Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Anti-bourgeois AttitudesToday's, Woman.net, Jan 06

Irving Layton OC (March 12, 1912 – January 4, 2006) was a Canadian poet.

Born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Târgu Neamţ, a small town in Romania, to Jewish parents, his family emigrated to Montreal, Quebec in 1913 and was forced to live in the impoverished St. Urbain Street neighbourhood, later made famous by Mordecai Richler in his novels. There Layton and his family (his father died when he was 13) faced daily struggles with, among others, Montreal's French Canadians, who were uncomfortable with the growing numbers of Jewish newcomers.

Layton graduated from Alexandra Elementary School and attended Baron Byng High School, where his life was changed when he was introduced to such poets as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley; the novelists Jane Austen and George Eliot; the essayists Francis Bacon, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, and Jonathan Swift; and also William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin. He became very interested in politics and social theory and began reading Karl Marx and Nietzsche and also became politically active in socialist politics — so much so that he became a threat to the high school administration and was asked to leave before graduating. In light of his limited educational opportunities, with no high school diploma, and also due to limited finances, he enrolled in Macdonald College in 1934 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture.

While in college, he was well known in artistic circles for his anti-bourgeois attitudes and his criticism of politics. He quickly found that his true interest was poetry, so pursued a career as a poet and became friends with the emerging young poets of his day, including fellow Canadian poets John Sutherland, Raymond Souster, and Louis Dudek. In the 1940s, Layton and his fellow Canadian poets rejected the older generation of poets, including Northrop Frye, and their efforts helped define the tone of the post-war generation poets in Canada. Essentially, they argued that modern poetry should set its own style, independent of British styles and influences, and should reflect the social realities of the day.

In 1936, Layton met Faye Lynch, whom he married in 1938. When Layton graduated from Macdonald College in 1939, he moved with Faye to Halifax where he worked odd jobs, including a stint as a Fuller Brush man. Soon disenchanted with his life, Layton decided, one evening, to return to Montreal. He began teaching English to recent immigrants to make ends meet and continued doing so for many years. Indecisive about his future and enraged by Hitler's violence toward Jews and destruction of European culture, Layton enlisted in the Canadian army in 1942. While serving as a Brigade Commander at Petawawa, Layton met Betty Sutherland, an accomplished painter (and later poet), and a half-sister to actor Donald Sutherland. Layton soon divorced Faye and married Betty. They had two children together: Maxwell Rubin (1946) and Naomi Parker (1950). 1943, Layton was given an honourable discharge from the army and returned to Montreal.

Layton had become a strong socialist while at high school and joined the Young People's Socialist League. Later, he became active in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Because of this activity he was blacklisted and banned from entering the United States for the next two decades. While he continued to consider himself a Marxist, he became anti-Communist during the Cold War and broke with many on the left with his support of the Vietnam War. (Source: Toronto Star, January 5, 2006)

Layton's activism and poetry had made him an internationally known celebrity by the 1950s and he was a fixture on early Canadian television after the publication of a collection of poems called The Black Huntsmen. He became a staple on the CBC televised debating program "Fighting Words," where he earned a reputation as a formidable debater.

In 1946, after receiving his M.A. in economics and political science from McGill (with a thesis on Harold Laski), Layton considered teaching as a career. In 1949, Layton began teaching English, history, and political science at the Jewish parochial high school, Herzliah. He was an influential teacher and many of his students became poets, writers, and artists. Among his students were poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen and television magnate Moses Znaimer. Layton would continue to teach for the greater part of his life: as a teacher of modern English and American poetry at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) and as a tenured professor at Toronto's York University in the 1970s, as well as delivering many lectures and readings throughout Canada. Layton would pursue his Ph.D. in 1948 though he would abandon it due to the demands of his already hectic professional life.

In the late 1950s, at the height of his career, friends introduced Layton to Aviva Cantor (who had emmigrated to Montreal from her native Australia in 1955), and Layton later made her his third wife. The two had a son, David, in 1964. Over the next few years, Layton's demanding schedule became the dominating force in his life and resulted in Layton's and Aviva's decision to separate.

In the late 1970s, Layton befriended Harriet Bernstein, once a student of his and, after a whirlwind courtship, they married and in 1981 a daughter, Samantha Clara, was born. The marriage was short-lived, however, and Layton would soon meet Anna (Annette) Pottier, an aspiring painter and poet 48 years his junior, who became his fifth and last wife. They would live in the middle-class Notre Dame de Grace neighbourhood of Montreal from 1983 until the mid 1990s when they separated and divorced.

Throughout the 1950s on to the 1980s, Layton travelled widely abroad and became especially popular in South Korea and Italy, and in 1981 these two nations nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Literature. (The prize that year was instead awarded to novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.) Among his many awards during his career was the Governor-General's Award for A Red Carpet for the Sun in 1959 and in 1976 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

In 1995 Layton was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He died at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Montreal at the age of 93 on January 4, 2006.

Leonard Cohen once said of him, "I taught him how to dress, and he taught me how to live forever."


* Deveau, Scott. "Canadian poet Irving Layton dies at 93", The Globe and Mail. January 4, 2006.

Biography by: This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Irvin Layton.


Post a Comment

<< Home