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
like a head
in a bear trap
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.