Great Canadian poet Layton dead at 93
Jan. 4, 2006. 10:47 PM
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. of Victorian landscape verse. 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 celebrated 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.
The family was mired in poverty —
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, an agricultural school affiliated with McGill. After a brief stint in the wartime army during World War II — he never left Canada — 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 he cherished the ambition of a full-time university position, a goal finally realized in 1969 when he became professor of English at York University.
Before then, . He was a magnetic presence in the classroom, with his powerful physical strength, energy and articulate enthusiasm for the poetry he taught.
As a McGill student, Layton met two other 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. In typical fashion, 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.” This was plain language with a vengeance. 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 selected poems, The Improved Binoculars, was distributed by his first commercial publisher, Ryerson Press, then affiliated with the United Church. Insiders were An editorial committee of the Press was 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 publisher 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) which has developed so that 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.”
The comment sounded mildly patronizing, but it was also recognition of the power of such Layton poems as “A Tall Man Executes A Jig,” and “The Bull Calf,” which combined deep feeling with lucid statement and smouldering language.
By that point, Layton was inescapable. On the wings of frequent appearances on was a frequent guest on CBC television’s Fighting Words, a talk show that provided a perfect forum for his gift for diatribe and debate. Helped by his 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 , puritanical 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.
Not surprisingly, this first marriage failed. Subsequent wives included Betty Sutherland, sister of his friend John Sutherland and 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, nee Cantor, 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. as he was about sex and poetry. In his youth he was a fervent Communist and always professed Marxist leanings. But it was 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who most influenced him. Like the philosopher, Layton thought of himself as a member of a spiritual elite, swept away by the life force, using his art to reconcile joy and suffering, reason and passion.
Later he grew to despise communism, and scandalized his fellow Canadian literati by supporting the American war in Vietnam.
and even sent one of his books, The Shattered Plinths, to President Lyndon Johnson.
At the same time
The quality of his poetry declined markedly throughout the ’70s and ’80s, often being reduced to bombast and belligerence. 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…He was a true original, someone we haven’t seen in our culture for a long time.”
Former Canadian poet laureate George Bowering says Layton testifies to Layton’s historical importance. “He “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.”
His knowledge of the language you wouldn’t necessarily expect, but it was very sophisticated. He really was drunk on language in the best possible way.”
Both Lee 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.
when it appeared in 1985. Cameron,
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. “He was one of the first of what we would call the ethnic or multi-cultural voices in this country, a writer who was neither WASP nor French Canadian,” Cameron says. “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 ..... His work wasn’t a kind of blip in Canadian literary history he was a major figure.”