I was going thru my archives today and came across this old essay of mine, which I wrote about nine years ago in grad school and which won me the Wynne Francis Prize for best essay on Canadian Poetry (there were two applicants and it was declared a tie). Since, you know, I haven't been talking enough about poetry lately, I thought I'd post it here. Not sure how well the formatting will translate, but I'm not about to try and de-bug it on blogger. Enjoy.
The Mountain Came to Him
Situating Irving Layton in the context of
poetics Black Mountain
IMF In the Midst of My Fever
LCC Irving Layton & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978
NAP The New American Poetry, 1945-1960
PV “Projective Verse”
RCS A Red Carpet for the Sun
SC Selected Poems: Robert Creeley
TIB The Improved Binoculars
WG Wild Gooseberries
In order to give the reader some sense of the history of the period and the primary alignment of the writers, I have adopted the unusual device of dividing the poets in five large groups, though these divisions are somewhat arbitrary and cannot be taken as rigid categories. ... The first group includes those poets who were originally closely identified with the two important magazines of the period, Origin and Black Mountain Review, which first published their mature work.
-Donald Allen, ”Preface,” The New American Poetry, 1945-1960
The “somewhat arbitrary” tendency of anthologists and academics to group writers by nation has, generally, been taken for granted as a necessity for reasons of expediency and economy. And this principle could easily go unchallenged in the present instance, but for the presence of one poet: Irving Layton. Although he was, and is, a Canadian,
A constellation of similar interests and stances first compelled Robert Creeley to write to
Let me be my own fool
of my own making, the sum of it
One says of the drunken farmer:
leave him lay off it. And this is
Very merciful was the cancer
Which first blinding you altogether
Afterwards stopped up your hearing;
At the end when Death was nearing,
Black-gloved, to gather you in
You did not demur, or fear
One you could not see or hear.
Both critics’ assessments, however, are simplistic reductions based on too rigid an interpretation of the somewhat arbitrary labels “avant-garde/experimental” and “formalist/traditional.” If Creeley had an appreciation for
how several of Creeley’s poems owe their success to a purposeful variation of traditional beginnings, and how even in his most personal lyrics he might introduce other men’s words, mostly in an effort to find an alternative to the dominant and oppressive forms of the day.(Butterick 119)
Butterick qualifies the above by saying that Creeley’s inscription of traditional forms often serves the ends of parody (124), but that “it is the more sober and deliberate adjustment of tradition that marks Creeley’s accomplishment: not simple irony or parody, but a dexterous mastery of all effects, as the occasions arise”(129). Certainly, Creeley never adopts inherited forms chapter and verse, but neither does he throw them out with the bathwater of his poetic inheritance.
It is precisely this spirit of experimental adaptation that Creeley admired so much in the work of his Canadian friend:
...it is that you can use these forms with a tenseness, and thus a ‘rightness,’ utterly the issue of your own emotions...I like your poems, anyhow, because you do damn well invest formal or traditional metrics ... with your own immediate presence. And you also experiment, within this area, to such an extent that you make a lot of so-called ‘avant-garde’ types look that much the sicker.(LCC 6-7; April 5, 1953)
Thus, for both Creeley and Layton—who equated restricting oneself to inherited verse patterns with using “the snotrag of someone else”(LCC 24; July 8, 1953)—traditional forms were not ends in themselves, but means towards the sincere expression of the poets’ own thoughts and emotions. Their respective means of negotiating this common heritage, of expressing themselves poetically, were, for the most part, radically different, but their outlooks remarkably similar.
A shared perspective on form was not the only point of connection between
We’ve discussed it many times, and I know he [Louis Dudek] feels about you and what you are doing to make this a more civilized planet to live on pretty much as I do.[sic] All of us: Olson, Rexroth, Blackburn, Corman, Souster et al share a common outlook, a common philosophy, a kind of angry secularism, a poetic down-to-earthness which I think the healthiest thing to have come out of the war and as a result of it.(LCC 84; January 1, 1954)
Poets on both sides of the border were deeply concerned with what they perceived to be a pervasive atmosphere of genteel academicism and the ubiquitous influence of post-war mass consumer culture. They saw the bulk of poets—particularly those in the New Critical
The kind of commodity-oriented civilization which huge mass increases in population are forging requires efficiency and conformity to carry on: imagination, spontaneity, individualism are so much sand in a smooth-running machine. The pistol is aimed at all our heads.(LCC 123; August 1954)
Layton’s response to this threat, and the general complacency with which it was regarded, was to write reams of scathing invective and satire, Olson’s to compose highly intellectualized anti-Eliot program-poems like “The Kingfishers,” Creeley’s to engage in a sort of deep, meditative emotional introspection. The colour and shape of the pearls these men made were different, but the sand that irritated them was the same.
You went behind a bush to piss.
Imagine Wordsworth telling this!
About Lucy? And Robert Bridges
About his dear lass?
The poets are such bad liars.
Damn them and all their admirers.
The stars, the moon, for all their talk’s stone—
Coynts, not always clean.
Yes, and they’ve solid interests
In mournful birds, in clouds, in mists.
Did La belle Dame sans Merci a-shit?
Keats nowhere says it.
But read the Oxford Book of Verse
By whatchamacallit, and curse:
Second-rate thoughts, weakness, groans, laments,
And soft sentiments.
You, Love, fat, fat-assed, pissed away.
The odour was that of cut hay;
The flood came toward me with brown mirth.
O waterfalling earth! O Light!
the shits and pisses ... are a necessary antidote to the prevalent gentility and false idealism. ... It is for our time that the paradox is reserved that the soul must be saved by the body, the highest by the lowest; and men’s equal claim to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness justified by their common possession of an anus.(LCC 221; March 20, 1955)
This kind of frank physicality, articulated in everyday slang, was well-aligned with the Black Mountain agenda-items of locality, reality, and specificity; Layton’s voice, as Eli Mandel observes, was to the Americans “vulgar and therefore poetic”(Mandel 16, italics in original). Of Eliot’s contemporaries, he and
I approach with such
a careful tremor, always
I feel the finally foolish
question of how it is,
then, supposed to be felt,
and by whom. I remember
once in a rented room on
then, literally, after we
had made love on the large
bed sitting across from
a basin with two faucets, she
had to pee but was nervous,
embarrassed I suppose I
would watch her who had but
a moment ago been completely
open to me, naked, on
the same bed. Squatting, her
head reflected in the mirror,
the hair dark there, the
full of her face, the shoulders,
sat spread-legged, turned on
one faucet and shyly pissed. What
love might learn from such a sight.
The tone is far more sedate than “Anti-Romantic,” but Creeley’s emphasis is strikingly similar to Layton’s: the insistence on the ‘literalness’ of “loved”; the playful puns on “embarrassed” and “turned on”—the latter emphasized by enjambment; the use of words like “pee” and “pissed”; and the conclusion, reminiscent of Williams’ red wheelbarrow upon whose concrete specificity so much depends. Wordsworth wouldn’t write this of Lucy, but Creeley, more strictly empirical, must.
Although the affinities that existed between
is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature ... and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For a man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages, the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use. ... If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself ... if he stays inside himself, if he is contained with his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen...(PV 395)
Olson’s program is to “hunt among stones”(“The Kingfishers,” NAP 8), to purge the poem of the poet’s ego, to inscribe the self as an archaeologist or archivist, collecting and cataloguing objects, as in “As the Dead Prey Upon Us”:
O souls, in life and in death,
awake, even as you sleep, even in sleep
know what wind
even under the rearend of the ugly automobile
lifts it away, clears the sodden weights of goods,
equipment, entertainment, the foods the Indian woman,
the filthy blue deer, the 4 by 3 foot ‘Viewbook,’
the heaviness of the old house, the stuffed inner room,
lifts the sodden nets(NAP 31)
Olson’s speaker here presents the reader with a list of juxtaposed objects that are supposed to be significant in and of themselves; the poet does not interfere by imposing his personal interpretation of their abstract ‘meaning’ in the poem. There is an element of this in
Sabrina Reed, in an attempt to make sense of Layton’s involvement with and later departure from the Black Mountain poets, claims that Layton, in the early work that first attracted Creeley, was aligned with objectism’s doctrine of ego-less creation. Later, she tells us, “he began consciously to reject Creeley and Olson’s elimination of the ego”(Reed 236). But there is precious little proof that
An extension of this issue of self-inscription is the matter of descriptive representation. Charles Olson warns that the “descriptive functions generally have to be watched, every second, in projective verse, because of their easiness, and thus their drain on the energy which composition by field allows into a poem”(PV 390). Similarly, Creeley argues against the “great preoccupation with symbology and levels of image in poetry insisted upon by contemporary criticism”(“Olson & Others” 410).
Reading you and Olson at your worst I sometimes have the feeling I’m looking over the shoulder of one of my students taking notes: everything but the barest essentials, clues, reminders, tags and signposts. But what in the fucking hell is the good of a signpost if there isn’t a bloody road to be seen anywhere? ... Nobody talks like that. Then what’s the point of writing like that? (LCC 168; Oct. 24, 1954)
Again, the issues of form and subject intertwine. Olson’s theory was that revolutionary thought had to be scripted in revolutionary syntax. Somewhat oddly, he saw
Olson and the others ... think they’ve gotten hold of something new (it isn’t, it’s as old as Wordsworth) about getting poetry close to speech .... [N]o one ... ever talks the way they write. It’s phoney, and affected, from the word go....I am not interested in poems as the exemplification of any particular theories, and I couldn’t be less interested in poetic fads: what I want is good poems.(WG 22; Letter to Cid Corman, July 13, 1953)
Allen, Donald, ed. The New American Poetry, 1945-1960.
Butterick, George. “Robert Creeley and the Tradition.” Robert Creeley: The Poet’s Workshop. Ed. Carroll F. Terrell. Orono: The National Poetry Foundation, 1984.
Cameron, Elspeth. Irving Layton: A Portrait.
Creeley, Robert. “Inside Out.” The Collected Essays.
---. “Olson & Others: Some Orts for the Sports.” The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. Ed. Donald Allen Berkeley: The
---. Selected Poems.
---. “To Define.” In The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. Ed. Donald Allen.
Faas, Ekbert and Sabrina Reed, eds. Irving Layton & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978.
Francis, Wynne. “Irving Layton and His Works.” Canadian Writers and Their Works. Vol. 5. Eds. Robert Lecker, Jack David, Ellen Quigley.
Mandel, Eli. Irving Layton.
Mansbridge, Francis. Irving Layton: God’s Recording Angel.
---, ed. Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton.
Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” In The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. Ed. Donald Allen.
Reed, Sabrina. The Place of American Poets in the Development of Irving Layton, Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster.
Sherman, Kenneth. “An Interview with Irving Layton.” Essays on Canadian Writing 1978, 10, 7-18.
Tomlinson, Charles. Introduction. William Carlos Williams. Selected Poems. N.Y.: New Directions, 1985.
Wiens, Erwin. “From Apocalypse to
Appendix: Layton/Black Mountain Chronology
1912: Born Israel Lazarovitch in Tirgul Neamt Northern Romania, youngest of 8.
1913: Family emigrates to
1945: First book, Here and Now, published.
1948: Now is the Place published.
1951: Self-publishes The Black Huntsmen.
1952: Cerberus, poems by
-Canadian Poems, edited by
-Souster’s Contact magazine started.
1953: CIV/n magazine publishes Origin poets.
-Love the Conqueror Worm published
February 17: Robert Creeley, having read copies of The Black Huntsmen and Canadian Poems, writes to
June: Receives visit from Cid Corman, editor of Origin, who introduces him to “Projective Verse.”
September 21: After reading a poem of
1954: In the Midst of my Fever published by Divers Press,
-The Long Pea-Shooter published.
1955: CIV/n folds.
-The Cold Green Element and The Blue Propeller (with help from Creeley) published.
-The Improved Binoculars, selected poems, published by Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Press, as eighteenth in a series which included Olson, Creeley, Zukovsky, Kenneth Patchen, Joel Oppenheimer, Denise Levertov, et al.
-Ryerson Press, Canadian distributor of The Improved Binoculars, refuses to release its copies, because of “controversial” content.
-The Bull Calf and Music on a Kazoo published.
1958: A Laughter in the Mind published by Jonathan Williams.
1959: A Red Carpet for the Sun published by McClelland and Stewart and Jonathan Williams.
1960: The New American Poetry published.
 And for the sake of expediency and economy, I won’t go into other factors (e.g. nationalism, cultural identification, etc.) the existence of which I acknowledge, but which are not of particular relevance to the present discussion.
 Because of his work publishing
 With the exception of Sabrina Reed’s unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Place of American Poets in the Development of Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, and Raymond Souster. The collected correspondence of
 In fact,
 I focus on Creeley and Olson—and to a lesser extent Cid Corman, whose contribution to the movement was greater as editor of Origin than as a poet—both because they were the most central Black Mountaineers and because they were the closest of them to Layton.
 Not only did he regularly publish poems in Origin and BMR, but he was featured in one issue of the former (Origin 14) and edited another (Origin 18); was, at Creeley’s invitation, a contributing editor of BMR; and published a book, again at Creeley’s request, with Divers Press (IMF), and his first “selected poems” (TIB) with Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Press.
 Which doctrine I elucidate below.
 Mansbridge misses a great deal here. Not only does he seem to be unaware of the proper definition of “reactionary,” but his notion that it is harder now to understand Layton’s link with Creeley, Olson et al. than it would have been in the 1950s is just plain silly, particularly since he quotes here from the Layton-Creeley correspondence, which publication sheds much light on an otherwise obscure topic (an absurdity rendered all the more poignant by the fact that Mansbridge is the editor of Layton’s letters). It seems to me that Mansbridge uses this “difficulty” as a handy excuse to move on to other topics.
 Although one has reason to doubt that the correctness of this observation is based on anything more substantial than chance, since she goes on to generalize, “Olson also wrote tough, short, tight little poems”(Cameron 210), a statement that contains only slightly more truth than, say, “Olson was a short, tight, little man.” The unreliability of Cameron’s Harlequinesque biography of
 Francis’ offhand dismissal is a tad misleading, as her focus is on the big picture of
 In particular, Butterick cites the general influence of Campion’s short lyrics, echoes of Byron in “The Bed,” and Creeley’s use of ballad metres in such poems as “Ballad of the Despairing Husband” and “The Three Ladies.”
 Or, as Creeley puts it, “Tradition is an aspect of what anyone is now thinking,--not what someone once thought.”(“To Define,” NAP 408)
 I know this sounds incredibly broad, but if anything it isn’t broad enough, since Black Mountain’s international connections stretched as far ‘east’ as Japan, through the relationships of Cid Corman and Robert Creeley to such writers and artists as Katue Kitasono.
 See appended chronology.
 The Maximus Poems are also highly relevant. As Reed states: “While Maximus maintains his individuality, the populace has been corrupted by mass production.”(Reed 205)
 Creeley states this more unequivocally than
 Here, I don’t mean to suggest that the individual members of the
 Cf. William Carlos Williams’ doctrine: “No ideas but in things.” (Quoted in Tomlinson 12)
 Or that Creeley felt the need to impose it on
21 By way of contrast, Creeley is explicit: “Insofar as I is a vehicle of passage or transformation, its powers are clear. Realized as will or personality, that ‘mealy seal’ as Olson called it, the power vitiates as soon as the energy necessary to sustain it exhausts itself.”(“Inside Out” 563)
23 Much later,
 A phenomenon which would have, at least, been delayed considerably, had it not been for the support of Creeley, Olson, Corman, William Carlos Williams, and Jonathan Williams.