The Globe and Mail
Layton inspired a generation, friends and family say
He was irascible, irreverent, demanding -- and a lot of people loved him
By MICHAEL POSNER
Monday, January 9, 2006 Page A3
MONTREAL -- Irving Layton himself might have protested mightily -- just to stir things up.
Some 700 friends, family members, former students and long-time admirers gathered for his funeral yesterday morning at Montreal's Paperman & Sons -- among them, poet and songsmith Leonard Cohen, broadcaster Moses Znaimer and Liberal cabinet minister Irwin Cotler.
They came to honour the memory of the man considered by many Canada's greatest poet.
Mr. Layton died last week at 93 after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease.
But despite the celebratory tone, it was a largely solemn affair and, as his friend poet Andy Wainright said afterward, "probably a little formal for Irving.
"He would have leavened the mood."
During a one-hour ceremony, Mr. Layton was characterized by a series of speakers as an irascible, lusty lion of Canadian letters, by turns querulous and tender, raging against inequity and injustice, mediocrity and political correctness, and in his later years, not wanted on the voyage of the Canadian literary establishment.
"Irving would have been very angry if there were this many people here and none of his poems were read," said Mr. Cohen, who flew in from Los Angeles.
Mr. Cohen then read Mr. Layton's The Graveyard, which ends with the lines: "There is no pain in the graveyard, for the voice whispering in the tombstone, rejoice, rejoice."
"Whatever was between Irving and I . . . does not bear repeating," Mr. Cohen added. "But what does bear repeating and will be repeated endlessly are these poems, which live and will continue to live."
Mr. Layton's daughter, Samantha Bernstein -- one of three of the poet's four children who attended the funeral -- also read a poem: her own work, called Layton, Irving. In it, she tells of reading four of her father's poems.
"I looked up six words," she said. "Two of them were not in my dictionary."
Mr. Znaimer, who was a student of Mr. Layton's in Montreal in the 1950s, said that what he would remember most was that, while "he was truly the poet who did the work, he was also the man who would be the poet, play the role . . . teach with celebrity and glamour, and move people with the force of your personality and image.
"I learned a lot from that."
Montreal poet David Solway began with a joke about an old Jew eating in a restaurant, his table heaped with food of every description.
Outside, a poor, hungry Jew watches him eat and finally forces himself to go in. "I haven't eaten for days," he pleads.
The diner turns to him and says, "force yourself."
Mr. Layton, Mr. Solway said, was like the diner in the sense that his table groaned with life itself, "and the rest of us were outside wanting to partake. Force yourself, Irving would have said. That's what he taught us to do."
In his eulogy, Mr. Solway said Mr. Layton's poetry constituted a warning against pedantry, consensus and diffidence.
"He taught us not to toe the party line and not to be like him, except in so far as we were like ourselves."
Mr. Layton, he noted, had made himself "a man of his time by being a man against his time, abrasive but warm-hearted. He taught us that poems should strive to make a difference in the world and constitute 'a glow in the darkness of the wilderness we inhabit.' "
Mr. Wainwright, who is also a novelist and literature professor at Dalhousie University, said he shared many happy times with Mr. Layton on the Greek island of Lesbos, sitting, talking, reading and occasionally swimming.
He compared Mr. Layton's swimming stroke to watching leaves turn colour: "You knew it was happening, but you never saw it." He said he could finish half of War and Peace in the time it took Mr. Layton to swim from the beach out to an old abandoned wharf and back.
At which point, Mr. Layton would say, "Nothing like a quick dip."
Poet and University of Ottawa professor Seymour Mayne recalled how Mr. Layton visited his Grade 6 Hebrew school class on June 13, 1957, and asked the class to spell the word "embarrass."
Most of the students could not.
"But then he flipped it around and showed us how the word was close to another word, 'embrace.' It was a rhapsodic balance. He loved to embarrass us -- embarrass the government, the country. But he also embraced us, and his poems will embrace us forever."
Mr. Cotler, a student of Mr. Layton's and later his friend, told the assembly that they were gathered "to remember him, but not to mourn. Irving would have none of that."
Mr. Cotler said he remembered Mr. Layton reading to his class from his then work in progress Red Carpet for the Sun, the 1959 collection of poems that first made his national reputation, "and the poem is alive for me today as it as then." In the introduction to that volume, Mr. Layton wrote that "poetry, by giving dignity and utterance to our distress, enables us to hope, makes compassion reasonable."
"Challenging, probing, audacious, inspiring, use whatever adjective you want," Mr. Cotler said. "He was always, always, the voice of the voiceless, profoundly Jewish although not religious."
At an event in Mr. Layton's honour at Montreal's Centaur Theatre in the 1990s, the poet called Mr. Cotler his "spiritual son." Yesterday, Mr. Cotler returned the compliment, recalling that he had last seen Mr. Layton some weeks ago at the Montreal elderly care hospital where he resided for the last several years. Even with most of his cognitive faculties lost, Mr. Cotler said, "he was for me in that moment, and in many moments, my spiritual father."
Another former student, Gila Cupchik, who drove in from Toronto for the funeral, compared Mr. Layton to a caged lion who prowled the classroom, a rabblerouser who annoyed, vexed and harassed, and the greatest teacher she ever had.
"He demanded attention. After him, you could never buy anything from a salesman, because he taught us to dig deep, to question motives. And he exuded an energy that spoke far louder than whatever the subject was.
"To a 13-year-old girl, he was the epitome of sexuality. And he never bothered with an eraser. He just crossed things off. His life was like that too. He never used an eraser."
Ms. Cupchik wondered whether Alzheimer's patients regained their former lucidity when they passed away. "Because he would give God such an argument."
After the reading of two traditional Hebrew prayers, pallbearers carried Mr. Layton's coffin laden with white roses to a silver hearse.
He is expected to be cremated and his ashes buried on Mount Royal.