Friday, January 06, 2006

Brazen Brilliance, Hamilton Spectator, Jan 6 06

Brazen brilliance

Irving Layton: cultural cachet.
By Robert Howard
The Hamilton Spectator
(Jan 6, 2006)

He was brash, irreverent, bombastic and one of his own biggest admirers. But Irving Layton wrote poetry that knocked the socks off erudite literature professors and callow Grade 9 students alike.

Layton, who died this week at 93, was a genuine Canadian cultural icon. He was a flawed human being (as are we all) and his writing was not universally admired. But the best of his work (in more than 40 published books) fuses ego and imagination in a way that inspired and influenced generations of writers and readers.

His poems had their own influence on those ordinary Canadians who cannot recall a single line from their high school days -- but remember the "buzz" of reading Irving Layton. His was poetry borne of passion -- love and hate, rage and joy, justice and injustice, sex and ... well, more sex.

Layton's work was frankly, and scandalously, erotic and there were more than a few high-school teachers who admiringly taught his work, but could not bring themselves (or their students) to read it aloud.

In the '60s and '70s, when this country was painfully birthing itself into the sensibilities of the modern era and Pierre Trudeau was leading the reinvention of Canada's understanding of its place in the world, Layton was helping Canadians reinvent their understanding of literature, of art, of culture. His work -- and that of other Montrealers such as Leonard Cohen and author Mordecai Richler -- gave Canada a worldwide cultural cachet that lasts to this day.

Layton's voice was tragically stilled almost a decade ago by encroaching Alzheimer's disease, and his legacy has been muted by time -- little of his work is on school reading lists and much of his work is out of print. That's an enormous pity because beyond all the machismo and bluster is a great emotional depth and a stunning eloquence.

In 1997, a failing Layton told a reporter: "Poetry never let me down. My worry is, have I ever let poetry down." No fear there. Layton never did. And if there is any justice, his work will be rediscovered by a new generation. It's worth looking for.


Blogger mallowry said...

This Hamilton Spectator article is one of the most intelligent, balanced, caring and insightful assessments and understanding of Layton the man and his work.

Hats off! (Stephen Marche's literary obit on is, on the contrary, a scandalous piece of caricature!!)

3:04 AM  

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