Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Irving Layton passes today at 93

Irving Layton, one of Canada's most famous poets, passed away today in Montreal at age 93. I have been lucky enough to have spent time with him on a few occasions over the last few years and have felt incredibly blessed to have been able to do so. Here is his poem that speaks to me the most at this time.

The Swimmer, Irving Layton

Afternoon foreclosing, see
The swimmer plunges from his raft,
Opening the spray corollas at his act of war -
The snake heads strike
Quickly and are silent.

Emerging see how for a moment,
A brown weed with marvelous bulbs,
He lies immiment upon the water
While light and sound come with a sharp passion
From the gonad sea around the poles
And break in bright cockle-shells about his ears.

He dives, floats, goes under like a thief
Where his blood sings to the tiger shadows
In the scentless greenery that leads him home,
A male salmon down fretted stairways
Through underwater slums....

Stunned by the memory of lost gills
He frames gestures of self-absorption
Upon the skull-like beach;
Observes with instigated eyes
The sun that empties itself upon the water,
And the last wave romping in
To throw its boyhood on the marble sand,

The Swimmer, The Selected Poems, M&S: 2004

If you would like more information on the life and work of Irving Layton as well as the Globe & Mail's January 4th article:

University of Toronto Irving Layton Website
The Globe and Mail's article regarding his passing


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My most recent Irving Layton experience was while on a road trip in the summer of 2004. I was in Poor Michael's Bookshop on Hwy 10 in Manitoba looking for books by Canadian poets and the proprietor and I got talking about specific poets. Somewhere in the conversation he mentioned that Layton was alive and well in Toronto and "probably making it with twenty-year-olds as usual." Having a vague notion of Layton's age I told him I doubted it, but it was nice that he had that thought.
Being from south of the border, I cannot know the extent of Layton's influence and fame in Canada, but I know he was/is important and feel a real sense of loss at his passing. My impression is that he had the notoriety equivalent to Ginsberg down here. A risky statement but...what can I say. I hope people organize some great testimonials to him and his poetic contributions.
Charlie Rossiter
Oak Park, IL, U.S.A.

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first came to Irving Layton's poetry two years ago while taking an undergraduate Canadian lit. course. My first experience with North American Jewish writing, he invited my curiosity with his vivid, enticing imagery. It is with sadness that I note his "afternoon foreclosing" ("The Swimmer"), but with gratitude that I acknowledge his influence on Canadian literature, and my personal academic and literary journey.

Newfoundland, Canada

9:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father was Hyman Latch, Irving Layton’s older brother. My memories are from when I was a boy growing up in San Francisco where Uncle Irving would visit every few years. I knew when he was coming because boxes of books would arrive just before he would. He’d stay with us whenever he was in San Francisco for a book signing. He always wore a big medallion around his neck. My father and Irving looked alike and spoke alike. They would talk into the wee hours of the morning about things I was too young to follow.
My father died in January two years ago. A couple years before that Canadian TV interviewed my father for “Irving Layton:
A Red Carpet for the Sun" ( I watch the video every so often and today am reminded that an era has passed.
Emanuel Latch
Burlingame, California

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Tom Sakic said...

So we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

That was written by lord Byron, and sung by Irving's friend Leonard Cohen, for Irving, in 2004. Rest in peace, old teacher.

11:13 PM  
Anonymous Sid Marty said...

For the Old Maestro

I have come to be, like you
“A quiet madman, never far from tears”
My titans vanquished or subdued
My guides and teachers gone
no answering “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?”

We grow smaller with each life that’s shed
Even as our children turn to us
expecting a giant’s offering
like yours. In that little class room
at Sir George, the ladies young
and not so young sat forward and they clung
to every word. We young men stayed

Back, and tossed out arrogant questions
that shocked your followers but though
you brushed off our parries and our snide
asides, you seldom used the power
of your wit, to whip young ingenues in line
Until I ventured “Sex isn’t everything...”

The women turned and hissed me down
like snakes, but you laughed a lion’s laugh
because you knew the problem was
I hadn’t had enough to know

And after class you clapped me on the back
Claiming my friendship forever then and said
“Read Lawrence first, young Marty
then we’ll talk again”

I never tried to write like you
and never will. Good fortune brought me
to your door to hear what I had never heard
before, that poets were the true priests
The unacknowledged leaders still
What you believed, and taught

Whether it was true or not
You made us proud
To write what others tried
to beat out of our skins
in the little red neck towns

You made us proud
to be ourselves
In l965, when first we heard
Poetry was not dead and in a book

Poetry was this lion headed Jew
This fierce and joyous rowdy man
Opening the door to singing school
In cosmopolitan Montreal

I stepped through and
did I leap or did I fall?
Into the wide and welcoming arms
of the word

Sid Marty, Pincher Creek, Alberta
Jan. 4. 2005

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Donna Gagnon said...

For Irving Layton at 85
by Donna Gagnon

he has a gift and space
this aging man of words
his brilliance shines
free of guilt and interruption

notebook in hand,
pencil balanced between fingers
licking his lips,
Irving sits outside, slumped deeply
in an old Muskoka chair
he worships God and breasts,
lust and skin;
produces endless songs of praise

Your country adores you
whispers each of his wives:
#1 from the kitchen,
#2 from the laundry,
#3 from above a hungry child,
#4 from the half-waxed entry floor
#5 from the bus station

but I cannot share this wonder, Irving,
because you refuse to share your self
with women

Irving's passing has sucked a tremendous amount of creative energy out of this country. He was a man unafraid of being himself. The torch has been passed.

8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We all knew this day was coming. My thoughts and prayers go out to Irving’s family and friends and to us, as well.

I too was part of a group of students that Seymour Mayne took to have lunch with Irving in Montreal as part of his third year poetry workshop. It was at a restaurant on Monkhouse if I remember correctly, and Irving ordered pizza. I remember his wife not being at all thrilled with his choice for a meal, but he was going to have a good time with us, healthier food choices be damned. What I took away from that lunch was his graciousness, his patience with all of us and our questions about the art and his passion for poetry. Looking back on it now, I’m amazed at how indulgent he was with us.

I too saw him read at Magnum, and after the reading showed him some limited edition prints that my mother had unearthed in Calgary and given to me for Christmas the year before. He was both astonished and pleased to see them and when I asked him to sign the front print he replied, “But I’ve already signed it,” which was true – they were all signed copies upon release. I responded by saying I’d like him to sign it again – and he did with his usual flourish.

At one point, Chris Pollard, Stuart Konyer and I started up Hostbox, which was a local (Ottawa) literary magazine. We decided to send copies out to quite a few writers and poets, Canadian and otherwise. Again, my memory is not what it used to be, but I believe that Irving was the only person who wrote back and encouraged us to keep with it. That was exciting stuff indeed!

And that’s been my experience with him – indulgent and encouraging. Seymour Mayne did us a great favour by introducing us to Irving.

I know I’m richer for the experience.

Ray Nichols


9:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Six years ago I named my firstborn son Layton, in praise of Irving. News of his passing seems insignificant to me. Transparent to the scope of his work. Irving Layton continues to cheat death, his spirit insistent within being's debate.

Craig Peskett,

9:37 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

I met Irving nine years ago at his home in N.D.G. Montreal. At that time my girlfriend was setting some of his poetry to music that I would eventually sing. On later visits, he asked me to bring my poetry. We sat at his dining table drinking wine and reading. What a wonderful memory. I will be performing the forementioned pieces this May 2006 at the Forest Grove United Church in Toronto.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Ted Paull said...


I was fortunate enough to have had Irving Layton as a teacher of English Literature during my last two years of high school, at Herzliah High School in Montreal. Irving's classes were always stimulating, to say the least. He would often ask us to tell him what books we were reading. I had been an avid reader from a young age, but the books that I tended to read at that time were not of particularly high quality. After returning to school from a bout of the flu, I remember telling him that I had just completed 5 or 6 of Ian Fleming's James Bond series of novels - whereupon, he proceeded to ridicule my choice of 'trash' literature. He then ordered me to meet him at Classics Bookstore that very Friday night (This was the original Classics bookstore on St. Catherine St.). A number of my classmates came as well. Irving selected a number of books from the shelves that he felt were more appropriate reading material and handed them to me (I think they included Great Expectations, and Pride and Prejudice, among others). Seymour Mayne was also there that evening, and he did an impromptu reading in the store, of a number of e.e.cummings poems which, upon hearing them for the first time, had a great impact on me. That evening marked the beginning of a lifetime of reading and appreciation of the world's great literature, for which I am eternally grateful.

Irving was quite a taskmaster in his classes. We were constantly given writing assignments, mainly short essays. We often had to read them aloud to the class, following which we would usually be verbally 'flayed' with his critique of our writing. But, somehow, through this process most of us learned to write quite well, not only with proper use of grammar, but with a sense of the rhythm of language, and with sensitivity to the variety of subtle flavours and shades of meaning that arose out of the words, depending on how we chose to use them. This was a gift of truly incomparable value, which was only understood and appreciated much later in life. Once again, thank you Irving!

One final remembrance of Irving was of an appearance on that he made on an early CBC television program, I forget which one. The topic of the discussion was beauty and aesthetics. The conversation naturally turned to the beauty of the female form, and to what it was that men found stimulating. Irving proclaimed, with a mischevious (or was it lascivious?)smile on his face, that what most drew his attention was 'the cleavage in the posterior', at which point the moderator reddened, and immediately chided him with 'Now, now, Irving, we'll have none of that!'

A true hero has passed! Larger than life, full of the bluster and frailties of all humanity, but unafraid to expose them for all to see. In so doing he offered us a mirror that revealed to ourselves our own hidden thoughts and feelings, and elevated our souls somehow to a higher place.

At whatever celestial plane Irving has arrived at now, we can be sure that he is still creating meaningful and profound vibrations of the soul. And, more than likely, he's also 'cozying' up to some lovely angellic spirit, whispering captivating words into her ear and mind.

God bless you, Irving. Rest in peace, and may your spirit live on forever. This world is a better place for your having passed through it.

Ted Paull
Lyndhurst, ON,
January 5, 2006

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Francheska Gorbichoff said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

Would it be possible for you to put up some links to his actual poetry?
The links you have already suggested here do not lead to any examples of his poems and I have also tried York, Concordia, CBC, JPL, CanEncy, etc, all to no avail. Not a single one online.
Today may be the first time some people have heard of him so I'm thinking some actual poems would be fitting.
Thanks for your site.

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Irving:

I wish you a journey both wondrous and blessed: as serene as you would have it, and as naughty; intellectually stimulating, and filled with love and beauty and solace, and more love, and more love. Please write sometime; I buried your letters in a box.

Thank you for your generosity of spirit, for sharing your thoughts, the music of your words, and your big old heart.

ilse mozga
campbellville, ontario

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was sad to hear that the man who wrote A Tall Man Executes a Jig and Keine Lazarovich is no longer among us. One does not forget such people.

Larry Hammick

4:13 AM  
Anonymous Paul Robichaud, West Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. said...

I met Irving Layton when working at the Author's Festival at Harbourfront in Toronto in 1993. Despite my awestruck youth, Layton took the time to seriously listen and give advice on writing poetry. The intensity of his personality should not obscure the authentic passion and artistic achievement of his best lyrics, like "A Tall Man Executes a Jig." He blazed a trail for Canadian writers in an era before government grants, and his Dionysian devotion to poetry will remain an example and inspiration. Twelve years later, now a published poet and teacher living in the United States, I look back on my encounter with Layton as a moment of realization. May he attain that "wild peculiar joy" celebrated in his life and art.

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fell in love with Layton's poetry when I was 24. I found paperback volume at an old bookstore in Temagami and have been hooked ever since. I have heard many women label him a mysogynist, womanizer etc but I think everyone has missed the point. He just loved women. All of them big, small, old, young. His heart was big and regularly broken by many. He was also loved by many more. No one has ever had his ability to reach across all boundries and touch everyone. He was simply brilliant and the most open person to write a verse. Somehow Canada has forgotten it's most talented and dynamic poet but I hope that anyone who reads this will be inspired to pick up any one of his books and discover what it is that sets him apart. I for one wish him well on his next journey and feel very priveledged to have been exposed to his genius.


2:53 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Grobman said...

I never met Irving Layton in person, but I have often met his spirit in his books.

As a college English teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, I have frequently included Layton in my courses when I teach poetry. I have had my students watch the documentary "Poet: Irving Layton Observed" and require that they analyze and respond to the poems Layton presents in that film. I have always taken heart in thinking that Layton himself would be pleased to know that his poetry and his ideas about the role and function of the poet in society still have the ability to shock students into reconsidering their stereotypical ideas about what poetry is and the important political contribution the poet should make to society.

For myself, I am a tremendous fan of Layton's writings and and find that the passion and the enthusiasm he brought to his work is highly contagious and though I am greatly saddened by his death, I look forward to meeting his spirit again and again in his books.

Last September, my mother also died after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. At her funeral, I read Layton's poem, "Senile, My Sister Sings,' though I took the liberty of replacing the word "sister" with the word "mother."

Senile, my sister sings. She sings
the same snatch of song over and over
in a quivering voice, her lips trembling
when she tries for the high notes. Her white
hair close-cropped like a prisoner's
and her unobstructed tongue lolling
over her furrowed lip while her dentures
grin at us through a glass of water,
my sister is some kind of vocal chicken,
especially when her small raisin eyes dart
from visitor to visitor as though about
to pluck worms out of their garments.
My heart breaks remembering her beauty
and wit, the full mouth with a tale in it
she finally exploded in our ears.
Is this my sister so frail and emaciated,
whose valour and go were family legends,
her smiles so dazzling they made the roaches
leisurely roaming the walls of our kitchen
scurry behind the torn wallpaper
to hide there till the incandescence had passed?
Sing, my dear sister, sing
though your trembling lips break my heart
and I turn away from you to sob
and let the tears course down my cheeks,
my grief held back by pride and even a kind
of exultance. You do not moan or whimper,
you do not grovel before the Holy Butcher
and beg Him to spare you days; or rock
silently like the other white-haired biddies
waiting to be plucked from their stoops. No,
though His emissary ominously flaps his wings
to enfold you in their darkness, you sing.
Your high-pitched note must rile him
more than rage or defiance. You sing him
no welcome, and if your voice trembles
it's not fear or resignation he hears
but the cracked voice of the élan vital
whose loudest chorister you are, abashing Death
and making him sulk in his own shadow.

My heartfelt condolences to his family and to Musia.

3:03 PM  

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