Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fulgurations and Fenestrations, Part Two and Final

An interview in the latest edition of subTerrain finds poet Brad Cran responding to a suggestion by Brian Kaufman that Layton was sexist, falling "short of the mark as [a] decent human being[]" with his own take on Layton's poem "Misunderstanding":

“Layton suggests a woman who he is hitting on lacks a dedication to literature because she doesn’t want to have sex with him. I’m really not outraged in the least by this poem.

In fact, I find it comic and funny in a horny old man kind of way. So I don’t find Layton’s sexism directly offensive but rather I find it anachronistic, flawed thinking and it does taint the way I view him as an intellectual. It demeans his work.”

For those unfamiliar with the poem, here is “Misunderstanding” in its entirety:

I placed
my hand
her thigh.

By the way
she moved
I could see
her devotion
to literature
was not

Cran misunderstands. But before I get back to his crass, facile, and supercilious remarks, I’d like to explore several ways to look at Layton’s poem.

Who is the woman in the poem? None of us know, including Cran, so it’s not fruitful to lock her in as an attempted pick-up, and then base everything else from that. There are several other options which are, to my mind, more intriguing, providing more intellectual depth and emotional range.

First, the woman could be Layton’s wife (and we have to take it on faith that the man in the poem is Layton. I’ll allow for that, though it, also, could be too big of an assumption.). Occam’s razor slices through fanciful suggestion. Even among philanderers, striking out often occurs with one’s spouse because of obvious mathematical data based on the propinquity of sexual seduction. If this is indeed the identity of the characters, it changes the nature of the “moved/away”. Is it a sole spurned advance? If so, the “devotion” takes on new meaning. And it’s here I’ll explore a parallel that Layton is on record as having a concern, even obsession, with. In various letters, Layton lamented the nature of creation between a childbearing woman and (in his case, and in the possible mirroring parallel in this poem) a poem-making man. A child is life itself, whereas a poem is a much more nebulous, even dubious, thing. And a poem will never be guaranteed to have an extended life; a child will assert itself, however long or memorably, into the spiritual fabric of the world. Layton’s view on this was one of sadness and sympathy for himself and other literary creators, as well as envy for the woman so blessed with her unmistakable gift. Seen in this light, “Misunderstanding” leads one to pity the first-person narrator, or Layton if you prefer, for his ineffectual attempt at physical and literary fertilization. But there’s a humorous irony. The poem was an early entry in Layton’s 1959 compilation A Red Carpet For The Sun, meaning it’s been kicking for over a half-century. Cran’s take on it is illustrative, then, in that he talks about it at all. Layton has created a notable child. (Bad poems are forgotten, not debated.) And of course, Layton had conflicting views vis-a-vis giving birth and creating poems. His wish was to have his works talked about for centuries, just as he was fond of railing on those inconsequential souls who’d be forgotten even by their “loved ones” soon after they’d died. A fascinating, contradictory parallel.

Another take on the poem, also if postulating that the woman is Layton’s wife or longer-term lover, has to do with “devotion”, or fidelity in the wider sense. Just as she spurned his advance, so too does inspiration sometimes (or often) flee the scene when one has an idea, whether it’s hot or scattered. The humour in the poem can be viewed many ways, but certainly a lot of it can be seen at the narrator’s expense.

And that leads to another way of viewing these twenty-three words. Perhaps the woman is Erato the muse. I’m curious about the choice of “thigh”. Odysseus was pierced in the thigh by a boar on Parnassus, home of all the muses, when on a hunting trip. Is his seduction attempt just a clumsy, ill-timed one? In other words, would she have offered her gifts, poem-muse or physical woman, if his advances had been more clever or subtle?

There are other interpretations to flesh out, too. I’m very interested in “By the way” in that it’s not just that she turned away, but how she turned away that matters. There are many ways to seduce, and just as many ways to reject. All are illustrative, but since this is a grandly suggestive poem, it’s enough that it’s placed on the table at all.

Brad Cran has made an arrogantly assumptive, simplistic assessment and explanation for a timeless poem. But let’s look at those assessments a little, anyway. I’m intrigued by the tone. Notice how he takes the self-protective way out by first saying that the poem was “funny and comic”. It’s supposed to soften the way the reader accepts seeing the dagger go in shortly thereafter, and it’s a typical Canadian way of criticizing anything, certainly so in the realm of lit crit. Cran then immediately begins turning the thumb down with his “in a horny old man kind of way”. Interesting, since Layton was no more than forty-six years old when composing the poem, and, as I have put forth, the sexual and literary conclusions are complex. Cran, after his non sequitur “sexism”, goes on to call Layton’s attitude in this poem “anachronistic” and “flawed”. As if there is one right way to view physical traffic between the sexes. What, Cran always does the right thing, thinks the right thoughts? Struggles, many of them selfish,  between men and women will always be with us. There is nothing anachronistic about that. It’s this, finally, that grates. Cran’s often driven by feminist issues. I admire him for many of those views. But in poetry, it comes off as unoriginal, and pressing for votes.

If Cran or any others parading their easy complaints of misogyny or sexism want to see Layton in that vein, try his "Three on a Park Bench" or "Teufelsdrockh Concerning Women". It makes "Misunderstanding" sound like a fond slap by contrast. The former two poems aren't very good, either, which, after all, is the more important concern. And there are scores, hundreds, of other poems of his that express his frank hatred of men. But pointing those out don't score any political kudos. 

No comments: