Thursday, January 05, 2006

Montreal Gazette Jan 5 - the Literary Community Remembers

Literary community remembers mentor who opened the door
'He helped drag Canadian literature, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century'

Published: Thursday, January 05, 2006

Memories flowed from the literary community in the wake of poet Irving Layton's death yesterday morning.

"Layton helped drag Canadian literature, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century," Vehicule Press publisher Simon Dardick said.

Dardick, who credits an early reading of Layton's book A Red Carpet for the Sun (McClelland and Stewart, 1959) with triggering his interest in Canadian literature, said Layton was one of a group of Montreal writers, including Louis Dudek and Frank Scott, who "showed which direction Canadian writing should go."

University of Ottawa English professor Seymour Mayne edited a critical analysis of Layton's work. He remembers both Layton's force as a celebrity and his strength as a poet.

"He was the first (Canadian) poet to strut out onstage and read poetry," Mayne said. "He thought of poetry as a public art. Poets live through their work and their words, and his best poems are unmatched in Canadian literature."

Montreal poet Robert Melancon remembers Layton's "extraordinary intensity" as a writer.

"He was a poet who triggered powerful reactions in people," Melancon said. "Poetry wasn't a game to him. He wanted to be a great poet, and he was."

Poet and translator Michel Albert translated Layton's work into French for the book Layton, l'essential (Triptyque, 2001).

"It was a challenge to make sure I captured all the sounds, the harmonies, the images," Albert said. "His influence faded over the last 20 years, but it will come back. Along with Dudek, he was the most important poet in Canada."

Writer and Dalhousie University professor Andy Wainwright was a close friend of Layton for more than 30 years and remembers him as a deeply intellectual man who was generous to a fault but not above the occasional trickery.

"We were both avid chess players. I remember he would not-so-subtly ply me with brandy and if that didn't work he would light one of those small cigars and blow smoke in my face," Wainwright said.

"He was one of this country's greatest poets and in the 1950s and '60s, in his heyday, he was the greatest we had."

Montreal poet and editor Michael Harris remembers Layton as "one of the best teachers I ever had."

Layton taught Harris at Sir George Williams (today Concordia University.)

"He was terribly enthusiastic about teaching and about poetry," Harris said. "He influenced me by example. He made poetry a safe and honourable occupation."

Montreal poet David Solway studied under Layton and became a good friend.

"He was a great teacher and a great poet. But he could also be a very dangerous man. He was a sort of perilous giant, so powerful you could get swallowed up and disappear.

"I would say he was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Layton was to Canadian poetry what Mordecai Richler was to Canadian fiction."

Montreal documentary filmmaker Donald Winkler made two films about Layton. "He was wonderful and warm and loved being the centre of attention," Winkler said.

Poet and former Gazette reporter Mark Abley remembers Layton as a great man on the poetry scene.

"He had tremendous impact in the 1950s and '60s. After that, we sort of took him for granted," Abley said. "When he arrived on the scene, it was as if Canadian poetry was a closed room. Layton rushed into that room, opened the curtains and opened the windows and shouted out loud."
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006


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