Wednesday, January 04, 2006 article Jan 4

Poet Irving Layton dies in Montreal at age 93

Updated Wed. Jan. 4 2006 8:29 PM ET

Canadian Press

MONTREAL — Irving Layton, whose gritty, satiric and erotic poems left an indelible mark on Canada's literary landscape, died Wednesday. He was 93.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994, Layton died in a long-term care facility surrounded by caregivers and long-time friend Musia Schwartz, said Lisa Blobstein, spokeswoman for the Maimonides Geriatric Centre.

Blobstein said Schwartz told her that Layton had kept his sense of humour until the end.

A prolific writer, Layton published more than 40 books of poetry and prose over more than five decades, clawing his way to the top of the CanLit hierarchy.

"The poetry was the man, the man was the poetry,'' said McGill University English professor Brian Trehearne.

Trehearne wrote the introduction to Fornalutx, a collection of lesser-known poems by Layton.

"You always got the sense that Irving was performing himself,'' Trehearne said in an interview Wednesday night. "He had a very strong sense of himself and how he wanted to appear and what he wanted to show people.''

Despite being nominated twice for the Nobel Prize, by the end of his life Layton had disappeared from university reading lists and bookstore shelves, a situation Trehearne calls "scandalous.''

"He is badly neglected,'' said Trehearne, pointing out that until last year Layton had been out of print. "How could we let this happen.''

Trehearne recalled a visit the poet made to his classroom in the early '90s, with students versed in feminist theory ready to give Layton -- a self-confessed worshipper of women -- a grilling.

But after reading a poem about his mother, "he had them eating out of his hand.''

Magdalene Redekop, who teaches Canadian poetry at the University of Toronto, saluted Layton despite her beliefs.

"He was an extremely uneven poet, but at his best he was fabulous and would rank among the top poets in the world.... But he wrote some really lousy poems.''

Among her favourite poems by Layton are A Tall Man Executes a Jig; A Cold Green Element; and Whatever Else, Poetry Is Freedom.

"Those are poems that even when I think about them now I get goosebumps. Those three are the kinds of poems that make your hair stand on end.''

Redekop, who's now teaching a class on Canadian love poetry, says she had assigned one of Layton's poems to her students and then had a change of heart.

"I decided that I simply couldn't tolerate teaching it, that it made my stomach turn, it was so sexist. He was a profoundly sexist man, and relentlessly so. But for me as a feminist ... to concede the poems of his that are fantastic is something.''

Layton was named to the Order of Canada in 1976, held several university posts as poet- or writer-in-residence and was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature in 1982.

Among Layton's former students was Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, Blobstein said.

Layton was the first non-Italian to receive Italy's Petrarch Award for Poetry.

The poet died early Wednesday morning suffering from the late stages of the disease, said Blobstein.

Born Israel Lazarovitch in Romania on March 12, 1912, Layton was the seventh and final child of Moses, a Jewish bookkeeper, and his wife Klara.

When Layton was a year old, the family emigrated to Canada, settling in a tough, multiethnic neighbourhood in Montreal.

Its mean streets later became the backdrop for many of his graphic, often bawdy poems.

He seemed to revel in his raucous reputation; the more critics sneered, the more provocative and abrasive he became.

"I am a genius who has written poems that will survive with the best of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats,'' Layton declared in 1972.

Layton first made a name for himself writing for First Statement, a small Montreal-based literary magazine. But it wasn't until the publication of A Red Carpet for the Sun, which won a Governor General's Award in 1959, that his poetry gained widespread notoriety.

"He was as famous as Canadian writer could get at the time,'' Trehearne said.

Dispensing with what he called Canada's "puritanical'' notion of verse, Layton's poetry often dealt with the violence embedded in everyday life and the implications of human freedom.

"He tell us we are free and he shows us what that means,'' said Trehearne. "And it means some very freighting things, because when human beings are free they can do some horrendous things to each other.''

His first marriage in 1938, to Faye Lynch, ended in divorce in 1946. He then wed artist Betty Sutherland (actor Donald Sutherland's stepsister), with whom he had a son and daughter, Max and Naomi. That marriage lasted 14 years.

Layton's third wife was Aviva Cantor, an Australian writer who bore him a son, David, who went on to write 1999's Motion Sickness, a memoir of growing up with his volatile father.

In 1974, Layton took up with Harriet Bernstein, a student in his creative writing course at York University in Toronto. The couple had a daughter, Samantha, in 1981. That same year, the 69-year-old met 22-year-old Annette Pottier, who became his fifth wife and changed her name to Anna.

In 1995, the couple separated after Layton was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Layton explained in a magazine profile that he thrived on emotional extremes and that gave rise to his art:

"I guess I have the fatality that makes me seek out trouble. Because it's the kind of trouble that leads to a poem. It's creative chaos. No one writes a poem unless he wants to get out of hell, but do you get into hell in order to write the poem or do you live the life that makes the poetry that gets you into hell?''


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