Nelson Wyatt, Canadian Press
Published: Sunday, January 08, 2006
Nobel-nominated poet Irving Layton remembered for his influence, talent
MONTREAL (CP) - Irving Layton, whose poetry earned him a Nobel Prize nomination, was remembered Sunday as a man who inspired people to lofty goals with his words and yet viewed the world with a playful optimism.
"He was like a boy, he was my wild, peculiar boy," Anna Pottier, his fifth wife, said after a service at a west-end funeral home.
"We were like two girls in a dorm, basically, talking and talking and laughing and talking and travelling."
Layton, who died Wednesday at age 93, was known by some as provocative and abrasive but Pottier spoke of the man who playfully tried to swipe bagels from a bakery and saw hope in blades of grass poking through cracks in city sidewalks.
Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, who addressed the mourners at the funeral, later invoked Layton's "transformative impact" on the lives of Canadians and his outrage at injustice.
Cotler, who met Layton when the poet taught him in Grade 7, credited the poet with teaching him "how to think."
"I learned how to struggle for justice and the only way you can do that is by struggling against injustice," he said.
"Irving Layton felt the injustice around him. His poetry was a means of conveying that message of injustice and mobilizing us in that struggle."
He described him as "a voice for the voiceless."
But it was as a literary icon that poet-singer Leonard Cohen remembered his friend. He brought one of Layton's books to the service and read from it.
"He is our greatest poet," Cohen said afterward. "Our greatest champion of poetry and these lines will endure and there is no sadness, no lamentation, no sorrow, no regret at this moment because that which Irving loved the best, which was his work, will survive him.
"There is no doubt generations to come will learn these verses and they will transcend any positions, any political strategies, any literary strategies. They're here, they're written in stone and they'll be read for a long, long time."
Layton died in a long-term care facility after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease.
Pottier, who separated from Layton after his diagnosis in 1995, said it was hard to see him go downhill.
"To have watched a mountain be reduced to grains of sand - it was beyond me," she said.
During the time she knew him, she said she was astounded by his extraordinary energy.
"He crackled," she recalled, saying he lived up to his mother's nickname for him, which translated as "exploding flame."
"From the moment he woke up in the morning, to the minute he went to bed at night - all day long, just thinking and reading and writing and cogitating and confabulating." Then there might be a quick nap and then the whole process would start anew.
He wrote personal replies to anyone who wrote him and he didn't mind criticism, despite what some said.
"As long as people could marshall their facts and come at him with the passion that he had - bring it on," Pottier said. "He was very happy because of he was so sure of who he was."
A prolific writer, Layton published more than 40 books of poetry and prose during more than five decades.
He was named to the Order of Canada in 1976, held several university posts as poet-or writer-in-residence and was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. He was the only non-Italian to win Italy's Petrarch Award for Poetry.
Born Israel Lazarovitch in Romania on March 12, 1912, he was the youngest of seven children. His family immigrated to Canada when he was a year old and settled in a tough multiethnic neighbourhood of Montreal.
He started out writing for obscure literary magazines but gained widespread noteriety after winning the Governor General's Award in 1959. After that, he also became a familiar face on TV.
Media mogul Moses Znaimer, who also had Layton as a Grade 7 teacher, saw him then "as a rock star."
Znaimer said Layton drew criticism for his showmanship in the public eye but suggested his flamboyance made him a trailblazer for the celebrity-fixated society of the future.
"It was the showmanship that fused him in the public imagination and allowed him to do his work that much better," said Znaimer.
"I learned something from that exercise, that the new electronic media, the power of the image fused with the words is what the new poetry, the next generation poetry, would have to be like."
He sees Layton as "larger than life and someone who will last above all. I'm sure that's what he wanted and he should rest easy. I think the work will last."
That was echoed by Pottier, who said Layton's work is reaching a new audience slowly as his work is posted on the Internet. Layton had been out of print until last year.
Samantha Bernstein, Layton's daughter by his fourth wife and one of his four children, said people could remember her father by reading more. They should check out his work, she said with a smile, because "it shakes things up a lot more than most of the other poets."
But people should draw other lessons from Layton than from words on a page, she added.
"He ought to be remembered for his love of life, I think, most of all for his tremendous joy in living," she said. "He loved to inspire people by his joy, his sheer joy. That's what I think people should remember. There's not enough of that."
© The Canadian Press 2006