Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Life and Times of Irving Layton

A Red Carpet for the Sun: The Life and Times of Irving Layton

Video excerpt from the documentary Download RealPlayer
Irving Layton speaks with Peter Gzowski

They dance best who dance with desire
Who lifting feet of fire from fire
Weave before they lie down
A red carpet for the sun - Irving Layton

In 1959, a book of poetry called A Red Carpet for the Sun was published in Canada. On the cover was the author's face, with a dark, probing gaze that seemed designed to both challenge and intimidate the reader. The poet's name was Irving Layton. For the next three decades, as prophet, clown, and gadfly to Canadian society, Layton was a constant presence on the Canadian scene, infuriating some and delighting many with his gift for controversy and his very public private life. But who was he, really, and where did he come from? Life & Times of Irving Layton: A Red Carpet for the Sun unmasks the man behind the words.

Layton spent his childhood years in a poor, crowded immigrant household in Montreal's Yiddish-speaking neighbourhood, where his father was, in Layton's words, "a shadow on the wall" communing only with his God, and his mother a formidable presence who held the family together. At the age of 93, Irving's older brother Hyman is outspoken and unforgiving in his assessment of a family that cared little for the remarkable child in their midst.

Resourceful and determined, Layton, during the '40s and '50s, while supporting himself with a variety of teaching jobs, struggled, along with a small group of likeminded spirits, to lay the foundations for a modern Canadian literature in a country whose own poetry was neither published nor read. The breakthrough came with the publication of A Red Carpet for the Sun, and Layton's mastery of the new medium, television, stirred significant interest in what was always most important to him: poetry. Former students reveal what an amazing odyssey it was, and the women in Layton's life testify to the remarkable force of his personality. Aviva Layton, who spent more than 20 years with him, talks about the highs and lows of living with the poet. Anna Pottier, Layton's last companion, speaks movingly about their life together in his declining years. And Harriet Bernstein, whose brief marriage to Layton ended sadly in the early '80s, breaks her 20-year silence to speak publicly, for the first time, about her years with Layton.

Original Air Date - November 19, 2002


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