Monday, January 09, 2006

Funeral Coverage, The Gazette, Jan 9 06

The Montreal Gazette
Unorthodox funeral honours poet
Leonard Cohen pays tribute to Irving Layton
Poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen (left) arrives with Moses Znaimer for the funeral service of poet Irving Layton yesterday. Photograph by : PHIL CARPENTER, THE GAZETTE
MIKE BOONE, The Gazette
mboone@thegazette.canwest.com
Published: Monday, January 09, 2006

The celeb whom stargazers were waiting to see didn't show up until the last minute.

By the time Leonard Cohen slipped into one of the back rows of the chapel at Paperman's yesterday, most of the 250 people who had come to remember Irving Layton were seated at the front. Wearing a stylish grey tweed cap, fur-collared topcoat and California tan, Cohen tapped his foot to Beethoven's Ode to Joy and chatted quietly with Moses Znaimer.

The poet/singer-songwriter/zen master and the U.S.S.R.-born, Montreal-raised TV visionary were then dragooned into impromptu duty by a federal cabinet minister. Irwin Cotler took Cohen and Znaimer to meet Layton's family, and the duo was drafted, Znaimer as master of ceremonies and Cohen as one of eight eulogists - an octet that included seven poets and no rabbis.

Leadoff speaker Samantha Bernstein, youngest of his four children, recited Layton, Irving. In the poem, she writes about looking up her father in the World Book encyclopedia and finding "a few paragraphs, below laxatives and above Lazarus."

Cohen followed and observed: "Irving would be very annoyed if there were this many people here and none of his poems was read."

Declining to relate anecdotes that "don't bear repeating," Cohen insisted "what bears repeating endlessly are these poems that live and will continue to live."

Cohen then read - in that great, smoke-cured voice - Layton's The Graveyard, which ends with: "the voice whispering in the tombstones: rejoice, rejoice."

You don't often hear non-liturgical poetry read at a Jewish funeral. Because the Layton proceedings were unorthodox (in both senses of the word), I was hoping for an elegiac limerick, with double entendres and sly allusions to the poet's energetic pursuit and exuberant celebrations of what he called "the delirium and ecstasy of love."

But it's difficult to rhyme anything with Tirgu Neamt, the Romanian town where Layton was born. Maybe "who dreamt" - but it's a stretch. Sadly, Layton's self-imposed 1970s exile was spent in Toronto, not Nantucket.

In his eulogy, David Solway said Layton could "bluster with the best of them" and wrote "more world-class poems than his predecessors, contemporaries and successors combined." Cotler, who would end the service by reciting kaddish, the mourner's prayer, described Layton's work as "an abiding

jeremiad against injustice."

By most accounts, the man being mourned would have loved everything about his memorial. Znaimer described Layton as "willing to play the role of a poet and fuse his personality with his work."

"Irving Layton was a great showman," Znaimer added, after the service. Canadian literati were not enamoured of showmanship, but Layton wore the scorn of the establishment like a badge of honour.

Layton understood - as does Cohen, his most notable protege - the role of the public poet. And like Cohen and other performers, Layton played to the upper balcony.

Montreal poet and CEGEP professor Endre Farkas remembered Layton visiting John Abbott College to speak to students.

"Just before class began, Layton ruffled his hair and rolled up his sleeves," Farkas recalled. "He knew how to play to an audience."

Znaimer compared the poet to a rock star. During the 1950s, when the CBC was Canada's only television network - "getting a 100 share," Znaimer quipped - Layton would appear on programs like Fighting Words - for which he was never at a loss.

Layton became the talk-show booker's go-to guy. The Montreal poet fixed his leonine gaze on the lens of a black-and-white camera and reliably delivered the kind of literate and witty bon mots we don't often hear on late-night TV.

Layton wasn't Letterman.

He was, however, a man of letters - back in the day when words mattered.

mboone@thegazette.canwest.com

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