Thursday, January 05, 2006

Montreal Gazette article Jan 5

Legendary poet Irving Layton dies in Montreal at 93
'There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us' Leonard Cohen

Published: Thursday, January 05, 2006

Irving Layton, the flamboyant poet who died yesterday in Montreal at age 93, once described himself as "a quiet madman, never far from tears," who wrote poems to cause trouble.

As he put it: "The sparks fly / I gather each one / and start a poem."

"There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us," his long-time friend, poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, wrote The Gazette in an email from Los Angeles yesterday.

"He is our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry. Alzheimer's could not silence him, and neither will death."

The author of more than 50 books of poetry, Layton died at Maimonides Geriatric Centre on Caldwell Ave. in Cote St. Luc, where he'd been a patient with Alzheimer's disease for the past five years.

Although arrangements have not been completed, the funeral is being planned for Sunday at Paperman and Sons, 3888 Jean Talon St. W.

Once described as being both "the Picasso and the Mae West of poetry," Layton will be remembered not only for his often erotic verse but also for his abrasive ego, outrageous opinions, entertaining love life and bitter feuds, as well as for being a provocative, stimulating teacher.

Layton was born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Tirgu Neamt, Romania, on March 12, 1912. His parents changed the family name after they immigrated to Montreal in 1913.

Young Irving was raised in the Plateau Mont Royal district. He went to Baron Byng High School, then to Macdonald College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, where he took a BSc in agriculture. He later wrote of that experience:

"The college's single agitator, single poet and single Jew, I was too absorbed in my messianic dreams to realize what an outlandish figure I cut among the simple-minded Canucks from Quebec's farms and middle-class homes."

In 1936, when he was 23, he married Montrealer Faye Lynch and they moved to Halifax, where Layton became a Fuller Brush salesman. Before long, though, he walked away from both the job and his wife.

He enlisted in the Canadian army in 1942 but was not sent overseas. He was discharged with the rank of lieutenant.

With the war over, Layton went back to university and in 1946 earned a master's degree from McGill in economics and political science. He also became a card-carrying socialist.

Layton didn't start to write poetry until he was in his 30s; he once explained that as a schoolboy reading Wordsworth and Byron, he "naturally thought that in order to be a poet one had to be either English or dead, preferably both."

Layton's first collection of poetry, Here and Now, was published by First Statement Press in 1945.

For the next couple of decades, he taught English literature in Montreal, at the high school level and at Sir George Williams College, now Concordia University. One of his high school students was Irwin Cotler, today Canada's justice minister.

"As I remember it, I learned very little about physics, chemistry and math and a lot about philosophy and literature - the humanities," Cotler said yesterday. "He was an inspiration to me then, and he remains so today. He was a mentor, a colleague, a friend."

In 1946, Layton married Betty Sutherland, a sister of actor Donald Sutherland. The couple had a son, Max, and a daughter, Naomi.

He and Sutherland parted amicably several years later when Layton became involved with an Australian expatriate, Aviva Cantor, who became his soulmate for the next 25 years. Layton celebrated Cantor - and her pubic hair - in his poem The Day Aviva Came to Paris.

In it, he wrote, Parisians

"... leaped as one mad colossal Frenchman from their cafe Pernods

Shouting, "Vive l'Australienne!

Vive Layton who brought her among us! ..."

He and Cantor had a son, David. Six years ago, David Layton laid bare his painful memories of growing up "amid the mad gods of poetry" in a book called Motion Sickness.

In the 1950s, Irving Layton became one of Leonard Cohen's mentors, and the two remained close after Cohen became internationally famous.

"I taught him how to dress. He taught me how to live forever," Cohen once said of their relationship.

Layton's reputation as a poet became firmly established with his 1951 collection The Black Huntsmen. Once he hit full stride, he became amazingly prolific, producing almost a book a year between 1951 and 1991.

In 1959, Layton won the Governor-General's Award for his collection A Red Carpet for the Sun, Some of his other notable volumes - all published between 1953 and 1968 - are Love the Conqueror Worm, Balls for a One-Armed Juggler, The Laughing Rooster and The Shattered Plinths.

The books display what Montreal critic Joel Yanofsky called "the righteous zeal of an Old Testament prophet and the bravado of a streetwise brawler."

In 1969, Layton quit Montreal in a blaze of invective, "squeezed out by French-Canadian nationalism," and went to teach English literature at York University in Toronto. During the 1970s, he raged against the onset of age and had an increasingly complex marital life.

His relationship with Cantor ended, and he married one of his former students, Harriet Bernstein, a rich Toronto movie publicist. They had a daughter, Samantha. The marriage had a nasty ending, which Layton chronicled in his book The Gucci Bag.

Poetry was always Layton's prime focus, but he also wrote two books of essays and reviews, one with the apt title Taking Sides. He also edited a landmark anthology of Canadian love poetry, Love Where the Nights Are Long.

As he grew older, his view of human nature darkened.

"The Holocaust is my symbol," he said. "If you read today's poets, you'd never know the kind of barbarous world we live in. aMan forgets what a terrifying monster he can be. I want to keep reminding people how close they are to disaster."

In 1976, Layton was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada as "a prolific poet whose work has won him renown in Canada who is also widely known elsewhere through translation."

Chastened by his years in Toronto, which he described as "a godforsaken place where people know only material success, and nothing of love," Layton returned to Montreal in 1978.

In the 1980s, Layton was the subject of a National Film Board documentary, Irving Layton Observed.

The Italian Nobel committee twice nominated Layton for the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1993, he became the first non- Italian to win the distinguished Petrarch Prize for Poetry.

In later years, before Layton went deaf and slipped into what he once called in a poem "the bewildered ghost sounds" of dementia, Anna Pottier, an aspiring wrestler, shared his life.

In the end, though, he had to depend on lifelong friends like Montrealer Musia Schwartz.

"He was an incredible creature. It's unbelievable, a shock, that he's gone," Schwartz, who knew Layton for more than 50 years, said yesterday.

Layton is survived by his two sons and his two daughters.

- - -


by Irving Layton

I placed

my hand


her thigh.

By the way

she moved


I could see

her devotion

to literature

was not


Reprinted by permission of

McClelland & Stewart. Ltd.

- - -

In his own words

"It is as dangerous to overestimate the goodness of people as to underestimate their stupidity."

"My neighbour doesn't want to be loved as much as he wants to be envied."

"When you argue with your inferiors, you convince them of only one thing: they are as clever as you."

"God is indeed dead. He died of self-horror when He saw the creature He had made in His own image."

"If poetry is like an orgasm, an academic can be likened to someone who studies the passion-stains on the bedsheets."

"Since I no longer expect anything from mankind except madness, meanness, and mendacity; egotism, cowardice, and self-delusion, I have stopped being a misanthrope."

"Everything except writing poems and making love ends up by finally boring me."

"Blake was right; praise is the practice of art. Joy, fullness of feeling, is the core of the creative mystery. My dominant mood is that of ecstasy and gratitude. To have written even one poem that speaks with rhythmic authority about matters that are enduringly important is something to be immensely, reverently thankful for - and I am intoxicated enough to think I have written more than one."

"Idealist: a cynic in the making."

- - -

In the words of others

"Irving Layton 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."

- Al Purdy

"Irving Layton may well be for the historian of Literature ... the First Great Canadian Poet."

- Robert Creeley

"When I first clapped eyes on the poems of Irving Layton, two years ago, I let out a yell of joy ... for the way he greeted the world he was celebrating, head up, eyes propped wide, his gaze roving round a wide perimeter - which merely happened to see some sights that had never been disclosed to me so nakedly or so well."

- William Carlos Williams

"He rages like an old prophet, and like an old prophet he strikes fire out of rock and calls together in those sparks visions of past, present, and future that we may know ourselves anew, as if for the first time."

- Eli Mandel

"Ours has always been a mutually rewarding friendship; we complement, support, like and generally listen to each other."

- Leonard Cohen

"I remember what Irving Layton said about the essential characteristics of a young poet: arrogance and inexperience."

- Leonard Cohen

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006


Blogger mallowry said...

re: Stephen Marche's Irving Layton obit. on CBC.CA, Jan. 5, 2005

Anyone who can write such an uninformed narrow literary obit on Irving Layton is a frightful liability to Canadian literature. As an example, nowhere is it written that Layton was once nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature by Italian nominators but there are many other omissions. Worst of all, the reviewer's ignorance of the subject shines by turning Layton into a cartoon character instead of the Canadian literary beacon and giant that he was.

As usual the CBC has a way of cutting its own throat, and, by proxy, unfortunately, that of Canada's. In my opinion, this review only contributes to an image of the CBC as growingly deficient of its mandate, with a hope that it again and soon becomes a vibrant broadcaster of the people, for the people, by the people.

- Philly D. Mader

aka Phil Mader; Kootenay Phil

5:48 PM  

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