Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel.
"Canadian Biography Series."
Toronto: ECW Press, 1995. 160pp, paper, $14.95.
Layton, Irving, 1912- -Biography.
Poets, Canadian (English)-20th century-Biography.
Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Ian Stewart.
Through the imaginative breadth of his poetry and the dynamism of
his personality, Layton redefined the possibilities for the Canadian
writer. His passionately vivid descriptions revealed new ways of
experiencing the world and new aspects of the world to savour....
Layton vehemently castigated Canadian gentility, which meant, for
him, a distrust of any art or other forms of expression or activity that
threatened the restricted confines of the puritanical, middle-class mind.
At best, gentility could be civilized and intelligent, but those in its
grasp skimmed the surface of life rather than venturing into the psyche's
Francis Mansbridge, Irving Layton's biographer, and the editor of his
letters, does not attempt a complete literary analysis of Layton's poetry
in Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel -- there are
surprisingly few of his poems included in this book. She also does not
deal extensively with the question of Layton's place in the Canadian
literary hierarchy, or with whether he deserves a lasting place in
Canadian literary history. She leaves those matters for posterity.
What Mansbridge has done is write a book that challenges the student
reader to critically examine the artistic temperament and to consider an
artist who has consistently "pushed the envelope" of conventional life
for his creativity. The strength of this work lies in its clear, concise,
and brisk exposition of Layton's background, turbulent personality, and
conflicts with almost all other Canadian poets, academics, and critics
over the function of poetry.
Al Purdy has said that Irving Layton's personality was a fusion of
opposites. "Irving Layton," wrote Purdy:
was the Montreal magnet for me . . . . I felt about him as
I had not about any other Canadian writer, a kind of awe and surprise
that such magical things should pour from an egotistical clown, a
charismatic poseur. And I forgive myself for saying these things, which
are both true and untrue.
This is the problem with any study of Layton. He is an acclaimed
poet in Canada and Europe, has been nominated for the Nobel prize, and is
the recipient of many honourary degrees; his art can be both rich and
subtle. But as Mansbridge shows, previous biographers have focussed their
attention on the negative aspects of Layton's personality.
He can be a "shoddy" human being: an uncaring ass; an incompetent
in family matters; a philanderer and a self-aggrandizing egotistical
buffoon? Yes, and it all makes for interesting reading, but it does
little to increase our understanding of the poet and his work.
Mansbridge writes that Layton has always seen himself as an
outsider. The staid life and gentile poetry that WASP-ish Canada produced
was not to Layton's temperament. Rather, Layton has always believed that
his role was to play a modern-day Joshua trumpeting to bring down the
walls of middle-class Philistines. He sees himself as the "hot-blooded
Jew cavorting in the Canadian drawing room, kicking out the windows to
allow fresh air to enter."
Layton's background and early life were the polar opposite of those
of the conventional, middle-class, Christian, Canadian poets of the
pre-World War II era. He was born Israel Lazorovitch in Rumania to Jewish
parents. In 1913, when Layton was only one year old, his family emigrated to Canada.
They settled into Montreal's Jewish ghetto and a life of grinding
poverty. But it was also a life of great excitement and vitality. "I
loved the noise and confusion," said Layton, "and that is what gave me
my first idea of poetry. To be vital, poetry has to exhibit the same kind
of chaos and the same wonderful colourful confusion." To this chaos,
confusion, and emotion, add confrontation, sarcasm, and iconoclasm, and
you have the elements which form Layton's poetry.
According to Mansbridge, that poetry has never received the critical
analysis it is due because it does not fit the contemporary post-modern
patterns and assumptions of Canadian literature. It is traditional
poetry; it is meant to stir the emotions and raise our consciousness. And
Layton's antagonism towards the "politically correct" positions of the
academy have helped to create less than favourable interpretations of his
Francis Mansbridge has done admirable work in Irving Layton:
God's Recording Angel. In a short biography, she has created a
clear picture of Irving Layton the poet and the man. Her judgements and
criticisms of Layton, and his critics, are sound.
Ian Stewart works at a Winnipeg elementary school and the University
of Winnipeg library.
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