Layton, Irving Peter

  Irving Peter Layton, née Israel Lazarovitch, poet, short-story writer, essayist, professor (b at Tirgu Neamt, Romania 12 Mar 1912; d at Montréal 4 Jan 2006). Since the early 1940s, Irving Layton had been recognized in Canada and abroad as a prolific, versatile, revolutionary and controversial poet of the "modern" school. Layton was brought from Romania to Montréal before age one. He took his BSc in agriculture at Macdonald College in 1939. He served briefly in the Canadian Army 1942-43 and then did graduate work in political science at McGill. After graduation Layton tutored immigrants, taught at a high school and lectured part time at Sir George Williams University, Montréal, where he later held a full-time position.

Layton was one of a nucleus of young Montréal poets who believed they were effecting a revolution against insipid romanticism and published their poems in First Statement (1942-45), a journal edited by John SUTHERLAND. Layton remained on the editorial board of Northern Review, the journal that resulted when First Statement merged with Preview in 1945. In 1952 Layton assisted Louis DUDEK and Raymond SOUSTER in founding Contact Press, a co-operative publishing outlet for Canadian poets.

Of the poets who emerged in Montréal during this period, Layton was the most outspoken and flamboyant. His satire was generally directed against bourgeois dullness, and his famous love poems were erotically explicit. Layton's first collection was Here and Now (1945). He went on to publish numerous volumes of poems of unusual range and versatility and a few of prose. These books include 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), A Laughter in the Mind (1958), A RED CARPET FOR THE SUN (1959), which won the GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD, Balls for a One-Armed Juggler (1963), The Laughing Rooster (1964), Periods of the Moon (1967), The Shattered Plinths (1968), Engagements: The Prose of Irving Layton (1972), Lovers and Lesser Men (1973), The Pole-Vaulter (1974), Seventy-five Greek Poems (1974), For My Brother Jesus (1976), The Covenant (1977), Taking Sides: The Collected Social and Political Writings (1977), Droppings from Heaven (1979), The Gucci Bag (1983), Una Nuova Glaciazione (1985), Dance with Desire (1986) and a collection, Final Reckoning: Poems 1982-86 (1987). Fortunate Exile (1987), his 47th book, contained previously published poems about Jews.

Layton theorized that poetry should be "vital, intense, subtle and dramatic," and his work is ample proof of his description. He also edited volumes of poems by other Canadians. The first volume of his memoirs, Waiting for the Messiah, was published in 1985.

In 1967 Layton received a Canada Council award on which he travelled to Israel, Greece, India and Nepal. He was poet-in-residence at a number of Canadian universities and was professor of English at York 1969-78. Layton was nominated by Italy and Korea for the Nobel Prize in 1981. Throughout his career he excelled as a dramatic reader of his verses, and some performances were recorded.

Layton remained prolific until the 1990s when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the disease which eventually led to his death. In 1989 he published A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected Poems 1945-89, an expanded version of A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected Poems 1945-82.

Even in the last decade of his life, his poetry continued to inspire praise, outrage and criticism. Henry Beissel and Joy Bennett compiled an important critical study called Raging Like a Fire: A Celebration of Irving Layton (1993). In 1995, Francis Mansbridge, editor of Layton's letters, published a biography entitled Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel. A new edition of A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected Poems, edited by Sam Solecki, was published in 2004. In 1999, Layton's son, David, rekindled interest in and controversy about his father with his less-than-adoring look at the man in Motion Sickness: A Memoir. Narrated by a son dealing with his conflicting feelings towards a famous father, the memoir provides a new perspective on the poet, who was notorious for his egotism and his capricious treatment of women, including his five wives. Whether this concern with biography and persona will ultimately outshadow the poetic legacy remains to be seen.