A poetic warrior for truth
One hundred years after Irving Layton’s birth, his work still has the power to shock, and to inspire
Monday, March 12, marks the centenary of the birth of Irving Layton, Canada’s fieriest, most pugnacious poet. Major events are being held across the country to celebrate the occasion, including in Montreal Sunday, when local poets will read from his work.
Layton was born in Romania and immigrated with his family to Montreal in 1913 when he was still an infant. He grew up impoverished in the Jewish neighbourhood around St. Urbain St., which he immortalized in such early poems as Jewish Main Street: “In this ghetto estuary / Women with offspring appraise / The solemn hypocrisies of fish / That gorp on trays of blue tin.”
He attended the legendary Baron Byng High School and studied agriculture at Macdonald College before emerging in the 1940s and ’50s as one of Canada’s leading modernist poets. Layton joined fellow poets Louis Dudek and John Sutherland in producing the journal First Statement, which rejected the Victorian influences that traditionally dominated Canadian literature and published the work of a generation of Canadian modernists focused on forging a new aesthetic.
Layton connected with fellow Montreal Jewish poets A.M. Klein and Leonard Cohen, and they emerged like three brothers at the top of the pantheon of Canadian poets: Klein the brilliant, buttoneddown older brother; Cohen the brooding, spiritual youngest brother; and Layton the vilde chaya – the hellraiser in the middle.
A self-styled warrior for truth, Layton’s genius was in using inflammatory language to awaken a sluggish public. His major themes were the creative impulse, power dynamics, and the clash between the artist and the values of a philistine society. In the foreword to his collection A Red Carpet for the Sun, Layton asks: “Why are people destructive and joy-hating? Is it perception of the unimportance of their lives finally penetrating the bark of their complacency and egotism?” And he realizes that, against this backdrop, “Poetry, by giving dignity and utterance to our distress, enables us to hope, makes compassion reasonable.”
The struggle of the artist against an indifferent populace – and their mutual hostility – recurs through- out his oeuvre. In his much anthologized poem The Fertile Muck, Layton contemplates bricklayers “building expensive bungalows for those / who do not need them,” but argues that “unless they release / me roaring from their moth-proofed cupboards / their buyers will have no joy, no ease.” In other words, without the artist’s expression, bourgeois possessions are meaningless. He’s more direct in his poem Family Portrait, describing a middle-class family “about as useless / as tits on a bull,” and concluding: “Thank heaven I’m not / Jesus Christ – / I don’t have to love them.”
Layton was an enfant terrible, raging against apathy and mindless materialism. He saw himself as a prophet and a physician to the ills of society. As a result of his belligerent determination, he did succeed, for a time, in making poetry relevant in Canada.
He famously wrote that “Whatever else, poetry is freedom,” and he strove toward the same absolute freedom in life. Sexual conquest was a central motif in his life and work. In the poem Misunderstanding, he thumbs his nose at political correctness, implying that the poet has free rein to pursue all urges in the interest of triggering the muse: “I placed / my hand / upon / her thigh. / By the way / she moved / away / I could see / her devotion / to literature / was not perfect.”
Living life impulsively has its perils. Layton had many publicly tempestuous relationships and multiple failed marriages. The breakdown of his late marriage to Harriet Bernstein fuelled the caustic poems in his 1983 collection The Gucci Bag. In 1999, his son David published a mem- oir, Motion Sickness, about his traumatic upbringing as Irving’s son and as Leonard Cohen’s godson; the book caused a short-lived scandal.
Layton spent his final years in Maimonides geriatric centre in Côte St. Luc, watched over by a group of friends and disciples. Though he is gone, his legacy lives on through his many poems that still have the power to shock and inspire, and through the generations of poets he mentored.
I knew Layton briefly toward the end of his life (he died in 2006). In the mid-1990s, I participated with Layton and fellow poets Shel Krakofsky, Seymour Mayne, Robyn Sarah and Ken Sherman in a reading to launch a new issue of the journal Parchment at the Jewish Public Library. Layton took the stage and, though his health was beginning to fail, he read such classics as The Birth of Tragedy with the verve of a poet in his prime.
As he descended from the stage, Krakofsky leaned toward Layton and quipped, “You know, kid, you have a future.”
“The problem is,” Layton replied, “I have a past.”
Irving Layton’s life and work will be celebrated at an event Sunday at 7 p.m. at the J.A. De Sève Theatre of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. Free admission, but space is limited and advance registration is advised. Call 514-488-3185 or email info@ poetry-quebec.com. Another commemoration will be held at the Blue Metropolis literary festival, which takes place this year from April 18 to 22.
Irving Layton at age 87: An enfant terrible, raging against apathy and mindless materialism, he succeeded in making poetry relevant in Canada.