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Poet Irving Layton photographed March 25, 1976. (John McNeill/The Globe and Mail)
Poet Irving Layton photographed March 25, 1976. (John McNeill/The Globe and Mail)


Why Irving Layton still matters Add to ...

“Since I no longer expect anything from mankind except madness, meanness, and mendacity; egotism, cowardice, and self-delusion,” poet Irving Layton wrote, “I have stopped being a misanthrope.”

And now that most of his many enemies have gone with him the way of all flesh, the poet’s even more numerous, still-living friends are loving him all the more in return. Canadian poets and their admirers from coast to coast to coast and abroad are stepping up this week to organize at least two dozen gatherings, readings and tributes to mark the centenary of Irving Layton’s birth (March 12, 1912). In the process, they are raising an old banner that has rarely been seen since his death – since the days when poets were heard.

The gatherings range from a prestigious tribute at Toronto’s Harbourfront on Wednesday, including a video contribution from former Layton student Leonard Cohen, to the most casual shout-outs in the farthest-flung corners of the country. In Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, the Stone Cold Press will be distributing hand-printed copies of Layton’s poem, There Were No Signs, in English and Innu. No fewer than eight local poets are hosting a reading on tiny Bowen Island, B.C., while others plan to gather abroad in separate events in England, France, Italy and Israel.

“All these places have serious events happening, and I’m just blown away by it,” said Max Layton, the poet’s eldest son (from the first of his five marriages) and centenary ringmaster. “We’re talking thousands of people who deeply care about poetry and deeply care about my dad ” – groups, he added, “that share an artistic sensibility, for want of a better word.”

Perhaps it is the perceived lack of that sensibility in contemporary Canada that has inspired the country’s poets to rally around the memory of uncouth, slum-born, left-wing Layton – the last of their kind to make a dent in the thickly congealed conventional wisdom of his day. He was a poet who dared to rage, further confounding his enemies by recording it in a voice both earthy and effortlessly lyrical.

“Layton's work had provided the bolt of lightning that was needed to split open the thin skin of conservatism and complacency in the poetry scene of the preceding century, allowing modern poetry to expose previously unseen richness and depth,” Irving’s biographer, T. Jacobs wrote.

“I taught him how to dress,” the haberdasher’s son and Layton student Cohen once said. “He taught me how to live forever.”

Born naturally circumcised – a condition believed to be a sign of the Messiah among some Orthodox Jews – Layton as an adult embraced the role, speaking free-form modern verse with the voice of a prophet and no respect for the limited role allotted to poets in mid-century Canadian society.

“That Old Testament prophetic mode, in the sense of giving the unpopular truth to people, was something he excelled at, and was deeply integrated into his personality and his art,” said Toronto poet Robert Priest, an early protégé and lifelong admirer of Layton. “And I think he paid a high price for it in terms of his reputation and the social circles he might have fit into comfortably.”

Denounced first by puritans for the frank eroticism of his verse, and later by women for its perceived misogyny, Layton was politically incorrect and often socially abrasive, according to Priest. “It was something in himself that he couldn’t stop,” Priest added, “and it was unique and necessary.”

He had a common touch, according to Priest. And at times, as Layton recorded in his poem Misunderstanding, it misled him:

“I placed my hand upon her thigh. By the way she moved away I could see her devotion to literature was not perfect.”

With characteristic chutzpah, Layton once described himself as “a genius who has written poems that will survive with the best of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats.” The fact that they have survived till now is enough for his many admirers.

“The heart of all this is some great poetry,” Priest said. “And it’s not great static poetry; it’s great dynamic poetry that still moves as strong or stronger than it did when he first wrote it. It’s artful, it’s honest, it’s elegant. It stands up.”



On the firebrand

Layton “carried the peculiar, vituperative fever of the prophet with him all his life,” according to author and editor Callaghan. “He had always been onstage – the poet decrying other poets, calling them liars and trained seals. He’d always been the avenging angel – a little ridiculous, wrong-headed, striding out of his Judean Hills always in the stance of the lover, trusting no one, boxing half-baked intellectuals and poor-mouthed professors of a Presbyterian bent about the ears. He has been good alcohol in our blood. He has gone among us ‘naked with mystery,’ condemning the joy haters by telling them: They dance best who dance with desire/ Who lifting feet of fire from fire/ Weave before they lie down/ a red carpet for the sun.


On the visionary

Sullivan, author and professor of English at the University of Toronto, first encountered Layton as a student in Montreal, where he taught at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University. “When he started out, it was virtually impossible to be a poet in this country,” Sullivan recalls, “so he created a persona of the wild man that allowed him to stand up with grace as a poet in what he felt was an essentially anti-intellectual, anti-cultural environment. And it was always impressive to watch. You came away from an Irving Layton class with a sense of how exciting writing poetry was in an era when maybe five books of poetry might be published in a year. He made it important. He had a reputation of sometimes being bombastic, but in fact he was really very subtle. He was one of the poets who had a real politics, a world vision.”


On the teacher

TV pioneer and ZoomerMedia founder Znaimer first encountered Layton as his home room teacher in the Grade 7 class of the Herzliah High School in Montreal. “On day one of the new year he came bounding into the classroom and didn’t say a word, just fixed us with this long stare. Then he turns his back to the class, picks up a piece of chalk, and starts carving these huge nines onto the blackboard. He broke the chalk, but he kept going. He put on more nines until he had filled the entire blackboard. Then when he finished, he went to the other blackboard on the side of the classroom and filled that with nines. And still he hadn’t said a word to the class. Then he went back to the front of the room and intoned, ‘Ninety-nine point nine nine nine per cent of people are Philistines!’ And I, of course, had no idea what the word Philistine meant, but in that blinding moment decided I wasn’t going to be one. Not me. He really did have a great teacher’s heart. And if you’re judged by the calibre of some of his graduates, he was a great teacher.”


On the poet

Although he ranks Layton along with Al Purdy and Margaret Avison as “the three best poets that English Canada has produced from the beginning to now,” fellow poet Lee doesn’t miss the bombastic Layton. “The guy was a lot more interesting than the blustery, almost cartoon-like figure he turned himself into at times,” Lee says. “He had a very much subtler mind and gentler side than the guy who came in with an Uzi shooting in all directions. All that stuff I find fairly boring. I’m more interested in the words on the page – and at their best, they are really good.


On the longevity

Growing up in British Columbia, Canada’s poet laureate Fred Wah welcomed the work of the Montreal poets led by Layton as “a breath of fresh air” – and one that has lasted: “Layton is one of these names in Canadian literature that dwells. My sense in talking to teachers around the country is that he’s not taught widely – hardly any Canadian poetry is – but he’s always there.”

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