Thursday, January 05, 2006

Post your comments here

To post stories, memories or words of appreciation of Irving Layton and his poetry, please do the following:

Please go the bottom of this post and click on the COMMENTS link. This will open up a comments window - please post your memory here. It will ask you to either log in or choose to post an ANONYMOUS comment (if you wish, you can post your name and city in the actual message itself.)

Select comments will be republished under the main section for others to view.

Thank you

Gazette Condolences, Jan 12 06

Guest Book for
Irving Layton
January 12, 2006

I was thinking of Irving only last week, wondering how he was getting along. I see he has now decided to go travelling. Of course, we'll miss him, but that's just our point of view. I'm sure he'll be back before we've fully realized he's gone.

Ann Diamond (Montreal, QC )
January 12, 2006

I was privileged to have been taught by Irving Layton and, especially, to be in the class immortalized in his poem, "To the Girls of my Graduating Class".
He is gone, but for me and the thousands of students he taught, his inspiration will endure forever.

Sol Nayman (Toronto, ON )

January 11, 2006

As a student of the United Talmud Torah I was a grade 8 student of an unforgetable teacher,who taught us History with no books and ran with us outside on Fletchers Field. A teacher never forgotten whose book Now is the Place (1948) which he autographed for us and which still has a place of honour in my bookcase. What more can be said of such a great personality never to be forgotten.

Myrna Lorraine Solomon (Pierrefonds, QC )

January 9, 2006

Like many Canadians, I was saddened to learn about the passing of Irving Layton and digested the news with the sober realization that one of this country's great poets had just left a large hole in our nation's psyche.

I was lucky to hear Irving Layton read to a packed house at an independent bookstore on Wellington Street in 1990 and loved the experience of hearing his voice echo through the mid March, overheated, and exuberant crowd of devotees.
( All thanks to John Metcalfe.)

I am grateful for his passion and commitment to words; to making art and paving the way for others to legitimately place their major and minor muses on paper. And I wholeheartedly agree with him that 99.9999% of humanity are philistines.

Loretta Fleming (Ottawa, ON )

January 9, 2006

Sincere condolences to your family during this intensely sad time. Irving Layton was an inspiration to our family. May the memories of this great man, and all the support and love sent to you ,sustain you during this time.

The Karpman Family
donna karpman (hudson, QC )

January 9, 2006

Sincere condolences to Mr. Layton's family from The Canadian Writers' Foundation.

The Canadian Writers' Foundation (Ottawa, ON )

January 9, 2006

As a child of the 50s, I saw Layton's impact on Canada. He was the muse of an entire post-war era. Simply put, the most learned, audacious, gifted, and talented poet we've had. Ave atque vale Magister!

Walter Bruno (Calgary, AB )

January 8, 2006

Irving Layton was my first cousin twice removed (his mother and my grandmother were first cousins). More significantly, he was my teacher at Herzliah High School for most of my secular subjects for a period of three years (1953-1956). From Irving I learned Latin, history, English literature and, most memorably, composition. Each week he assigned an essay topic, and then thoroughly critiqued our very modest efforts. I was only 12-14 years old then, yet it was one of the best learning experiences that I have ever had. I only wish that more of my doctoral students were exposed to someone so dedicated to teaching writing. In addition, he opened our minds to poetry, inspired us to read and love good literature and exposed us to the works of important social critics. I feel very indebted to Irving, proud to be his cousin and grateful to have been his student. May his memory be for a blessing.

Stanley Messer (Highland Park, NJ )

January 8, 2006

Rest in peace.

Andrea Taylor (Montreal, QC )

January 8, 2006

I would like to add my condolences to the family of Irving Layton.

My memories of Mr. Layton go way back to the time when I was about 7-8 years old. My father owned a printing business called, "Canada Mailing Service" which was located at 1190 University between Dorchester and Cathcart Streets in Montreal. My grandfather, Frederick Robinson, lived on the third floor of this building along with Mr. Layton who was a struggling poet and writer at the time, and well before he had made a name for himself. I have vivid memories of visiting my dad at the office and sneaking upstairs to watch and listen to these two men. The result of this strange alliance? A beautiful book of poetry written by my grandfather which I have treasured over the years.

Thank you, Mr. Layton for befriending a very lonely man who had recently lost his wife.

My thoughts are with the family.

Dorothy Mather (née Robinson) (Ottawa, ON )

January 8, 2006

I was a neighbor and baby sitter for you in Cote St Luc in the 1950's

Mary Teiber (pictou, NS )

January 7, 2006

To love, and be loved is the greatest gift. Thanks for all your great gifts. The whole world loves you. God bless.

L.B. (NB )


January 7, 2006

Thanks for the sound advice... and glad to have read that book of yours when I found it...

Eric Williamson (Montreal, QC )


January 7, 2006
Corinne Elizabeth Skarstedt (Montreal, QC )

January 7, 2006

I 'll nver forget the year in the early fifties at Herzlia High School that Irving Layton taught us English Literature and Poetry - literally creating it on the blackboard in front of our eyes. It gave me a lifelong appreciation for poetry.

Bernard Sternthal


January 7, 2006

I am grateful to have had the privilege of being a student of Irving Layton at Concordia University in 1979. Attending his classes changed my life, not only because Professor Layton was an extraordinary and generous poet and teacher, but also because it was in his classroom that I met another admirer of Layton's poetry, Gerald,
who soon became my husband. I mourn the loss of my husband, and now of Professor Layton who encouraged us to continue to write throughout the years. And we did...inspired by his passion and love. Thank you, Irving Layton. Avanti! as you liked to say.

Anne Cimon (Montreal)

January 7, 2006

Thank you Irving Layton for your grand poems and grander spirit.
karen coulter (toronto, ON )

January 7, 2006

I have memories of Irving running up my fire escape on Crescent Street wildly waving a paper and shouting "Helloooooo. I have a new poem. It's a masterpiece!"
Dear Irving, if you can pause just a moment in straightening out the Big Guy, I'd like to thank you for the excitement, the love and the poems.
Condolences to all who loved you, -- especially your long-time loyal friends, Musia Schwartz and Leonard Cohen.

Sandra Anderson (Beaudin) (Montreal, QC )
January 7, 2006

This is a very sad day, which had to come. My great sadness is that such a fine mind went the way it did. He was my teacher from 1953-1957 in Herzliah High, and was one of the most influential people in my life. Shalom, Sir. Helena.

Helena Sandler (Powell River, BC )

January 7, 2006

How life's ironies can unfold like butterflies from black cocoons. Butterflies, whose gold filigree of anticipation reveals itself between those ominous shadows, prepared to soar. Yet unseen beauty rumbling beneath the weight of it all.

My grandmother, who passed away in 1997, suffered through Alzheimers. Shortly after that time, when I heard that Irving Layton had become afflicted with that wretched disease, I was struck by the terrible irony of the fact that this uber-vibrant, life-affirming and deliciously-combative human being was resigned to that, of all fates.

Now, the maestro is free, the shackles of deterioration already turning to dust while he indulges in a freilech to end all freilechs, surrounded by all manner of heavenly bodies, embracing and trading toasts with long missed family, friends and colleagues. Most of all, his beloved Keine.

Sonja A. Skarstedt (Montreal, QC )

January 7, 2006

The very first time I met Irving Layton I was a seventeen year old student at the Banff School of Fine Arts. As I sat down for breakfast at one of the big round tables in the school's cafeteria one morning, I looked up and immediately recognized Irving
Layton sitting across from me. The famous poet was wearing a black turtle neck sweater and gigantic gold medallion. We exchanged a few words, but his attention was more heavily invested in keeping up with five or six female students clustered
around him, chattering passionately.

Last night, two days after his death, Irving uncharacteristically made an appearance in my dreams. In the dream, the poet was his old robust self, wearing a white shirt, holding court in his home, surrounded by guests and four young children running around in the kitchen. It was almost like a scene from the 1960s, and I thought it was a little strange to see Irving Layton in such a domestic situation. As my wife and I walked into the kitchen, Irving warmly welcomed us. I hesitantly ventured, "But I thought you were dead." To which Irving replied in his booming familiar voice, very matter of factly: "Don't tell anybody. But I was in a coma all those years and just came out of it." He then ushered everyone toward a very long table in the middle of the dining room. Places were set for everyone, Irving presiding at one end, his wife at the other. Let the feast begin.

Geof Isherwood (Montreal, QC )

January 7, 2006

A great teacher and humanitarian. Always remember our Literature classes at Ross High School in "62. Will always be an inspiration.


January 7, 2006

Mr.Layton was a supervisor at the Montreal Hebrew Orphans Home in Westmount in the 30's. He taught debating and english, he was very well likes by all.

Myer Gordon for the M.H.O.H Alumni (Toronto, ON )

January 7, 2006

To Max and Naomi,

My condolences to you both, as your baby-sitter on Kildare in Cote St Luc, I remember your Dad so well, often in the company of Leonard Cohen and Louis Dudek. It is nice to have seen him rise to be one of Canada's most famous poets.

Madlynn Teiber (Chateauguay, QC )

January 6, 2006

I met Irving,some 15 years ago, at Sandra Rich Goodwin's house, widow of the late Bill Goodwin (Goldberg) who was Irving's nephew and best friend. I have since enjoyed many conversations with him. Irving used to call me 'Houdini' because he said I appeared and disappeared so often. My last meeting with Irving was on Monday, just two days before he died. I played a medley of Yiddish songs on the piano in the dining room of the 4th floor of Maimonides and Irving, seated with his devoted caregiver, Diane, was serenaded by a flourish of Yiddish music. I hope this eased your passage to heaven! Irving, you meant so much to so many! May your soul rise quickly to The Celestial Academy where I am certain you will enter into debate with the Almighty regarding the plight of humanity!

Rikee Gutherz-Madoff (Montreal, QC )

January 6, 2006

I send my condolences to the family and friends of Irving Layton who has passed away. May he be remembered for the work he did and for the contributions he made to Canadian literature.

John Jackson (Edmonton, AB )

January 6, 2006

My deepest condolences to his family. He was my Grade VII teacher at Herzliah High in the late 40's. He was a "star" in his own right...never forgotten.

David Libman (Montreal, QC )

January 5, 2006

May you rest in peace! Your legacy will always be with us!
From a survivor & proud to be Canadian.

Carolina Caruso (LaSAlle, QC )

January 5, 2006

To Max,

I am so sorry to hear of your Dad's passing. Both of you are part of my childhood and high school years. I did run into your Dad again when he was living in Niagara and we were able to share memories of living in the wonderfully diverse NDG neighbourhood of Somerled-Wilson Avenue. He of course spoke of you. Please accept my condolences upon the loss of your Dad.
You take care.

Françoise (née Garneau) Hubley (St. Catharines, ON )

January 5, 2006

Irving Layton inspired many high school and college students with his poetry. His vision of the world and his insights into the human condition will live on through more generations yet born. Thank you Irving Layton for being one of Montreal's greats. Your light lives on.

Peter Ellis (Brampton, ON )

January 5, 2006

My condolences Naomi. We were friends such a long time ago, and I wonder about you often. I remember your father Irving vividly, as who could forget such a presence? Take care, my friend.

Phyl Davies (Vancouver, BC )

January 5, 2006

I never had the pleasure of meeting Irving Layton but I have talked with those who did. I certainly knew his works and his reputation. He brought a level of passion and intensity to the Canadian poetic landscape that fires it still. He is gone but his legacy will live on for a very long time.

A. M. Hatfield (Toronto, ON )

January 5, 2006

Mr. Layton was a fine poet, whose vitality, ego and deep love of the mysteries of his art will be remembered.

Nigel Roth (Montreal, QC )

January 5, 2006

Irving Layton taught me grade 11 English in 1966-1967 at Ross High School in Montreal, a prep school for seriously underachieving teenagers. He was there as a result of his long friendship with Harold Ross after whom the school was named. To say that we were not the most academic class he had ever tutored would be a master understatement, but somehow his energy and passion were able to impact on many of us and his zest for life and love somehow transcended even our thick skulls and has to this day left an everlasting impression. His legacy will live on undiminished.

birks bovaird (toronto, ON )

January 5, 2006

I was deeply saddened by the death of my teacher who influenced my life and helped me become the person I am. I was a student of Irving Layton at Herzliah High school in the late 40's. He turned me on to poetry specifically and to literature generally. He taught me to love the English language and to respect words. We remained friends through all these years. We had dinner together at my home when he last visited Israel. I extend sympathy to his family.
May he rest in peace.

Shoshana(Rose) Tessler(Freedman) (Jerusalem)

January 5, 2006

Dear Max, Naomi, David, and Samantha,

My late mother, Goldie Satten Levine (1910-2002)taught with your father at the Herzliya High School in Montreal. She followed his career with great interest and always spoke so highly of his contribution to Canadian culture.

Esther Davis (nee Levine)(Oakville,, ON )

January 5, 2006

It is so sad to lose such a special man. His writing will always hold a special place in my heart.

Victoria Malone (Bournemouth, England)

January 5, 2006

My first encounter with Mr. Layton was as a student at Baron Byng High School, in the 1950's when he spoke at the History and Literature club.
As the nurse in the Memory Clinic at the Jewish Generaal Hospital, we met again. His vitality and strengh,and keen mind shone through his illness. My condolences to his dear and loyal friend Musia, who cared for him through it all.

Marlene Levine(Deerfield Beach, FL )

January 5, 2006

To the late Mr.Layton, Thank you for having the courage to always write what was on your mind and in your heart. I hope the afterlife brings you solice and that you rejoice in knowing the world is not as bad as you may have once thought.
Your spirit will live on evermore.

Melissa Constant (Ste-Anne-De-Bellevue, QC )

January 5, 2006

In the mid-1960’s, my mother Nina Bruck, was among Irving Layton’s workshop students at Sir George Williams. I recall the rush of energy called my mother, swirling through the house to her desk, in the wake of each night class with Mr. Layton. In 1966, the class published Anvil, a slim, blue anthology, as testament to what a group of apprentice writers had made at the master’s forge. My mother wrote one of the two introductions. Here is a brief excerpt:

...Irving Layton is the workshop, unassuming, witty, gentle, an image difficult to reconcile with the public one of Flashing Irreverence routinely smashing idols on its way to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes. Patient and unhurried, he sacrifices quantity for quality, and is prepared to wait; encourages his students to listen to their inner voice and what it is trying to say, to attempt to express certain conflicts and dissatisfactions in a meaningful way...Part of the poetic picture is the grinding work, the endless polishing of lines. People write because they have to; out of defeat and desire, perhaps, a few poems, occaisonally, a perfect line. The itch persists.

Julie Bruck (San Francisco, CA )

January 5, 2006

When Irving Layton was the writer-in-residence at Concordia University, I was his personal secretary. It was a fun-filled year of laughs, energy and high drama. The one thing that always stayed in my mind was when he told me he had a cat named Puss-Puss. Although he was a man of creative words it always amazed me that his cat had the most simple of feline names. I think that was part of his humour. Rest in peace Irving.

Sylvia Benedetti(Montreal, QC )

January 5, 2006

Although, Irving was my great uncle (his sister, Gertie, was my grandmother) I only met him once or twice. I am learning a great deal about him thorugh all the online information posted recently. I look forward to reading his books (I have many that belonged to my late mother, Irving's niece). My thoughts are sent to family and friends.

Stephanie Green (Short Hills, NJ )

January 5, 2006

Ever since I read your poems in the sixties and dared to show you my translations of some of them in the seventies and eighties, I felt it had been one of the greatest priviledges of my life to have met you as a poet and as a man.
You inspired me and I thank the Gods for this.

Jean Antonin Billard (Roxton Falls, QC )

January 5, 2006

PincuVing, Irving Rabbenu, my Biscuit Boy, fare-thee-well my love. You knew, and I know you knew, that since that car-wreck of a day in 1995 when you helped me to leave and start my own life, there have been maybe a grand total of 6 days where I did not think of you. This city, our streets, our home, our life together was an extraordinary adventure, and I am glad to have brought you so much happiness, not to mention 'productive joy' for so many years. Thank you for all that you taught me, all that you showed me, and for your unconditional love in which I revelled, grew, and lived so intensely. I know that you know all of this, and more. Bye, love, bye.

Anna Pottier (NDG, QC )

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

The Life and Times of Irving Layton

A Red Carpet for the Sun: The Life and Times of Irving Layton

Video excerpt from the documentary Download RealPlayer
Irving Layton speaks with Peter Gzowski

They dance best who dance with desire
Who lifting feet of fire from fire
Weave before they lie down
A red carpet for the sun - Irving Layton

In 1959, a book of poetry called A Red Carpet for the Sun was published in Canada. On the cover was the author's face, with a dark, probing gaze that seemed designed to both challenge and intimidate the reader. The poet's name was Irving Layton. For the next three decades, as prophet, clown, and gadfly to Canadian society, Layton was a constant presence on the Canadian scene, infuriating some and delighting many with his gift for controversy and his very public private life. But who was he, really, and where did he come from? Life & Times of Irving Layton: A Red Carpet for the Sun unmasks the man behind the words.

Layton spent his childhood years in a poor, crowded immigrant household in Montreal's Yiddish-speaking neighbourhood, where his father was, in Layton's words, "a shadow on the wall" communing only with his God, and his mother a formidable presence who held the family together. At the age of 93, Irving's older brother Hyman is outspoken and unforgiving in his assessment of a family that cared little for the remarkable child in their midst.

Resourceful and determined, Layton, during the '40s and '50s, while supporting himself with a variety of teaching jobs, struggled, along with a small group of likeminded spirits, to lay the foundations for a modern Canadian literature in a country whose own poetry was neither published nor read. The breakthrough came with the publication of A Red Carpet for the Sun, and Layton's mastery of the new medium, television, stirred significant interest in what was always most important to him: poetry. Former students reveal what an amazing odyssey it was, and the women in Layton's life testify to the remarkable force of his personality. Aviva Layton, who spent more than 20 years with him, talks about the highs and lows of living with the poet. Anna Pottier, Layton's last companion, speaks movingly about their life together in his declining years. And Harriet Bernstein, whose brief marriage to Layton ended sadly in the early '80s, breaks her 20-year silence to speak publicly, for the first time, about her years with Layton.

Original Air Date - November 19, 2002

90 Minutes Live clip Jan 4

Irving Layton: 'Poet physician'- film clip from the CBC Archives

Medium: Television
Program: 90 Minutes Live
Broadcast Date: Jan. 30, 1978
Host: Peter Gzowski
Guest(s): Irving Layton
Duration: 4:50

Irving Layton: 'Poet physician'Famous and controversial Montreal poet Irving Layton referred to himself as a prophet and physician. Formally, he "prophesied" as a York University professor and Jewish parochial high school teacher to Leonard Cohen and Moses Znaimer. Informally, he advised aspiring poets including mentoring his last of five wives, who was also a poet. And he claimed to be able to heal the nation's ills as a sort of poet "physician."

Layton was an intensely passionate man and felt blindly drawn to women. "I am their slave, their man Friday." This gave him a public image as a "sex-crazed lecher," which he attempts to dispel in this 1978 interview with Peter Gzowski. Layton explains the lecherous reputation is fuelled by his erotic poetry, for example with his poem Insomnia: "After the bath/ You lay on the bed/ Exposing layers/ Of beautiful washed skin..."

Layton was just as passionate politically, poking at the "clipped, tortuous" bourgeois in his prose. He believed his passion set him aside from other Canadian poets and described himself as the "hot-blooded Jew cavorting in the Canadian drawing room, kicking out the windows to allow fresh air to enter."

Clip note: The woman seated next to Layton is Judy LaMarsh, political pundit and national health and welfare minister from 1963 to 1965.


• Irving Layton was born Israel Lazarovitch on March 12, 1912, in Romania. He moved with his parents to Montreal before his first birthday.
• Layton grew up in Montreal's then-poor St. Urbain Street neighbourhood in a time when racism toward Jewish immigrants was prevalent.
• As a child, he was nicknamed "Nappy" — after the pugnacious Napoleon — for relentlessly fighting bigotry.
• Layton was 13 when his father died in 1925. He sold goods door-to-door to help support his mother and sisters.
• Layton recalled the impact of listening to his English teacher reading a Tennysonian ballad. "I'd never heard the English language so beautifully read, so powerfully rendered." In his lifetime, Layton's dramatic poetry readings were often recorded.
• In his final years at Montreal’s Baron Byng High School, Layton was labelled a threat to the administration and they expelled him for fiercely debating "radical" ideas.
• In 1939, he graduated with an agriculture degree.
• In 1942, Layton joined the Canadian army for one year.
• His extensive bibliography includes about 50 volumes of poetry and fiction.
• Layton erratically penned his first major poem The Swimmer at a Montreal restaurant in 1944. He grabbed the waitress's pen and scribbled the poem on the spot. He said this moment made him realize he had joined the ranks of poets.
• Layton was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 1976 — an addition to his list of prestigious awards.
• Layton married five times. He said he pitied, rather than loved, his first wife, Faye Lynch. With his second wife, Betty Sutherland — a successful painter and poet — Layton had two children, Maxwell and Naomi. His third wife, Aviva Cantor, was an artist who loved books. Layton and his fourth wife, Harriet Bernstein, who was once his student, had a child, Samantha. Bernstein's wealthy Toronto family inspired his poem The Gucci Bag. Layton separated from his fifth and final wife, Anna Pottier, in the mid-1990s.

The Music of Irving's Words

By Ilse Mozga,Campbellville, ontario
January 5, 2006 @ 5:00 PM

Dear Irving:

I wish you a journey both wondrous and blessed: as serene as you would have it, and as naughty; intellectually stimulating, and filled with love and beauty and solace, and more love, and more love. Please write sometime; I buried your letters in a box.

Thank you for your generosity of spirit, for sharing your thoughts, the music of your words, and your big old heart.

ilse mozga

Request for Poems

Would it be possible for you to put up some links to his actual poetry? The links you have already suggested here do not lead to any examples of his poems and I have also tried York, Concordia, CBC, JPL, CanEncy, etc, all to no avail. Not a single one online. Today may be the first time some people have heard of him so I'm thinking some actual poems would be fitting. Thanks for your site.


4:45 PM

1960s Live Recording

By Carlo Lamberti, Oshawa, Ontario
January 5, 2006 @ 11:34 AM

I thank Irving Layton for teaching me that poetry is a living and lively creative act. I had occasion around the age of 14 or 15 to hear a live recording of Irving Layton at what I believe was a folk club called the Purple Onion Circa early 1960's) He recited many of both his classic and satiric poems. But recite is the wrong word. It was PERFORMANCE. He took the word off the page and delivered it to the audience. So it was due to that recording, I began a life long appreciation of poetry. We miss you Irving Layton, but your creative spirit lives on.

Carlo Lamberti
Oshawa, Ontario

Hi again

One of the poems on the recording I referred to in my earlier comment was the poem describing a young hotcouple dancing. I just remmber that one great line

"Chip, Chip and a shake of the ass"

Carlo Lamberti
Oshawa, Ontario

11:36 AM

Deeply Grateful

By Z. Lamont
January 5, 2006 @ 6:04 PM

Layton was a force to be dealt with in Canadian literature.

He helped to dislodge the stake up Canada's literary arse, and cause things to shake up. Though he may , on occasion, have engaged in megalomania, he challenged Canadian writers to live up to Tolstoy's call : "The one thing to tell in life as in art is to tell the truth".

So, he put fire in our blood, and for this we must remain deeply grateful. obituary - see comments below obituary - see comments below

Irving Layton, 1912-2006
By Stephen Marche
January 5, 2006

Irving Layton died Wednesday at the age of 93 from Alzheimer’s in a geriatric home, an entirely unsuitable way for Irving Layton to die. He really should have gone off in the middle of a violent and elaborate sexual act, or interrupting a particularly solemn moment in a religious ceremony. Such a long, lingering cruel emptiness of a death flouts the symbolic vitality that filled the rest of his life to the brim, and which spilled over into his written works, some of the most passionate lyrics in English Canadian letters.

In a country of self-deprecation, he represented its opposite. He will be remembered not so much for his poetry as for his epic self-regard. He said of himself: “I am a genius who has written poems that will survive the best of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats.” That this self-assessment was utterly in error shouldn’t distract us from wonder at a man who could utter such words aloud.

Born into a Jewish Romanian family that immigrated to the St. Urbain section of Montreal, he flourished in the ’40s among the burgeoning modernists of Montreal, most notably Raymond Souster, Louis Dudek and A.M. Klein. His real fame came later, with his books, The Black Huntsmen and A Red Carpet for the Sun, and his appearances on CBC’s Fighting Words in the ’50s, which combined to turn him into an icon of bombast and hedonism. The subject of numerous biographies and documentaries throughout his life, he achieved the two state-sanctioned hallmarks of success for a Canadian poet: a Governor General’s Award and the Order of Canada.

His most famous, and most fun, poems are about sex: “The tight sweater she was wearing / Showed off her good points at once.” (From Out of Pure Lust.) His most important poems are about religion and the Holocaust: “The wandering Jew: the suffering Jew / The despoiled Jew: the beaten Jew…/ Be none of these, my sons / My sons, be none of these / Be gunners in the Israeli Air Force.” (From For My Sons, Max and David.) But his most interesting poems are invariably on the subject of his own egotism. Shakespeare begins with one of his sons asking Layton if he is as good a poet as Shakespeare. This is a question with some narrative tension for Layton. While he hums and haws over the point, apparently not having yet realized that his work would outlive Shakespeare’s, as well as Wordsworth’s and Keats’s, in the end he does admit that he is not in fact as good a poet as Shakespeare. The Bull Calf takes his delusions of grandeur even further. It ends with the line, “I turned away and wept,” alluding to John 11:35. Why be Shakespeare when you can be the Son of God?

The life of a great poet, even a poet who is only great in his own mind, has its attractions. When he was 70, his 22-year-old girlfriend moved in and stayed until he was 84. Being a great poet in your own mind apparently means you can piss in the sink, as David Layton, in his devastating 1999 memoir Motion Sickness, recalled his father doing. It also has costs, mostly for others. One of his ex-wives, Harriet Bernstein, described him as “doomed inexorably to foul [his] own nest.”

Artistic selfishness is nothing new: think of Picasso, think of Hemingway. A supposedly great artist is supposed to leave such evidence of cruelty in his wake. Cruelty is part of what makes him supposedly great. What was new to Layton’s version of the story was the boldness and obliviousness he brought to the proceedings. There is surprisingly little in Layton’s poetry of what Cyril Connolly called “the fugitive distress of hedonism,” that peculiar sadness that underlies all revelry, especially the revelry of poetry. His work possesses only the faintest smack of curiosity at what the price of all his fun might be. This is even more remarkable since Leonard Cohen turned that “fugitive distress” into the kind of poetry Irving Layton surely wanted to write, i.e. the kind most likely to be found in a French woman’s bedroom in the 1970s.

Layton was immeasurably greater at convincing himself, and a few others, of his abilities than he was at writing poetry, but let’s not disparage the gift of his conviction. In the 1950s, we desperately needed somebody to say that a Canadian could be a great writer, even if he could only do so by claiming that he himself was that great writer. After all, the old cliché says that a man’s reach should always exceed his grasp. Irving Layton put it better:

Whom the gods do not intend to destroy
They first make mad with poetry.

Stephen Marche is a Toronto writer. His novel, Raymond and Hannah, was published by Doubleday Canada in 2005.

Copyright © 2005 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - All Rights Reserved

A Message from the Governor General

Message from Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaelle Jean, Governor General of Canada, on the death of Irving Layton
OTTAWA, Jan. 5 /CNW Telbec

"Irving Layton was able to touch the depths of people's souls through his works. His skills with the pen earned him the Governor General's Literary Award and the Order of Canada, as well as many other forms of literary recognition around the world. Yet his most precious legacy lies in those people he has touched and the lives he has changed. Some have called him a friend, others a colleague, and still others called him teacher and mentor. To Canadians, though, he will be remembered as a writer who stood for his principles and who, like a true Canadian, stood up for what he believed.

He lived his life with a passion and a love that will be sorely missed by his family, by his friends and by all who admired his works. My husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, and I wish to join with all Canadians in expressing our sadness and condolences on the loss of this great wordsmith and icon of Canadian literature."

Michaelle Jean

Globe "Conversations" continued - Jan 5

Wayne Smith from Kingston, Canada writes:

I first heard Irving Layton read at York University many years ago. He looked like Moses! Indeed, many would have considered him a Moses wholed us out of the wilderness of dreary and boring poetry we were forced to recite in high school. Here was a passionate man who was absolutely
convinced of his ability to change people by offering up his unique
vision of life and the universe. This is what I wanted to do with my
life! Of course, I chose banking for a career but I never forgot that
experience. I continue to read Poetry and attend readings sponsored by
local bookstores. It continues to surprise and amaze me. Layton, like
poetry ,will live forever,

* Posted Jan. 5, 2006 at 9:57 AM EST

Michele Rackham from Ottawa, Canada writes:

I heard the news this morning while I was reading the guide to the Layton collection, which I had planned to visit tomorrow at Concordia University. A chill trickled down my spine as, lifting my eyes from the page and focusing on the radio, the broadcaster announced the loss of a great poet, Irving Layton.For me, it marked the end of an era: Sutherland, Dudek, Layton... all gone now. May they rest in peace. May their poetry live on!

From "Whatever Else Poetry is Freedom"(1958)

So whatever else poetry is freedom.Let

Far off the impatient cadences reveal

A padding for my breathless stilts.Swivel,

O hero, in the fleshy groves, skin and glycerine,

And sing of lust, the sun's accompanying shadow

Like a vampire's wing, the stillness in dead feet --

Your stave brings resurrection, O aggrieved king.

* Posted Jan. 5, 2006 at 10:16 AM EST

Lawrence Chanin from Canada writes:

Irving Layton was Canada's greatest poet. He will be truly missed. May he rest in peace.

Irving Layton was a prophet of sexuality in an era of puritan repression; an eclectic genius in a time of stifling conformity; a poet who weaved reality and truth with brilliant imagery when hypocrisy reigned; a man of courage, passion and vision when Canadians were cowed by authoritarian fears; a great poet who proved poetry could be not only beautiful and profound, but also fun, liberating and inspirational.

Canada needs a poet of Irving Layton's caliber now more than ever.

* Posted Jan. 5, 2006 at 11:48 AM EST

Orest Slepokura from Strathmore, Canada writes:

October 10, 1985, Layton sent his biographer Elspeth Cameron
a letter describing Cameron "as a class-conscious snob... the living symbol of
everything I've ever loathed about this country... you'll wish with every rotten
fibre of your being ... that you'd never seen the light of day but had run of
your mother's womb like piss from a whore's vagina." It came after other letters in which he hatefully cited her "WASP" origins. Our media tend to decry even faint whiffs of racist and sexist statements public figures utter. My hunch is the racist, sexist utterances the poet directed at Cameron will be ignored.

* Posted Jan. 5, 2006 at 1:14 PM EST

gordon foster from toronto, Canada writes:

As a fellow poet, I must say that I have not been greatly influenced by the man. Perhaps I need to read more of his works, but there is something so typically Canadian about Irving Layton that leaves me, how shall I put it, cold. Perhaps if I somehow have the good fortune to become enshrined by the Canadian academic and broadcasting establishments, I too could marry five times and father four children by the age of 93. I am wondering however why Mr. Layton was not nominated again for the Nobel prize in the succeeding twenty-four years. Is this somehow attributable to his condition as an Alzheimer's sufferer? My grandmother was not accurately diagnosed with that disease until after her passing at age 83, so I do at least congratulate Mr. Layton on his longevity, if not his literary pertinence. Now if only Mr. Cohen could be nominated for gravelly voiced singer-songwritng. I consider myself a fan and if any Canadian could represent us well at the Nobels, he could.

* Posted Jan. 5, 2006 at 3:16 PM EST

John Pepper from Toronto, Canada writes:

Well, Orest Slepokura, thanks to you at least, they won't be ignored altogether. I suppose the fifth paragraph of this article could be regarded as a pale hint of the sort of thing you're talking about. In obituaries the rule, still influential although not as strictly observed as it used to be, is "De mortuis nil nisi bonum": with regard to the recently deceased, you've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. No doubt in rejecting the Anglophile establishment Layton was mindful of T.S. Eliot, a very great poet whose distressing anti-Semitic streak was expressed not merely in private letters but in published poems. That Layton fell into the same trap deserves to be remembered as yet another sign that our human race has a ways to go yet and that hatred for the most part still breeds hatred.

Getting back to the text of the article -- Layton may have rejected Northrop Frye along with the previous generation of Canadian poets, but Frye himself was a critic, not a poet.

* Posted Jan. 5, 2006 at 4:00 PM EST

How to make a post

To post stories, memories or words of appreciation of Irving Layton and his poetry, please do the following:

Please go the bottom of this post and click on the COMMENTS link. This will open up a comments window - please post your memory here. It will ask you to either log in or choose to post an ANONYMOUS comment (if you wish, you can post your name and city in the actual message itself.)

Select comments will be republished under the main section for others to view.

Thank you

Undergraduate Journey

By Mandy, Newfoundland, Canada
January 5, 2006 @ 9:29 PM

I first came to Irving Layton's poetry two years ago while taking an undergraduate Canadian lit. course. My first experience with North American Jewish writing, he invited my curiosity with his vivid, enticing imagery. It is with sadness that I note his "afternoon foreclosing" ("The Swimmer"), but with gratitude that I acknowledge his influence on Canadian literature, and my personal academic and literary journey.

Newfoundland, Canada

Rest in Peace, Old Teacher

By Tom Sakic
January 5, 2006 @ 11:13 PM

So we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

That was written by lord Byron, and sung by Irving's friend Leonard Cohen, for Irving, in 2004. Rest in peace, old teacher.

For the Old Maestro, a poem by S. Marty

For the Old Maestro

I have come to be, like you
“A quiet madman, never far from tears”
My titans vanquished or subdued
My guides and teachers gone
no answering “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?”

We grow smaller with each life that’s shed
Even as our children turn to us
expecting a giant’s offering
like yours. In that little class room
at Sir George, the ladies young
and not so young sat forward and they clung
to every word. We young men stayed

Back, and tossed out arrogant questions
that shocked your followers but though
you brushed off our parries and our snide
asides, you seldom used the power
of your wit, to whip young ingenues in line
Until I ventured “Sex isn’t everything...”

The women turned and hissed me down
like snakes, but you laughed a lion’s laugh
because you knew the problem was
I hadn’t had enough to know

And after class you clapped me on the back
Claiming my friendship forever then and said
“Read Lawrence first, young Marty
then we’ll talk again”

I never tried to write like you
and never will. Good fortune brought me
to your door to hear what I had never heard
before, that poets were the true priests
The unacknowledged leaders still
What you believed, and taught

Whether it was true or not
You made us proud
To write what others tried
to beat out of our skins
in the little red neck towns

You made us proud
to be ourselves
In l965, when first we heard
Poetry was not dead and in a book

Poetry was this lion headed Jew
This fierce and joyous rowdy man
Opening the door to singing school
In cosmopolitan Montreal

I stepped through and
did I leap or did I fall?
Into the wide and welcoming arms
of the word

Sid Marty, Pincher Creek, Alberta
Jan. 4. 2005

11:20 PM

For Irving Layton at 85, a poem by D. Gagnon

For Irving Layton at 85
by Donna Gagnon

he has a gift and space
this aging man of words
his brilliance shines
free of guilt and interruption

notebook in hand,
pencil balanced between fingers
licking his lips,
Irving sits outside, slumped deeply
in an old Muskoka chair
he worships God and breasts,
lust and skin;
produces endless songs of praise

Your country adores you
whispers each of his wives:
#1 from the kitchen,
#2 from the laundry,
#3 from above a hungry child,
#4 from the half-waxed entry floor
#5 from the bus station

but I cannot share this wonder, Irving,
because you refuse to share your self
with women

Irving's passing has sucked a tremendous amount of creative energy out of this country. He was a man unafraid of being himself. The torch has been passed.

8:08 AM

Far Richer for the Experience

By Ray Nichols
January 5, 2006

We all knew this day was coming. My thoughts and prayers go out to Irving’s family and friends and to us, as well.

I too was part of a group of students that Seymour Mayne took to have lunch with Irving in Montreal as part of his third year poetry workshop. It was at a restaurant on Monkhouse if I remember correctly, and Irving ordered pizza. I remember his wife not being at all thrilled with his choice for a meal, but he was going to have a good time with us, healthier food choices be damned. What I took away from that lunch was his graciousness, his patience with all of us and our questions about the art and his passion for poetry. Looking back on it now, I’m amazed at how indulgent he was with us.

I too saw him read at Magnum, and after the reading showed him some limited edition prints that my mother had unearthed in Calgary and given to me for Christmas the year before. He was both astonished and pleased to see them and when I asked him to sign the front print he replied, “But I’ve already signed it,” which was true – they were all signed copies upon release. I responded by saying I’d like him to sign it again – and he did with his usual flourish.

At one point, Chris Pollard, Stuart Konyer and I started up Hostbox, which was a local (Ottawa) literary magazine. We decided to send copies out to quite a few writers and poets, Canadian and otherwise. Again, my memory is not what it used to be, but I believe that Irving was the only person who wrote back and encouraged us to keep with it. That was exciting stuff indeed!

And that’s been my experience with him – indulgent and encouraging. Seymour Mayne did us a great favour by introducing us to Irving.

I know I’m richer for the experience.

Ray Nichols

His Death is Insignificant, Transparent to Scope of Work

By Craig Peskett,Toronto, Ontario
January 5, 2006 @ 9:37 AM

Six years ago I named my firstborn son Layton, in praise of Irving. News of his passing seems insignificant to me. Transparent to the scope of his work. Irving Layton continues to cheat death, his spirit insistent within being's debate.

Singing Layton

By Jay, Toronto, Ontario
January 5, 2006 @ 11:01 AM

I met Irving nine years ago at his home in N.D.G. Montreal. At that time my girlfriend was setting some of his poetry to music that I would eventually sing. On later visits, he asked me to bring my poetry. We sat at his dining table drinking wine and reading. What a wonderful memory. I will be performing the forementioned pieces this May 2006 at the Forest Grove United Church in Toronto.

Herzliah Memories

by Ted Paull, Lyndhurst, ON,
January 5, 2006 @ 1:32 PM

I was fortunate enough to have had Irving Layton as a teacher of English Literature during my last two years of high school, at Herzliah High School in Montreal. Irving's classes were always stimulating, to say the least. He would often ask us to tell him what books we were reading. I had been an avid reader from a young age, but the books that I tended to read at that time were not of particularly high quality. After returning to school from a bout of the flu, I remember telling him that I had just completed 5 or 6 of Ian Fleming's James Bond series of novels - whereupon, he proceeded to ridicule my choice of 'trash' literature. He then ordered me to meet him at Classics Bookstore that very Friday night (This was the original Classics bookstore on St. Catherine St.). A number of my classmates came as well. Irving selected a number of books from the shelves that he felt were more appropriate reading material and handed them to me (I think they included Great Expectations, and Pride and Prejudice, among others). Seymour Mayne was also there that evening, and he did an impromptu reading in the store, of a number of e.e.cummings poems which, upon hearing them for the first time, had a great impact on me. That evening marked the beginning of a lifetime of reading and appreciation of the world's great literature, for which I am eternally grateful.

Irving was quite a taskmaster in his classes. We were constantly given writing assignments, mainly short essays. We often had to read them aloud to the class, following which we would usually be verbally 'flayed' with his critique of our writing. But, somehow, through this process most of us learned to write quite well, not only with proper use of grammar, but with a sense of the rhythm of language, and with sensitivity to the variety of subtle flavours and shades of meaning that arose out of the words, depending on how we chose to use them. This was a gift of truly incomparable value, which was only understood and appreciated much later in life. Once again, thank you Irving!

One final remembrance of Irving was of an appearance on that he made on an early CBC television program, I forget which one. The topic of the discussion was beauty and aesthetics. The conversation naturally turned to the beauty of the female form, and to what it was that men found stimulating. Irving proclaimed, with a mischevious (or was it lascivious?)smile on his face, that what most drew his attention was 'the cleavage in the posterior', at which point the moderator reddened, and immediately chided him with 'Now, now, Irving, we'll have none of that!'

A true hero has passed! Larger than life, full of the bluster and frailties of all humanity, but unafraid to expose them for all to see. In so doing he offered us a mirror that revealed to ourselves our own hidden thoughts and feelings, and elevated our souls somehow to a higher place.

At whatever celestial plane Irving has arrived at now, we can be sure that he is still creating meaningful and profound vibrations of the soul. And, more than likely, he's also 'cozying' up to some lovely angellic spirit, whispering captivating words into her ear and mind.

God bless you, Irving. Rest in peace, and may your spirit live on forever. This world is a better place for your having passed through it.

Ted Paull
Lyndhurst, ON,
January 5, 2006

1:32 PM

A Nephew's Memories by E. Latch

By Emanuel Latch, Burlingame, California
January 5, 2006

My father was Hyman Latch, Irving Layton’s older brother. My memories are from when I was a boy growing up in San Francisco where Uncle Irving would visit every few years. I knew when he was coming because boxes of books would arrive just before he would. He’d stay with us whenever he was in San Francisco for a book signing. He always wore a big medallion around his neck. My father and Irving looked alike and spoke alike. They would talk into the wee hours of the morning about things I was too young to follow.
My father died in January two years ago. A couple years before that Canadian TV interviewed my father for “Irving Layton: A Red Carpet for the Sun" ( I watch the video every so often and today am reminded that an era has passed.

Emanuel Latch
Burlingame, California

Equivalent to Ginsberg

By Charlie Rossiter, Oak Park, IL, U.S.A.
January 5, 2006

My most recent Irving Layton experience was while on a road trip in the summer of 2004. I was in Poor Michael's Bookshop on Hwy 10 in Manitoba looking for books by Canadian poets and the proprietor and I got talking about specific poets. Somewhere in the conversation he mentioned that Layton was alive and well in Toronto and "probably making it with twenty-year-olds as usual." Having a vague notion of Layton's age I told him I doubted it, but it was nice that he had that thought.
Being from south of the border, I cannot know the extent of Layton's influence and fame in Canada, but I know he was/is important and feel a real sense of loss at his passing. My impression is that he had the notoriety equivalent to Ginsberg down here. A risky statement but...what can I say. I hope people organize some great testimonials to him and his poetic contributions.

Charlie Rossiter
Oak Park, IL, U.S.A.

Irving and Me at the Hospital by Leonard Cohen

From the Globe & Mail article Jan 6 -

"Having honoured the poet in the 1960s, Mr. Cohen eulogized the man 40 years later in Irving and Me at the Hospital, which will be published in May in Mr. Cohen's new collection, Book of Longing, and which is reprinted here with permission from M&S:

Irving and Me At the Hospital

He stood up for Nietzsche

I stood up for Christ

He stood up for victory

I stood up for less

I loved to read his verses

He loved to hear my song

We never had much interest

In who was right or wrong

His boxer's hands were shaking

He struggled with his pipe

Imperial tobacco

Which I helped him light


CBC Onstage Re-Broadcasts Irving Layton: Irving Invectus

CBC Radio's OnStage marks Irving Layton's passing with a broadcast from the Words and Music series.

Sunday, January 8th, OnStage presents a repeat broadcast of our presentation on the life of Irving Layton: Irving Invectus, by Jason Sherman

Starring Kenneth Welsh, as Irving Layton
David Buchbinder, music director
Jason Sherman, writer

A poet, short-story writer and essayist, Irving Layton (1912-2006) is perhaps the most well-known of the Montreal poets who battled against romanticism in the 1940s. His "tell it like it is" style won him both enemies and worshippers, but Layton bestowed his love of words, sound, and life itself upon audiences and readers. Veteran actor Kenneth Welsh and Governor General's Award-winning playwright Jason Sherman illuminate Layton's legacy, along with music by David Buchbinder.
View the programme notes, biographies and photographs

For details, please visit the CBC Onstage website

Comment sent to us same day: (BTW, as no links will link directly outside of this site, when we first realized this, we did not post any links, but instead directed readers on how to find the link. [We now list all links, assuming readers can paste the link address into their browser}. We did, however, choose to REPOST this comment in the main section of the site, so as to alert readers to the importance of this rebroadcast, but Mr. Baird must not have seen it. With the number of posts and articles to list, we did not have a chance to look at the link ourselves, but it appears the re-broadcast was today, January 8th at 2:00pm and 8:00pm.


I posted a note from OnStage earlier, which wasn't intended to be advertising, but WAS intended to make you and other readers aware of the upcoming rebroadcast of the Words and Music series tribute to Irving Layton. I think it will be of genuine interest to people who are visiting the site. I hope that would recognize this and place a link prominently on you comments page, along with the links to other obits tributes etc.

for more info visit

Matthew Baird, Senior Producer
OnStage. CBC Radio Toronto
416 205 6051

Catalyst, a poem for Irving Layton

By Joan Kehoe


I wrote a poem for Irving Layton in 1974. I was profoundly affected by his poetry in "Red Carpet for the Sun" We exchanged letters. I will treasure them for ever.

Like first kisses
Redreamed wickedly forever
Your words diffuse
Like wine
Through my senses

Tapping my shoulder
Turning me back across
Old bridges
Breathing life into one
Distended virgin breath
Spreading my lips
Into infinity

Joan Kehoe

A North Bay Memory

By S. Roden, North Bay, Ontario
January 5, 2006, 7:53 PM

I remember being a high school student in Grade 13 in North Bay,ON. My english teacher asked us to pick a piece of prose and read it too the class. While others chose the Bard, I chose a piece from "The whole bloody bird".

I stood in front of the class, identified my author as Layton, and read aloud:" The time is better spent fucking a woman than trying to understand her". The class was amused, but needless to say, my teacher was not.

Although that was not one of Irving's best poems, I certainly appreciated the efforts of a man who defied the puritans among us.

Thanks Irving. You'll be missed.

Montreal Gazette article Jan 5

Legendary poet Irving Layton dies in Montreal at 93
'There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us' Leonard Cohen

Published: Thursday, January 05, 2006

Irving Layton, the flamboyant poet who died yesterday in Montreal at age 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."

"There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us," his long-time friend, poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, wrote The Gazette in an email from Los Angeles yesterday.

"He is our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry. Alzheimer's could not silence him, and neither will death."

The author of more than 50 books of poetry, Layton died at Maimonides Geriatric Centre on Caldwell Ave. in Cote St. Luc, where he'd been a patient with Alzheimer's disease for the past five years.

Although arrangements have not been completed, the funeral is being planned for Sunday at Paperman and Sons, 3888 Jean Talon St. W.

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

Layton was born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Tirgu Neamt, Romania, on March 12, 1912. His parents changed the family name after they immigrated to Montreal in 1913.

Young Irving was raised in the Plateau Mont Royal district. He went to Baron Byng High School, then to Macdonald College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, where he took a BSc in agriculture. He later wrote of that experience:

"The college's single agitator, single poet and single Jew, I was too absorbed in my messianic dreams to realize what an outlandish figure I cut among the simple-minded Canucks from Quebec's farms and middle-class homes."

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 the job and his wife.

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

With the war over, Layton went back to university and in 1946 earned a master's degree 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; he once explained that as a schoolboy reading Wordsworth and Byron, he "naturally thought that in order to be a poet one had to be either English or dead, preferably both."

Layton's first collection of poetry, Here and Now, was published by First Statement Press in 1945.

For the next couple of decades, he taught English literature in Montreal, at the high school level and at Sir George Williams College, now Concordia University. One of his high school students was Irwin Cotler, today Canada's justice minister.

"As I remember it, I learned very little about physics, chemistry and math and a lot about philosophy and literature - the humanities," Cotler said yesterday. "He was an inspiration to me then, and he remains so today. He was a mentor, a colleague, a friend."

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

He and Sutherland parted amicably several years later when Layton became involved with an Australian expatriate, Aviva Cantor, who became his soulmate for the next 25 years. Layton celebrated Cantor - and her pubic hair - in his poem The Day Aviva Came to Paris.

In it, he wrote, Parisians

"... leaped as one mad colossal Frenchman from their cafe Pernods

Shouting, "Vive l'Australienne!

Vive Layton who brought her among us! ..."

He and Cantor had a son, David. Six years ago, David Layton laid bare his painful memories of growing up "amid the mad gods of poetry" in a book called Motion Sickness.

In the 1950s, Irving Layton became one of Leonard Cohen's mentors, and the two remained close after Cohen became internationally famous.

"I taught him how to dress. He taught me how to live forever," Cohen once said of their relationship.

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 - all published between 1953 and 1968 - are Love the Conqueror Worm, Balls for a One-Armed Juggler, The Laughing Rooster and The Shattered Plinths.

The books display what Montreal critic Joel Yanofsky called "the righteous zeal of an Old Testament prophet and the bravado of a streetwise brawler."

In 1969, Layton quit Montreal in a blaze of invective, "squeezed out by French-Canadian nationalism," and went to teach English literature at York University in Toronto. During the 1970s, he raged against the onset of age and had an increasingly complex marital life.

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 Layton chronicled in his book The Gucci Bag.

Poetry was always Layton's prime focus, but he also wrote two books of essays and reviews, one with the apt title Taking Sides. He also edited a landmark anthology of Canadian love poetry, Love Where the Nights Are Long.

As he grew older, his view of human nature darkened.

"The Holocaust is my symbol," he said. "If you read today's poets, you'd never know the kind of barbarous world we live in. aMan forgets what a terrifying monster he can be. I want to keep reminding people how close they are to disaster."

In 1976, Layton was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada as "a prolific poet whose work has won him renown in Canada who is also widely known elsewhere through translation."

Chastened by his years in Toronto, which he described as "a godforsaken place where people know only material success, and nothing of love," Layton returned to Montreal in 1978.

In the 1980s, Layton was the subject of a National Film Board documentary, Irving Layton Observed.

The Italian Nobel committee twice nominated Layton for the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1993, he became the first non- Italian to win the distinguished Petrarch Prize for Poetry.

In later years, before Layton went deaf and slipped into what he once called in a poem "the bewildered ghost sounds" of dementia, Anna Pottier, an aspiring wrestler, shared his life.

In the end, though, he had to depend on lifelong friends like Montrealer Musia Schwartz.

"He was an incredible creature. It's unbelievable, a shock, that he's gone," Schwartz, who knew Layton for more than 50 years, said yesterday.

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

- - -


by Irving Layton

I placed

my hand


her thigh.

By the way

she moved


I could see

her devotion

to literature

was not


Reprinted by permission of

McClelland & Stewart. Ltd.

- - -

In his own words

"It is as dangerous to overestimate the goodness of people as to underestimate their stupidity."

"My neighbour doesn't want to be loved as much as he wants to be envied."

"When you argue with your inferiors, you convince them of only one thing: they are as clever as you."

"God is indeed dead. He died of self-horror when He saw the creature He had made in His own image."

"If poetry is like an orgasm, an academic can be likened to someone who studies the passion-stains on the bedsheets."

"Since I no longer expect anything from mankind except madness, meanness, and mendacity; egotism, cowardice, and self-delusion, I have stopped being a misanthrope."

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

"Blake was right; praise is the practice of art. Joy, fullness of feeling, is the core of the creative mystery. My dominant mood is that of ecstasy and gratitude. To have written even one poem that speaks with rhythmic authority about matters that are enduringly important is something to be immensely, reverently thankful for - and I am intoxicated enough to think I have written more than one."

"Idealist: a cynic in the making."

- - -

In the words of others

"Irving Layton was the Montreal magnet for me . ... I felt about him as I had not about any other Canadian writer, a kind of awe and surprise that such magical things should pour from an egotistical clown, a charismatic poseur. And I forgive myself for saying these things, which are both true and untrue."

- Al Purdy

"Irving Layton may well be for the historian of Literature ... the First Great Canadian Poet."

- Robert Creeley

"When I first clapped eyes on the poems of Irving Layton, two years ago, I let out a yell of joy ... for the way he greeted the world he was celebrating, head up, eyes propped wide, his gaze roving round a wide perimeter - which merely happened to see some sights that had never been disclosed to me so nakedly or so well."

- William Carlos Williams

"He rages like an old prophet, and like an old prophet he strikes fire out of rock and calls together in those sparks visions of past, present, and future that we may know ourselves anew, as if for the first time."

- Eli Mandel

"Ours has always been a mutually rewarding friendship; we complement, support, like and generally listen to each other."

- Leonard Cohen

"I remember what Irving Layton said about the essential characteristics of a young poet: arrogance and inexperience."

- Leonard Cohen

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006

Globe & Mail article by S. Martin Jan 5

Irving Layton, 93
Thursday, January 5, 2006 Posted at 11:08 AM EST
By SANDRA MARTIN With files from John Allemang

He was fond of referring to himself in the same breath as Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats, but, for all his bombast, Irving Layton was a grand poet who wrote at least a dozen poems that will keep his name and his reputation alive. A prolific letter writer, a mentor to generations of younger poets, including Leonard Cohen and Al Purdy, he brought an energy and an excitement to the writing of poetry in Canada beginning in the 1950s.

As a grieving Leonard Cohen said yesterday from Montreal, "There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us. He is our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry. Alzheimer's could not silence him, and neither will death."

The late Al Purdy once described Mr. Layton's personality as a fusion of opposites, saying he "was the Montreal magnet for me. . . . I felt about him as I had not about any other Canadian writer, a kind of awe and surprise that such magical things should pour from an egotistical clown, a charismatic poseur. And I forgive myself for saying these things, which are both true and untrue."

Mr. Layton delighted in debate, excess, defying authority and ridiculing cant. And he loved women -- their pursuit, their bodies and their company. He had five wives or partners and many mistresses. One of his former partners, Aviva Layton, said his muse was his real wife. She described his death as a "body blow."

The stories about Mr. Layton, beginning with his claim that he was born circumcised, are legendary. "Who knows," Ms. Layton responded when the question was put to her directly. "It is like asking whether Achilles or Zeus ever existed." Everybody mythologizes their life to a certain extent, she said, and his mother certainly believed it.

One summer in the early 1960s, they were in Rome and wanted to visit St. Peter's Basilica. The guards barred her because she was wearing a mini-dress. Mr. Layton opened his wallet, pulled out all of his lira and pinned some to the bottom of her skirt to make a hem, then slipped the rest of them under the straps of her dress to fashion sleeves. "Now," he demanded, "is she respectable?" The guards, seemingly oblivious to Mr. Layton's eloquent deriding of mammon, made no objection as the couple swept past the barrier and into the holiest of Catholic churches.

Editing Mr. Layton could be fractious because "he did not believe he had ever written a bad poem," said Anna Porter, who worked with him at McClelland and Stewart beginning in the late 1960s, after Mr. Layton and Aviva Layton moved to Toronto from Montreal. "He was brilliant," Ms. Porter said, "and when he viewed himself in the pantheon of great poets, he wasn't saying it lightly, he was saying it with some foreknowledge of the precedence." She edited his Collected Poems, which was to be his magnum opus. The problem was that it kept growing. They had a temporary falling out over the number of poems. He was so angry with her that he went to another publisher, who released the "uncollected" Irving Layton. "If the two volumes had appeared together, they would have amounted to something like 600 pages," Ms. Porter said.

"Irving was like a one-man promotion machine for Canadian poetry in the 1950s," said literary critic Sam Solecki, at a time when a bestseller sold maybe 250 copies in this country. "There was an energy that almost every reviewer, even those who didn't like him much at the start, recognized." The University of Toronto English professor wrote the introduction to a selected edition of Mr. Layton's poetry, A Wild Peculiar Joy (published by M&S in 2004). Mr. Layton, said Prof. Solecki, always insisted that Canadian poetry be measured against the best of European, American and British work. "There was that historical moment when he made a huge statement that poetry is important and it's got to be modern." What made Mr. Layton special as a mentor and a teacher, said Prof. Solecki, was the way he nurtured younger poets without trying to turn them into models of himself. He was like Nietzsche, who said the best student is the one who goes beyond the master. And he left behind stellar poems such as: A Tall Man Executes a Jig, The Swimmer, The Birth of Tragedy, Song for Naomi, The Cold Green Element, On Seeing the Statute of Ezekiel and Jeremiah in the Church of Notre Dame, Keine Lavorivitch: 1870-1959, The Tightrope Dancer and A Wild Peculiar Joy.

Irving Layton was born Israel Lazarovitch in Romania before the First World War, one of several children of Moses and Keine (Moscovitch) Lazarovitch, but changed his name to Irving Layton when he decided to become a poet. He immigrated to Canada with his family when he was a year old and settled in the tough impoverished St. Urbain neighbourhood that was later immortalized in the fiction of the late Mordecai Richler.

His parents were sharp contrasts. His father was shy and religiously observant and his mother was domineering and ferocious. After her death, Mr. Layton wrote an elegy to her, Keine Lazarovitch: 1870-1959.

"O fierce she was, mean and unaccommodating;

But I think now of the toss of her gold earrings,

Their proud carnal assertion, and her youngest sings

While all the rivers of her red veins move into the sea."

The poet P. K. Page described this poem as "devastatingly beautiful and honest." His mother was a difficult woman, and all of that comes out, but so does her pride and dignity. "It isn't a poem I could have written, but if I had written it, I would have been pleased with it."

Mr. Layton was supposed to have been a peddler, not a poet who peddled his work at readings and lectures. Later, he claimed that the daily fistfights that marked his childhood taught him "to give as good as I got and never to whimper. . . . You had to stay in there and keep on pounding."

His written work often incorporated this political anger, but he credited Latin-language studies with the poet A. M. Klein for turning him into a bard of epic proportions. Listening to Mr. Klein read Virgil's Aeneid, the poor street kid "realized how very lovely and very moving the sound of poetry could be."

Mr. Layton always prided himself on his classical sensibility, and his writing is more orderly than his savage style suggested. But he hated to be tied down, in poetry as in marriage: "I am a Romantic with a sense of irony," he once told a student.

He studied agriculture, of all things, at Montreal's Macdonald College, where he became active as a journalist, debater and verbal hell-raiser. He also made a disastrous marriage to Faye Lynch in 1938, and moved with her to Halifax, where he worked as a Fuller Brush salesman before enlisting in the army. Proving to be a poor soldier, he accepted a discharge, found his way into the Montreal literary scene and published his first book in 1945. He also took up with Betty Sutherland, a waitress-turned-artist and Donald Sutherland's stepsister. They had two children, Max (1946) and Naomi (1950).

Writing poetry and the occasional manifesto was not lucrative. Mr. Layton essentially self-published and took work teaching wherever he could find it -- a Jewish high school, Montreal's Jewish Public Library (where he tutored immigrants) and part-time lecturing at Sir George Williams University, with dreams of finishing a PhD and becoming a professor. This workload didn't keep him from writing, or from getting noticed, though his self-assertive style earned equal blame and praise. In 1951, Northrop Frye wrote of The Black Huntsmen that "the successes are quiet and the faults raucous. . . . One can get as tired of buttocks in Mr. Layton as buttercups in Canadian Poetry Magazine."

"He was my teacher in Grade 7," television guru Moses Znaimer said yesterday, explaining that it was the scaremongering of the McCarthy era in the early 1950s that forced "a guy of Irving's calibre" to find work at a Jewish day school.

Mr. Znaimer remembers how Mr. Layton looked at the "motley" crew of pupils and then filled both the front and side blackboards with huge number 9s in chalk and marked a "savage" dot, then added a few more 9s and a percentage sign. "He turned around and fixed us with a stare and said 99.99999 per cent of people are philistines." Mr. Znaimer remembered thinking, "I don't know what a philistine is, but I'm not going to be one of them."

He was a fabulous teacher, said Mr. Znaimer, who compared him to a rock star. "He was flamboyant and heroic and very handsome with a pugilist's body and face and he made it all come alive." He was getting some exposure as a poet on CBC TV, and he would brazenly bring in his chap books and sell them to pupils at 25 cents each, insisting that they would become collector's items. Mr. Znaimer, who idolized his teacher but refused to ape his mannerisms and style as some of the other pupils did, nevertheless bought many of the early books and amassed a collection that a book dealer later appraised at thousands of dollars.

It was about this time that Mr. Layton met Aviva Cantor. She arrived in Montreal from her native Australia in 1955. She had an Australian friend who had written a poem in The Fiddlehead magazine that was published in Fredericton by the late Fred Cogswell. She wrote him, and he sent back a letter with a list of names and addresses of people she might want to look up in Montreal. The list included Frank Scott, A. M. Klein and Irving Layton, with an address in Côte Saint-Luc. For some reason, she phoned Mr. Layton. He invited her to a party at his house one Sunday, and that was that. Eventually, he left Betty and his children, and they became partners for more than 20 years.

They never married, but she changed her name to Layton after their son David was born in 1964. They moved to Toronto in the late 1960s, after the late Eli Mandell facilitated a teaching job for Mr. Layton at York University. These were the years of his greatest literary and public success.

He published a volume of poetry almost every year into the 1980s, and began winning over enough doubters to get Canada Council grants that allowed him to roam the world. As his fame and his vanity grew, he liked to pretend that there was some sort of conspiracy against him in Canada. But he was a successful poet, and a household name from his appearances on a CBC debate show that could have been named for him: Fighting Words. The late Hugh MacLennan declared him to be the best poet in Canada; that soothed Mr. Layton's ego but did nothing to rein in his embattled nature or make him more self-critical.

He objected strenuously to a biography written by Elspeth Cameron in the mid-1970s and later wrote his own memoirs. He and Ms. Layton separated, and he became captivated by a York student, Harriet Bernstein. His fourth child, Samantha, was born in 1981, when he was almost 70. Like so many of his closest relationships, this one ended badly, too -- Harriet took custody of the child, and charged the poet with harassment when he drew on his verbal dexterity to deride her.

Mr. Layton the poet started to slow down at this point, but Mr. Layton the lover was still going strong. He soon took up with 22-year-old Annette Pottier, and married her after changing her name to Anna. She left him in 1995, after his creeping Alzheimer's was finally diagnosed, and his care was taken over by a group of friends. In 2000, when his savings ran out, he was moved to the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Montreal's Côte Saint-Luc district, the same area where he was living when he met Aviva Cantor in the 1950s.

Among his visitors was Judith Fitzgerald, a poet and former student at York University. She went to see him in 2001 and wrote about it for The Globe. "With the morning sun slanting through wrap-around plate-glass windows, he loads his pipe," Ms. Fitzgerald wrote. "The poet inhales with gusto, a satisfied smile spreading across his craggy face."

Another pilgrim was his former protegé and poet-in-arms, Leonard Cohen, who told Ms. Fitzgerald that he continued to be "knocked out by the richness, the resonance, the generosity, the hard intelligence, the clarity, the passion and, above all else, the great, great aching tenderness, which remains very much a part of who he is and what he means to me."

Mr. Cohen's early poem, Last Dance at the Four Penny from The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), which was once a tribute to his mentor, now forms one-half of elegiac bookends to their long friendship and love of poetry.

The poem begins, "Layton, when we dance our freilach/ under the ghostly handkerchief," and ends, "I say no Jew was ever lost/ while we weave and billow the handkerchief/ into a burning cloud,/ measuring all of heaven/with our stitching thumbs."

Having honoured the poet in the 1960s, Mr. Cohen eulogized the man 40 years later in Irving and Me at the Hospital, which will be published in May in Mr. Cohen's new collection, Book of Longing, and which is reprinted here with permission from M&S:

Irving and Me At the Hospital

He stood up for Nietzsche

I stood up for Christ

He stood up for victory

I stood up for less

I loved to read his verses

He loved to hear my song

We never had much interest

In who was right or wrong

His boxer's hands were shaking

He struggled with his pipe

Imperial tobacco

Which I helped him light


Irving Layton was born in Neamtz, Romania, on March 12, 1912. He died in Montreal of complications from Alzheimer's disease yesterday morning. He was 93. He is survived by former wives and partners, and his children Max, Naomi, David, Samantha and their families. The funeral will be held on Sunday at Paperman's in Montreal. A family memorial will be held at a later date.

JTA Global News article Jan 5

Canadian Jewish poet dies

Irving Layton, once described as “the Picasso and Mae West of poetry,” died Wednesday in Montreal at 93.

He was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Tirgu Neamt, Romania, in 1912, his family immigrated to Canada in 1913.

His first collection of poetry, “Here and Now,” was published by First Statement Press in 1945. He also taught English literature in high school and then at the university level. Layton was known for his egoistic and abrasive personality and his dark view of humanity. He was married several times.

“He is our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry,” longtime friend, poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote from Los Angeles. “Alzheimer’s could not silence him and neither will death.”

Layton is survived by two sons and two daughters.

Reuters article Jan 5

Influential Canadian poet Irving Layton dies at 93

Thu Jan 5, 2006 1:52 PM EST16

TORONTO (Reuters) - Irving Layton, one of Canada's most influential writers, whose powerful, sexually-charged poetry often shocked critics in the 1940s and '50s, died on Wednesday at age 93.

The professor, writer and poet had suffered from Alzheimer's disease since 1994, and died in a long-term care facility in his home town of Montreal.

Known as one of the most published writers in North America, his early poetry focused on love and sex, making staid Canadians blush at his sometimes bawdy subject matter, and prompting critics to attack him for his radicalism.

As a result, the larger-than-life Layton had as many enemies as friends, and was considered a fierce debater as well as an outspoken social and political critic.

With a reputation as a hell-raiser, he would often engage in public arguments with politicians, writers and friends in his crusade against Puritanism and uniformity, and became a regular on the CBC Television debate program "Fighting Words."

Layton was named to the Order of Canada in 1976 and nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1982. He published more than 40 books in his lifetime.

In the foreword to "A Red Carpet for the Sun," which won Canada's Governor General's Award for literature in 1959, Layton offered insight into his view of the world when he wrote that "poetry, by giving dignity and utterance to our distress, enables us to hope, makes compassion reasonable."

Fellow Montrealer and poet, Leonard Cohen, a former student and protege of Layton's, once said: "I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever."

Layton was born Israel Lazarovitch in the small town of Tirgul Neamt, Romania, in 1912. His family immigrated to Canada in 1913 and he grew up near St. Urbain Street in Montreal, the same Jewish neighborhood that novelist Mordecai Richler made famous in many of his works.

After a stint in the Canadian Army during World War Two, Layton completed his graduate work at Montreal's McGill University in 1946, and went on to teach for many years.

He was at his most prolific in the 1970s and 80s, publishing a book almost every year.

© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.

Toronto article Jan 5

Irving Layton, 93: Canada's trailblazing poet
Irving Layton, 93, at end of the page

Had lusty persona, many wives, feuds

Jan. 5, 2006. 07:10 AM

Irving Layton, one of the first Canadian poets to gain international stature and a controversial presence on the national scene for decades, died in Montreal yesterday at the age of 93.

"He is our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry," long-time friend Leonard Cohen proclaimed. "Alzheimer's could not silence him and neither will death."

Before Layton, Canadian poets tended to be regarded as tweedy romantics, celebrating nature in the Victorian tradition. Layton changed all that. His poetry owed more to his childhood experience of his acid-tongued mother and the verbal combativeness of the Jewish immigrant community in Montreal than it did to Longfellow or Wordsworth. He was also the first Canadian literary figure to use the media as a vehicle of self-promotion.

Irving Layton was born in 1912, in Romania. His parents, Moishe and Klara Lazarovitch, immigrated to Montreal with their eight children a year later. Like another literary figure from Montreal, Mordecai Richler, the young Israel Lazarovitch grew up with an aggressive mother who dominated a weak-willed father. Throughout his life Layton retained the brittle self-confidence of a boy favoured by his mother over her own husband.

Klara barely supported her brood by running a tiny grocery store, but Layton managed to obtain a high school education while working at odd jobs, and to graduate from Macdonald College, affiliated with McGill. After a brief stint in the wartime army Ñ he never left Canada Ñ Layton obtained an MA in economics and political science from McGill in 1946.

For years he was a magnetic presence teaching history and literature at a Jewish high school in Montreal before realizing a life-long ambition in 1969 when he became professor of English at York University.

As a McGill student, Layton met two poets, Louis Dudek and John Sutherland, who shared a desire for a more modern approach to verse. Sutherland founded a periodical entitled First Statement, favouring poetry tied to everyday "un-poetic" subjects in language close to the street. Layton eventually feuded with both poets, but Sutherland's magazine provided an outlet for Layton's early work.

Layton's first collection, Here and Now, appeared in 1945. One of its more notable poems was "De Bullion Street," about Montreal's red-light district, which compared a mission and church to "hemorrhoids on the city's anus." It was just the beginning. Layton's books poured out from literary presses in the late '40s and '50s. In 1956, a volume of his poems, The Improved Binoculars, was distributed by his first commercial publisher, Ryerson Press, then affiliated with the United Church. Insiders were so offended by poems such as "De Bullion Street" that the name of Ryerson Press was removed from the copyright page.

The controversy attracted the attention of Jack McClelland, whose publishing company issued Layton's breakthrough book, A Red Carpet for the Sun, in 1959. "His poems don't suffer from the problem of most modern poetry (in which) poets are communicating only with other poets, and the average person can't comprehend the symbolism," McClelland told a reporter at the time. The book sold well.

South of the border, the great modernist poet William Carlos Williams called Layton "a backwoodsman with a tremendous power to do anything he wants with verse."

By that point, Layton was inescapable. On the wings of frequent appearances on CBC television's Fighting Words, poetry readings and media interviews, he developed the persona of a hot-blooded, lusty poet glorying in sex and riotous living, in defiance of his pinched, repressed fellow Canadians. To reporter June Callwood, however, he insisted on his faithfulness as a husband. "There is not the smallest crumb of truth in the stories one hears about my philandering," he said. "I had coffee romances and then fantasized them into poems, that's all."

His marital life was certainly eventful. In 1938 he married Faye Lynch, a bookkeeper whose salary helped support Layton while still a student. He was repelled by her obesity; at one point, according to Elspeth Cameron's biography Irving Layton: A Portrait, he forced her to sign a contract promising to lose weight.

Subsequent wives included Betty Sutherland, half-sister to actor Donald Sutherland and mother of his children Max and Naomi; Aviva Layton Whiteson, mother of his son David, who published Motion Sickness, an unflattering portrait of his father in 1999; Harriet Bernstein, mother of his daughter Samantha; and Anna Pottier, his last wife, from whom he separated in 1995. Aviva retained a friendship with the poet until the end of his life. "Irving sparkled in an era now gone," she comments. "For a long time, he was right at the centre of Canadian literature and he had a very full life."

Layton was equally outspoken about politics. In his youth he was a fervent Communist and always professed Marxist leanings. But it was Friedrich Nietzsche who most influenced him. Like the philosopher, Layton thought of himself as a member of a spiritual elite, using his art to reconcile joy and suffering, reason and passion.

Later he grew to despise communism, and scandalized Canadian literati by supporting the American war in Vietnam.

The quality of his poetry declined markedly throughout the '70s and '80s. By the time Alzheimer's disease silenced Layton in the late '90s, his poetic reputation had begun to slide. Nonetheless, he retained devoted readers.

"I loved him," comments Patrick Lane, one of Canada's best-known contemporary poets. "I loved especially his sheer joy at being male."

Former Canadian poet laureate George Bowering says Layton "had an energy that blew apart the lah-dee-dah approach to poetry that was offered to us then. I think that maybe he was one of those guys who opened the way for poets who were better than him. You certainly wouldn't have seen an Al Purdy without Layton."

Former Toronto poet laureate Dennis Lee says of Layton, "He probably had the richest vocabulary of any poet in Canada."

Both Lee and Layton's biographer, Elspeth Cameron, agree there are a dozen or 15 poems Layton leaves behind that will ensure his immortality. Cameron maintains this position despite the ferocious war Layton waged against her candid 1985 biography of him.

Now an adjunct professor of English and Canadian studies at Brock University, she recalls receiving around 500 hate letters from her subject. "He sent me a drawing, a picture of me with a noose around my neck," Cameron says. "He threatened my parents, he threatened to burn down my house. We were all pretty scared."

Nevertheless, Cameron sticks by her high assessment of Layton as a poet. "I think the kind of poetry he wrote was truly a breakthrough from the kind of Romantic British poetry that came before him. He wasn't a fluke ... he was a major figure."