Saturday, January 21, 2006

Johannesburg, South Africa article Jan 10 06
"A quiet madman, never far from tears'
Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa
10 January 2006 10:31

Colourful Canadian poet Irving Layton, twice considered for a Nobel Prize in literature for his provocative verse, died on Wednesday in Montreal at the age of 93, according to media reports.

Layton, who once described himself as "a quiet madman, never far from tears", wrote about 50 books of poetry and prose over five decades, including Here and Now (1945), The Black Huntsmen (1951) and A Red Carpet for the Sun, which won a Governor General's Award in 1959.

In 1993, he became the first non-Italian to win the distinguished Petrarch Prize for poetry.

Layton died in a long-term care facility where he had lived for five years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us," his friend, poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, wrote in an e-mail to the Gazette newspaper. "He is our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry. Alzheimer's could not silence him, and neither will death."

Brushing aside Canada's "puritanical" notion of verse, Layton's gritty, satiric, abrasive and sometimes bawdy poetry often dealt with violence in everyday life and the frightening side of free will.

He will be equally remembered for his boisterous reputation, abrasive ego, outrageous opinions, rousing love life and bitter feuds.

Layton was born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Tirgu Neamt, Romania, on March 12 1912. His parents changed the family name after immigrating to Canada the following year.

Layton was married five times, including to Betty Sutherland, a sister of actor Donald Sutherland, and had four children. His son David wrote Motion Sickness in 1999, a memoir of growing up with a capricious father.

Layton taught English literature and counted justice minister Irwin Cotler among his students. Cotler described him to reporters as "a mentor, a colleague and a friend". -- AFP

Page & Turners Bookstores website article
Page & Turners Bookstores website
Canadian Poet, Irving Layton, Passes Away at Age 93

The author of more than 50 books of poetry, Irving Layton passed away on January 4, 2006 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 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."

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

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.

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."

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.

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

The Other Irving Layton by B. Amiel, Macleans, Jan 21 06
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 clich├ęs. 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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