ilayton.jpgIrving Layton, a prolific Canadian poet and professor, died on Jan. 4. Cause of death was not released. He was 93.
Born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Tirgul Neamt, Romania, Layton was naturally circumcised at birth, which orthodox Jews considered the mark of the Messiah. His family immigrated to Canada when he was just an infant, and he grew up in a poor Montreal neighborhood. Layton fell in love with poetry upon hearing his tenth grade English teacher read the epic poem, “The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
In his 20s, Layton joined the Young People’s Socialist League, earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from MacDonald College and wrote a column for the student newspaper. His left-wing leanings and radical ideas would eventually get him blacklisted from entering the United States for almost 15 years, but his anger at Adolf Hitler’s actions in Europe led him to enlist in the Canadian Army in 1942. He was honorably discharged a year later.
Upon returning to Montreal, Layton completed his graduate work in political science and economics at McGill University and began to write poetry. His first collection, “Here and Now,” was published in 1945. Layton spent the next several decades teaching, first at a Jewish high school and at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, then later at Sir George Williams University, York University and McGill. That was how he earned a living, however, his true passions were writing and seducing women. “Everything except writing poems and making love ends up finally boring me,” he once said.
During the 1950s and 1960s, his sexually-charged poetry made staid Canadians balk and literary critics cry foul. Layton, who was an outspoken social and political debater, had no qualms about rebuking those who disagreed with him, both in print and on the CBC Television program, “Fighting Words.”
In the last third of his life, Layton’s muse went into overdrive. He would eventually produce more than 40 books, and become one of the most published writers in North America. His collection, “A Red Carpet for the Sun,” won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for literature in 1959, and his book, “Keine Lazarovitch 1870-1959,” won the University of Western Ontario President’s Medal for poetry. In the 1970s, Layton was invested as an officer to the Order of Canada and honored with a life achievement award from Encyclopaedia Britannica. In the 1980s, he received two nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Layton married five times and fathered four children. He continued to write until 1995, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In the foreword to his 1979 poetry collection, “Droppings From Heaven,” Layton penned his own epitaph. He wrote: “I want to be remembered as someone who believed that a great poem was the noblest work of man and that no one ever wrote one who didn’t want to get out of hell.”
Layton’s Bibliography