Canada’s poet: Irving Layton

Canadians are mourning poet Irving Layton (right), a former professor of creative writing in York’s Faculty of Arts and an instrumental force in bringing Canadian poetry on to the world stage. Layton died Jan. 4 at 93 in Montreal, of complications from Alzheimer’s.

Born Israel Lazarovitch in Romania in 1912, Layton changed his name when he decided to become a poet. He had come  to Canada when he was just a year old with his parents Moses and Keine Lazarovitch. The family settled in the working class St. Urbain neighbourhood of Montreal, later made famous by the late Canadian writer Mordecai Richler.

Layton’s mother was the dominant force in the Lazarovitch family. She supported Layton and his seven siblings by running a small grocery store. Schooled in a life of hard knocks in the rough and ready community of St. Urbain, Layton was expected to take over the family business but instead turned his eye to education earning an MA in economics and political science from Montreal’s McGill University in 1946.

Layton eventually became a teacher, first at a Montreal Jewish High School, and then as a political science professor at Sir George Williams University. Layton had become a strong socialist while at university and became active in the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Because of this activity he was blacklisted and banned from entering the United States for the next two decades.

Layton’s activism and poetry had made him an internationally known celebrity by the 1950s and a fixture on early Canadian television. He travelled widely abroad and became especially popular in South Korea and Italy; in 1981 these two nations nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He did not win, but was honoured by the nomination. In 1976 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Layton published his first book of poetry in 1945 titled, Here and Now. Over the next decade he produced a slew of poetry books. He was considered a prolific, versatile, revolutionary and controversial poet of the “modern” school. He was one of a nucleus of young Montreal poets who believed they were effecting a revolution against insipid romanticism. His satire was generally directed against bourgeois dullness and his famous love poems were erotically explicit. He published numerous volumes of poems of unusual range and versatility and a few of prose. In 1956, his controversial book, The Improved Binoculars, caught the attention of publisher Jack McClelland who then published Layton’s breakthrough book A Red Carpet in the Sun. The work is considered by many to be one of Layton’s greatest works and it received the 1959 Governor General’s Award for Literary Merit. Layton theorized that poetry should be “vital, intense, subtle and dramatic,” and A Red Carpet in the Sun provides ample proof of his description.

In addition to being a world-renowned poet, Layton was a professor of creative writing in York University’s Faculty of Arts from 1969 until 1978. Working in academia at York was the fulfillment of a dream for Layton and he embraced the persona of a poet professor with his legendary sense of drama. The years spent at York were the years of his greatest literary and public success. It was also while he was a York professor that he fell in love with former York student Harriet Bernstein (BA ‘75). After a brief courtship, Irving married Harriet, and in 1981, a second daughter, Samantha, was born. The marriage was short-lived and Layton wrote The Gucci Bag (1983), in which he vented his pain about his separation from Samantha, now a fourth-year creative writing student at York. In addition to Samantha, Layton leaves his children Max (1946), Naomi (1950) and David (1964).

In 1995, Layton was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and a group of friends looked after him until his savings ran out. He was moved to the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in the Côte Saint-Luc district of Montreal. He died at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre on Jan. 4, 2006.

Selected works by Irving Layton

  • Here and Now (1945)
  • Now Is the Place (1948)
  • The Black Huntsman (1951)
  • Cerberus, with Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster (1952)
  • Love the Conqueror Worm (1953)
  • In the Midst of My Fever (1954)
  • The Shattered Plinths (1968)
  • The Cold Green Element (1955)
  • The Bull Calf and Other Poems (1956)
  • A Laughter in the Mind (1958)
  • A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959)
  • Balls for a One-Armed Juggler (1963)
  • The Laughing Rooster (1964)
  • Periods of the Moon (1967)
  • The Collected Poems of Irving Layton (1971)
  • Engagements: The Prose of Irving Layton (1972)
  • Lovers and Lesser Men (1973)
  • The Pole-Vaulter (1974)
  • Seventy-Five Greek Poems (1974)
  • The Darkening Fire: Selected Poems 1945-1968 (1975)
  • The Unwavering Eye: Selected Poems 1968-1975 (1975)
  • For My Brother Jesus (1976)
  • The Covenant (1977)
  • Taking Sides: The Collected Social and Political Writings (1977)
  • Droppings from Heaven (1979)
  • A Wild Peculiar Joy (1982)
  • The Gucci Bag (1983)
  • Una Nuova Glaciazione (1985)
  • Dance With Desire (1986)
  • Final Reckoning: Poems 1982-86 (1987)
  • Fortunate Exile (1987)