Friday, January 06, 2006

Irving Layton: 1912-2006

When I was still a student wandering the halls of Glengarry District High School in Alexandria, Ontario, the first single-author poetry collection by any author that I got my hands on was Irving Layton's For My Brother Jesus (1976). It was probably the only single author poetry collection in the entire library (and why that one? I remember asking). I don't know if it made me write any more, or any better, but it was certainly a book that I remember. After years of battling Alzheimer's, Irving Layton died on January 4th in a Montreal care facility where he had been living since 2000.

Called many things over the years, including misogynist, leader, crank, minor poet and great poet, Montreal poet Irving Layton was a great many things to a great many people, including one of three involved (with Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster) in the magazine and publishing house Contact Press, publishing not only their own works and writings by their contemporaries, but important early works by George Bowering, Gwendolyn MacEwen and others. As important as a public figure as a writer of verse, Layton was the author of over forty poetry collections, as well as a memoir, Waiting for the Messiah, where he claimed that he was born circumcised, making him (obviously) a reincarnation of the long-awaited Messiah. In his introduction to Layton's work in 15 Canadian Poets x3 (Toronto ON: Oxford University Press, 2001), editor Gary Geddes wrote: "Because he is so outspoken and graphic in his denunciations, Layton was for many years the best-known and most controversial figure in Canadian poetry. Like Auden, he believes that the writing of poetry is a political act […]." Geddes goes on to quote a section of the Preface Layton wrote to Laughing Rooster (1964):

"In this country the poet has always had to fight for his survival. He lives in a middle-class milieu whose values of money-getting, respectability, and success are hostile to the kind of integrity and authenticity that is at the core of his endeavour. His need to probe himself makes him an easy victim for those who have more practical things to do--to hold down a job, amass a fortune, or to get married and raise children. His concern is to change the world; at any rate, to bear witness that another besides the heartless, stupid, and soul destroying one men have created is possible."

An important part of Canadian modernism, his bravado and prolific production made Layton the first poet that many people in Canada first heard and read, especially when he started teaching high school in Montreal, or university at York University in Toronto, counting CHUM mogul Moses Znaimer as one of many former students influenced by him. He had a selected poems published by American publisher New Directions in 1945, and corresponded regularly with a number of poets, including Robert Creeley, and former student Leonard Cohen helped support him during his last few years, and called him master. Nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature a number of times, Layton was perhaps but one of a couple of Canadian writers that have nearly taken the prize (Canada only got the award once, if you count Montreal born Saul Bellow, who left with his family for the United States when he was still a baby).

I saw him read only once, when he came to Ottawa to launch a new edition of his selected love poems, Dance with Desire (The Porcupines' Quill, Inc.) back in March, 1993 at Magnum Books, as part of a reading series organized by The Porcupines' Quill senior editor, John Metcalf. It was standing room only, with a number of latecomers forced to stand outside in the cold, as Layton held court from the podium. The best part, of course, that the event was (accidentally, I'm sure) held on International Women's Day, something I found enormously funny at the time (and still do). My favourite Irving Layton poem has to be "Misunderstanding," simply because of the sheer simplicity of the feelings (lust, arrogance, etcetera) presented within.


I placed
my hand
her thigh.

By the way
she moved
I could see
her devotion
to literature
was not perfect.

There are a few of his collections still available, including Dance with Desire and a new edition of The Improved Binoculars (1956) that was reissued by The Porcupine's Quill a few years back, as well as Wild Gooseberries: Selected Letters (1989), edited by Francis Mansbridge.

Ottawa poet Colin Morton sent this note out about Layton on the League of Canadian Poets list-serve yesterday (I've actually heard him tell this Newlove story a few times, each one slightly varied from the previous…):

Irving Layton was one of the first poets I read, in the old Poets of MidCentury anthology, when I caught the poetry bug in grade 12, certainly one whose example encouraged me, in the arrogance and inexperience of youth, to go ahead and write:

"Whatever else poetry is freedom.
Forget the rhetoric, the trick of lying
All poets pick up sooner or later."

On rereading, it's disappointing how often his poems and their rhetoric have failed to age well. About a decade ago I saw John Newlove at a reading, and the bee up John's nose that day was the nerve of Layton's biographer to say that Layton wrote only six great poems in his lifetime.

"ONLY six great poems!" John griped. "How many does it take?"

Jokingly, I replied, "Well, John, you've written five. Do you have another one in you?" He didn't, but I'd now grant him eight or ten, and wish I could tell him so.

Layton okay, six. But add that to the distinction of having waged, and even won, his one-man culture war against Canadian stuffiness and decorum. There's something to celebrate.



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