05 January 2006

The Aching And Triumphant Impeccability Of His Life (updated)

Irving     Sad news:  Canadian poet Irving Layton passed away yesterday in Montreal.  In recent years, Layton had been suffering from Alzheimer's, a fate beyond cruelty for a man who was once one of this country's finest poetic minds.  He also taught for many years at the institution I rather shamefacedly describe as my employer, and in a department that now only rarely dares to mention, let alone teach, him in undergraduate courses.  Some of his poems are as good as any poet's of the twentieth-century, with "The Cold Green Element" and "The Birth of Tragedy" seeming to me especially powerful.  It seems appropriate, though, to commemorate Layton's passing with "Grand Finale," a poem sadly too ironic by half.  Here it is:
Grand Finale
I've seen the grey-haired lyrists come down from the hills;
they think because they howl with eloquence and conviction
the townspeople will forgive their disgraceful sores
and not care how scandalous and odd they look;
how vain their contrite blurtings over booze and women
or the senescent itch for the one true faith.
Not for me sorrowful and inglorious age
not for me resignation and breastbeating
or reverbing of guilts till one's limbs begin to tremble
and a man's brought to his knees whimpering and ashamed;
not for me if there's a flicker of life still left
and I can laugh at the gods and shake my fist.
Rather than howl and yowl like an ailing cat
on wet or freezing nights or mumble thin pieties
over a crucifix like some poor forsaken codger
in a rented room, I'll let the darkness come only when I
an angry and unforgiving old man yank the cloth of heaven
and the moon and all the stars come crashing down.
--- 1978
It's also worth glancing at this (rather old) article from The Toronto Star about Layton and his most famous mentee, Leonard Cohen. 
     UPDATE:  A better -- and lengthier-- obit from The Ottawa Citizen can be found here.
     UPPERDATE:  Zelda asked why Layton is so rarely taught in universities these days, and though in the comments I gave her a bit of a glib-shrug of a response, the answer is likely rooted in one of those "Oh-Gawd-shut-the-fark-up" lines of victimization.  From today's Hamilton Spectator's obit on Layton comes this putrid explanation from University of Toronto's Magdalene Redekop for why she opted not to teach Layton in her course on Canadian love poetry: "I decided that I simply couldn't tolerate teaching it, that it made my stomach turn, it was so sexist.  He was a profoundly sexist man, and relentlessly so."  Redekop, however, is quick to add her own holier-than-thou qualification:  "But for me as a feminist... to concede the poems of his that are fantastic is something."  Something for her, or something for him, pray tell? 

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