Wednesday, January 04, 2006 Montreal article Jan 4

Poet Irving Layton dies
Last updated Jan 4 2006 09:19 PM EST
CBC News

Canada's enfant terrible of poetry, Irving Layton, died Wednesday in a Montreal care facility where he had been living since 2000.

The 93-year-old poet had been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease.

"[His] poems are astonishing," McGill University professor Brian Trehearne told CBC News in an earlier interview. "These are poems that rival anything anyone in the world has ever written."

Layton had said he first fell in love with poetry in Grade 10 upon hearing his English teacher, Mr. Saunders, read Alfred Tennyson's The Revenge: "I'd never heard the English language so beautifully read, so powerfully rendered, and I remember sitting quietly in my seat listening enraptured as the sounds filled the room."

Born in the small Romanian town of Tirgul Neamt in 1912 to Jewish parents, Layton emigrated with his family to Canada in 1913, settling in Montreal, where he grew up in a poor neighbourhood around St. Urbain Street, the same stomping grounds of novelist Mordecai Richler.

Layton spent much of his career as a teacher, first at a parochial high school, later becoming an English professor at Sir George Williams University and York University. He was also poet in residence at the University of Toronto, and it was from his poetic pursuits that his fame arose. He published more than 40 books of poetry and prose in a career that spanned more than five decades.

Poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and TV magnate Moses Znaimer were some of his more famous students.

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

Irving counted poets Tennyson, Byron, Wordsworth and Walter Scott as influences, as well as D.H. Lawrence, Jonathan Swift and William Shakespeare.

His early poetry focused on sex and love, often written in frank language and shocking some critics.

"Sex was not talked about in polite company," explained Anna Porter of Key Porter Books. "People didn't like the idea of it being in books."

He joined the Young People's Socialist League for a short time during his 20s and held ardent debates with burgeoning politicians such as David Lewis, father of Stephen Lewis. He eventually enrolled in Macdonald College in 1934, graduating with a Bachelor of Science.

It was at the college that Layton's left-wing radicalism blossomed on the page, as he wrote a column for the student newspaper. Always ready for a rumble, Layton spent much time debating around the clubs and cafes of Montreal, eventually taking on the formidable Oxford-Cambridge debating team with a schoolmate and winning.

He enlisted in the Canadian army in 1942 and was given an honourable discharge a year later.

Irving Layton in an undated photo. (Roloff Beny/Library and Archives Canada)
Layton then became an editor of First Statement Press along with friends John Sutherland and Louis Dudek. The first book published by the press was Layton's Here and Now in 1945.

At the same time, the poet spearheaded a group of younger compatriots, along with his two friends, that fought for a Canadian voice in poetry, railing against the old British order.

He won acclaim for his first major poem, The Swimmer, in 1944. Two years later, he received his M.A.

Layton's star rose rapidly in the 1950s and '60s, particularly after the publication of 1959's A Red Carpet for the Sun.

Layton soon became a regular on the CBC-TV debating program Fighting Words, where he earned a reputation as a fierce debater.

He was named to the Order of Canada in 1976.

Layton is best-known for his rapier wit and his ongoing battle against uniformity and Puritanism. The force of his personality was irresistible, helping him woo five wives but leaving a trail of five divorces.

"He loved the relationship with women. He loved the emotional frisson and the energy that gave him to write his poetry," Brian Mansbridge, his biographer, told CBC Television.

Layton is survived by his four children.


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