Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

From the Archive [1]: "Fucking" Eh!

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Kids say the darndest things, and Canadian poetry happens in the darndest places.

For example, in the early 1940s, a librarian named Helen Collins started a community writing workshop in Cleveland. The Free Lance Workshop soon extended into a literary journal, also called Free Lance. Included in the Free Lance Workshop was a poet named Russell Atkins, a black avant-garde poet and theorist who, by the 1950s, would play a significant role in editing the magazine and establishing its particular aesthetic vision. A great scholar — and poet in his own right — Aldon Nielsen talks at length about Atkins and outlines this zine history in his wonderful study Black Chant.

Nielsen also makes a passing, parenthetical reference to Montreal poet Irving Layton, who appears in a 1955 issue of the Cleveland zine. According to Nielsen, “the avant-garde editorial board,” as headed by Atkins, “took considerable pleasure in troubling the water”; and Atkins, in particular, was especially proud of the fact that he published a poem by Layton which used the expletive “fuck.” (In mid-1950s Cleveland, this is a big deal.)

One of the perks of living in Buffalo is that if I come across this sort of thing I can immediately head over to the University of Buffalo’s world-famous Poetry Collection, which is host to all sorts of literary ephemera, broadsides, notes, journals, etc. So, I did just that.

I paid a visit to the library and searched out the issue of Free Lance in which Layton appears. Part of me was just interested in finding and reading the poem. (Nielsen doesn’t mention its name.) Part of me was curious to see if I could figure out how the heck the Montreal poet found his way into a predominantly African-American journal published through Wilberforce University.

It turns out that Layton had not one but three poems in that 1955 issue. Only one, however, uses fuck — actually, Layton uses “fucking,” to be exact. The poem is Layton’s “The Dwarf,” a 57-line narrative with hints of dark comedy and cameos by Layton’s infamous libido. The poem also veers into the allegorical territory I associate with poets like Delmore Schwartz or W.H. Auden.

It centers on a dwarf who is murdered by a gunman hired by the dwarf’s “blond” lover. The poem’s speaker walks in on the mise-en-scene, a “decayed shack” in which “the principles were all assembled” and “no one denied the crime.” It’s not exactly clear how or why the speaker happens upon the place. Nonetheless, he goes on to describe what he sees. Other than the blond and the dwarf, also present are a “jealous manufacturer,” who is sleeping with the blond, too; the hired gun who pulled the trigger; and “an abstracted citizen” who “[turns] away” from the scene.

As noted early, the poem includes that famed Layton libido we’ve all come to love (or, well, at least I have). In one of the poem’s finer moments, Layton’s speaker describes entering the shack:

The blonde,
her globes of sex moving a continent
of men when she walked, rose abruptly
to kiss me to cinders . . .

With allegorical figures like “the manufacturer, the hired “gunman,” and “the abstracted citizen,” the best I can figure is Layton’s trying to get at some point about how capital interests distort one’s moral compass, and as citizens we are complicit participants in the metaphorical murder of the “dwarf.” (Your guess really is as good as mine.) Here’s the rub: at the poem’s end, Layton intimates that poets are not touched figures impervious to the self-interestedness his poem describes and laments: "Poets turned manufacturer. The times bred them. / The real killers."

As for the "fucking" expletive, here's how it appears: “[the manufacturer] was that fond / Of his fucking blonde / He had cashed a bond” to pay the gunman.

So, I got to read the infamous Layton poem that used the word “fucking.” (By the way, the other two Layton poems in the issue are “Fiat Lux” and “Chockcherries.”) But how did he get in the magazine in the first place? Well, that didn’t take too long to figure out. All it took was a quick glance at the table of contents. Included in the issue is Layton’s Black Mountain pal, the late great Robert Creeley. My guess is that Creeley brokered the deal, getting Layton’s poems in the hands of the Free Lance editorial board.

Mystery solved.

But there’s one final twist, an unexpected surprise that produces the type of euphoria Derrida calls “archive fever.” Creeley contribution ain’t just any ol’ poem. Included in his selection is one of the most famous poems of post-WW-II American poetry, “I know a man,” which is also published that same year in Creeley’s All That is Lovely in Men:

As I sd to my
friend, be cause I am
always talking, —John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

Note that the magazine version of the poem has some interesting typographic distinctions: the word “because” (as shown above) is spatially divided; the second line is indented, too -- I just don't know how to make that happen in HTML. The line actually begins just under line 1's "sd." Those two errors would be corrected by the time the poem’s published in For Love: Poems 1950-1960.

(Here’s a link to a great reading of Creeley’s poem, by the way:

So, there you have it: Irving Layton’s cussing and Robert Creeley’s “I know a man” only a few pages apart in black avant-garde zine edited in part by Russell Atkins and published in Cleveland during the 1950s and 1960s. Go figure.

One of the things I love about the archive is that it yields these treasures, most often when you least expect. It is, to quote Joyce, a “[portal] of discovery” that enables us to rethink both literary history and the way in which read and interpret specific poems.

Over the next month, I plan to include a few more posts that focus on these little “fucking” moments in Canadian poetry.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alessandro Porco

Alessandro Porco is the author of two collections of poetry, Augustine in Carthage (2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), both published by ECW Press, and the editor of Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey.

Go to Alessandro Porco’s Author Page