World Literature

Irving Layton

 

BORN: 1912, Neamtz, Romania

DIED: 2006, Montreal, Canada

NATIONALITY: Canadian, Romanian

GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959)

The Covenant (1977)

Droppings from Heaven (1979)

The Gucci Bag (1983)

The Love Poems of Irving Layton, with Reverence & Delight (1984)

 

 

Irving Layton. Layton, Irving Peter, photograph by John Reeves. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

A controversial and outspoken literary figure, Irving Layton is known for his energetic, passionate, and often angry verse, written in an attempt to ‘‘disturb the accumulated complacencies of people.’’ A prolific writer, Layton published nearly fifty volumes of poetry in as many years, many confronting what he viewed as sources of evil in the twentieth century. These ‘‘malignant forces,’’ he suggested, have contributed to moral and cultural decay in the modern world.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Visions of Canada. Layton was born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Neamtz, Romania, on March 12, 1912, to Jewish parents, Moishe (Moses) and Keine (Klara) Moscovitch Lazarovitch. He immigrated to Canada with his family at age one. His father was a religious man whom Layton has described as ‘‘a visionary, a scholar’’; his mother supported the family by running a small grocery store.

Educated in agriculture and economics at MacDonald College, St. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec, in 1939 Layton received a bachelor of science degree, a year after he met and married Faye Lynch. Layton began to publish poetry while lecturing at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal in the early 1940s, and in 1943 he finished service with the Canadian Army; enraged with Adolf Hitler’s devastation of Europe during the course of the Second world war (1939-1945), he had enlisted the previous year, and had done his service in ontario, Canada. while living in Montreal in the early 1940s, Layton, along with Louis Dudek and John Sutherland, began editing First Statement, a local literary journal. Some of his earliest poems were published in this journal, which highlighted the work of young Canadian writers and emphasized the social and political aspects of Canadian life—very much, of course, including responses to the war.

From Poetry to Politics, A Much-married Man. But life went on in Canada, and Layton taught at Herzliah High School in Montreal from 1945 until 1960. He also lectured part-time at Sir George Williams University from 1949 to 1965, where he was later the poet-inresidence for four years—starting in 1965. Layton published his first volume of poetry, Here and Now, in 1945. In 1946 he completed a master’s degree in economics and political science at McGill University; that same year, he was divorced from Lynch and married to Betty Sutherland, with whom he subsequently had a daughter and a son, Naomi and Max. Layton wrote sensitive lyric poems to both his children.

Layton’s earliest volumes met with minimal success. A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959), which included some of his best-known poems from previous volumes, proved to be his first major success, earning him popular praise as well as the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1960. At this time he became what Tom Marshall has called an ‘‘unusual phenomenon—a genuinely popular poet.’’

Distanced and then finally divorced from the increasingly religious Sutherland (with whom he nevertheless maintained a lifelong friendship), in 1961 Layton married writer Aviva Cantord. During these years, he also became a vocal anticommunist, and split with many of his friends on the left over his support for the Vietnam War. Although Canada had some citizens fighting in Vietnam as part of the U.S. armed forces there, its primary involvement was the provision of a safe haven for somewhere between thirty thousand and ninety thousand U.S. citizens avoiding the draft, a method of forced conscription into the military. Canada’s practice of harboring so-called ‘‘draft dodgers,’’ many of whom were artists themselves, made Layton’s support for the war particularly unpopular in his social circle.

Layton remained at York until his retirement in 1978, when he began to write full-time. In that year Layton, whose marriage to Cantor had been dissolved, married former student Harriet Bernstein, a publicist, and the family moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Layton was divorced again in 1983. The divorce from Bernstein found expression in his next work, The Gucci Bag, which is devoted in part to revealing Layton’s grief over the break-up.

Full-Time Writing, Plus One More Marriage. Layton remarried in 1984 and moved with his new wife, aspiring painter and poet Anna Pottier, to a middle-class neighborhood of Montreal. As T. Jacobs explains at University of Toronto Library’s dedicated Layton pages, Irving had always ‘‘believed that his mother’s presence protects and guides him, and so when he learned that Anna was born the day of his mother’s death in 1959, he took it as a sign to commit to Anna, who became his fifth and last wife.’’

When he and Pottier divorced in 2000, Layton settled in at Maimonides in Montreal with lifelong friend Musia Schwartz—maintaining a more or less comfortable lifestyle, though marred by the onset of Alzhheimer’s until his death six years later. He continued to write, maintaining a consistent and confrontational style as much in his poetic works as in his public life. Throughout his lifetime, he had collected numerous prestigious honorary degrees and awards, including in 1976 the Order of Canada and, though the award ultimately went to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a nomination for the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Irving's famous contemporaries include:

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997): An American poet most famous for his Beat poem ''Howl,'' a harsh critique of materialism and modern culture.

Benjamin Bloom (1913-1999): An American educational psychologist, he was instrumental in mastery-learning theory, initiating what is now used the world over and known as Bloom's Taxonomy.

Leonard Cohen (1934-): Canadian singer, songwriter, and poet famous for his evocative lyrics and richly emotional voice; Cohen was a student of Layton's at Herzliah High School.

Albert Camus (1913-1960): An Algerian-French philosophical writer, he was the second-youngest Nobel Prize recipient—and, while associated with existentialism, actually rejected that term in favor of the more accurate ''nihilism.''

Jozef Garliiiski (1913-2005): A Polish historian, he was known for his popular books on World War II, including such best sellers as Fighting Auschwitz (1974).

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by writers who did emphasize themes of social importance, as Layton insisted:

Collected Later Poems (2003), a poetry collection by Anthony Hecht. In this three-volume selection of poetry, Hecht's depiction of his experiences as a World War II liberator—who witnessed the atrocities firsthand—take on intense focus and profound sentiment.

Heart Mountain (1989), a novel by Gretel Ehrlich. In this novel of epic range, the story focuses on the experiences of Japanese Americans interred in the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, prison camp during World War II.

A Theory of Justice (1971), a social survey by John Rawls. In this nonfiction book, the author presents a philosophical argument for a right to justice that is so great not even the collective society can overpower, eclipse, or take it away.

Sovereign Bones (2007), a volume of poetry edited by Eric Gansworth. In this collection, contributing Native American authors write on the imperative of maintaining their ethnic identity in the face of centuries.

 

Works in Literary Context

Multiple Influences. The dedication in Dance with Desire: Love Poems (1986) suggests the many possible influences on Layton’s verse, including ‘‘Miss Benjamin—the Grade Six teacher who awakened my erotic impulses and inspired my first sensual poem.’’ This dedication also introduces readers to the poet’s sometimes flippant approach to his craft. In the preface to The Laughing Rooster (1964), Layton declared that the concern of the poet is to ‘‘change the world; at any rate, to bear witness that another beside the heartless, stupid, and soul-destroying one men have created is possible.’’ This attitude underlies almost all that he has written. In his insistence that art be not simply ‘‘art for art’s sake,’’ but that it also says something about the world—that it be a political or sociocultural statement of sorts—Layton turns away from certain of his modernist predecessors, following instead in the footsteps of such poets as Percy Bysshe Shelley, who famously argued that ‘‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’’

A Bold, or Arrogant, Approach to “Evil” in Society. During the 1960s, Layton’s meditations on the tragedy of a European culture destroyed by war, mass murder, and the failure of Christian humanism gave his poetry a very sharp focus: His foreword to Balls for a One-Armed Juggler (1963) calls for a new role for the poet, no longer the explorer of ‘‘new areas of sensibility,’’ but the witness and judge of several hundred years of Western traditions that have been corroded.

Suffering History, Though Not Without Pleasure. A clear thematic pattern emerges in Layton’s work over time. The Pole Vaulter (1974) successfully unites the themes of passion and politics. But it is the painful history of Europe that absorbs him, occasionally merged with the theme of sexuality, as in ‘‘An Old Nicoise Whore’’ from Periods of the Moon (1967). By the writing of For My Neighbours in Hell (1980) and Europe and Other Bad News (1981), he was elaborating on his signature themes: social injustice, the death of the spirit in an age of materialism, energetic irreverence, and the lingering glow of passion. Europe and Other Bad News stresses his major themes, observing with distress that the Holocaust, the primary moral and psychological event of the twentieth century, is still neglected by contemporary poets. And The Gucci Bag (1983), while dominated by love and conflict and demonstrating his powerful commitment to poetry in the face of crumbling personal relations, reaffirms Layton’s darkest beliefs about human society. He expresses in the foreword that ‘‘poetry exists to give relief to those dark sensual impulses that our over-mechanized civilization has all but snuffed out.’’ He responds to the ‘‘murderous times’’ of the present, nailing a Gucci bag to the outside wall of his house as a talisman against materialism and greed.

The difference between Layton’s earlier poems and those that follow Balls for a One-Armed Juggler is that he has become more conscious of a universal decay of values and morals. But, he argued, unlike contemporary fiction or drama, poetry remained innocent of man’s twentieth- century tragedies. The gravest error, Layton claimed, is that poets have forgotten that they are descended from prophets and have ‘‘swapped roles with entertainers and culture-peddlers.’’ For Layton, ‘‘the exceptionally heinous nature of twentieth-century evil’’ requires the poet’s total concentration—and he loudly and harshly accused the poets of his present age for failing to deal with this issue.

The Marriage of Romance and Irony. Offset by an ironic point of view and often satiric tone, Layton’s romantic sense of self provides a refreshing, invigorating dimension to contemporary Canadian writing. One of the few Canadian poets to perceive poetry as performance, Layton thrives in the role of showman, and William Carlos Williams’s comment, in his introduction to Layton’s The Improved Binoculars (1956), indicates the equally exuberant reaction of readers: ‘‘When I first clapped eyes on the poems of Irving Layton ...I let out a yell of joy.’’

This freshness of style is demonstrated in such works as Droppings from Heaven (1979), poems also marked by lyrical word construction and witty phrasing. Layton’s rapturous style, blunt criticisms, and flaunting sensuality came to influence several younger poets, notably Leonard Cohen—who was an early student of Layton’s at Herzliah. Despite their objections to his egotism, Canadian poets have responded wholeheartedly to Layton’s spiritual energy and visionary force—found in the union of romantic ideas with an ironic point of view.

 

Works in Critical Context

Outspoken and controversial for his poetic attacks on complacency, moral sterility, and Canadian indifference, Irving Layton rarely failed to receive attention. He strove to reassert the spiritual values of life in the tradition of William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Walt Whitman, and D. H. Lawrence. A 1962 ‘‘epigram,’’ included in Taking Sides: The Collected Social and Political Writings (1977), summarized his position: ‘‘One cannot love life as much as I do . . . without abominating the pompous fools, the frustrated busybodies, the money lusting acquisitive dull clods, and lobotomized ideologues who make it difficult to live joyously.’’

Irritation with the Attitude, Appreciation for the Poems. Because of or in spite of this attitude, Layton has been received as a poet with verse ranging, as George Woodcock has written, ‘‘from the atrocious to the excellent.’’ While some praise Layton’s rambunctious style, others bristle at his pompous proclamations of self-worth. Critics agree only that Layton was a paradox: ‘‘each of his books both contradicts and affirms all that he has done before,’’ Globe and Mail’s reviewer Eli Mandel wrote in 1969. Yet according to A. J. M. Smith in the 1985 edition of Contemporary Poets, he was a stimulating, if uneven, writer who created some fifty or sixty poems that ‘‘must rank with the best lyrical and reflective poems of the mid-century in English.''

 

Responses to Literature

1. Many critics discuss Layton as a romantic poet in the tradition of William Blake and Walt Whitman. Find a Layton poem and a Whitman poem that share common tendencies, and explore both those commonalities and points of divergence, considering how and, especially, why the poems are similar and different in these ways. Following are some possible similarities to find:

• Each poet explores elemental passions;

• Each poet exalts the individual—particularly the poet;

• Each poet examines the relationship between the physical and the spiritual.

2. Constituting a significant portion of his body of work are Layton's love lyrics. Sensual, erotic, and explicitly sexual, they are intended to shock a Puritanical society. Find and discuss examples, considering how effective the poet is in startling his readership. In what ways are his poems shocking?

3. At the University of Toronto’s Web site pages dedicated to Layton are several of the poet's comments on his philosophy of writing. In your opinion, should all poets and other writers operate by these same philosophies? Why or why not? Do you think Layton has found success because readers agree that all writers should be like him or because there are so few other writers like him and he fills a special niche?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Francis, Wynne. Irving Layton and His Works. Toronto: ECW, 1984.

Layton, Irving. Taking Sides. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977.

Mandel, Eli. Irving Layton. Toronto: Forum House, 1969, revised 1981.

Meyer, Bruce, and Brian O’Riordan. ‘‘Irving Layton: Poet as Prophet.'' In their In Their Words: Interviews with Fourteen Canadian Writers. Toronto: Anansi, 1984, pp. 10-25.

Woodcock, George. ‘‘A Grab at Proteus.’’ In his Odysseus Ever Returning: Essays on Canadian Writers and Writing. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1970, pp. 76-92.

Periodicals

Cogswell, Fred. ‘‘Eros or Narcissus: The Male Canadian Poet.’’ Mosaic 1 (January 1968): 103-111.

O’Rourke, David. ‘‘The Lion in Winters: Irving Layton at York.’’ Canadian Literature 87 (Winter 1980): 52-65.

Smith, A. J. M. ‘‘The Recent Poetry of Irving Layton: A Major Voice.’’ Queen’s Quarterly 62 (Winter 1955-1956): 587-591.

Web sites

University of Toronto Library. Irving Layton. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/layton/index.htm.

Manitoba Library Association. CM Magazine: Irving Layton. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/cm/vol2/no26/layton.html.

UC Calgary. 100 Living Poets: Irving Layton Profile. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.ucalgary.ca/UofC/faculties/HUM/ENGL/canada/poet/i_layton.htm.