Irving Layton

Trail-blazer in Canadian poetry
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The Independent Online

Irving Layton, poet: born Neamtz, Romania 12 March 1912; five times married (two sons, two daughters); died Montreal 4 January 2006.

The poet Irving Layton occupied a unique place in Canadian letters. His flamboyant and aggressive literary stance made an important contribution to changing the cultural climate in Canada. He helped kickstart a veritable revolution in the arts in the post-Second World War period when Canadian writing was still hobbled by a colonial and genteel sensibility.

He was born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Romania in 1912, and was taken by his parents to Montreal as an infant the following year. Irving Layton (as he became) grew up in the immigrant Jewish neighbourhood east of St Laurent Boulevard, attended English-language schools, and also the famed Baron Byng High School, whose alumni also include the late writer Mordecai Richler. During the Depression, Layton enrolled to study agriculture on a government scholarship programme and later completed an MA in political science at McGill University.

Layton wrote mainly left-wing articles and political poetry in the 1930s. In the early 1940s, during a short period of military service, by chance he met the sister of the poet and critic John Sutherland, and by 1943 was a member of Sutherland's First Statement editorial board, a group of younger engaged writers who relished taking on the conservative and genteel establishment in Canadian letters.

Layton and his fellow poets Raymond Souster and Louis Dudek soon founded the poets' co-operative publishing house Contact Press in 1952, chiefly to disseminate their social and urban realist poetry. In the course of the next 15 years, Contact Press became the pre-eminent Canadian literary press, publishing the first substantial collections from such poets as Leonard Cohen, A.W. Purdy, Milton Acorn and Margaret Atwood.

In the meantime Layton was moving into his stride. Throughout the 1950s he published an average of two collections a year. Collections of more serious verse were complemented by satiric volumes whose tone and trenchant wit earned the poet a growing audience among younger readers. Nineteen fifty-nine was a watershed year for the poet. His first volume of collected poems, A Red Carpet for the Sun, became a national best-seller and earned him the Governor General's Award, the highest literary award then offered in Canada. The poet's passionate voice found the receptive ear of literary audiences from coast to coast with verses like this signature stanza from "For Mao Tse-Tung: a meditation on flies and kings":

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.

Layton's erotic poetry, also included in this collection, blazed a way for the younger writers who were to follow him in the decades ahead, especially his younger Montreal contemporary, Leonard Cohen.

As television became a dominant medium in the late 1950s and into the 1960s it proved to be the platform of choice for the poet. He appeared on interview programmes and became a regular speaker on the panel show Fighting Words. His witty and deliberately offensive remarks on Canadian cultural life, sexual attitudes and politics became staple fare that earned him greater notoriety and fame. He was the first Canadian poet who became a media celebrity in his own day.

As his renown spread, Layton continued his near-frantic publication pace. In the 1950s he taught mainly in Jewish community schools, but by the 1960s he was in demand as a university writer-in-residence. Finally, in his later years he served as a professor of English at the newly established York University, located in a northern suburb of Toronto.

Layton's reputation waned in the 1980s and 1990s as a new generation of writers and readers turned away from the public and polemical dimension of his writings. Scholarly and critical attention dwindled as well. Most of his books went out of print, not to be reprinted except for a selection of love poems and one volume of selected poems. His prose manifestos and his short stories were no longer available in print while a renaissance in Canadian writing and publishing continued unabated all around him. However, given the response to his death, with an outpouring of warm reminiscences and tributes from former students and younger writers, it is safe to predict that a genuine revival of interest in his work will follow shortly.

Seymour Mayne