Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Oh! Montreal - An Open Letter

January 6, 2006

Irving Layton
by R.A. Lucas

6 January 2006

I never met Irving Layton. Didn't know him at all, yet he touched me in many ways. When I first started writing poetry it was a little like wetting the bed. That is, it was somewhat embarrassing. No one in my family had written poetry seriously since my grandfather on my father's side. He had come from a family of writers and editors and teachers and when they found his body in a trench in France toward the end of World War One they found a small notebook filled with his hand-written poetry. No one seems to know what happened to it. But all of that skipped a generation and one day I found myself compelled by forces beyond my control to put my thoughts on paper. I was, perhaps 12. Usually poetry is something you grow out of, like pants, or shoes. But I persisted and as I continued to write I started to read. Like many struggling writers and particularly poets back then, I read Cohen, and Pratt, Birney, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Donald Justice, Yevgeny Yevtuschenko, e.e.cummings, who had the biggest influence on my early attempts at writing, and then Irving Layton.

Irving Layton was considered somewhat dirty back then. Dirty in the way Peyton Place was considered dirty by some. He dealt with life in real terms and readers who expected poetry to be about flowers and sweet love were shocked by the bold passion and stark language he used. He was a little ahead of his time. As he started publishing in the late 1940s, the bohemian lifestyle many young men had experienced in Europe after WWII transformed in to the Beat generation of the 50s and Irving Layton's cold realistic and sometimes harsh imagery married well with the new Beatnik view of life from just outside polite society. The emergence of hippies in the 1960s and the mantra of Make Love Not War brought a new generation to discover the sexual energy of his words. I fell somewhere between the two. When I started writing the 60s had not quite dawned and being a beatnik was about the coolest thing you could be. Somewhere someone may have a few of my earliest bits of rhyme about a character called Bongo Louie. Like I said, it was a lot like wetting the bed. But his bold, forceful writing allowed me to stretch beyond doggerel. I experimented and while I often found my own writing weak I knew that I wanted to write. That I wanted to be a writer.

Once my working career started, although I continued to write I became interested in the publishing end of things and was involved in two different publishing ventures. My business partner in both was the writer Edward Pickersgill who is behind this website. Much later in my career, I contacted Ed to help me create a glossy magazine to help promote the radio station I was running in Montreal. True to form, Ed took control and I could go back to concentrating on my real job while this venture began to take shape. One day he wandered into my office. "Irving Layton is moving back to Montreal." I suppose the look on my face told him I needed some more information. Ed told me he thought if we were going to do a magazine about Montreal it would be hard to ignore one if its most famous sons, Irving Layton. He had contacted the poet, told him of our plans for the magazine and, apparently, based on this act of faith we were making - the magazine was called The New Montrealer - Layton had not only committed to writing a piece, but had also decided to move back to the city where he had grown up.

The article Layton wrote, titled Oh! Montreal - An Open Letter, began with the frank honesty everyone had come to expect from him by then: "You will always remain in my memory the city of churches, brothels and writers. They were the three stepping stones of my mental and spiritual evolution." He also gave us permission to reproduce one of his poems. I loved the magazine. Ed had not let me down and I thought we had produced a beautiful publication as well as a viable property to offer in a city that badly needed a city magazine. The company that owned the radio station I managed liked the idea of the magazine but their business was broadcasting and so we were only allowed to get that one edition out. But I still have a few copies and reading Layton's words again shortly after I had heard of his passing, cheered me in a way the sight of an old friend can. Although I had never met him, we were linked through an accident of time and place. What he did for Montreal and what he did for our magazine back in 1983 will live with me forever.

Writers will sing his praises and there is no doubt he will remain a fixture in Canadian literature for all time. He will always be missed but more importantly, he will always be read.


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