Friday, July 20, 2007

Poetry Friday/ Reader's Diary #268- Irving Layton: The Tightrope Dancer (FINISHED)

A couple Fridays ago I posted about Margaret Atwood's "You Fit Into Me" poem. Just recently I came across Irving Layton's response to that poem, "Tell it to Peggy";

We're in this
together, love,
like a head
in a bear trap

My head
your bear trap.

While I'm still not particularly taken with Atwood's poem, despite some well made arguments in its defense, I actually enjoy Layton's response. Yes, it is probably offensive to some- I'd assume Atwood herself- but it is mild by Layton's supposed misogynistic standards. When I first read it, I thought it was just a simple enough satire of Atwood's poem. But, after some consideration, I think it goes beyond that. Given the context from which it appeared- Layton's The Tightrope Dancer, a collection of poems dealing primarily with death and sex- I think the last two lines could be sexual. If this is the case, it is almost a reversal of Atwood's poem which put the suggestion of intimacy at the beginning. Whereas, in Layton's poem, the suggestion of a more personal relationship, albeit not exactly a romantic one, is revealed at the end. And, as a strength over Atwood's poem, Layton's can survive without a dependence on the reader to see two different meanings. Even without my 2nd interpretation, it could be that Layton was simply making a point that someone is attracted to another's intellect, or maybe that he feels trapped by the relationship and wants out. The fact that the "head in a bear trap" image is repeated could be to simply mock Atwood's need for an alternate meaning, to play head games. Then again, it might be that Layton repeats it simply to reemphasize what was already said and but for making a point to Atwood, could have sufficed singularly.

This wit, mixed with political incorrectness, is not only representative of most poems in The Tightrope Dancer, but it is also one of the better features. I'm not particularly drawn to offensive art, in fact sometimes I can be a downright prude. But other times I find it refreshing. Yes, I think he comes across as a dirty old man the way he describes his sexual fantasies of unsuspecting female beach patrons, but at least Layton is being himself. Even if you despise the man, you might still respect the honesty. As Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck says in David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, "If you are not truthful to the world about who and what you are, your art will stink of falseness."

Besides, offensiveness is subjective. In one poem, "The Expanding Universe" for example, Layton uses allusions to ejaculation to explain the Biblical story of creation. I know a lot of people would probably go into hysterics over such a suggestion, but it's one of those that doesn't bother me (in fact, I think it was very well written and arguably not just for shock value). It probably comes as no surprise that Leonard Cohen was a protege of Layton. Cohen's recent book of poems Book of Longing was dedicated to Layton.

Irving Layton passed away last year.


Anonymous said...

I'd missed Atwood's poem, so went back and read it. And even though I'm of the "appropriate gender" to read it, I read it as a male-bashing poem (along the lines of "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle", but not as clever). And I didn't know the hook and eye terms either.

But I loved Irving Layton's naughty comeback.

Dr J said...

The Layton/Cohen relationship is long and storied, and even-- dare I say it-- famous, insofar as one remembers a Canadian context for the word "famous." There was even a rare interview with both of them, twenty years or so ago, on Much Music, of all stations. It was even, surprisingly, informative.

I'd be curious to check the dates on the Atwood and Layton poems. Can't say right now, but I have a sneaking suspicion (and just a sneaking suspicion) that both were written during their days as colleagues at York University. If so, it might suggest another dimension of response, at the political-professional level-- and from within one's own house, as they say.

John Mutford said...

Kelly: I'm glad you saw his comeback as "naughty" as well. And it's not just me.

Dr. J: That must have been pre-Pussycat Doll auditions I guess. I wonder if any of their current vjs even know who Cohen is?

Checking on the dates, "You Fit Into Me" was first published in her Power Politic in 1971, while Layton's was first published in 78. This is not to say they weren't influenced by their time as colleagues. When was that?

Dr J said...

Maggie A was at York U from 1971-72 (and hired by my onetime mentor, Dick Ewen). Layton was there from 69-78, and was one of the department's resident rascals.

As for Much Muisc vjs & et al: I will say, it never ceases to amaze me how many younguns, even among the most adamantly anti-literate, know and like Cohen. Some while ago, he became "cool" again, and now he's regularly venerated by those you'd think very much least likely to do so. In other words, he's Canada's Johnny Cash, adored even by the Timberlake crowd. (Go figure.)

Imani said...

Layton is one of my favourite poets. I don't think he's misogynistic. He's a raw, aggressive poet and, being a hetero, that was sometimes turned against women. *shrugs* I find his honesty refreshing. If the genders had been reversed everyone would have nodded and agreed that men were bastards.

(When I first read that poem I immediately took it to be sexual. Maybe I just have a dirty mind. Made me laugh.)

John Mutford said...

Imani: no arguments here.

Camille Alexa said...

I'm fond of Atwood's six-word story:

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

John, I'm sorry I didn't stop by earlier to thank you for your entry! So nice to see poetry included as a hidden treasure!

I'm happy to tell you that you've been chosen as a winner for a prize in the contest. Would you be so kind as to drop me an e-mail at susan at west of mars dot com (spaces removed; all that jazz) and I'll get things in motion for you?

Thanks again! You helped make this contest a huge success; I hope you'll join us for Debut a Debut this winter.