Who Were Those Masked Men?
- Francis Mansbridge (Author)
Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Richard Lemm (Author)
Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger. Carleton University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dermot McCarthy
Both these biographers lament the state of criticism on their subjects’ poetry. Richard Lemm speculates that "Perhaps the fascination with Acorn the public figure—the outspoken, long-suffering, rough-hewn, romantic and romanticized poet of the people"—is to blame. Likewise Francis Mansbridge suggests that Layton’s public life has gotten in the way of serious criticism and points, ironically, to Elspeth Cameron’s 1985 biography of Layton (which certainly occludes more than clarifies the poetry) as evidence. Mansbridge considers Cameron’s criticism to be "surprisingly unsophisticated for a literary scholar," though not for "one of the prissy apostles of Canadian gentility" at whose kind Layton snooked his cock throughout his career. But while Mansbridge upbraids Cameron’s failure to provide "the serious intellectual discussion that one expects in a biography of a major poet," his own book does not begin to fill the vacuum. Nor did he intend it to; in keeping with the ECW series it appears in, God’s Recording Angel only "touch [es] on some of the more prominent facets of [Layton’s] life" in order to provide "a useful introduction" for those unfamiliar with the poet, and on these grounds it can be recommended to secondary-school students, undergraduates and the general public. But it is woefully short on "new perspectives to consider" for those already familiar with Layton’s life and work. And it is somewhat ironic that, while Mansbridge does use material from his own interviews and correspondence with Layton’s family, friends, and acquaintances, he’d have no book without the Cameron biography he criticizes. (He also draws on Layton’s own Waiting for the Messiah and Wynne Francis’s research).
Layton and Acorn came to be consumed by the masks they fashioned for themselves and we need critical biographies of these poets to help us understand their works. But while Lemm does read some poems in relation to Acorn’s life and times, he admits such a study was not his intention. Mansbridge, writing for a "popular" series, should not have its demands described as his shortcomings. Lemm determined his own approach, however, and it is because he does much and does it so well that I wanted him to do more. Layton is a "big" poet, a major imagination—much more so than Acorn; but In Love and Anger shows that consideration of Acorn’s achievement involves the same kinds of questions and issues one must address with Layton’s.
"How to dominate reality? Love is one way; / imagination another" ("The Fertile Muck"). It is Layton’s need to "dominate" that is so difficult for pc po-mo gourmands to swallow, let alone digest; but that, and the precise nature of the relationship between "love" and "imagination" in the personality and the poetry are what a biographer of Layton needs to fathom. Layton (like Acorn), for all his bravado, was usually bluffing; the master of ceremonies of his own grief, he is a poet of hurt who (mis)directs attention to the side-shows of public offense and political controversy, while all the while quietly circling the beast in the centre ring of his mind. Unlike Yeats’s, Layton’s animals would not desert him and it is unfortunate that Mansbridge does not explore the suggestion he records that Layton’s relations with women reflect a profound fear of loneliness that he never confronted directly in his work. Mansbridge believes Layton is a problem because "he does not fit neatly into any pattern in the development of Canadian literature," but if contemporary theory has discredited anything, it is such totalizing patterns or master narratives. Layton is a "pattern" unto himself, a poet for whom the invention of a mask was central to his poesis, and as such bears comparison with Yeats, Rilke and Stevens. Mansbridge notes that as Layton’s reputation has waned in Canada since the 70s, it has grown in Europe, where Layton is read differently, as a humanist rather than a reactionary. Coincidentally, Lemm sees Acorn as a militant humanist-socialist more than left-wing militant.
Lemm’s biography will displace Chris Gudgeon’s Out of This World (1996), which, while very readable, was ultimately unsatisfying. Lemm quotes many of the same people as Gudgeon, but he quotes them more often and at greater length; he also has asked them about Gudgeon’s book because over and over again he shows how Gudgeon misses the mark. Lemm challenges Gudgeon’s representation of Acorn’s childhood and adolescence and rejects completely his account of the timing and origins both of Acorn’s interest in poetry and of his Communist views. Ironically, Lemm uses the same sources as Gudgeon to discredit Gudgeon’s account of the adolescent Acorn’s relationship with his father, and suggests that Gudgeon, like so many before him, was suckered by Acorn’s self-romanticizing. Lemm demolishes, for example, Gudgeon’s (and Acorn’s) account of Acorn’s war-injury. Also, where Gudgeon simply jumps from 1972 to Acorn’s death in 1986, Lemm covers Acorn’s last years on The Island in detail. And in what seems to me both a poignant and important correction, Lemm says there is no basis for Gudgeon’s claim that on his death-bed Acorn called for an Anglican priest in order to repent his life.
Lemm is encouraging when he acknowledges that Acorn was a "myth-maker" prone to "self-serving prevarication," but unconvincing when he describes Acorn’s mythologizing as "a writer’s responsiveness to a society’s needs." In debunking "the hyperbole and inaccuracies" that characterize the sentimental melodrama that has been made of Acorn’s life, including the "Beauty and the Beast" version of his marriage to Gwendolyn MacEwen, Lemm sets much of the record straight. But ironically, in his own way, he only re-gilds the mask and, if possible, works even harder than Acorn to mythologize Acorn. There are some lengthy side-bars in Lemm’s book—discussions of Alex Campbell’s Development Plan for PEI in the 70s, the 19c land struggle, and the merits of post-colonial theory for reading Acorn in relation to "resistive regionalism." Instead of such padding I would have preferred that he had researched and risked a more coherent interpretation of his subject’s psychoanalytic profile. Scattered suggestions that patterns in Acorn’s behaviour, particularly his difficulties with women, might be explained by his relationship with his mother, need to be brought together and considered more deeply in relation to the poetry.
If "there are many Laytons," as Francis Mansbridge suggests, there are not so many Acorns. Neither biographer dodges his subject’s failures as husband and father or the obnoxious and repulsive aspects of character and behaviour. Lemm details what he calls "Acorn’s darker irrationality" and Mansbridge recounts a life of almost maniacal solipsism. But both quote enough poetry to remind us that it is why we may want to read about the lives. Late in Lemm’s book, an acquaintance describes Acorn as a "poser" and Lemm asks himself if he thinks Acorn was a "poseur." His response is no, which is fine—after all, he’s researched the life and written his version of it. But he also says the question is "moot." I strongly disagree. The question Lemm mutes is precisely where any biography of Acorn, and Layton (whom Purdy once described as "an egotistic clown, a charismatic poseur"), should begin and end. Mansbridge remarks: "In both poetry and life, Layton delights in trying on different masks, and it is often difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the extent of con-gruity between the mask and the personality behind it." To which one can only reply: well yes; quite. And shouldn’t that be the point of a biography of Layton or Acorn, no matter how brief or proud?
- The Poetics of Response and Response-ability in Phyllis Webb by Amanda Lim
Books reviewed: Phyllis Webb and the Common Good: Poetry/Anarchy/Abstraction by Stephen Collis
- The Gut of Fiction by Kerry McSweeney
Books reviewed: The Magician's Wife by Brian Moore and Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist by Denis Sampson
- The Lady and The Vamp by Marilyn Iwama
Books reviewed: A Woman with Demons: The Life of Kamiya Mieko by Yuzo Ota and One Chrysanthemum by Joan Itoh Burk
- Only Connect by Stella Algoo-Baksh
Books reviewed: The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das by Merrily Weisbord
- Who Were Those Masked Men? by Dermot McCarthy
Books reviewed: Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger by Richard Lemm and Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel by Francis Mansbridge
MLA: McCarthy, Dermot. Who Were Those Masked Men?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #169 (Summer 2001), (Blais, Laurence, Birdsell, Munro, Jacob, Chen). (pg. 147 - 149)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.