CM Archive
CM Archive Book Review line

Cameron, Elspeth.

Toronto, Stoddart, c1985. 518pp, cloth, $28.95, ISBN 0-7737-2051-0. CIP

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Bohdan Kinczyk

Volume 14 Number 1
1986 January

Apparently, Layton has set out to discredit Cameron's Irving Layton: A Portrait, calling it "the filthiest, most malevolent book I've ever allowed my finger to touch." After reading this excellent biography, you might share my view that Layton's condemnation is perhaps the highest recommendation Cameron could receive. The fact is, Layton's diatribe supports a recurring pattern in his life: "to fly into a temper and lash out all over the place" whenever he or his work is criticized. Ask Earle Birney. Birney's unfavourable review of Layton's third volume of poetry, The Black Huntsmen (Privately Printed, 1951), provoked a typical outburst: "Honesty, if not critical acumen or sensibility is asked from a reviewer. I'll not waste good typewriter ink in telling a lanky hayseed from the provinces what I think of him: you can, if you try, muster sufficient intelligence to guess." Layton goes on to call Birney "an uncoiled tapeworm of asininity" and "an ignorant worm." At the end of his invective he informs Birney that he is "currently engaged in writing a poem called 'The Ballad of the Clotted Arsehair.' I have allotted several memorable verses to yourself." Layton, of course, has cried arsehair too often; Cameron, quite rightly, is not fazed by Layton's attacks. With over eleven hundred footnotes, Irving Layton is as solid and scholarly as one could wish.

What puzzles me is why Cameron went to such pains to write this book. Frankly, I do not think Layton deserves this kind of attention. In Canada we have better writers. Much better. True, Layton was nominated for the Nobel Prize for litera-tuft, but not by Canada. Actually, it was Italy that made the nomination, seconded by Korea. Canada nominated Margaret Laurence and Josef Skvorecky that year. And it is true Layton won a Governor General's Award (1959), but then so has every other talented writer in Canada. If Layton is a major writer, perhaps it is because he has published over a thousand poems. But how many of them are truly great poems? Cameron figures about fifteen. Perhaps that is a generous estimate: after you have named "Keine Lazarovitch," "The Birth of Tragedy," "The Bull Calf," "A Tall Man Executes a Jig," and "Berry Picking," the pickings get pretty slim. Cameron notes that Layton never declined to publish work he felt inferior, and, more importantly, that he was often unable "to tell the difference between his [good] poems" and his bad. So much for Canada's literary giant.

Even if he is over-rated as a poet, though, Layton has left his mark on the Canadian literary scene. At the end of the fifties with the publication of A Red Carpet for the Sun (McClelland & Stewart, 1959), Layton "emerged as a major, central and representative figure in Canada... because he stood for the principle of change." And because he was able to juggle mutually inconsistent poetical theories, drawing simultaneously from both the formal British tradition and the more colloquial and spontaneous American one, Layton was able to forge "a poetry entirely representative of Canada's ambivalent position as an extension of Britain and a satellite of the United States." In the 1960s, however, Leonard Cohen and then Margaret Atwood nudged Layton out of the spotlight. No longer able to excite the admiration of his critics, and beginning to suffer from "the inescapable lousiness of growing old," Layton nevertheless continued to fight for the attention he has always craved. His poetic powers on the wane, Layton in his old age relies increasingly on spleen. A few years ago in the middle of an Atwood reading, Layton roared, "Your reading is so boring it's putting me to sleep." To this the elder statesman of Canadian poetry added, "Women are only good for screwing."

A book as solid and scholarly as Elspeth Cameron's Irving Layton is always a welcome arrival on the Canadian literary scene. But this one is so entertaining, so thorough, so full of juicy gossip, careful analysis, and thoughtful judgement, that it might even be popular. I do not hesitate in giving it the highest recommendation.

Bohdan Kinczyk, Central Elgin C.I., St. Thomas, Ont.
line indexes


1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


The materials in this archive are copyright © The Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission Copyright information for reviewers

Young Canada Works