From Apocalypse to Black Mountain: the Contexts Layton's Early Criticism
by Erwin Weins
There is some debate whether Layton has engaged in literary criticism at all. When George Woodcock compiled his anthology of criticism by poets, Poets and Critics (1974), Layton was not among the ten poet-critics, nor among Woodcock's list of the many good poet-critics he was obliged to omit from his anthology. In fact, Layton, along with Earle Birney, was specifically excluded. These two poets, said Woodcock, "have reacted in a romantic manner against criticism and raged against those who are mythically supposed to have been the killers of Keats and other frail versifiers.''1 Seymour Mayne, however, reminds us that Layton has maintained "a critical dialogue not only with his critics but with his fellow poets on the nature of poetry and the poet. . . . No other Canadian poet has taken on the task in such large measure, and no other poet has elicited such a wide response."2 For Eli Mandel, Layton's "Forewords" to his books of poetry constitute "the single most important body of criticism of its kind in Canada."3
Certainly Layton has generated an impressive bulk of commentary on poetry and poets, from his early reviews in First Statement in the 1940s to his "Foreword" to The Gucci Bag, 1983. To date, there have been two collections of his prose, Engagements and Taking Sides, and there are nine uncollected "Forewords" (since 1972), plus public and private correspondence and published interviews. As Mandel's qualifying phrase suggests, "criticism of its kind," little of Layton's commentary has taken the form of systematic, academic analysis. It may appear to consist merely of aphorisms and polemics, of extravagant generalizations or personal abuse, or, occasionally, of moving tributes. Almost always it has been written in response to current controversies. Removed from in original contexts, it often appears contradictory or merely sensational, but examined in close relation to successive movements and counter-movements since World War II, his comments on poetry and poets appear much more consistent, illustrating a development in depth and range, a critical view rather than random flashes, however brilliant.
In this essay, I have examined Layton's criticism in the contexts of prominent developments in poetry and criticism during the decade that followed World War II. Layton's early criticism was directly provoked by the controversies between First Statement and Preview in the 1940s, then between Contact Press and the Toronto based "mythopoeic" poets in the early 1950s. These controversies flourished in relation to developments in England and the United States, and both sides of the controversies readily exploited international developments to advance their own cause. This was certainly Layton's method. In the 1940s, he used Herbert Read and the Apocalyptics to attack what he, along with Dudek and Sutherland considered a facile and moribund Eliot-Auden-Thomas eclecticism among the Preview group. In the early 1950s, he shifted his attack, asserting a vigorous, anti-Eliot, modern American tradition against the disaffected, Movement-influenced, formalism of the "mythopoeic" poets. His early articles in First Statement and CIV/n may appear, at first, cast in the familiar form of review or critical appraisals, but their main purpose is to engage current controversies, to assert and clarify his own complex understanding of the nature and function of poetry.
When Layton's first literary essays and reviews began to appear in the early 1940s, modern poetry in Canada had reached the point of "cell division." This is the image used by Dudek and Gnarowski in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada to illustrate the nature of the "ferment" in the 1940s, in contrast to that of the two preceeding decades. In the 1920s and 1930s, the conflict had been between the modern poets, particularly the poets of the McGill Movement, and the Canadian Authors Association. The struggle of the former group was for modern poetry itself: for a greater in Canada of the theories and techniques of Yeats, Eliot and Pound; for more freedom in form and rhythm; more freedom in the choice of poetic subject; for colloquial language; for a more precise intellectual content; and for a closer relationship to contemporary events. Not all of these issues were clearly resolved by the 1940s, but the conflict with the late-Victorian or Georgian-oriented Canadian Authors no longer generated the poetic and critical "ferment." The front had shifted to "a conflict of generations within the modern movement and a clearly marked diversification of trends."4
In Montreal, the "conflict of generations" revolved around two new "little magazines," Preview and First Statement. The poets associated with Preview were the older generation, among them, F.R. Scott, A.M. Klein, P.K. Page, Neufville Shaw, and Patrick Anderson, its editor. A.J.M. Smith was no longer in Montreal, but his poetry and criticism continued to appear in Canada, and his 'presence' is clearly evident among the Preview poets. Wynne Francis has pointed out that by the 1940s several of them had gained considerable recognition, had published frequently both in Canada and the United States, and they were "comfortably established" in their professions. The poets associated with First Statement were younger and much less established. John Sutherland was the editor and prime-mover, with Layton and Dudek as co-editors. By January 1946, the two groups had officially merged to produce Northern Review, with Sutherland as managing editor and an editorial board carefully selected from both camps. In the sixth issue, Sutherland published his attack on Robert Finch's Poems, and this led to the mass resignation of the Preview poets from the editorial board, leaving the magazine in the hands of the former First Statement group. Nevertheless, many of the controversies continued to the end of the decade and into the 1950s, even though the Preview front had been dispersed. According to Wynne Francis, the conflict between the two groups "generated much of the poetic activity that went on in Montreal and made the 'Forties Canada's most exciting literary decade."5
One of Layton's first, and most revealing, contributions to First Statement was the essay "Politics and Poetry," 1943.6 During the 1930s he had been contributing articles on European politics and social developments to The Failt-Ye Times, and in the early 1940s he was working on his thesis on Harold Laski. He could, with some credibility, present himself as au courant. "Politics and Poetry" purports to review recent poetry in England in relation to a new, buoyant mood in English society. Layton is delighted to report that "in politics and poetry, the present happenings in England are full of promise," enlivened by an "intense intellectual ferment." What particularly pleases him, however, is that there is currently a "well marked reaction" against "the triumvirate of Auden, Spender, and Lewis," repudiating "both in theory and practice the conventions of the older group." With a somewhat condescending magnanimity, Layton can acknowledge the stature of the Auden group during the 1930s they were "diagnosticians and prophets" who "injected into their verse an urgency and a moral fervour that marked an important advance upon the poetry of the previous decade" but with the outbreak of the war, "history took a sudden lurch forward," and hence, "much of their poetry is no longer relevant." Although their goal was worthy, and their achievements significant, they failed, mainly because they wrote as outsiders, out of "frustration", alienated from the feelings and aspirations of their society. The crucial difference between the Auden group and the new generation of poets is that the former were "hostile to their society and rejected it" while the new generation "derives its main vigour from an identification with it." They are still "on the side of the dispossessed," but "for the doctrinaire Marxism of the thirties, they have substituted a willingness to observe and experiment." Layton also welcomes the fact that under the new regime "clearness and intelligibility have been restored to English poetry." He announces that the "clipped, tortuous style which has held English poetry in a straightjacket for over a decade has disappeared," to be succeeded by a "personal, free-flowing, . . . more elastic and colourful" style.
Layton's exuberance and optimism are engaging, but as a review essay, or a survey of contemporary writing in England, "Politics and Poetry" is not very informative. Layton mentions only four poets, Alan Rook, H.R. Rodgers, M.J. Tambimittu, and Henry Treece. He quotes only a few lines by Alan Rook which convey at best a vague impression of the characteristic work of the period. Of the four poets, only Henry Treece seems to have had a major role in contemporary developments. But although Treece was a leading figure in the Apocalyptic movement and had, together with J.R. Hendry, edited The New Apocalypse (1939) and The White Horseman (1941), Layton mentions neither the movement nor the anthologies, nor any other prominent younger poets of the period like Nicholas Moore and G.S. Fraser. George Woodcock's anarchist literary journal Now began to appear in 1940, with poems by Alex Comfort, Roy Fuller, Kenneth Rexroth and Julian Symons, but Layton does not mention any of these. Neither does he mention Dylan Thomas. He does mention George Barker, but lumps him in with the older Auden generation. Moreover, Layton's exuberant view of developments in England was not sustained. The August, 1943 issue of First Statement that contained "Politics and Poetry" also carried his review of a collection of poems by James Edward Ward, which he contemptuously described as "ladling out a thin syrup" of "reassurance" to war-torn England.7 It is apparent that Layton's main purpose is not to present new work to a Canadian public, but to declare his own colours, and those of the First Statement group, using selected developments in England for support and rhetorical emphasis. Secondly, for all its ebullient chatter, "Politics and Poetry" begins to sound like a sharp polemic against the Preview poets. Layton's immediate point is that while the anglophile Preview poets were still self-consciously cultivating the attitudes and mannerisms of Eliot and Auden, in England itself these were already dated. The more important point is that this datedness betrays the fact that Preview poetry had not been shaped by the pressures of contemporary, personal experience.
Thus, whatever its faults as a review essay, "Politics and Poetry" illustrates Layton's own critical position during the 1940s, and his astute appraisal of some of the crucial issues confronting the poet. The 1940s in England, and also in the United States, saw two opposing developments the establishment of English literary modernism in the universities and the academic journals, and its repudiation by the new generation of poets. In The Art of the Real, a detailed survey of poetry in England and America from 1939 to 1976, Eric Homberger claims that in the late 1940s, Eliot's reputation "was at its glorious zenith."8 A brief survey of some important titles and their publication dates seems to illustrate this. The Four Quartets was published in 1943, and Notes Toward a Definition of Culture in 1948. F.O. Matthiessen's The Achievement of T.S. Eliot had been published in 1935, and it was followed in 1947 by a second revised and enlarged edition. Cleanth Brooks published Modern Poetry and the Tradition in 1939 and The Well Wrought Urn in 1947. T.S. Eliot: A Study of his Writings by Several Hands, edited by B. Rajan, appeared in 1947. Delmore Schwartz acclaimed "T.S. Eliot as the International Hero" in Partisan Review in the Spring of 1945. The Eliot-inspired New Criticism was not yet dominant in the universities, but the basic texts had been written. In addition to the two books by Cleanth Brooks cited above, the first edition of his and Robert Penn Warren's Understanding Poetry appeared in 1938; John Crowe Ransom's The New Criticism gave the movement its official name in 1941; and Wellek and Warren's Theory of Literature, 1949, would soon become something of a summa theologica.
Among practicing poets in England, particularly among the younger poets, there was a different mood. Reviewing Oxford Poetry 1948, an anthology of new poetry, John Wain wrote:
There was indeed, as Layton had sensed, a reaction against Eliot during the 1940s, particularly among the Apocalyptics, and subsequently among the Personalists and New Romantics, two over-lapping movements that grew out of Apocalypse. The reaction to Eliot's impersonal classicism is immediately apparent in the names of the two later movements. Against Eliot's conservatism, they reasserted left-wing libertarian themes, often with a mixture of Marxism and anarchism. Against Eliot's "reactionary," "defeatist," "selective" and "sterile" view of life, the Apocalyptics, according to G.S. Fraser's introduction to The White Horseman, proclaimed "freedom and responsibility," a "large accepting attitude to life," and "completeness of response." On a more formal level, the distance between the 'pure' poetry of early modernism and the more discursive poetry of the Apocalyptics is apparent when Fraser commends Henry Treece's work for its "ornamental beauty.''10
The reaction to the Auden group was at least as strong. Against their stark analytical poetry, the Apocalyptics reasserted the importance of the subconscious, the mythical and the numinous. Layton's comment that the poets of the forties had rejected the "doctrinaire Marxism of the thirties" is supported by G.S. Fraser's observation that "the group exhibits, generally speaking, a rather ruthless scepticism about political thought." This, however, does not diminish the social function of their work: "if the poetry of the Auden generation had a certain immediate political and social value, the poetry of the Apocalyptics is likely to have a certain permanent clinical value for the human race." Again, Layton seems to be making a similar point in "Politics and Poetry" when he reports that although the younger poets "believe intensely in the social function of the poet," they have discovered that "life and culture, dream and action have coalesced" and they are searching for a social vision "broad enough to include the many facets of the human personality." For Alex Comfort, "the importance of Auden to the present generation is in the assertion which he made that history is amenable to reason, and his discovery in experience that it is not "11
Moreover, the 1930s group of Auden, Spender, MacNeice and C. Day Lewis was in complete disarray. Auden's about-face, from left-wing political poetry to a more private, meditative poetry, occurred around 1939-40. In the following year, 1941, he published his New Year Letter where he dismissed the old socialist causes as the "theory that failed". With apparent regret, he concluded that "Art is not life and cannot be / A midwife to society." MacNeice, Spender, and C. Day Lewis each made a similar about face, if not as dramatically as Auden. Now that they themselves had undermined the urgency and validity of their earlier convictions, their work appeared bereft of all but its cleverness. It now seemed that, in the turbulent years between the two wars, the presumed guardians of the moral vision of western culture had trifled with their responsibilities. In The Nation (May 18, 1940), Archibald MacLeish attuned the intellectuals of both the l920s and the 1930s as "The Irresponsibles," for their failure to meet the threats to western culture from the extremes of the left and the right.
Thus, neither the dispersed Auden group nor the older culturally entrenched modernists like Eliot and Pound could offer compelling leadership to the younger poets, "born into one war and fattened for another.''12 This was the position of a range of groups, from Twentieth Century Verse (which included Woodcock) to Apocalypse and Surrealism. Looking back on the 1940s in a recent lecture, Roy Fuller recalled that "one disapproved of the public school and university chumminess that sometimes accompanied the left-wing poetry. . . . One was searching, hopelessly it seems now, for a poetry with impeccable political orientation, yet as rich and free as the great English poetry of the past.''13
If the younger poets in England found the legacies of early modernism and early Audenism at best ambiguous, in Canada the ambiguities had developed in a distinctive context. A.J.M. Smith's early criticism was decidedly engagé. His 1928 polemic, "Wanted Canadian Criticism," could have been heartily endorsed by the First Statement poets:
In the "Rejected Preface to New Provinces" (1936), Smith declared:
It was Smith, not Layton, who first, in 1942, attacked a "bias in favour of gentility" in Canadian poetry and criticism. In 1944, he held up "local realism" as an effective antidote to colonialism, to "a spirit that gratefully accepts a place of subordination, that looks elsewhere for its standards of excellence and is content to imitate with a modest and timid conservatism the products of a parent tradition."14 Smith's progress, however, seems to represent an anomaly. In the course of the l930s and 1940s, he moved steadily toward an aloof, "pure," Anglo-Catholic aestheticism while modernism elsewhere moved toward the impure social realism he seemed to endorse in the 1920s.
From the perspective of First Statement, the development of modern poetry in Canada appears somewhat differently. In the mid 1920s, when modernism came to Canada, it was already an evolved modernism, refined and reformulated by a generation of poets and critics.15 By the 1940s its basic tenets had acquired an almost canonical status and the First Statement poets clearly felt constrained by them. Louis Dudek, in a 1959 essay, located the "transition" to modernism in the pessimism and "negation" of poets like Robert Service, Drummond and Pratt, in the Period between 1900 and 1925. In contrast to Carman and Roberts, they had confronted the blind, impersonal cruelty of man and nature. The "direct inheritor" of Pratt is Earle Birney, more pessimistic, more laconic, "but more laconic still, so allusive in fact that the intellectual premises now remain unstated, the dry austere poems of F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith are the first small bitter fruit of the tree of modernism in Canada." Scott's "eternal lifeless processes," as in his poem "Old Song," are, for Dudek, the "clue" to the constricted metaphysics of the early modernists. The task confronting the next generation of poets was "to break through the zero point of negation (the prickly pear of the Hollow Men) toward some passionate rediscovery of a visionary, or a rational, or a sensuous affirmation of larger life."16
Sutherland's opposition to Eliotic, nature morte modernism became most strident in his later criticism, for example, in "The Great Equestrians" and "A Note on Roy Campbell," but it is also evident in his earlier work. His criticism of P.K. Page, 1947, virtually denied that her poetry offered new insights into contemporary society or modern psychology; instead, Sutherland emphasized the distortions of reality effectd by her "mole's-eye view of the world.":
In contrast, Sutherland found Earle Birney's early poetry both more spacious and more honest. "David," he maintained, has "a warmth and intimacy and a personal note." Unlike the cultivated mannerisms of P.K. Page, Birney's style "as an expression of something basic in the author's mind and personality." It is inclusive rather than restrictive when it confronts the complexities of modern life: "Space and air are admitted into our contracted modernist poetry." Similarly Sutherland's early admiration for Pratt is summoned by his spaciousness and energy, in contrast to "the modern poet, shivering in the solitude of himself." Pratt "severs the last connection with our Canadian nightingales, but he vaults right out of the contemporary scene.''17 Ironically, therefore, the poets whom Smith had placed in the "native tradition", including Pratt, Birney, Livesay, and now the First Statement group, seemed, in spite of their nationalism or regionalism, or alleged parochialism, able to accommodate a wider range of contemporary experience in their poetic visions, and infuse their work with a sense of spaciousness, energy, and urgency. The "cosmopolitans", soaking up eclectic international influences, nevertheless seemed to remain confined, restricted to a relatively narrow line of modern experience and expression. There was clearly a social-realist basis to Layton's, Dudek's and Sutherland's attacks on the cosmopolitans, but the purpose of realism was not exactly to bring poetry down from some supposed height, to restrict it to "native" issues and landscapes, but to release it, to open it up to wider possibilities than those of the modern waste land.
Moreover, the differences between Preview and First Statement were hardly ideological. In "Montreal Poets of the Forties," Wynne Francis makes the apt observation that the political differences between Preview and First Statement, as far as doctrine was concerned, were minimal:
Similarly, Miriam Waddington recalls that when she first met Sutherland, he was, under the influence of Layton, "trying half-heartedly to become a Marxist.''19 The First Statement attack upon the Preview poets focussed not upon their politics but upon their alien, and alienating, 'pose' and mannerisms, their agonies of cultural deprivation, and their allegedly fastidious integrity.
In "Politics and Poetry" Layton seized upon a renewed interest in romanticism that promised to reinstate both the primacy of the poet's personal experience and his status as unacknowledged legislator. He was pleased to find among the new generation of English poets an "emphasis upon personality" which "directly contradicts the arid intellectualism of earlier poets." Layton triumphantly declared that "the note of individualism which T.E. Hulme and Eliot thought they had banished forever has crept back into English poetry." He compared the contemporary mood to that which produced the surge of poetic activity at the beginning of the nineteenth century: "Just as the French Revolution of 1789 produced the romantic movement of the last century so, I suggest, the resurgence of a democratic élan is creating a new romanticism." But it is a somewhat chastened romanticism:
During the 1940s there did occur a spirited attempt to rehabilitate romanticism. T.E. Hulme in Speculations (published in 1924), Eliot in the Criterion (which folded in 1939) and in After Strange Gods (1936), and Auden after his conversion to orthodoxy, were all explicitly hostile to romanticism. All seemed to identify it with demagoguery or barbarism of one sort or another. A similar hostility is evident among academic critics as various as the New Critic Cleanth Brooks, the neo-humanist Irving Babbitt, the Marxist Christopher Caudwell, and the neo-classicist Yvor Winters. This prevailing hostility was increasingly questioned during the 1940s.
The leading apologist for romanticism was undoubtedly Herbert Read, who, as an older, established poet/critic, was one of the most influential champions of the work of the younger poets, particularly the Apocalyptics. Already in 1936 Read had published his introduction to Surrealism, entitled "Surrealism and the Romantic Principle." He attacked classicism as a "contradiction of the creative impulse," aligned with "the forces of oppression," "the intellectual counterpart of political tyranny," whereas the romantic spirit represented "a principle of life, of creation, of liberation."20 Richard H. Fogle, in "Romantic Bards and Metaphysical Reviewers," 1945, demonstrated that romantic poetry could also be defended on formal grounds, provided the New Critic could shake off some of his biases.21 Alex Comfort, in "The Ideology of Romanticism", 1946, attacked the neo-classicists for their "loss of nerve," for turning aside from the harsher aspects of reality. It was romanticism, not classicism, he argued, that confronted barbarism and held it at bay. Against the popular notion that the romantic artist pursues his personal vision in isolation from the rest of mankind and from the real world, Comfort argued that romanticism was founded on the principle of "the community of the artist with his fellow men." It was rather classicism, founded on the principle of a literary elite, that cut the poet off from his fellow men. Romanticism provides "voices for all those who have not voices," but it is more realistic than either Christianity or Marxism in that it promises no eventual utopia, no final triumph of the forces of light over darkness, only a continuing struggle.22 Thus, romanticism was acquitted of the charge that it merely indulged in dreamworld fantasies, and secondly, that it tended toward an excessive, anti-social egomania that must constantly be kept in check by moderate, rational norms.
For Layton, this new enthusiasm for romanticism liberated the poetic personality. It also demanded a morally and politically committed poetry that would be informed by Marxism and a realistic social understanding, but reach beyond that to draw on the authority and vision of masters like Blake, Byron and Heine. Whether or not Layton read specifically the work of Fogle or Comfort is not the point (although he did read Herbert Read with approval).23 Either by erudition or intuition, or a combination of both, Layton is acutely aware of a shift occurring in poetry and criticism in the 1940s, and instinctively attuned to it, quick to find support for his own convictions, and to define his own convictions more sharply in relation to the new "ferment."
Another feature of "Politics and Poetry" is Layton's emphasis upon the importance of an audience. He announced that the "dessicated coteries" of the 1930s had been dissolved, and quoted with approval an essay by H.L. Senior: "We do not want any more coteries of conceited young men writing little notes to each other disguised as reviews, and calling attention to a widespread influence that reaches no further than the points of their pens." The young poets, Layton maintained, had regained "the lost sense of community":
The question of an audience for poetry was a subject of continuing controversy between Preview and First Statement. In the March, 1943 editorial, Sutherland stated that the purpose of a literary magazine was to draw a "close connection . . . between the writers and the people." In another editorial a few weeks later, Sutherland challenged the Preview group to harness their "potential energies" to produce "a magazine for readers instead of one important chiefly to writers." In No. 20, the first printed issue, Sutherland explained that First Statement
In the following spring, in April, 1944, Sutherland insisted that "if the Canadian writer has any duty today, it is the duty of helping to secure a responsive audience in this country."24
Layton was equally committed to establishing an audience for poetry, but the emphasis upon clarity and the audience that he ascribes to the young English poets in "Politics and Poetry'' is difficult to corroborate from other sources. Here too Layton's essay is better read as a polemic against Preview than as an informative survey of developments in England, particularly with regard to the Apocalyptics whom Layton seems to be endorsing. G.S. Fraser frankly concedes, in his introduction to The White Horseman, that "the poets represented in this volume are, perhaps, not likely to have the same immediate popularity as the generation of Auden, Spender and MacNeice." "They have less sense of . . . an audience." Fraser also acknowledges "the obscurity of our poetry, its air of something desperately snatched from dream or woven round a chime of words." He insists that the obscurity is the result of "disintegration" in society, a valid point but not one that the First Statement poets could entirely endorse.25
If the difference in their emphasis upon an audience indicates how limited any alignment between First Statement and the Apocalyptics must be, the limits become even more apparent with regard to Dylan Thomas. Although Thomas himself maintained some distance from the movement, the Apocalyptics ranked him prominently among their number. His work appeared in the Apocalypse anthologies, and contemporary reviewers like Scarfe and Orwell certainly included him in the group.26 One might expect that Layton would champion his poetry. He was certainly no "tame" poet like Eliot or Auden. Compared to the discrete classicists, Thomas appeared an exuberant romantic bard, celebrating the cycle of birth and death in rich, rhapsodic language. However, Layton does not mention Thomas in criticism during the 1940s. His work was well known in Canada it was admired and imitated by Patrick Anderson and others of the Preview group. In fact, Sutherland counted Thomas, and also George Barker, among the unfortunate influences upon Preview. In "A Note on Metaphor", 1944, Sutherland attacked Thomas as a "surrealist", obsessed by the formal possibilities of metaphor to the point that all "content" is squeezed out of his poetry. Instead of illuminating reality, Thomas uses metaphor "to obscure realities that he finds unpleasant".27
Again, it is apparent that Layton was reporting developments in England very selectively in order to proclaim his own view of First Statement poetics against those of the rival Preview group. He implies that the Preview poets failed to realize the social pressures that had shaped the poetry they so fastidiously imitated, or to grasp the conflicting poetics of those whose language and mannerisms they had eclectically adopted. When Layton later reviewed Patrick Anderson's collection of poems, The Colour as Naked (1953), it is this uncritical eclecticism that he attacks.28 There is no quarrel with Anderson's technical proficiency; "everything is here, considerable talent, a sensitive ear, ambition." Neither is there a quarrel because Anderson has switched his allegiance to less worthy masters. The "borrowings" that Layton specifically identifies include Auden, Rilke and Dylan Thomas. Layton allows that the borrowings are resourceful, some of them even "clever and exciting." There also seems to be no quarrel with Anderson's political position; he has "doffed his Marxism," but his Marxism was never "anything more than a clothes-hanger." What irritates Layton is that he "has really nothing to say." His poems "lack a central urgency" and any sense of "spontaneous and genuine feeling." Consequently, there is only weariness, a "flanneled ease," "fastidious boredom," and a distinct datedness. His images, from whatever source they are borrowed, seem "all as fresh as last year's eggs." Layton's point is that only the persistence of the poet's experience can infuse a poem with vitality and immediacy, can invest it with creative authority. Failing that, poetry is necessarily stale and dated, no matter how au courant the poet may be.
Layton himself was eclectic and resourceful enough to learn some thing from almost anyone, and he doubtless did learn from the Apocalyptics and other groups of the 1940s. His ability to combine moral outrage with myth and fantasy, often surrealist fantasy, would not have been out of place in an Apocalypse anthology, although the force of his rhetoric, the range of his humour, and the precision of his imagery may have stood out. Layton did find a temporary alignment with the Apocalyptics useful, but it would be very easy to overstate their lasting influence upon his work. If he needed any instruction in a socially committed poetry charged with rich, sensuous romantic language, there were immediate influences at hand, namely A.M. Klein.
By the mid 1950s, the anti-Eliot, anti-Auden "ferment" in England that Layton had acclaimed in "Politics and Poetry" had soured into the rather astringent doctrines of "The Movement". Among the more prominent poets and critics who became identified with The Movement were Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Anthony Twaite, and Robert Conquest. They were directly opposed to the "romantic excesses" of the Apocalyptics, but they also had their own quarrel with the 1920s and 1930s. However, if the Apocalyptics had reacted primarily against the Auden group and less strenuously against the earlier modernists (D.H. Lawrence and W.B. Yeats were two modernists whom several of the Apocalyptics continued to honour), the Movement poets reacted primarily against the modernists. They reacted against the aloof, cryptic, esoteric poetry of Yeats, Eliot and Pound, against their impossible cultural ideals particularly when these had often proved remarkably hospitable to fascism, and against their self-consciously difficult, broken syntax. In Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), Donald Davie argued that "one cannot avoid the fact that the poet's churches are empty, and the strong suspicion that dislocation of syntax has much to do with it." Furthermore, he declared that "the development from imagism in poetry to fascism in politics is clear and unbroken." According to Philip Larkin, the modernists were guilty of "irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it." In his poem "Against Romanticism," Kingsley Amis pleaded, "Let us make at least visions that we need."29 The immediate targets of the poem are the Apocalyptics or New-Romantics, but the early modernists are also implicated. Thus, for the poets of the 1950s, their duty was to "close the gap between personal vision and public concerns."30
Much of this Layton could have endorsed as readily as any of the tenets of Apocalypse. He would have been sympathetic to the Movement's emphasis upon "authentic syntax," rational discourse, and intellectual responsibility. Layton would not allow his readers to forget that the austere moral and aesthetic revulsion of the modernists, delivered from their lofty cultural towers, had been helpless against contemporary political forces. In "Let's Win the Peace" (1944), Layton is contemptuous of the "moral revulsion" of the "decent, virtuous people everywhere" when they contemplate their recent history, or disturbing omens of the future: "They mistake their own shudderings for political realities." He concludes that "moral intuitions are futile, in fact dangerous, when unsupported by a wisdom which makes provision for their successful expression.''31 This statement is not explicitly applied to the modernists, but it illustrates Layton's conviction that while they may have been acutely perceptive of the moral diseases of their age, they seemed unable or unwilling to render their perceptions in terms amenable to social or political action they lacked "a wisdom which makes provision for their successful [social] expression."
The characteristic image of the poet that emerged from Layton's criticism during the 1940s was a good deal less exalted than that associated with the great moderns such as Yeats and Rilke. For Layton, the contemporary poet demanded to be regarded not as a lofty sage concerned only with the eternal verities, but "as an intelligent contemporary speaking of the things that matter to us all." In reply to an adverse review of some of the poems he had published in First Statement, Layton wrote: "My parents were both sturdy pioneers in this country and never let an occasion go by to inculcate in their children the virtues of thrift and self-reliance. . . . As for myself I pay my income taxes regularly."32 Layton's tongue is in his cheek, but this 1940s image of the poet as responsible citizen had a timely polemical purpose.
All of this suggests that Layton should have welcomed the arrival of the Movement in the 1950s. However, Layton's image of the poet became increasingly unruly, while the Movement doctrines of authentic syntax, rational discourse and social responsibility dwindled to a programme calling for moderation, good taste, common sense, and enlightened liberalism. Patrick Swinden describes the characteristic work of the 1950s as a poetry of the "centre".33 He means a poetry of the political centre, but also a poetry of the emotional and social centre, a middle-class poetry that avoided extreme opinions and extreme emotions, a "safe" poetry. There occurred a definite "lowering of expectations" during the 1950s, a sense of having been betrayed by all that 'great' poetry of the preceding decades, and a consequent resolve to make do with more conventional sentiments expressed in conventional forms. Eric Homberger finds the predominant note of the decade is one of "sadness and nostalgia, a positively hangdog tone of regret."34 It is not that there is a retreat from the world of politics and social issues, but that these subjects are dealt with in the language of polite concern, with little sense of urgency. It was Robert Conquest's anthology New Lines, 1956, that first put all the Movement poets "between the same covers."35 Swinden suggests that Conquest himself, as a poet and also a "celebrated commentator on Soviet affairs," represents the ideal of the Movement, "an intelligent and cultivated man whose liberal, elitist temperament is well suited to that ambiance of taste and reasonableness which is held to be the proper domain of poetry writer and poetry reader alike."36
The Movement poets were scornful of the traumas and vague yearnings of the Apocalyptics, and disenchanted with the strenuous intellectual probing of the modernists and the 1930s leftists; they seemed prepared to forego greatness, to settle for minor achievements. Kingsley Amis's poem, "Against Romanticism" is not a manifesto but a kind of 'position paper'. It favours "useful" visions, however "pallid", not the exalted, mystical visions of the New Romantics and early moderns. Instead of a "swooning wilderness" or a landscape parched by "frantic suns", it prefers a "temperate zone", "the grass cut", and "roads that please the foot". Instead of the stentorian commands "of a rout of gods," it prefers words that cannot "force a single glance." And instead of ominous warnings that dark forces lurk in the subconscious, it prefers "woods devoid of beasts" and a sky "clean of officious birds."37 Graham Hough, a polemicist and critic for the Movement, expressed with revealing candour the diminished, and demeaned, role of poetry that became characteristic of the 1950s:
Herbert Read, who had championed the young poets of the 1940s, found these developments much less acceptable. In his essay, "The Drift of Modern Poetry" (1955), he accused the English poets of "a failure of nerve":
Layton does not explicitly attack the Movement in his criticism in the 1950s; rather, in contrast to his boosterism in "Politics and Poetry," he becomes contemptuous of all things English. In the "Prologue" to The Long Pea Shooter, his harshest criticism is of Douglas Le Pan whose special talent is to
In a letter to The Canadian Forum, in reply to a Mr. Christopher of Ile Bigras, Layton rails against "Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy," and contends that the Anglo-Saxon is simply "not at home in the world of art." In another letter, a few months later, he claims Herbert Read as an ally against the "inartistic Anglo-Saxon."40 "Anglo" and "English" become identified with a cultivated duplicity that pretends to a high-minded concern for justice, culture, and art, yet finds moral fervour, emotional intensity or indignation in poor taste. Developments in English poetry and society were more varied and complex than the narrow image Layton presented, but again his target was English Canada, where precisely that narrow image seemed to be held in servile reverence.
In Canada, the 1950s witnessed "a shift in interest and regional focus, . . . ultimately, a major shift in critical direction." The "highly concentrated and localized activity" of the 1940s was dispersed, and the centre shifted from Montreal to Toronto.41 Some of the names that became more prominent were Roy Daniells, Phyllis Webb, George Whalley, Wilfred Watson, Douglas Le Pan, D.G. Jones, James Reaney and Jay Macpherson. Looking back over the decade in 1961, Desmond Pacey found it had been "dominated" by the "mythopoeic school." In "English-Canadian Poetry, 1944-1954," he observed that most of the poets were professors, they seemed to write with "less conviction" than the older poets of the 1940s, and that "vulgarity" rather than social injustice inspired whatever outrage they could muster.42
The fact that the mythopoeic poets of the 1950s are closely associated with Toronto and Northrop Frye may disguise the strong influence of the Movement upon them. Many of them shared the Movement preference for traditional forms and syntax, but the influence went beyond that to similarities in pose, or their assumed social position and function. Paul West, for example, has noted that Jay Macpherson appears rather like a "transatlantic Elizabeth Jennings, composing hermetic paradigms" or "cerebral riddles in the manner of the English 'Movement'." During the 1950s, Frye himself has much in common with the Movement critics. When he praised George Johnston (The Cruising Auk) for domesticating the "age of anxiety," and for his "controlled portrayal of the ineffectual," he was praising Movement virtues. Johnston may have other virtues, but they were not apparent, or important, to Frye when he wrote his review.43 In fact, except for his reviews of Pratt's poetry, there is not a great deal of evidence of the mythopoeic critic in Frye's "Letters in Canada". The interest is in topography rather than myth; but in either case, the Movement critic predominates.
By 1951, Layton had joined Dudek and Souster at Contact Press and this re-group now constituted the main opposition to the Movement influence upon Canadian poets. In "Patterns of Recent Canadian Poetry," Dudek argues that the "English Traditionalists" are the "most intelligent" of the new poets, "well-bred, inner-directed gentlemen," but they represent "formidable hostile forces to the troops of the young who want to write with radical new energy, with negative intent."44 Dudek specifically contrasts the "idealism" of tile social-realist poets of the forties with the "political and moral disillusionment" of "Les Jeunes of Today." The former group, out of a sense of frustrated idealism, wrote "angry poetry (unlike the Angry Young Men)", but their idealism nevertheless gave their work "moral and emotional coherence," "created a spirit of confidence," and they "established the test of poetry as its total effect, even its pragmatic effect." The "predicament" of the 1950s is that the younger poets are "not even capable of social anger." Theirs is a sardonic, bitter realism "without any utopian idealism to support it." In another essay, "The Transition in Canadian Poetry," 1959, Dudek maintained that the contemporary poets are merely "foddering at the mid-century on the stored achievement of our recent predecessors." The 1950s represent the "Victorian stage" of modern poetry, where the poets are merely "exploiting methods already tested and proved good." Instead of striving for new breakthroughs, as their modern predecessors had done, the contemporary poets are content to live on the "quick wealth" of their "nouveau riche parents."45
When Layton, Dudek and Souster turned to contemporary American poetry for relief, they were certainly attracted by the more freewheeling, energetic realism of some of the American poets. They identified, or identified with, a tradition of modern realism in opposition to the modernism of Eliot and Auden, and, among the younger poets, they sensed a determination to experiment and probe. The key figure was William Carlos Williams. Against Eliot's and Pound's cosmopolitanism, Williams had maintained a close identification with "deep-seated American ideals." Throughout the 1930s and 1940s he had opposed symbolism and the influence of Eliot's "Waste Land." In his autobiography he maintained that the appearance of "The Waste Land" had
He had called for "enlarged technical means," not simply for the sake of virtuosity but in order to "liberate the possibilities of depicting reality in a modern world, . . . in order to be able to feel more." According to Karl Shapiro, "the radical difference between Williams and, say, Eliot, is that Williams divorces poetry from 'culture', or tries to." Against Eliot's principle of impersonal poetry, Williams "has been dedicated to the struggle to preserve spontaneity and immediacy of experience."46
It was undoubtedly Raymond Souster who became the most ardent, and through Contact magazine, the most influential apologist for the newer American techniques. In his "Preface" to Cerberus he states his dissatisfaction with "existing forms," and makes the claim that Olson's theory of Composition by Field "may well start a revolution in English poetry." Dudek regarded Olson as an "experimenter" on the "frontier" of language, and thought it important to keep "our lines of communication with him wide open." As a poet, Olson was "one of the most energetic, and verbally gifted, of the new voices in poetry," but Dudek also found a good deal of nonsensical primitivism and "self-analytical sentimental 'buzzing'." Dudek's mentors were Pound and Williams, and he seemed to regard them as sufficient guides for the exploration of new techniques.47
However, American poetry was by no means free of astringent formalism, and neither Layton nor Dudek were uncritical in their acclaim. It was a period of apparent prosperity, of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and super-market consumption, and it seemed to leave poetry on the fringes. Poets turned to more private themes and devoted their energies to technique. Richard Wilbur argued that "the relation between an artist and reality is always an oblique one, and indeed there is no good art which is not oblique." He allows that poets may be "intelligent men, and they are entitled to their thoughts, but intellectual pioneering, and the construction of new thought-systems, is not their special function." Marius Bewley was weary of the "older hackneyed emphasis on experimentalism;" he preferred the current "taste for complicated metrical forms;" but even he regretted that often the poet became merely a "verbal engineer." According to Martin Duberman, the Black Mountain community was "monkishly indifferent to the world outside." Olson "put down political involvement as wasted effort." To William Carlos Williams, the younger poets were a disappointment. In "On Measure Statement for Cid Corman," he wrote:
If this is at all an accurate account of the state of poetry and criticism in the United States during the 1950s, Layton's, Dudek's and Souster's courtship of their American contemporaries seems a little odd. Again it is apparent that they 'read into' American poetry the qualities they admired, and then used the Americans in their polemics against the genteel Canadian formalists. Significantly, when Dudek wrote for a more international audience he was much more critical of the Americans than he was in Contact or Culture. For example, in Origin 1956, he dismissed "the best poetry of our time" as "unbearably bad." It is "void of interest or utility for the reader; it concerns only the poet himself, it is a subject for self-display or self-analysis; at best, an ironic picture of the 'intellectual' in a hostile environment." It is "anything but well-aimed speech; anything but words that teach; anything but conviction; anything but a guide to action."49
The lengths Layton was prepared to go to assert the function of poetry as "a guide to action" is apparent in his essay, "Shaw, Pound and Poetry", which appeared in the seventh issue of CIV/n, 1954.50 It is a rather astonishing essay. It seems strange that the late-Victorian, Fenian Shaw and the arch-modern, Social-Credit Pound should be so closely coupled, but for Layton they are both exemplary writers who understood and boldly attacked a corrupt society, and they attacked it where it mattered in its economic foundations. Layton acclaims a "realism and fundamental sanity in both, springing . . . from their awareness of money's role in contemporary life; in both, a demonic restlessness and irritability, artists to the fingertips.'' Layton is amazingly tolerant, or dismissive, of their ideological affiliations. They "both embraced Mussolini," but that was because "they were fed up to the gills with liberal pluto democracies that put forward shekel-chasing as the noblest purpose of man." Layton is quite prepared to "forget their temporary love-affair with Mussolini and Italian Fascism," and equally quick to dismiss "Pound's Gesellism" and Shaw's "rigid egalitarianism" as "so much blah." Neither Pound nor Shaw were ever to get off quite so easily again in Layton's criticism. The language and the basic argument of the essay are Marxist, but the point is that whether the writer's ideologies to the left or the right, he must make himself felt as a threat to the established political and economic powers Conversely, it is the failure of the contemporary poets to make themselves 'felt' that earns them Layton's scorn:
In 1979, Layton reminded his interviewer, Tom Henighan, that he "was once adopted as the white-haired boychick by the Black Mountain boys.''51 He declined the honour. Of the three poets, Layton, Dudek and Souster, Layton was the least attracted either to Black Mountain or to the later work of William Carlos Williams. However, as Layton had 'used' the poetics of the Apocalyptics in the 1940s to attack the older Preview poets, so he now 'used' the poetics of Williams, Olson, Duncan, Creeley, and Black Mountain to attack what seemed to him the conventional sterilities of the Movement-influenced "mythopoeic" poets of the 1950s. But again, he formed no more lasting alliance with Black Mountain than he had with Apocolypse. No sooner had Contact and Tish established a base for Black Mountain poetics in Canada than Layton shifted his critical position. Such shifts became an established pattern in subsequent decades with respect to the Beats, the neo-primitivists, the post-modernists, and others. What remained consistent was his conviction that poetry must function at the centre of both public and private life, and his vigilance against any attempt to move it toward a social, or cultural, or intellectual periphery. Almost all of his statements on poets, poetry and the poetic process have been uttered in the heat of controversy. Abstracted from their contexts, his critical statements can appear contradictory, simplistic, wildly romantic, or even blandly platitudinous. But in the contexts of shifting conflicts, of movements and counter-movements, they often appear timely, incisive, and scrupulously poised.
"Introduction," Irving Layton: The Poet and his Critics (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978), p. 15.[back]
"Introduction," Contexts of Canadian Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 16.[back]
Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski, eds., The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1967), p. 45.[back]
Wynne Francis, "Montreal Poets of the Forties," Canadian Literature, 14 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 23-25.[back]
Reprinted in Engagements: The Prose of Irving Layton, ed. Seymour Mayne (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), pp. 9-13.[back]
Reprinted in Taking Sides: The Collected Social and Political Writings, ed. Howard Aster (Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1977), p. 43.[back]
Eric Homberger, The Art of the Real (Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1977), p. 69.[back]
John Wain, "Oxford and After," Outposts, no. 13 (Spring 1949) pp. 21-23.[back]
G.S. Fraser, "Apocalypse in Poetry," in The White Horseman: Prose and Verse of the New Apocalypse, eds. J.F. Hendry and Henry Treece (London: Routledge & Sons, 1941), pp. 6-8 and 21. Other contemporary sources are Francis Scarfe, Auden and After: the Liberation of Poetry 1930-1941 (London: Routledge & Sons, 1942); Henry Treece, How I See Apocalypse (London: Lindsay Drummond, 1946); and Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece, eds., A New Romantic Anthology (London: Grey Walls Press, 1949). A recent study is Arthur Edward Salmon, Poets of the Apocalypse (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983).[back]
Alex Comfort, "An Exposition of Irresponsibility," in A New Romantic Anthology, p. 32.[back]
Francis Scarfe, Auden and After, p. xiii.[back]
Roy Fuller, Professors and Gods: Last Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: Andre Deutsch, 1973), p. 147.[back]
A.J.M. Smith, Towards a View of Canadian Letters (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1971), pp. 169, 173, and 34; also On Poetry and Poets (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977), p. 10.[back]
The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, ed. Dudek and Gnarowski, is still the most indispensible source for an understanding of the subject. Other important sources are Frank Davey, Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1980); and Kenneth Norris, "The Role of the Little Magazine in The Development of Modernism and Post-Modernism in Canadian Poetry," Diss. McGill University, 1980.[back]
Louis Dudek, "The Transition in Canadian Poetry," in Selected Essays and Criticism (Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1978), pp. 124-133.[back]
See John Sutherland, Essays, Controversies and Poems, ed. Miriam Waddington (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971), pp. 76-84, 95-96, 106, and 166; also "A Note on Roy Campbell," Northern Review, vol. 6, no. 1 (April-May, 1953), pp. 17-20.[back]
Wynne Francis, "Montreal Poetry of the Forties," p. 26.[back]
"Introduction" to Essays, Controversies and Poems, p. 8.[back]
Herbert Read, "Surrealism and the Romantic Principle," in Romanticism: Points of View, eds. Robert F. Gleckner and Gerald E. Enscoe, second edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970), pp. 97-98.[back]
See Romanticism: Points of View, pp. 149-164.[back]
See Romanticism: Points of View, pp. 165-180.[back]
See Engagements, p. 163.[back]
See John Sutherland, Essays, Controversies and Poems, pp. 23-33.[back]
The White Horseman, pp. 24, 27, and 30.[back]
See Scarfe, Auden and After, p. 160; and George Orwell, "The Dark Horse of the Apocalypse" in Life and Letters Today, 25 (June, 1940), p. 315.[back]
"A Note on Metaphor," in Essays, Controversies and Poems, pp. 38-39. See also "The Past Decade in Canadian Poetry" and "Literary Colonialism," pp. 72 and 32.[back]
Engagements, pp. 33-34.[back]
Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), p. 97; Philip Larkin, "Introduction to All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961-1968" (London: Faber and Faber, 1970) p. 17, and Kingsley Amis, "Against Romanticism," A Case of Samples (London: Victor Gollanez, 1956), p. 31.[back]
Michael Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), p. 263.[back]
Engagements, pp. 16-17.[back]
Letter, First Statement (April 2, 1943), in Engagements, p. 153.[back]
Patrick Swinden, "English Poetry", in The Twentieth-Century Mind, vol. 3 (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 390-391.[back]
The Art of the Real, p. 70.[back]
Philip Larkin, Interview with Ian Hamilton, in Twentieth-Century Poetry: Critical Essays and Documents, eds. Graham Martin and P.N. Furbank (London: Open University Press, 1975), p. 244.[back]
Swinden, "English Poetry", p. 386.[back]
Kingsley Amis, "Against Romanticism", A Case of Samples (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1956), p. 31. Quoted by Patrick Swinden, "English Poetry", pp. 387-388.[back]
Graham Hough, "The Modernist Lyric" in Image and Experience: Studies in a Literary Revolution (London: Duckworth, 1960), reprinted in Modernism 1890-1930, eds. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1976), pp. 3l2-322.[back]
Herbert Read, "The Drift of Modern Poetry", Encounter 4, no. 1 (January, 1955), p. 10.[back]
Engagements, pp. 158 and 163.[back]
The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, p. 114.[back]
Desmond Pacey, Creative Writing in Canada, 2nd edition (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1961), p. 245; and "English-Canadian Poetry, 1944-1954," in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, pp. 161, 165.[back]
Paul West, "Ethos and Epic: Aspects of Contemporary Canadian Poetry," in Context of Canadian Criticism, ed. Eli Mandel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), p. 212: Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden pp. 110-113.[back]
The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, pp. 274 and 282-285.[back]
Dudek, "The Transition in Canadian Poetry" (1959), in Selected Essays and Criticism, p. 122.[back]
William Carlos Williams, Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1951), p. 174; Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New York: Random House, 1954), p. 289; and Karl Shapiro, The Poetry Wreck: Selected Essays 1950-1970 (New York: Random House, 1975), p. 112.[back]
Raymond Souster, "Preface" to Cerberus, in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, p. 147; and Louis Dudek, review of Paul Blackburn's Proensa, Charles Olson's In Cold Hell, In Thicket, and Robert Creeley's A Kind of Act of, in Selected Essays and Criticism, pp. 36-37.[back]
See Richard Wilbur, "The Bottle Becomes New, Too," Quarterly Review of Literature 7, no. 3 (1953), p. 192, and "On My Own Work," Contemporary American Poetry, ed. Howard Nemerov (Voice of America Forum Lectures, n.d.), p. 213; Marius Bewley, "Some Aspects of Modern American Poetry" (1954) in Modern Poetry: Essays in Criticism, ed. John Hollander (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 255-256; Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration into Community (New York: Dutton, 1972), p. 399; and William Carlos Williams, "On Measure-Statement for Cid Corman," in Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics, ed. Gary Geddes, 2nd edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 598[back]
Selected Essays and Criticism, pp. 56-57.[back]
Engagements, pp. 36-37.[back]
"Freedom and the Life of Poetry: An Interview with Irving Layton", Journal of Canadian Poetry 2, no. 2 (1979), p. 6.[back]