The other Irving Layton
January 21, 2006
The obits made a big deal of all the sex. But, hey, that was fashionable. Unlike his politics.
The chattering classes' dirty little secret about Irving Layton remained neatly out of sight to the end. His obituaries were fulsome if not comprehensive. Leonard Cohen's oft-quoted remark, "I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever," surfaced again. The aphorism was probably true -- until Cohen became sexier than his master.
The CBC ran clips of interviews with Layton that reminded me how much I miss Peter Gzowski, though Mary Lou Finlay's encounter with the great man was hilarious. She was either cruelly edited or bored stiff by him. Their chemistry was sub-arctic.
The Globe and Mail's Sandra Martin was most informative, as far as she went. I liked the quote she chose from Northrop Frye who said, "one can get as tired of buttocks in Mr. Layton as buttercups in Canadian Poetry Magazine."
I never realized Layton didn't marry Aviva Layton (who changed her name to his). She was the only one of his partners I encountered -- a warm, intelligent woman. Most of Layton's generation of poets had, minimally, one long-suffering wife and then a succession of "others." Layton, being larger than life, had more of both.
Only critic Philip Marchand touched on the missing part of Layton when he wrote that "late in his life he grew to despise communism and scandalized Canadian literati by his support of the American war in Vietnam." Well, yes, but that was only the half of it.
Layton's life is an almost perfect example of how a reputation is made or rejected according to the spirit of the times. In the sixties, a revolution against what was described as the inhibited White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture began, together with an enthusiastic embrace of the sexual revolution. Layton's being coincided with both notions perfectly. He had a genuine belief in the full-blooded and honest sexuality of the earthy Jew. He denounced the pinched WASP with his self-suppressed culture. Most of it was arrant nonsense but the belief inspired Layton to write some wonderful (as well as some awful) poetry.
Layton was a publicity hound and loved the limelight. He joked about the public need to see him in the "role" of a poet, long-haired and sexually avaricious. But Layton didn't play at being the sexual revolution's pacesetter for headlines alone; the role found an authentic echo in him.
His life coincided with that brief moment when poetry had real relevance in Canada. Small presses sprung up helped by government grants. "Poets indeed have never had it so good," wrote Layton in 1969. But while he was lionized for his poems, which fitted the times so perfectly, Layton's political thought was always off-course.
Fashionable Canadian shibboleths were trashed by Layton. He contemptuously wrote off the "Canadian Identity business" as he called it. Of one raging Canadian nationalist he said: "though hidden under a maple leaf, an asshole is still an asshole." He celebrated America and was a passionate supporter of Israel. He understood the value of the superpowers' "balance of terror" and anticipated the reunification of Germany in the context of a Russia that recognized itself as a European power rather than an Asiatic one.
He hated all totalitarianism and had no truck with moral equivalence. He was not certain that going into Vietnam was a good idea but he knew that pulling out would be -- as it was -- a very bad idea indeed. He argued well and his essays and "ruminations," as he called them, hold up, unlike the writing of most contemporaneous Canadian commentators on the Soviet Union and the Middle East.
If we lived in different times, Layton would have been recognized both then and now as an important public intellectual as well as a fine poet. But his political writings are denied by CanLit with the blatancy of a Holocaust denier. In 1977, he published his collected social and political writings in Taking Sides. His views may have evolved differently later in his life, but the book stands on its own -- insightful and serious.
Still, Taking Sides might as well be in samizdat for all the public attention it gets. The literati genuflected to a narcissistic Canadian nationalism defined by strong anti-Americanism and nurtured in left-wing clichés. Layton's essays were buried, never to be disinterred even for his obits.
A view from the 21st century makes one wonder though if, minimally, Layton's achievement is not equal or even higher in those forbidden areas. I wouldn't be too surprised if future scholars assess him as more important as a polemicist than as a lyric poet. Layton had his own view of his importance: "I feel I've made a contribution even to Canadian unity. Along with anti-Americanism, I'm the greatest force keeping this country together."
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