A po­etic war­rior for truth

One hun­dred years af­ter Irv­ing Layton’s birth, his work still has the power to shock, and to in­spire

Montreal Gazette - - Culture - HAROLD HEFT SPE­CIAL TO THE GAZETTE

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.

WAYNE CUDDINGTON POST­MEDIA FILE PHOTO

Irv­ing Layton at age 87: An en­fant ter­ri­ble, rag­ing against ap­a­thy and mind­less ma­te­ri­al­ism, he suc­ceeded in mak­ing po­etry rel­e­vant in Canada.

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