Irving Layton’s significance as poet lies in his unique and complex articulation of the cultural, political, and social issues that preoccupied him during his lifetime. He is also important in Canadian literature as one of the country’s first writers to focus on questions related to the identity and survival of Jews and Jewish culture throughout the world. Many of Layton’s works give definitive proof to his own theories that poetry should be filled with vitality, subtlety, drama, and relevance to the real world. His poetry, with its erotically charged language and imagery, with its bold focus on new subject matter, and with its explosion of old myths and clichés, never failed to arouse both intense admiration and severe admonishment from critics, reviewers, and readers. In this respect, Layton followed the models of past writers who broke with tradition, such as the Romantic poets William Blake, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Walt Whitman. In the modern author D. H. Lawrence and the poet Williams, he found the inspiration to denounce bourgeois values, particularly through the use of shocking language and a focus on taboo themes.
Many of Layton’s early works, such as Here and Now and Now Is the Place, focused on descriptive poetry and on social satire that denounced Canada’s middle-class prudishness and philistinism. The latter theme permeated his collection The Cold Green Element. Once his reputation as poet and activist became firmly established after the critical and popular success of A Red Carpet for the Sun, Layton began to deal with topics encompassing a bolder vision in his poetry. Concern for the universal human condition became the major theme of collections written in the 1980’s, especially Europe and Other Bad News and A Wild Peculiar Joy. In such works, Layton continually underscored the values of poetic truth, social concern, and an honest confrontation with history. Another leading and highly controversial theme that permeated Layton’s writing was the importance of sexual love, which he equated with the act of writing poems. The Love Poems of Irving Layton with Reverence and Delight is his definitive collection on the topic. In it he explored his own responses to the various aspects of love through the numerous relationships he experienced throughout his lifetime. In the latter part of Layton’s career, he focused more intently on Jewish concerns, while continuing to reject any forms of established religion, which he viewed as the source of man’s inhumanity to man. Through his poetry, he began to articulate recognition of the Holocaust as a turning point in world history, much like other Jewish writers who bore witness to the effects of this event. In For My Brother Jesus and The Covenant,...
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