About the Author

Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan is the author of four books of fiction, including the novel The Places Where Names Vanish (Thistledown 1998) and the short story collection North of Tourism (Cormorant 1999), which was selected as a `What's New What's Hot` title by chapters.indigo.ca. His short fiction has been published in more than thirty journals and anthologies in Canada, Great Britain and the United States, and has been taught in university courses in Canada, the U.S. and France.

Henighan's literary journalism has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen and many other publications. He has published scholarly articles on literature in major international journals such as The Modern Language Review, Comparative Literature Studies and the Bulletin of Hispanic Studies.

Lecturer in Spanish at University College, Oxford and Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, Stephen Henighan has also taught English as a Second Language in Colombia and Moldova, and Creative Writing at Concordia University, the Maritime Writers` Workshop and the University of Guelph. He currently teaches Spanish-American literature and culture in the School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Guelph.

Books by this Author
A Green Reef

A Green Reef

The Impact of Climate Change
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Sandino's Nation

Sandino's Nation

Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez Writing Nicaragua, 1940-2012
also available: Paperback Hardcover
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When Words Deny the World

Layton and the Feminist
Stephen Henighan

A few years ago a friend of mine announced her intention of writing her master's thesis on the poems of Irving Layton. Her father, who had been taught by Layton in high school, recoiled. 'You're not going to interview him alone!' he said. 'Irving Layton was a dirty old man even when he was a young man.'

Layton owns up to this charge, in his irrepressible way, on the opening page of his collected love poems, Dance With Desire. In 'To the Girls of My Graduating Class,' first published in 1953, he confesses to feeling 'fierce and ridiculous' as he slavers over the 'saintly breasts' of his female students.

To readers better acquainted with Layton's bombastic public stance as Canada's leading lecher than with his verse, that 'ridiculous' may come as a surprise. As Layton has aged, he has displayed little sensitivity to the absurdity of an old man ogling women several decades his junior. The Layton of the 1950s and 1960s, as represented by the first third of this book, was a more subtle, perceptive man. He was also an exceptionally fine poet. This was the period when Layton was writing such enduring works as 'The Birth of Tragedy' and 'A Tall Man Executes a Jig.' His best love poems of the time are highly accomplished. By dressing up his romanticism in appropriately lavish language, replete with classical allusions and risky inverted syntax, Layton succeeded in wringing genuine feeling from his fleshly obsessions.

His downfall lay in his penchant for satire. A poem like 'The Day Aviva Came to Paris,' in which Layton imagines the French capital struck dumb by his wife's arrival, succeeds wonderfully both as a statement of devotion and a vehicle to lampoon Parisian-style stuffiness. Layton's satire, though, eventually fused with his titanic ego, creating the bloated self-parody all too familiar from his poems and interviews of the past twenty-five years. Dance With Desire is top-heavy with poems in which Layton's rambunctious public persona bludgeons any visible glimmer of insight or feeling.

'Am I mad to see soft breasts everywhere?' he writes in one poem. Mad, no; infantile, yes. Layton's women seem to consist of little more than pairs of surging breasts. They scarcely have arms or legs -- let alone hearts, heads or brains. Layton may love women, but like most philanderers, he doesn't seem to like them very much. Lines such as 'I plug the void with my phallus' suggest a fear of female sexuality; a poem detailing his inability to come to terms with his wife's menstruation reinforces this theme.

These days, Layton's posture as a sexual rebel seems merely foolish. Like any aging revolutionary, he has lost touch with forces he himself helped to unleash. His explicit praise of female body parts made him a literary outlaw in the 1950s and an icon of the hip in the late 1960s, but subsequent generations, for whom the pursuit of desire has become both highly politicized and potentially lethal, have regarded him as either boorish or outmoded.

Curiously, the love poems that made Layton notorious now appear to be a fragile part of his poetic legacy. Dance With Desire may prove to contain a portion of the Layton oeuvre destined to slip into obscurity.

'Half the men you've ever met/ will rape you/ if they think they can/ get away with it,' writes Montreal poet Sharon H. Nelson in the opening sequence of her collection, The Work Of Our Hands. Turning to Nelson's gritty analysis of sexual politics after being immersed in Layton's odes to seduction is a bracing experience. In Nelson's work, desire becomes merely one more tool of a controlling patriarchy.

Nelson's direct, unadorned phrasing works best in poems focusing on everyday tasks such as household labour. A tension arises, though, between her efforts to evoke the workaday world and her need to elaborate a theory of how language alienates us from this world. Her plain style becomes flat when propounding theoretical verities which, while sometimes persuasive, are not startlingly original. A happy exception crops up in the long, free-form poem 'Making Waves,' where Nelson develops a richer, more untrammelled language capable of embodying her search for a poetics rooted in physical experience.

Even when she overstates her points, Nelson's voice, alternately genial and caustic, remains engaging. Irving Layton should read this book.


No work I have written -- full-length books included -- has elicited as much response as this article.

Letters of protest streamed into the Montreal Gazette for weeks after the publication of this piece. Middle-aged and elderly readers recalled Layton as a beacon of light in the constipated darkness of the Canada of the 1950s. The Layton media persona, I learned, was sustained by a core of devoted readers to whom he had given an elegant vocabulary for longings they had scarcely dared to voice.

The best letter was from Irving Layton himself. Demonstrating that his ego had not smothered his sense of humour, Layton wrote: 'Young fogeys afflicted by mediocrity and the itch to write ... have never hesitated to reveal their animus against high spirits, wit, irrepressible creativity and my fame both here and abroad. I sympathize with them, for their suffering and deeply felt humiliation must be intolerable.... Clearly, Stephen Henighan lacks both common sense and common decency.'

Layton's riposte was a natural response to a sour review. Sharon H. Nelson, who turned out to be the founder of the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets, confounded expectations by rushing to Layton's defence. In a three-page single-spaced letter that she faxed to more than thirty prominent cultural figures, Nelson denounced my dastardly attack on a sexual liberator. She went on to threaten various libel actions. The Gazette's managing editor issued a formal rebuttal to Nelson's threats. Maclean's magazine got wind of the tempest and ran a short article on Layton's 'new alliances' and my lack of repentance for my cultural sins.

Yet the Layton-Nelson axis was no new alliance. Why did the founder of the Feminist Caucus side with the self-proclaimed slaverer? I later learned that, early in her writing career, Sharon H. Nelson had been a Layton proteg?e. The incident underlines the prime law of Canadian literary debate: differences of opinion, aesthetic creed or ideology are overruled by personal allegiances. Unlike the United Kingdom or the United States, where friends and acquaintances may cordially and vigorously disagree in print, Canada remains a colonial society; here friends must think alike and unanimity among the Family Compact of the chattering classes is still the hallowed aim of public utterances. In Canadian literary circles, the opinions you express continue to be a function of who you know rather than what you think.

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