Irving Layton (1912 - 2006)

Life and Works


Irving Layton was born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch on the twelfth of March, 1912, to Jewish parents. Only one year later, they all moved from the small town of Tirgul Neamt (Romania) and migrated to Montreal. There, the youngest son of the Lazarovitch family integrated “the hard way” in an impoverished neighborhood that was not especially fond of the large numbers of incoming Jews. He was only thirteen when his father died and he had to take up a job as a door-to-door salesman, selling household goods. Less docile than his deeply religious father—who virtually lived to study the Scriptures—Irving grew up already as a precocious little rebel, although he graduated from High School in love with British poetry, of all things. He also developed an interest in politics, and soon joined David Lewis’s Young People’s Socialist League with mixed consequences: on the one hand his socialist connections scared his school to the point that he was asked to leave before graduating, on the other it was Lewis himself who introduced Layton to A. M. Klein, starting there a friendship that would prove enormously influential for Layton’s later vocation:

I think it was then that I realized how lovely and very moving the sound
of poetry could be. I must confess my Latin wasn't sufficient to appreciate the
sense that Virgil was making with his marvelous hexameters, but Klein's
zeal and enthusiasm, his forceful delivery, his very genuine love of
language, of poetry, all came through to me at that time. And I think that was
most fortunate for me.

As a theoretically radical Jew surrounded by anti-Semitism, with no money to join a major university and in need of a job to earn a living, he enrolled in MacDonald College in 1934 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture. While at MacDonald he earned a reputation for his column in the college newspaper, which singled him out as spokesperson for freethinking liberalism and leftwing ideas. Eventually, his debating skills made him famous, even though his poetry writing was still an obscure aspect of Irving Layton the public persona. After graduation in 1939 he got married for the first time and later joined the Canadian army in WWII. His first book, Here and Now, appeared in 1945, published by his own joint venture with Louis Dudek. 1945 would also see the fusion between the avant-garde magazine First Statement and Preview into Northern Review. The resulting journal emerged as the alliance of a young and powerful generation of poets who could face the Canadian literary establishment—long marked by an ultraconservative allegiance to British poetry. The gulf that divided both approaches contained an intoxicating brew of literary, generational, national, and social concerns. Young Canadian poets firmly believed that it was time to stop looking back to England in all matters literary, and that only social commitment made poetry matter. That was all part of the still ongoing (in fact never-ending) debate about Canadian identity and especially Canadian identity as perceived through Canadian literature. At the same time, his political involvement was growing at a steady pace.

When it came to influence, though, it was all about England of course, and surprisingly very little else. Very little discussion of USA poetry can be found in literary and (auto)biographical accounts of those days, though later on certain affinities will become more evident. Except for Shakespeare, Layton’s literary passions seemed to belong exclusively to eighteenth and nineteenth-century England. Everything would change towards 1944 when he scribbled “The Swimmer”—his first major poem—in a hurry on a paper napkin inside a restaurant. After that, there was no denying himself anymore that there was a poet somewhere inside him.
All the energy he put into his writing was also present in many other aspects of his life. As a teacher, he was widely appreciated by his students, and in the course of his long career he gradually climbed from the local Jewish high school all the way to university education, teaching in the meantime several generations of Canadian intellectuals—including, most conspicuously, perhaps, Leonard Cohen. Eventually his lecturing and reading became even more intense, this being a genre more naturally suited to his mercurial temperament.

After the apparition of Cerberus (a triple compilation collecting also the work of Raymond Souster and Dudek, written in response to the incredible intensity displayed by American poetry of the 1950s), Layton launched a highly prolific period crowned by the 1957 volume The Improved Binoculars.

Shortly afterwards he would publish his celebrated A Red Carpet for the Sun with McClelland & Stewart (the great Canadian publishing house where he remained, though not exclusively, for decades). This volume got him the first edition of the now much coveted Governor General’s Award. Further awards and recognitions enabled him to travel widely around Europe, Israel, and India, where much of his poetry was eventually translated. His flamboyant, boisterous personality, together with his public defiance of Puritan morality continued to gain him friends and enemies alike, and he became an illustrious champion of antibourgeois ideologies. Good proof of his engaging personality is his personal record of four friendly divorces in five marriages.

Later in his life he was yet to experience many recognitions, and even a nomination for the Nobel Prize.
The boldness that characterized his poetry as well as his life served to erode the thick layer of Puritan hypocrisy that covered the literary scene in Canada during the second half of the 20th century. His determined attack on bourgeois morality helped reveal unsuspected potential in Canadian poetry.
Perhaps what is needed nowadays is a reappraisal (see the Essays section) of Layton’s figure behind and beyond the public rebel persona he introduced between the literary establishment and Irving Layton the poet.

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