Irving Layton’s The Swimmer can be interpreted as an exploration of the contrary connection between the artist and his art. The poet is simultaneously witness and participant; the art is simultaneously expression and mimesis. It is precisely this clashing relationship that makes the swimmer metaphor so apt: the swimmer is both apart from and within the water. The Swimmer can be read as the same emergent space in-between the swimmer and the sea: poetry is what is created from the poet and his art.
The first stanza of The Swimmer implicitly binds the swimmer and the sea together, but explicitly separates them. This contrast is at the crux of the relationship between poet and poem. Implicitly, Layton subtly associates the swimmer with his environment. This is done through enjambment, “The afternoon foreclosing, see / The swimmer plunges from his raft” (Layton 1-2). In terms of line structure, the “see” belongs to the afternoon, but in terms of sentence structure, the “see” refers to the swimmer. Layton shares the “see” between the two to hint at their potential affinity. Interestingly, “see” is a homophone for “sea”, subtly inserting the water environment before it is explicitly mentioned. This “see” also introduces the strong sibilance prominent in the first stanza. “The snake heads strike / Quickly and are silent.” The image is extremely vivid here, as the alliteration invokes the onomatopoeic spray of water as the swimmer dives.
Explicitly, however, Layton infers that the swimmer and the sea are not naturally compatible. The swimmer’s plunge is described as an aggression, “his act of war” (Layton 3). Layton infuses the sea with an almost conscious activity through natural language: “Opening the spray corollas” and “The snake heads strike” (3, 4). The sea is spoken of in terms of life, specifically a flower and a snake, making it a cognizant opposite to the swimmer—indeed, the snake heads strike back at the swimmer’s invasion. Layton succeeds in explicitly separating the swimmer and the sea, but there is a lingering and implicit sense of reconciliation on the horizon. Later, Layton reiterates this contradictory outsider/insider status of the swimmer, who is “like a thief” but “In the scentless greenery that leads him home” (12, 14).
The next stanza sees an increasing blurring between the swimmer and the sea. A sense of inevitability is overtly felt by the swimmer, “He lies imminent upon the water / White light and sound come with a sharp passion” (Layton 9). The swimmer begins to experience new sensations as a result of his submersion. The water becomes almost anthropomorphized with human reproduction, “the gonad sea” (Layton 10). Similarly, the swimmer becomes more sea-like, assuming aquatic objects in his body: “bright cockle-shells about his ears” (Layton 11).This culminates in the third stanza, where Layton manipulates the sentence structure and line breaks to deliberately have two subjects. The stanza begins with the swimmer, “He dives, floats, goes under”, but midway through, swaps to a sudden fish, “A male salmon down fretted stairways” (Layton 12, 15). Crucially, this is all done in one sentence and stanza: the swimmer has seamlessly transformed into a male salmon, a state in-between the swimmer and the sea.
This is a buried revelation that reveals much about the swimmer to himself and signals the end of his journey. “Stunned by the memory of lost gills / He frames gestures of self-absorption / Upon the skull-like beach” (Layton 17-19). For a moment, the salmon exists as a forgotten space between the swimmer and the sea that captures both. But such a balance cannot last, “the last wave romping in / To throw its boyhood on the marble sand” (Layton 23-24).A human being cannot exist as a salmon forever. The swimmer must at some point return, though transformed by his newfound knowledge. Fittingly, the poem ends here, marking the swimmer’s maturity.
The Swimmer functions as a form of metafiction, itself being the product of Layton and his art just as the salmon is a product of the swimmer and the sea. In writing poetry, Layton must blur the lines between himself and his creativity. The Swimmer masterfully captures the space in-between the swimmer and the sea, so Layton can convey the space between the poet and his art, recursively creating The Swimmer.