Thursday, June 22, 2006

Harbourfront Celebration, The Toronto Star, June 22 06

Father, lover, teacher, poet
Hundreds gather to honour Layton
Publisher re-issues some of his work
Jun. 22, 2006. 06:06 AM

Some 400 friends, fans, former students and ex-lovers of Irving Layton filled the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront to overflowing last night to pay tribute to the late poet.

Of his four children Max, Naomi, David and Samantha, three were in attendance but only his elder son Max spoke, telling some painful and some affectionate anecdotes of life with father.

He remembered his father putting on his "hunting poetry" uniform of khaki shorts and T-shirt to go for long walks in the country. From these expeditions he'd return with a poem in his head that urgently had to be written down. "He hardly ever wrote a poem during the school year, only during summer vacations," Max Layton explained.

The pre-eminent poet of his generation, Irving Layton died in January in Montreal at the age of 93 with most of his work out of print. McClelland & Stewart, his long-time publisher, took the opportunity last night to launch new editions of Waiting for the Messiah, an autobiography that covers his literary career and life from 1912 to 1946, and one of his poetry collections, A Wild Peculiar Joy.

Ellen Seligman, who had been the editor of Waiting for the Messiah in 1985, spoke of Layton's enormous energy, and read a portion of the book describing the spontaneous composition on a napkin in a Montreal coffee shop of his first important poem "The Swimmer."

Former federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and Citytv founder Moses Znaimer were two of Layton's students at Herzliah, a Jewish high school in Montreal, and remembered him warmly for being a formative influence.

Znaimer did not appear in person, but sent a videotape apparently made in 1997 in which he described meeting his teacher for the first time in Grade 7. Layton had begun class by telling the students that most people were philistines.

"I did not know what a philistine was but I made myself a promise there and then: `Not me,'" Znaimer recalled.

Poet Dennis Lee said Layton "initiated our coming of age in poetry."

Grey-haired Aviva Layton, who was Layton's third wife, though they never officially married, said that she had 20 wonderful years with him "which is longer than any other woman (had) including his mother."

Former publisher Anna Porter described the difficulties of editing the work of a man with so large an ego and read a poem he had written to her, while Francesca Valente, former head of the Italian Cultural Centre in Toronto, described Layton's travels in Italy and the respect and adulation he enjoyed there.

She read a poem he wrote about Mount Etna in English and in Italian translation.

NOTE: visit for recordings from the Harbourfront Event