Sunday, January 08, 2006

Untamed Life Force, Hamilton Spectator, Jan 6 06
Layton wanted us to be passionate about Canada
By Andrew Dreschel
January 6, 2006

Question: Why did the Canadian cross the road? Answer: To get to the middle of it.

I owe that throwaway line to a long interview I had with Irving Layton back in the late 1980s, several years before he was stricken with Alzheimer's disease, when his best books were still in print and the untamed life force that made him one of Canada's greatest poets was still coursing wildly through his veins.

I recalled Layton's little joke on my way into work yesterday, the news of his death in a long-term care home at age 93 tugging at my thoughts.

Frankly, I came to work intending to write about how the Conservatives have overtaken the Liberals in the polls but soon realized Layton's quip about the tepid temper of this country, which he delighted in calling a "nation of losers," would suffice.

The truth is, the death of a national poet is a far more significant milestone than the piddling ups and downs of any election campaign.

Though Canada has produced a fairly good crop of poets in modern times, Layton was someone very special indeed. He was a breed apart, as much media celebrity as brilliant wordsmith. During his poetic heyday, only his friend and fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen rivalled him in both the public's eye and imagination.

That's because Layton was a theatrical force of nature. He transcended his own tremendous body of work and epitomized the wildly romantic image of the temperamental poet -- angry, reckless, always striving to shake people out of their complacency, always reaching for the stars of immortality.

Controversial and provocative with both the written and spoken word, Layton grappled with the great moral, cultural and political confusions of our times, savagely unleashing a prophet-like wrath on what he saw as the devaluation of love and the dehumanizing trends of the modern world.

But he was also -- joyfully, vigorously -- one of Canada's great erotic poets, a man who puckishly attributed the awakening of both his sexual and poetic impulses to his boyhood yearnings for Miss Benjamin, his Grade 6 teacher.

Born in Romania in 1912, Layton came to Montreal a year later with his parents. Neither his father, a small time cheesemaker, nor his dominating mother, who ran a small grocery store, wanted him to be a writer. But they didn't bank on his childhood encounter with his feminine muse.

Layton wrote that every woman he ever loved was a materialization of Miss Benjamin. And he wasn't shy about engraving -- eloquently, lasciviously, satirically -- his feelings for them in ink. With five wives and a procession of lovers, he had ample scope for expression.

Naturally, the bluestocking feminists, particularly the 1980s vintage, loathed his brazen masculinity, both on and off the printed page. The impenitent Layton merely scoffed that academics are incapable of understanding the active poetic temperament.

Besides, there was no denying the emotive power of his words.

At readings, even when he was well into his 70s, women plainly responded to his versifying and the accompanying power of his personality -- no mean feat for a short fat man whose most pleasing physical characteristics were his leonine mane of hair and penetrating eyes.

And if at times he seemed too much the blowhard, he was always a courageous one. Layton never minced words.

Being a Jew was central to his poetry and his world view. He maintained a simmering anger at Christianity, which he held indirectly responsible for the Holocaust through centuries of blaming Jews for crucifying Christ and sweeping the historical record of Christian persecutions under the rug.

More than once nominated for the Nobel Prize for poetry, his works have been translated into Russian, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Korean and Romanian. Sadly, though he wrote more than 50 books, they are hard to come by these days. That may change now that he is dead. Death has a way of reinvigorating appreciation and rejuvenating memory.

Whether Layton will achieve the immortality of the great poets he so mightily strove for is up to the ages. But to my mind, Leonard Cohen, years ago on a book jacket, bestowed on him the highest possible praise.

Cohen said he was working in a Montreal clothing factory when he first met Layton. He said he taught Layton how to dress. Layton taught him how to live forever.

Andrew Dreschel's commentary appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 905-526-3495


Blogger Stacey Mose said...

so u knew Layton, or posting articles of people who knew the Man?

6:16 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home