Layton, Irving

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LAYTON, Irving

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Israel Lazarovitch in Neamtz, Romania, 12 March 1912; immigrated to Canada in 1913. Education: Baron Byng High School, Montreal, 1925–30; MacDonald College, Sainte Anne de Bellevue, Quebec, B.S. in agriculture 1939; McGill University, Montreal, M.A. 1946. Military Service: Canadian Army, 1942–43: artillery officer. Family: Married 1) Faye Lynch in 1938 (divorced 1946); 2) Betty Francis Sutherland in 1946, one son and one daughter; 3) the writer Aviva Cantor in 1961, one son; 4) Harriet Bernstein in 1978 (divorced 1984); one daughter; 5) Anna Pottier in 1984. Career: Lecturer, Jewish Public Library, Montreal, 1943–59; high school teacher, Montreal, 1954–60; part-time lecturer, 1949–65, and poet-in-residence, 1965–66, Sir George Williams University, Montreal; writer-in-residence, University of Guelph, Ontario, 1968–69; professor of English Literature, York University, Toronto, 1970–78; poet-in-residence, University of Ottawa, 1978, Concordia University, Montreal, 1978–81, and University of Toronto, 1981; adjunct professor, Concordia University, 1988; adjunct professor and writer-in-residence, Concordia University, 1989. Co-founding editor, First Statement, later Northern Review, Montreal, 1941–43; associate editor, Contact, Toronto, and Black Mountain Review, North Carolina. Awards: Canadian Foundation fellowship, 1957; Canada Council award, 1959, 1963, 1967, 1968, 1973, 1979; Governor-General's award, 1959; President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, 1961; Centennial Medal, 1967; The Francesco Petrarca Premio Letterario Nazionale, 1993. D.C.L.: Bishop's University, Lennoxville, Quebec, 1970; D.Litt.: Concordia University, 1976; York University, 1979. Officer, Order of Canada, 1976. Agent: Lucinda Vardey Agency, 297 Seaton Street, Toronto, Ontario M5A 2T6. Address: 6879 Monkland Avenue, Montreal, Quebec H4B 1J5, Canada.



Here and Now. Montreal, First Statement Press, 1945.

Now Is the Place: Poems and Stories. Montreal, First Statement Press, 1948.

The Black Huntsman. Privately printed, 1951.

Cerberus, with Raymond Souster and Louis Dudek. Toronto, Contact Press, 1952.

Love the Conqueror Worm. Toronto, Contact Press, 1953.

The Long Pea-Shooter. Montreal, Laocöon Press, 1954.

In the Midst of My Fever. Palma, Mallorca, Divers Press, 1954.

The Cold Green Element. Toronto, Contact Press, 1955.

The Blue Propeller. Toronto, Contact Press, 1955.

The Bull Calf and Other Poems. Toronto, Contact Press, 1956.

Music on a Kazoo. Toronto, Contact Press, 1956.

The Improved Binoculars: Selected Poems. Highlands, North Carolina, Jargon, 1956; augmented edition, 1956.

A Laughter in the Mind. Highlands, North Carolina, Jargon, 1958; augmented edition, Montreal, Editions d'Orphée, 1959.

A Red Carpet for the Sun: Collected Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and Highlands, North Carolina, Jargon, 1959.

The Swinging Flesh (poems and stories). Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1961.

Balls for a One-Armed Juggler. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1963.

The Laughing Rooster. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1964.

Collected Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1965.

Periods of the Moon. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1967.

The Shattered Plinths. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1968.

The Whole Bloody Bird (obs, aphs, and pomes). Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1969.

Selected Poems, edited by Wynne Francis. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1969.

Five Modern Canadian Poets, with others, edited by Eli Mandel. Toronto, Holt Rinehart, 1970.

Collected Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1971.

Nail Polish. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1971.

Lovers and Lesser Men. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1973.

The Pole-Vaulter. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1974.

Seventy-Five Greek Poems 1951–1974. Athens, Hermias, 1974.

Selected Poems: The Darkening Fire 1945–1968, The Unwavering Eye 1969–1975. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 2 vols., 1975.

For My Brother Jesus. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

The Uncollected Poems 1936–1959. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press, 1976.

The Poems of Irving Layton, edited by Eli Mandel. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

Selected Poems. New York, New Directions, 1977.

The Covenant. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

Selected Poems, edited by Wynne Francis. London, Charisma, 1977.

The Tightrope Dancer. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1978.

The Love Poems. Toronto, Canadian Fine Editions, 1978.

Il Puma Ammansito [The Tamed Puma], illustrated by Carlo Mattioli. Milan, Trentadue, 1978; Toronto, Virgo Press, 1979.

Droppings from Heaven. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1979.

There Were No Signs, illustrated by Sassu. Toronto, Madison Art Gallery, 1979.

The Love Poems of Irving Layton. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1980; as With Reverence and Delight: The Love Poems of Irving Layton, Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press, 1984.

For My Neighbours in Hell. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press, 1980.

Europe and Other Bad News. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1981.

A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected Poems 1945–1982. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1982; revised edition, 1945–1989, 1989.

Shadows on the Ground. Oakville. Ontario. Mosaic Press. 1982.

The Gucci Bag. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press, 1983.

A Spider Danced a Cozy Jig, edited by Elspeth Cameron. Toronto, Stoddart, 1984.

Where Burning Sappho Loved. Athens, Greece, Libro, 1985.

Love Poems (portfolio), illustrated by Salvatore Fiume. Milan, Teodorani, 1985.

Dance with Desire: Love Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1986.

Final Reckoning: Poems 1982–1986. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press, 1987.

Fortunate Exile. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1987.

Fornalutx: Selected Poems, 1928–1990. Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992.

Il Cacciatore Sconcertato [The Baffled Hunter], translated by Francesca Valente. Ravenna, Italy, Longo Editore, 1993.


A Man Was Killed, with Leonard Cohen, in Canadian Theatre Review 14 (Downsview, Ontario), Spring 1977.


Engagements: The Prose of Irving Layton, edited by Seymour Mayne. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

Taking Sides: The Collected Social and Political Writings, edited by Howard Aster. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press, 1977.

An Unlikely Affair: The Irving Layton-Dorothy Rath Correspondence. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press, 1980.

Waiting for the Messiah (autobiography). Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton. Toronto, Macmillan, 1989.

Irving Layton/Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence. Kingston, Ontario, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.

Editor, with Louis Dudek, Canadian Poems 1850–1952. Toronto, Contact Press, 1952; revised edition, 1953.

Editor, Pan-ic: A Selection of Contemporary Canadian Poems. New York, Alan Brilliant, 1958.

Editor, Poems for 27 Cents. Privately printed, 1961.

Editor, Love Where the Nights Are Long: Canadian Love Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1962.

Editor, Anvil: A Selection of Workshop Poems. Privately printed, 1966.

Editor, Poems to Colour: A Selection of Workshop Poems. Privately printed, 1970.

Editor, I Side Up. Toronto, York University Poetry Workshop, 1971.

Editor, Anvil Blood: A Selection of Workshop Poems. Privately printed, 1973.

Editor, New Holes in the Wall. Toronto, York University Poetry Workshop, 1975.

Editor, Shark Tank. Toronto, York University Poetry Workshop, 1977.

Editor, Handouts from the Mountain. Toronto, York University Poetry Workshop, 1978.

Editor, Rawprint: Concordia Poetry Workshop Collection, 1989. Montreal, Concordia Poetry Workshop, 1989.

Translator, with Greg Gatenby and Francesca Valente, Selected Poems, by Giorgio Bassani. Toronto, Aya Press, 1980.


Bibliography: Irving Layton: A Bibliography 1935–1977 by Joy Bennett and James Polson, Montreal, Concordia University Libraries, 1979; by Francis Mansbridge, Toronto, ECW Press, 1994.

Manuscript Collections: University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon; University of Toronto; Concordia University, Montreal; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island; University of Texas, Austin; McGill University, Montreal.

Critical Studies: "Layton on the Carpet" by Louis Dudek, in Delta 9 (Montreal), October/December 1959; "The Man Who Copyrighted Passion" by A. Ross, in Macleans (Toronto), 15 November 1965; "Personal Heresy" by Robin Skelton, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), Winter 1965; "A Grab at Proteus: Notes on Irving Layton" by George Woodcock, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), Spring 1966; "That Heaven-Sent Lively Ropewalker, Irving Layton" by Hayden Carruth, in Tamarack Review (Toronto), Spring 1966; "Satyric Layton" by K.A. Lund, in Canadian Author and Bookman (Toronto), Spring 1967; "The Occasions of Irving Layton" by Mike Doyle, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), Autumn 1972; Irving Layton: The Poet and His Critics edited by Seymour Mayne, Toronto, McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1978; The Poetry of Irving Layton by Eli Mandel, Toronto, Coles, 1981; Irving Layton: A Portrait by Elspeth Cameron, Toronto, Stoddart, 1985; Irving Layton and His Works by Wynne Francis, Toronto, ECW Press, 1985; Italian Critics on Irving Layton edited by Alfredo Rizzardi, Padova, Piovan, 1988; The Place of American Poets in the Development of Irving Layton, Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster (dissertation) by Sabrina Lee Reed, n.p. 1989; Irving Layton & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953–1978 edited by Ekbert Faas and Sabrina Reed, Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990; "Usurpations: A Poetics of Catastrophe and the Language of Jewish History" by Michael Andre Bernstein, in Tri Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), 79, Fall 1990; "'Scanned and Scorned': Freedom and Fame in Layton" by Brian Trehearne, in Inside the Poem: Essays and Poems in Honour of Donald Stephens, edited by W.H. New, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1992; by Wynne Francis, in ECW's Biographical Guide to Canadian Poets, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, Toronto, ECW, 1993; Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel by Francis Mansbridge, Toronto, ECW, 1995; An Unexpected Alliance: The Layton-Pacey Correspondence (dissertation) by John David Michael Pacey, University of British Columbia, 1994; "Neurotic Affiliations: Klein, Layton, Cohen, and the Properties of Influence" by Michael Q. Abraham, in Canadian Poetry (London, Ontario), 38, Spring/Summer 1996; "Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, and Other Recurring Nightmares" by David Layton, in Saturday Night, 111(2), March 1996; "Nor Are the Winged Insects Better Off: Nature, Imagery, and Reflection in Archibald Lamp man and Irving Layton" by Rowland Smith, in World Literature Today (Norman, Oklahoma), 73(2), Spring 1999.

Irving Layton comments:

I believe the poet, at his best, is a prophet and a descendant of prophets. Once he allows himself to forget that, he becomes a mere tinkerer. He ends up making pillows and pillowcases for old fogies to go to sleep on. These love nothing better than ecstatically to snore out their veneration for beauty and order in the old rhythms they have learned so well. The poet's job is to disturb and discomfit. He's an iconoclast, a smasher of cruel idols, even when he accomplishes their destruction with the quietest of lyrics. He speaks to all men, not only to the cultivated and sensitive. Now, more than ever, he must strive to keep alive the spirit of rebellion and dissent. In a world that reveres facts and details, the poet must insist on a complex, imaginative awareness and remain the sworn enemy of all dogmas and dogmatists. Whatever else, poetry is freedom—freedom to experience, to live fully and vitally. For the doctrinaire pedant, as for the doctrinaire politician and ideologist, the poet will always have an abiding contempt. Nothing less than perfect freedom and joy will ever content him. But until that time arrives, he will continue to look into the hearts of all and with the dark ambivalences he finds there move them through terror and beauty. As long as the poet is alive and flourishing, mankind still has a future.

*  *  *

Irving Layton's expanded Selected Poems 1945–1989 is appropriately entitled A Wild Peculiar Joy. The title reflects the passionate nature of Layton's poetry. His work is provocative, prophetic, and extravagant and by turns romantic, cynical, erotic, angry, joyful, and despairing. His poems convey tremendous emotional energy, and their effect can be both inspirational and infuriating.

The emotional power of Layton's poetry resides in the strongly defined persona who speaks through his verse. Layton constructs the poet as visionary, one whose role is to awaken and enlighten. "There are brightest apples on those trees," he proclaims in "The Fertile Muck," "but until I, fabulist, have spoken / they do not know their significance." Later in the same poem he poses and answers what seems to be the central question of his work: "How to dominate reality? Love is one way; / imagination another." In "Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom" Layton presents the poet as buffoon or clown, as the wise fool who sees what others do not. Elsewhere he defines the poet as a prophet, placing himself in "The Search" in the line of "iconoclasts, dreamers, men who stood alone," with Freud and Marx, Maimonides and Spinoza:

   In my veins runs their rebellious blood.
   I tread with them the selfsame antique road
   and seek everywhere the faintest scent of God.

In several poems he claims kinship as poet with Jesus, whom he describes in "For My Brother Jesus" as a "crucified poet" and addresses in "Xianity" as "brother and fellow poet." "Xianity" goes on to ask,

   Is this what you wanted:
   the grey suburban church and the greyer people
   shambling into it each Sunday
   you who openly consorted with whores and drunkards
   and so loved laughter and joy
   that you were willing to be crucified for them?

Such deliberate insults to bourgeois Christianity are frequent in Layton's work. The son of impoverished Romanian Jewish immigrants, Layton grew up in Montreal an outsider to both French Roman Catholic and English Protestant Canadian life. As a Jew, he defines himself against the blandness of puritanical Canadian society; as a representative of the working class, he defines himself against the materialism of the capitalist middle class; as a poet, he defines himself as a spokesman for a more vital and affirmative approach to life. "A dull people, without charm / or ideas," he says of Canadians in "From Colony to Nation." Such sentiments are designed not merely to offend but also to provoke response. Layton's poetic mission is to awaken Canadian society from its torpor. He presents himself as a messiah figure who seeks to invigorate his countrymen through his passionate, virile, provocative, and sometimes shocking verse.

Virility is a central aspect of Layton's persona. His writing is aggressively male in its vision of life and poetry. In "Ithaca" he compares the moment of the completion of a poem to the moment of orgasm. Metaphors of male sexuality pervade his writing, and Layton's celebration of masculinity carries with it a distinct strain of misogyny that has not endeared him to feminist readers. In "Signs and Portents," for instance, he writes, "not being handicapped in the least by vision or creativity, / women are by far the stronger sex." Layton portrays women almost exclusively as objects of male sexual desire, often praising the female body in extravagant terms, as in "The Day Aviva Came to Paris." The proper role of woman, according to Layton's poetic persona, is to serve as an object of desire and thereby as inspiration for the male poet. In "Out of Pure Lust" he scolds a young woman for her casual attitude toward sex. What, he asks, if Dante's Beatrice or Petrarch's Laura had refused to play the unattainable mistress: "What masterpieces would each have ripped off then?"

Outrageous as he may be in his condemnation of the dullness, conformity, and materialism of Canadian life and in his sexist portrayals of women, Layton reserves his greatest rage for the forces of hatred and racism that have deformed human history. As a Jew he is particularly sensitive to the horrors of the Holocaust, and he has written a number of powerful poems on the Nazi campaign of genocide. In "To the Victims of the Holocaust" he offers himself as spokesman for those whose suffering and death must not be forgotten:

   My murdered kin
   let me be your parched and swollen tongue
   uttering the maledictions
   bullets and gas silenced on your lips.

The depth of Layton's anger at the victimization of Jews comes through starkly in the brief poem "Recipe for a Long and Happy Life":

   Give all your nights
   to the study of Talmud
   By day practise
   shooting from the hip

Although there is a great deal of anger in Layton's work, there is also a great deal of joy. Just as energetically as he condemns all that he perceives as life denying, he celebrates all that is life affirming. There is a strong current of romanticism running through his work, both in his heroic portrayal of the poet as a misunderstood or ignored prophet who seeks to enlighten a misguided world and in his treatment of nature. Layton does not idealize the natural world; he portrays not only its beauty but also its ugliness, often focusing on its least attractive aspects. He writes as often of flies and worms as of butterflies, but even death in nature is a part of life, and nature's disinterested life-and-death cycle stands in opposition to human evil. In "Early Morning Sounds" Layton writes, "The innocence / of nature's cannibalism heals and purifies," whereas in "Nominalist" he writes of "men's despair and malice / covering the earth / like spears of grass."

Despite his contempt for the viciousness he witnesses too frequently in human life, Layton says in "Letter to a Lost Love," "I've Byron's way of seeing things / and think death even more absurd than life." He expresses his view of his poetic role concisely in "The Tightrope Dancer":

   Awareness of death's pull
   into nothingness
   begets tyrant and sadist
   but the prod, the harsh shove of love
   makes the defiant artist
   dance on his tightrope

Defiance is the defining characteristic of Layton's work and the source of its vitality. Although his later work reveals an increasingly acute awareness of mortality, there is no diminution of his lust for life or of his commitment to the role of the poet as prophet and visionary. "All poets are magicians or murderers," he declares in his "Birthday Poem for John Newlove," and "Whom the gods do not intend to destroy / they first make mad with poetry."

—Linda Lamont-Stewart