Friday, January 06, 2006

The Sparks Fly, Star Phoenix, Saskatoon, Jan 6 06

Poet Layton dead at 93
Prolific author had abrasive ego
Alan Hustak, CanWest News Service
Published: Thursday, January 05, 2006

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

-- Irving Layton

MONTREAL -- Irving Layton, the flamboyant poet who died Wednesday in Montreal at 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."

The author of more than 50 books of poetry, Layton died at a geriatric centre in suburban Cote St. Luc, where he had been a patient with Alzheimer's disease for the past five years.

Arrangements have not been completed, but the funeral is planned for Sunday.

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 for his abrasive ego, outrageous opinions, entertaining love life and bitter feuds, as well as for being a provocative, stimulating teacher.

Layton was born in Tirgu Neamt, Romania, on March 12, 1912. The family immigrated to Montreal in 1913.

Young Irving was raised in the Plateau Mont Royal district. 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.

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

When the war was over, Layton went back to university and in 1946 gained an MA 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. His first collection of poetry, Here and Now, was published by First Statement Press in 1945.

For the next couple of decades, he taught English in Montreal, at the high-school level and at Sir George Williams College, now Concordia University.

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

He and Sutherland parted several years later when Layton became involved with an Australian expatriate, Aviva Cantor, who became his soulmate for the next 25 years. He and Cantor had a son, David.

In the '50s, Irving Layton became one of Leonard Cohen's mentors, and the two remained close after Cohen became internationally famous.

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 are Love the Conqueror Worm, Balls for a One-Armed Juggler and The Shattered Plinths.

In 1969 Layton left Montreal in a blaze of invective, "squeezed out by French-Canadian nationalism," and went to teach English at York University in Toronto.

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 he chonicled in his book, The Gucci Bag.

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

© The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2006


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