Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Determined Celebrant of Breath Itself

By Bruce Meyer, Toronto, Ontario
January 5, 2006

When Brian O'Riordan and I arrived at Leonard Cohen's apartment to do an intervieew with him that Layton had set up, one of the first things that struck us about the singer's Montreal flat was the presence of Layton icons.

The top of the hot water tank in the corner of the kitchen bore the bronze bust that appears on the cover of Irving's Selected Poems. On top of a protruding electric socket sat a pen sketch of Layton by Mort Rosengarten. I remember a smile appearing on Cohen's face when I pointed out to him that he associated Irving with hot water and electricity. Cohen replied "he's my teacher." That's high acclaim for any poet to accord another poet.

Earle Birney showed me a picture that was taken on April 23, 1957, the day that Let Us Compare Mythologies appeared in print. The photo of Birney, E.J. Pratt, a chubby young Leonard Cohen and a robust, boxer-like Layton, was snapped at 3:45 p.m. that day in front of Diana Sweets on Toronto's Bloor Street by the a woman who had been judged by the four poets to be the best looking female on the avenue. I always loved that photo (now in the possession of Greg Gatenby) not only because it marks the emergence of Cohen as a poet (standing beside a proud poetic papa, Layton)but because it was snapped the moment I was being born about a mile away in TGH.

To have known Irving Layton was to have shaken hands with someone who possessed the voice of a prophet: he was not always correct in what he prophesied, but nonetheless one listened because his voice contained the roar of the divine, the energy of a pillar of fire and the thunder of a storm on a mountain top.

I got to know Irving Layton when he was Writer-in-Residence at the U of Toronto (I'd met him once before at a reading at Jewish Community Centre on Bathurst where he proclaimed that because he'd been born circumcised he must be the long awaited Messiah of the Jewish faith). He'd written about the passion of suffering, the courage to stand up and celebrate life in the face of an abominable history, and he impressed me as someone who knew what it was to be lionesque, mane and all.

He was someone I drank with, sang with, shared poetry with. He was a fighter, not of the body as some such as Souster have often compared him to, but a fighter of the spirit. His birth name was Lazarovitch, Lazarus, someone who had looked into the very heart of death and had come back with a message of life "to tell you all, I shall tell you all..."

Death may have silenced his bodily voice, but not the power of his song. He knew that death would not silence his song. That is why he was so fiercely determined to be a poet, and to offer poetry to others and encourage it wherever he could as a teacher, a performer, a bard and, yes, a prophet. He realized that all of us suffer the necessity of life, and he showed us the path to the necessity of celebration.

I shall miss the man who could laugh deeply, anger darkly, roar eloquently and whisper passionately. But I am glad that I have his poems. They are fine works, and they are fine expressions of life.

I hope everyone will celebrate the life of Irving Layton. It was, after all, a dance, a jig executed not by a tall man, but by a determined celebrant of breath itself.


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