Sunday, December 31, 2006

Wikipedia - Irving Layton

Irving Layton OC (March 12, 1912January 4, 2006) was a Canadian poet. He was known for his "tell it like it is" style which won him a wide following but also made enemies. As T. Jacobs notes in his biography (2001), Layton fought Puritanism throughout his life:

Layton's work had provided the bolt of lightening that was needed to split open the thin skin of conservatism and complacency in the poetry scene of the preceding century, allowing modern poetry to expose previously unseen richness and depth (Jacobs, 2001).



On March 12, 1912, born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Târgu Neamţ, a small town in Romania, to Jewish parents, Moses and Klara Lazarovitch, he emigrated with his family to Montreal, Quebec in 1913 and was forced to live in the impoverished St. Urbain Street neighbourhood, later made famous by Mordecai Richler in his novels. There Layton and his family (his father died when he was 13) faced daily struggles with, among others, Montreal's French Canadians, who were uncomfortable with the growing numbers of Jewish newcomers.[1]

Layton graduated from Alexandra Elementary School and attended Baron Byng High School, where his life was changed when he was introduced to such poets as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley; the novelists Jane Austen and George Eliot; the essayists Francis Bacon, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, and Jonathan Swift; and also William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin. He became very interested in politics and social theory and began reading Karl Marx and Nietzsche and also became politically active in socialist politics — so much so that he became a threat to the high school administration and was asked to leave before graduating. In light of his limited educational opportunities, with no high school diploma, and also due to limited finances, he enrolled in Macdonald College in 1934 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture.

While in college, he was well known in artistic circles for his anti-bourgeois attitudes and his criticism of politics. He quickly found that his true interest was poetry, so pursued a career as a poet and became friends with the emerging young poets of his day, including fellow Canadian poets John Sutherland, Raymond Souster, and Louis Dudek. In the 1940s, Layton and his fellow Canadian poets rejected the older generation of poets, including Northrop Frye, and their efforts helped define the tone of the post-war generation poets in Canada. Essentially, they argued that modern poetry should set its own style, independent of British styles and influences, and should reflect the social realities of the day.

In 1936, Layton met Faye Lynch, whom he married in 1938. When Layton graduated from Macdonald College in 1939, he moved with Faye to Halifax where he worked odd jobs, including a stint as a Fuller Brush man. Soon disenchanted with his life, Layton decided, one evening, to return to Montreal. He began teaching English to recent immigrants to make ends meet and continued doing so for many years. Indecisive about his future and enraged by Hitler's violence toward Jews and destruction of European culture, Layton enlisted in the Canadian army in 1942. While serving at Petawawa, Layton met Betty Sutherland, an accomplished painter (and later poet), and a half-sister to actor Donald Sutherland. Layton soon divorced Faye and married Betty. They had two children together: Max Reuben (1946) and Naomi Parker (1950). In 1943, Layton was given an honourable discharge from the army and returned to Montreal.

Layton had become a strong socialist while at high school and joined the Young People's Socialist League. Later, he became active in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Because of this activity he was blacklisted and banned from entering the United States for the next two decades. While he continued to consider himself a Marxist, he became anti-Communist during the Cold War and broke with many on the left with his support of the Vietnam War. (Source: Toronto Star, January 5, 2006)

By the mid-1950s, Layton's activism and poetry had made him a staple on the CBC televised debating program "Fighting Words," where he earned a reputation as a formidable debater. The publication of "A Red Carpet For The Sun" in 1959 secured Layton's national reputation while the many books of poetry which followed eventually made him an internationally known celebrity.

In 1946, after receiving his M.A. in economics and political science from McGill (with a thesis on Harold Laski), Layton considered teaching as a career. In 1949, Layton began teaching English, history, and political science at the Jewish parochial high school, Herzliah (a branch of the United Talmud Torahs of Montreal). He was an influential teacher and many of his students became poets, writers, and artists. Among his students were poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen and television magnate Moses Znaimer. Layton continued to teach for the greater part of his life: as a teacher of modern English and American poetry at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) and as a tenured professor at Toronto's York University in the 1970s, as well as delivering many lectures and readings throughout Canada. Layton pursued his Ph.D. in 1948 though he abandoned it due to the demands of his already hectic professional life.

In the late 1950s, friends introduced Layton to Aviva Cantor (who had emigrated to Montreal from her native Australia in 1955). After several years of painful indecision, Layton and Betty separated and Layton moved in with Aviva. The two had a son, David, in 1964. Though Layton remained legally married to Betty, his relationship with Aviva lasted more than twenty years, only ending in the late 1970s when Aviva left.

It was in the immediate aftermath of this experience that Layton finally divorced Betty and, after a whirlwind courtship, married Harriet Bernstein, a former student. In 1981, a daughter, Samantha Clara, was born. The marriage was short-lived, however, and ended in a bitterly contested divorce. Layton then turned to his housekeeper, Anna (Annette) Pottier, who, although 48 years his junior, became his fifth and last "wife". They lived in the middle-class Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood of Montreal from 1983 until 1994 when Layton was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He died at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Montreal at the age of 93 on January 4, 2006.

Throughout the 1950s and on into the 1980s, Layton travelled widely abroad and became especially popular in South Korea and Italy, and in 1981 these two nations nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Literature. (The prize that year was instead awarded to novelist Gabriel García Márquez.) Among his many awards during his career was the Governor-General's Award for A Red Carpet for the Sun in 1959. In 1976 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Leonard Cohen once said of him, "I taught him how to dress, and he taught me how to live forever."

Layton is remembered by many as one of the first Canadian rebels of poetry, politics, and philosophy. Many believe he legitimately internationalized himself and even other Canadian poets through his coldness toward his own Canadianness. At Layton's funeral, Leonard Cohen and David Solway expressed, in their eulogies, that Layton was a revolutionary thinker who was radical, but realistic. All the eulogists agreed he was a great poet, arguably the first great poet of Canada. He is considered Leonard Cohen's literary -- and some would argue spiritual --guru.

Works & Awards

He is remembered in the Canadian literature for having written 40 poetry and prose books through his career. Layton was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize (1982), but was never awarded one by the time of his death. He was the first non-Italian to be awarded the Petrarch Award for Poetry, an Italian award to recognize a poet's talent.[1]


  • Now Is The Place — 1948
  • The Black Huntsmen: Poems — 1951
  • Love the Conqueror Worm — 1953
  • The Long Pea-Shooter — 1954
  • In the Midst of My Fever — 1954
  • The Blue Propeller — 1955
  • The Cold Green Element — 1955
  • The Bull Calf and Other Poems — 1956
  • The Improved Binoculars: Selected Poems — 1956
  • Music on a Kazoo — 1956
  • A Laughter in the Mind — 1959
  • A Red Carpet for the Sun — 1960
  • The Swinging Flesh — 1961
  • Balls for a One-Armed Juggler — 1963
  • The Laughing Rooster — 1964
  • Collected Poems — 1965
  • Periods of the Moon: Poems — 1967
  • The Shattered Plinths — 1968
  • Selected Poems — 1969
  • The Whole Bloody Bird — 1969
  • Poems to Color — 1970
  • Nailpolish — 1971
  • The Collected Poems of Irving Layton — 1971
  • Lovers and Lesser Men — 1972
  • The Pole-Vaulter — 1974
  • Seventy-five Greek Poems, 1951-1974 — 1974
  • The Darkening Fire: Selected Poems, 1945-1968 — 1975
  • The Unwavering Eye: Selected Poems, 1969-1975 — 1975
  • The Uncollected Poems of Irving Layton: 1936-59 — 1976
  • For my Brother Jesus — 1976
  • The Selected Poems of Irving Layton — 1977
  • The Covenant — 1977
  • The Tightrope Dancer — 1979
  • Droppings from Heaven — 1979
  • The Tamed Puma — 1979
  • For My Neighbours in Hell — 1980
  • Europe And Other Bad News — 1981
  • A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected Poems, 1945-82 — 1982
  • Shadows on the Ground: A Portfolio — 1982
  • The Gucci Bag — 1983
  • The Love Poems of Irving Layton: With Reverence & Delight — 1984
  • Fortunate Exile — 1987
  • Final Reckoning: Poems, 1982-1986 — 1987
  • Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton — 1989
  • Irving Layton and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978 — 1990
  • Dance With Desire: Selected Love Poems — 1992


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1:51 PM  

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