who Irving Layton was. No, he said. I don’t think this response was unusual, possibly not even in the English department.

Unfortunately we live in a country that suffers from senile dementia, like Irving Layton did at the sad end of his vigorous and productive life, and we no longer remember anything other than the present. What we forget the fastest are poets, and even faster the actual words that they write. The way that we deal with this problem for poets is by giving them awards. When someone is an award-winning poet, we no longer feel even the slightest obligation to read the poems. As Irving Layton put it, “Literature is the revenge society takes on the poet, its muted polite hosanna over the fact that it has blunted his shafts and rendered them harmless.”

In terms of erasing cultural memory, the school system helps enormously. In so-called Language Arts classes across this country students are taught to repeat slogans such as Respect Others and Diversity is Diverse and You Don’t Have to Shop All the Time and It’s OK To Be Fat. Then they videotape these slogans and put themselves on-line. What they don’t do is read Irving Layton or Shakespeare or Faulkner or Kroetsch. So what, you say, all dead white guys anyway. But Margaret Avison, PK Page, and Marvin Francis, dead and wonderful Canadian poets who weren’t white guys, the kids don’t read them either.

As a society we are systematically training our children to be like the character Eunice Park in Gary Shteyngart’s brilliant satirical novel, Super Sad True Love Story, in which books are scanned rather than read, and in which their physical manifestation as paper and glue objects is particularly reviled because of the disgusting odour.

Here is what Irving Layton’s voice sounded like, from the foreword to the 1965 edition of his Collected Poems:

A poet is someone who has a strong sense of self and feels his life to be meaningful. By insisting on that self and refusing to become the socialized article that bureaucrats, priests, rabbis, and so-called educators approve of, the poet offends the brainwashed millions who are the majority in any country. His words, his free manner of living, are a constant irritation to the repressed, the fearful, the self-satisfied, and the incurious.

Can you imagine a contemporary Canadian poet talking like this? A recent visitor to Winnipeg, whom I won’t name although I will mention that he was very short, came here after winning a national award and said several times in public that “he stood on the shoulders of giants.” When asked who these giants were, he refused to name them. Actually naming your influences would be impolitic. His mentality is the kind that could put you in charge of a provincial education department, where the mandate is to never tell the students what to do, never mind what books they ought to read. Reading strategies and positive messages are more important than actually knowing something, even just a name.

Layton had a romantic conception of his role in society that embarrasses us now that we are too ironic to ever feel anything; from that same 1965 Foreword: “When the conformist and his pitchmen cannot ignore the poet’s words, they work to distort or emasculate them. I have yet to see Byron’s and Shelley’s rebellious lyrics in any school anthology of English poems. Or William Blake’s.”

Layton’s now-unfashionable insistence on the poet as Jeremiah is linked, I believe, to his being an immigrant writer. His Romanian-Jewish background made him an outsider in Montreal and later in a literary establishment so Anglified and ossified that it could actually say “nineteenth century Canadian fiction” and even “Bliss Carman” without laughing rudely out loud.

Did Layton say foolish things and write some foolish poems? Yes, of course. Suggesting that wars are a “means of psychic cleansing,” as Gary Geddes paraphrased him, suggests the dangers of Laytonesque hyperbole. But poetry is a long game, and the point is to write well enough that people still read and remember your words after you’re gone. [I then read Layton’s poem “For My Former Students.”]

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Maurice Mierau

Maurice Mierau is editor of The Winnipeg Review. His new book of poems, Autobiographical Fictions, is just out with Palimpsest. His previous book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, was recently shortlisted for the 2016 Kobzar Literary Award.