BUSINESS WATCH

The frightening vision of a leading poet

‘We feel afraid, forlorn and comfortless, seeking warmth, like lost sheep plunging back into a flock that follows no direction’

Peter C. Newman November 19 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

The frightening vision of a leading poet

‘We feel afraid, forlorn and comfortless, seeking warmth, like lost sheep plunging back into a flock that follows no direction’

Peter C. Newman November 19 1990

The frightening vision of a leading poet

BUSINESS WATCH

‘We feel afraid, forlorn and comfortless, seeking warmth, like lost sheep plunging back into a flock that follows no direction’

PETER C. NEWMAN

According to Keith Spicer’s first declaration as head of the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, he wants our destiny articulated by poets, not the professors and politicians who brought this country to the brink of disintegration. So it seems entirely appropriate to seek the wisdom of the man Northrop Frye described as “the best English-language poet in Canada,” the literary genius who comes as close as anyone to being our poet laureate, Montreal’s Irving Layton.

The author of 54 books, translated into seven languages, twice nominated to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, Layton lists his favorite recreation as “polemicizing,” a search for ways to perpetuate his faith as “a freethinker.” His 78 years have not slowed him down exactly: indeed, instead of being a firecracker trying to explode every social shibboleth within range, he has become a cannon, aiming big shots at big targets.

We meet at the Hostaria Romana, a downtown Montreal pasta joint he describes as having “exquisite food, served as if the guests are royalty.” The spaghetti Bolognese turns out to be mediocre, but the conversation is wonderful.

“Civilization has never been in greater danger,” Layton begins, characteristically dismissing the comforts of understatement. “But I don’t regard that danger as a menace or a bad thing. On the contrary, with danger, you have the possibility of change and hope, an opportunity to do something different. Everything becomes negotiable, because there’s the possibility of doing things in a fundamentally new way. Too often in the past we’ve drawn back and resisted the opportunity for genuine improvement.”

Unlike most Canadians who tend to blame everything from the Expos’ losing streak to the latest snowflurry on the politicians, Layton just thinks they’re irrelevant. Brian Mulroney he kisses off as “basically a good guy whose heart is in the right place, but who lacks the intelligence for the job.” He is convinced that Jean Chrétien

lacks the character, stamina or personality required by the Canadian crisis. “You’ve got to have not only the right man but the right moment,” he explains. “This is the right moment, but we don’t have the right man.” Robert Bourassa he praises as a “cool-headed economist who understands that the most important thing is to feed and clothe people, so you can’t go wild with your nationalism.”

Only Pierre Trudeau brings down the poet’s wrath. “He thinks he’s a visionary,” Layton charges, “but a certified visionary must understand the elements he’s working with, and Trudeau ignores the French-Canadian fact. He has always struck me as being very opinionated, highly dogmatic and, above all, arrogant. His pit-bull attitudes are based on his inability to listen; he feels so superior to everybody, because of his training as a Jesuit and as an Anglo. In short, his class and his education mitigate against him.”

Partly because he has travelled and read so widely, Layton views Canada’s current crisis from a world perspective. “I see the quest for independence—whether it’s in Eastern Europe or in Quebec—springing out of the alienation of the individual from a world he never made. I see modern man as being alienated from God, from

nature and, finally, in this last stage, from himself. We feel afraid, forlorn and comfortless, seeking a touch of warnith, like lost sheep plunging back into a flock that follows no direction.”

Such an apocalyptic view seems hard to justify, but Layton is adamant in his prognosis. “I can’t help feeling,” he gloomily predicts, “that we’re now in a situation analogous to the fourth or fifth centuries, during the fall of the Roman Empire, when the barbarian hordes were knocking on the gates. Those barbarians were external. Ours are internal in the sense that they’re our own citizens who have shaken off the restraints of civilization. It’s even true of the arts. Will we ever see another Milton, Shakespeare, Racine or T. S. Eliot? Forget it. That kind of greatness is gone forever, destroyed by technology and the forces of socalled education. If you want great poetry today, you don’t go to the poets who are all busy writing their sweet little lyrics, God bless them. If you want great poetry today, you must go to films and music.”

Curiously, Layton’s pessimism does not include the future of Quebec, because he feels its society is firmly rooted in a distinct history, religion, language, literature and memory. That’s where the grievances and the difficulties come in, he believes, because English Canada lacks such unifying anchors. This doesn’t only mean English Canada will have a tough time facing the determined collective will of French Canada, but that those of us outside Quebec are much more open to the destructive forces of the modern world. “Menaced by the Anglos, the French-Canadians pull in,” he explains, “because they feel they’re protecting something valuable against the onset of mediocratization and homogenization. English-Canadians don’t have much intellectual baggage whatsoever, none at all, really. So they have very little to protect and not much will to fight back.”

The third glass of wine has grown warm between us, and the waiters, who look like cashiered mutual fund managers with nowhere to go, are silently agreeing with Layton, their own world having so recently disappeared. But the poet ends the interview on an up note.

“I have two deities,” he says. “My main deity is chance; the other is love. I’m a great believer in chance. I was born circumcised, which gave me the vanity and egotism of a savior, and made my mother favor me. I was the only one in her brood of seven who attended high school, because our family couldn’t afford the fees. She felt that if I turned out to be the Messiah, I should know the English language, history and so on. I’ve been a great believer in chance ever since.”

Layton hints that Canada may be salvaged by just such a chance.

I can’t resist. Surely he, as a putative Messiah, can save the country. His eyebrows shoot up; he’s not sure whether I’m joshing him. “I don’t think you can save it,” he says, sadly adding, “and I don’t think I can save it.”

Then he reconsiders. “I shouldn’t be overcome by such modesty all of a sudden,” he says. “Maybe after I’ve had another drink.”