Notes of Blue Metropolis, Maisonneuve, April 13 06
by Penelope Smart and Mercedes De La Rosa
Remembering Irving Layton
“Telling it like it is”
Irving Layton—now there was a Montrealer. The man knew how to strut. He made Canadian poetry cool. He wrote poems for political leaders, poems for his new baby daughter and poems about doing it. Layton was a people’s poet. This January, he died.
For one hour, family, friends and devotees of Layton piled into the Grand Salon to tell tales about the “short, stocky guy with a tie and briefcase.” The tribute featured a foursome—Samantha Bernstein, Seymour Mayne, Musla Schwartz, and Donald Winkler— who knew Layton as a father, teacher, and friend. Everyone brought their gossip and their poetry books, ready to share.
“The first time I met my dad I was sixteen,” related Bernstein, “I showed up with a poem and a guitar.” Bernstein, Layton’s child from his fourth wife, is now twenty-five and a poet herself. Reading some of her own work, it is clear that she inherited something of her father’s “tell-it-like-it-is” style: “There you were,” she rhymed, “between Laxative and Lazarus.”
Many in attendance that night were Layton’s old students—particularly from his teaching days at Herzliah, a Jewish high school. Imagine being a kid and having Layton march into class and ask you how to spell E-M-B-A-R-R-A-S-S? It seems the poet’s cutting witticism was matched only by his sincere compassion for all present in his class. He once brought his students to his house to pillage his personal library. Schwartz told of a poetry course Layton as teaching when she first moved to Montreal from Poland. “He was capable of entering our emotions, our dreams, our fears,” she said, her voice gruff with a heavy accent. “It wasn’t words he was giving, but heart.” Layton, she insisted, was the inspiration behind her PhD in comparative literature.
“Like all of us in this city,” added author and friend Mayne, “he was an outsider. He was in one community and on the edge of others.” Today, Layton’s fifty works of poetry (and the park bench where he was tutored Latin in order to pass university) have become Montreal landmarks.