Thursday, January 05, 2006

Globe & Mail article by S. Martin Jan 5

Irving Layton, 93
Thursday, January 5, 2006 Posted at 11:08 AM EST
By SANDRA MARTIN With files from John Allemang

He was fond of referring to himself in the same breath as Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats, but, for all his bombast, Irving Layton was a grand poet who wrote at least a dozen poems that will keep his name and his reputation alive. A prolific letter writer, a mentor to generations of younger poets, including Leonard Cohen and Al Purdy, he brought an energy and an excitement to the writing of poetry in Canada beginning in the 1950s.

As a grieving Leonard Cohen said yesterday from Montreal, "There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us. He is our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry. Alzheimer's could not silence him, and neither will death."

The late Al Purdy once described Mr. Layton's personality as a fusion of opposites, saying he "was the Montreal magnet for me. . . . I felt about him as I had not about any other Canadian writer, a kind of awe and surprise that such magical things should pour from an egotistical clown, a charismatic poseur. And I forgive myself for saying these things, which are both true and untrue."

Mr. Layton delighted in debate, excess, defying authority and ridiculing cant. And he loved women -- their pursuit, their bodies and their company. He had five wives or partners and many mistresses. One of his former partners, Aviva Layton, said his muse was his real wife. She described his death as a "body blow."

The stories about Mr. Layton, beginning with his claim that he was born circumcised, are legendary. "Who knows," Ms. Layton responded when the question was put to her directly. "It is like asking whether Achilles or Zeus ever existed." Everybody mythologizes their life to a certain extent, she said, and his mother certainly believed it.

One summer in the early 1960s, they were in Rome and wanted to visit St. Peter's Basilica. The guards barred her because she was wearing a mini-dress. Mr. Layton opened his wallet, pulled out all of his lira and pinned some to the bottom of her skirt to make a hem, then slipped the rest of them under the straps of her dress to fashion sleeves. "Now," he demanded, "is she respectable?" The guards, seemingly oblivious to Mr. Layton's eloquent deriding of mammon, made no objection as the couple swept past the barrier and into the holiest of Catholic churches.

Editing Mr. Layton could be fractious because "he did not believe he had ever written a bad poem," said Anna Porter, who worked with him at McClelland and Stewart beginning in the late 1960s, after Mr. Layton and Aviva Layton moved to Toronto from Montreal. "He was brilliant," Ms. Porter said, "and when he viewed himself in the pantheon of great poets, he wasn't saying it lightly, he was saying it with some foreknowledge of the precedence." She edited his Collected Poems, which was to be his magnum opus. The problem was that it kept growing. They had a temporary falling out over the number of poems. He was so angry with her that he went to another publisher, who released the "uncollected" Irving Layton. "If the two volumes had appeared together, they would have amounted to something like 600 pages," Ms. Porter said.

"Irving was like a one-man promotion machine for Canadian poetry in the 1950s," said literary critic Sam Solecki, at a time when a bestseller sold maybe 250 copies in this country. "There was an energy that almost every reviewer, even those who didn't like him much at the start, recognized." The University of Toronto English professor wrote the introduction to a selected edition of Mr. Layton's poetry, A Wild Peculiar Joy (published by M&S in 2004). Mr. Layton, said Prof. Solecki, always insisted that Canadian poetry be measured against the best of European, American and British work. "There was that historical moment when he made a huge statement that poetry is important and it's got to be modern." What made Mr. Layton special as a mentor and a teacher, said Prof. Solecki, was the way he nurtured younger poets without trying to turn them into models of himself. He was like Nietzsche, who said the best student is the one who goes beyond the master. And he left behind stellar poems such as: A Tall Man Executes a Jig, The Swimmer, The Birth of Tragedy, Song for Naomi, The Cold Green Element, On Seeing the Statute of Ezekiel and Jeremiah in the Church of Notre Dame, Keine Lavorivitch: 1870-1959, The Tightrope Dancer and A Wild Peculiar Joy.

Irving Layton was born Israel Lazarovitch in Romania before the First World War, one of several children of Moses and Keine (Moscovitch) Lazarovitch, but changed his name to Irving Layton when he decided to become a poet. He immigrated to Canada with his family when he was a year old and settled in the tough impoverished St. Urbain neighbourhood that was later immortalized in the fiction of the late Mordecai Richler.

His parents were sharp contrasts. His father was shy and religiously observant and his mother was domineering and ferocious. After her death, Mr. Layton wrote an elegy to her, Keine Lazarovitch: 1870-1959.

"O fierce she was, mean and unaccommodating;

But I think now of the toss of her gold earrings,

Their proud carnal assertion, and her youngest sings

While all the rivers of her red veins move into the sea."

The poet P. K. Page described this poem as "devastatingly beautiful and honest." His mother was a difficult woman, and all of that comes out, but so does her pride and dignity. "It isn't a poem I could have written, but if I had written it, I would have been pleased with it."

Mr. Layton was supposed to have been a peddler, not a poet who peddled his work at readings and lectures. Later, he claimed that the daily fistfights that marked his childhood taught him "to give as good as I got and never to whimper. . . . You had to stay in there and keep on pounding."

His written work often incorporated this political anger, but he credited Latin-language studies with the poet A. M. Klein for turning him into a bard of epic proportions. Listening to Mr. Klein read Virgil's Aeneid, the poor street kid "realized how very lovely and very moving the sound of poetry could be."

Mr. Layton always prided himself on his classical sensibility, and his writing is more orderly than his savage style suggested. But he hated to be tied down, in poetry as in marriage: "I am a Romantic with a sense of irony," he once told a student.

He studied agriculture, of all things, at Montreal's Macdonald College, where he became active as a journalist, debater and verbal hell-raiser. He also made a disastrous marriage to Faye Lynch in 1938, and moved with her to Halifax, where he worked as a Fuller Brush salesman before enlisting in the army. Proving to be a poor soldier, he accepted a discharge, found his way into the Montreal literary scene and published his first book in 1945. He also took up with Betty Sutherland, a waitress-turned-artist and Donald Sutherland's stepsister. They had two children, Max (1946) and Naomi (1950).

Writing poetry and the occasional manifesto was not lucrative. Mr. Layton essentially self-published and took work teaching wherever he could find it -- a Jewish high school, Montreal's Jewish Public Library (where he tutored immigrants) and part-time lecturing at Sir George Williams University, with dreams of finishing a PhD and becoming a professor. This workload didn't keep him from writing, or from getting noticed, though his self-assertive style earned equal blame and praise. In 1951, Northrop Frye wrote of The Black Huntsmen that "the successes are quiet and the faults raucous. . . . One can get as tired of buttocks in Mr. Layton as buttercups in Canadian Poetry Magazine."

"He was my teacher in Grade 7," television guru Moses Znaimer said yesterday, explaining that it was the scaremongering of the McCarthy era in the early 1950s that forced "a guy of Irving's calibre" to find work at a Jewish day school.

Mr. Znaimer remembers how Mr. Layton looked at the "motley" crew of pupils and then filled both the front and side blackboards with huge number 9s in chalk and marked a "savage" dot, then added a few more 9s and a percentage sign. "He turned around and fixed us with a stare and said 99.99999 per cent of people are philistines." Mr. Znaimer remembered thinking, "I don't know what a philistine is, but I'm not going to be one of them."

He was a fabulous teacher, said Mr. Znaimer, who compared him to a rock star. "He was flamboyant and heroic and very handsome with a pugilist's body and face and he made it all come alive." He was getting some exposure as a poet on CBC TV, and he would brazenly bring in his chap books and sell them to pupils at 25 cents each, insisting that they would become collector's items. Mr. Znaimer, who idolized his teacher but refused to ape his mannerisms and style as some of the other pupils did, nevertheless bought many of the early books and amassed a collection that a book dealer later appraised at thousands of dollars.

It was about this time that Mr. Layton met Aviva Cantor. She arrived in Montreal from her native Australia in 1955. She had an Australian friend who had written a poem in The Fiddlehead magazine that was published in Fredericton by the late Fred Cogswell. She wrote him, and he sent back a letter with a list of names and addresses of people she might want to look up in Montreal. The list included Frank Scott, A. M. Klein and Irving Layton, with an address in Côte Saint-Luc. For some reason, she phoned Mr. Layton. He invited her to a party at his house one Sunday, and that was that. Eventually, he left Betty and his children, and they became partners for more than 20 years.

They never married, but she changed her name to Layton after their son David was born in 1964. They moved to Toronto in the late 1960s, after the late Eli Mandell facilitated a teaching job for Mr. Layton at York University. These were the years of his greatest literary and public success.

He published a volume of poetry almost every year into the 1980s, and began winning over enough doubters to get Canada Council grants that allowed him to roam the world. As his fame and his vanity grew, he liked to pretend that there was some sort of conspiracy against him in Canada. But he was a successful poet, and a household name from his appearances on a CBC debate show that could have been named for him: Fighting Words. The late Hugh MacLennan declared him to be the best poet in Canada; that soothed Mr. Layton's ego but did nothing to rein in his embattled nature or make him more self-critical.

He objected strenuously to a biography written by Elspeth Cameron in the mid-1970s and later wrote his own memoirs. He and Ms. Layton separated, and he became captivated by a York student, Harriet Bernstein. His fourth child, Samantha, was born in 1981, when he was almost 70. Like so many of his closest relationships, this one ended badly, too -- Harriet took custody of the child, and charged the poet with harassment when he drew on his verbal dexterity to deride her.

Mr. Layton the poet started to slow down at this point, but Mr. Layton the lover was still going strong. He soon took up with 22-year-old Annette Pottier, and married her after changing her name to Anna. She left him in 1995, after his creeping Alzheimer's was finally diagnosed, and his care was taken over by a group of friends. In 2000, when his savings ran out, he was moved to the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Montreal's Côte Saint-Luc district, the same area where he was living when he met Aviva Cantor in the 1950s.

Among his visitors was Judith Fitzgerald, a poet and former student at York University. She went to see him in 2001 and wrote about it for The Globe. "With the morning sun slanting through wrap-around plate-glass windows, he loads his pipe," Ms. Fitzgerald wrote. "The poet inhales with gusto, a satisfied smile spreading across his craggy face."

Another pilgrim was his former protegé and poet-in-arms, Leonard Cohen, who told Ms. Fitzgerald that he continued to be "knocked out by the richness, the resonance, the generosity, the hard intelligence, the clarity, the passion and, above all else, the great, great aching tenderness, which remains very much a part of who he is and what he means to me."

Mr. Cohen's early poem, Last Dance at the Four Penny from The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), which was once a tribute to his mentor, now forms one-half of elegiac bookends to their long friendship and love of poetry.

The poem begins, "Layton, when we dance our freilach/ under the ghostly handkerchief," and ends, "I say no Jew was ever lost/ while we weave and billow the handkerchief/ into a burning cloud,/ measuring all of heaven/with our stitching thumbs."

Having honoured the poet in the 1960s, Mr. Cohen eulogized the man 40 years later in Irving and Me at the Hospital, which will be published in May in Mr. Cohen's new collection, Book of Longing, and which is reprinted here with permission from M&S:

Irving and Me At the Hospital

He stood up for Nietzsche

I stood up for Christ

He stood up for victory

I stood up for less

I loved to read his verses

He loved to hear my song

We never had much interest

In who was right or wrong

His boxer's hands were shaking

He struggled with his pipe

Imperial tobacco

Which I helped him light

-11/24/01

Irving Layton was born in Neamtz, Romania, on March 12, 1912. He died in Montreal of complications from Alzheimer's disease yesterday morning. He was 93. He is survived by former wives and partners, and his children Max, Naomi, David, Samantha and their families. The funeral will be held on Sunday at Paperman's in Montreal. A family memorial will be held at a later date.

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