Thursday, January 05, 2006 obituary - see comments below obituary - see comments below

Irving Layton, 1912-2006
By Stephen Marche
January 5, 2006

Irving Layton died Wednesday at the age of 93 from Alzheimer’s in a geriatric home, an entirely unsuitable way for Irving Layton to die. He really should have gone off in the middle of a violent and elaborate sexual act, or interrupting a particularly solemn moment in a religious ceremony. Such a long, lingering cruel emptiness of a death flouts the symbolic vitality that filled the rest of his life to the brim, and which spilled over into his written works, some of the most passionate lyrics in English Canadian letters.

In a country of self-deprecation, he represented its opposite. He will be remembered not so much for his poetry as for his epic self-regard. He said of himself: “I am a genius who has written poems that will survive the best of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats.” That this self-assessment was utterly in error shouldn’t distract us from wonder at a man who could utter such words aloud.

Born into a Jewish Romanian family that immigrated to the St. Urbain section of Montreal, he flourished in the ’40s among the burgeoning modernists of Montreal, most notably Raymond Souster, Louis Dudek and A.M. Klein. His real fame came later, with his books, The Black Huntsmen and A Red Carpet for the Sun, and his appearances on CBC’s Fighting Words in the ’50s, which combined to turn him into an icon of bombast and hedonism. The subject of numerous biographies and documentaries throughout his life, he achieved the two state-sanctioned hallmarks of success for a Canadian poet: a Governor General’s Award and the Order of Canada.

His most famous, and most fun, poems are about sex: “The tight sweater she was wearing / Showed off her good points at once.” (From Out of Pure Lust.) His most important poems are about religion and the Holocaust: “The wandering Jew: the suffering Jew / The despoiled Jew: the beaten Jew…/ Be none of these, my sons / My sons, be none of these / Be gunners in the Israeli Air Force.” (From For My Sons, Max and David.) But his most interesting poems are invariably on the subject of his own egotism. Shakespeare begins with one of his sons asking Layton if he is as good a poet as Shakespeare. This is a question with some narrative tension for Layton. While he hums and haws over the point, apparently not having yet realized that his work would outlive Shakespeare’s, as well as Wordsworth’s and Keats’s, in the end he does admit that he is not in fact as good a poet as Shakespeare. The Bull Calf takes his delusions of grandeur even further. It ends with the line, “I turned away and wept,” alluding to John 11:35. Why be Shakespeare when you can be the Son of God?

The life of a great poet, even a poet who is only great in his own mind, has its attractions. When he was 70, his 22-year-old girlfriend moved in and stayed until he was 84. Being a great poet in your own mind apparently means you can piss in the sink, as David Layton, in his devastating 1999 memoir Motion Sickness, recalled his father doing. It also has costs, mostly for others. One of his ex-wives, Harriet Bernstein, described him as “doomed inexorably to foul [his] own nest.”

Artistic selfishness is nothing new: think of Picasso, think of Hemingway. A supposedly great artist is supposed to leave such evidence of cruelty in his wake. Cruelty is part of what makes him supposedly great. What was new to Layton’s version of the story was the boldness and obliviousness he brought to the proceedings. There is surprisingly little in Layton’s poetry of what Cyril Connolly called “the fugitive distress of hedonism,” that peculiar sadness that underlies all revelry, especially the revelry of poetry. His work possesses only the faintest smack of curiosity at what the price of all his fun might be. This is even more remarkable since Leonard Cohen turned that “fugitive distress” into the kind of poetry Irving Layton surely wanted to write, i.e. the kind most likely to be found in a French woman’s bedroom in the 1970s.

Layton was immeasurably greater at convincing himself, and a few others, of his abilities than he was at writing poetry, but let’s not disparage the gift of his conviction. In the 1950s, we desperately needed somebody to say that a Canadian could be a great writer, even if he could only do so by claiming that he himself was that great writer. After all, the old cliché says that a man’s reach should always exceed his grasp. Irving Layton put it better:

Whom the gods do not intend to destroy
They first make mad with poetry.

Stephen Marche is a Toronto writer. His novel, Raymond and Hannah, was published by Doubleday Canada in 2005.

Copyright © 2005 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - All Rights Reserved


Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: Stephen Marche's Irving Layton obit. on CBC.CA, Jan. 5, 2005

Anyone who can write such an uninformed narrow literary obit on Irving Layton is a frightful liability to Canadian literature. As an example, nowhere is it written that Layton was once nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature by Italian nominators but there are many other omissions. Worst of all, the reviewer's ignorance of the subject shines by turning Layton into a cartoon character instead of the Canadian literary beacon and giant that he was.

As usual the CBC has a way of cutting its own throat, and, by proxy, unfortunately, that of Canada's. In my opinion, this review only contributes to an image of the CBC as growingly deficient of its mandate, with a hope that it again and soon becomes a vibrant broadcaster of the people, for the people, by the people.

- Philly D. Mader

aka Phil Mader; Kootenay Phil

5:48 PM

7:04 PM  
Blogger DoctorBoogaloo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:53 AM  
Blogger DoctorBoogaloo said...

What a boorish, petty, self-serving spew that is.

Irving Layton was a great poet. He is owed thanks and deserves to be honoured.

Shame on the CBC.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Zach Wells said...

I went to school with Steve Marche and I thought he was smarter than this incredibly blind bit of journalism suggests. Sure, Layton wrote a lot of poetry that didn't measure up to his best work. So what? His best work is as good as anybody's in the last century. Anywhere. He was a genius and for what it's worth, he was the prime instigator of my own journey into this artform. I never knew the man personally, but he changed my life and I consider him a brother, though his birth preceded mine by 64 years. Forget Steve's ephemeral prose; Irving's lines will still be laughing ages hence.

So whatever else poetry is freedom. Let
Far off the impatient cadences reveal
A padding for my breathless stilts. Swivel,
O hero, in the fleshy groves, skin and glycerine,
And sing of lust, the sun's accompanying shadow
Like a vampire's wing, the stillness in dead feet--
Your stave brings resurrection, O aggrieved king.

5:05 PM  

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