Irving Layton 1912-
(Born as Irving Peter Lazarovitch) Canadian poet, short story writer, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Layton's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 15.
Iconoclastic and brash, Layton is one of the best known and perhaps most celebrated poets in Canada. Self-styled as one of his country's greatest poets, Layton has changed the parameters of Canadian literature with his energetic, passionate, and often angry poetry in works ranging from The Cold Green Element (1955) and A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959) to A Wild Peculiar Joy (1982) and The Gucci Bag (1983). Filling nearly fifty volumes written during a career spanning nearly six decades, Layton's poetry examines both the creative and destructive instincts of humanity and frankly satirizes the flaws and foibles of contemporary society. His often belligerent, violent, and graphic love poetry has provoked controversy in both literary and public circles. Outspoken and unconventional, Layton has assiduously cultivated a global presence for contemporary Canadian poetry, partly by presenting much of his poetry as performance art and partly by spotlighting the concerns of Jewish Canadians. Details about his private life have at times captured the public's interest more than his literary works, and some readers are as much attracted to the man as to the poetry. Many commentators, however, have consistently praised Layton's lively style, ironic detachment, and satirical vision. Although Layton's inflated sense of self-worth and his controversial views about women have alienated some readers, critics have generally acknowledged the refreshing effects of Layton's essentially romantic outlook on Canadian letters and have often cited his role in renewing poetry's relevance to contemporary affairs.
Born Irving Peter Lazarovitch on March 12, 1912, in Neamtz, Romania, Layton immigrated to Canada at the age of one with his family and eventually settled in Montreal, where his mother supported the family by running a small grocery store. As a child, Layton aspired “to make music out of words,” as he called poetry; he wrote his first poem for his sixth-grade teacher, Miss Benjamin, which he later published in Dance with Desire (1986), a collection of love poetry he dedicated to his teacher. He studied at Macdonald College in Montreal where he earned a bachelor's of science degree in 1939. While there, Layton began lecturing at the Jewish Public Library and wed Faye Lynch in 1938, but his first marriage was short-lived. During World War II he served in the artillery for Canadian army from 1942 to 1943, eventually attaining the rank of lieutenant. During his enlistment, Layton co-edited, along with Louis Dudek and John Sutherland, the literary journal First Statement (later merged with Preview to become Northern Review), which aimed to expose other young and rising talent. In 1945 Layton launched his literary career by privately publishing his first volume of poetry, Here and Now (1945). That same year Layton joined the faculty at Herziliah High School in Montreal, where he taught until 1960. Upon graduating in 1946 from McGill University with a master's degree in economics and political science, he married Frances Sutherland, with whom he had a son and daughter, though this marriage, too, was brief. In 1949 Layton took the first of several positions at Sir George William University, where he taught in the English Department until 1969. In the early 1950s Layton continued to craft his poetic voice and to clarify his purpose in such works as The Long Pea-Shooter (1954) and The Cold Green Element, both of which met with minimal success. At this time Layton began voluminous correspondences with the likes of American poet Robert Creeley and Canadian writers Cid Corman and Jonathan Williams. By the late 1950s Layton received widespread critical and popular acclaim with the publication of his award-winning A Red Carpet for the Sun, which many critics consider his breakthrough work. In 1961 Layton married Aviva Cantor and had a son with her, but their marriage was later dissolved. As lecturer and poet-in-residence at William University during the 1960s, Layton developed a reputation for writing forthright and conscientious poetry with the publication of such works as The Swinging Flesh (1961), Balls for a One-Armed Juggler (1963), Periods of the Moon (1967), and The Shattered Plinths (1968). In the 1970s Layton's poems continued to test the limits of contemporary Canadian literature, beginning with Lovers and Lesser Men (1973) and The Pole-Vaulter (1974) through For My Brother Jesus (1976) and The Covenant (1977) to The Tightrope Dancer (1978) and Dropppings from Heaven (1979). Meanwhile, Layton cultivated a burgeoning celebrity status in Canada and abroad, particularly in Italy where he consequently published several Italian-language poetry editions of earlier and original collections. In 1978 Layton married Harriet Bernstein and with her had another daughter. In the early 1980s Layton published a string of volumes, including For My Neighbors in Hell (1980), Europe and Other Bad News (1981), A Wild Peculiar Joy, and The Gucci Bag, which culminated in two consecutive nominations for the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1982 and 1983. In late 1983 Layton also divorced Bernstein, which headlined national celebrity news; the next year Layton wed Anna Pottier. In 1985 Layton published his autobiography Waiting for the Messiah—covering the years between 1912 and 1946 and tracing his youth in Montreal and his efforts at becoming a poet—partly in response to Elspeth Cameron's 1985 biography entitled Irving Layton: A Portrait. When Layton was seventy-five-years-old, he published both Final Reckoning (1987) and Fortunate Exile (1987). Since then he has published a second volume of A Wild Peculiar Joy (1989), Fornalutx (1992), a collection of selected works from his entire career, and Raging Like a Fire (1993).
With their melodious tone, romantic point of view, and classical forms, Layton's poetry recalls the spiritual values of an earlier era, as they plainly confront the complacency, moral sterility, and indifference of contemporary Canadian culture and society. An epigram in Taking Sides (1977) illustrates Layton's poetic stance: “One cannot love life as much as I do … without [frustrating those] … who make it difficult to live joyously.” The preface to The Laughing Rooster (1964) essentially defines Layton's primary purpose as poet: “to change the world”—a viewpoint that informs nearly all of his poetry. Early in Layton's career, the socially- and politically-aware themes and satiric tone of such early works as Here and Now and Now Is the Place (1948) gradually become angrier and more focused in The Black Huntsman (1951). Subsequent works of the mid 1950s, like The Long Pea-Shooter and The Cold Green Element, illustrate the evolution of the skeptical and defiant voice that became Layton's hallmark. His first professional success, A Red Carpet for the Sun, is a retrospective of Layton's writings between 1942 and 1958. The poems in this work represent some of his best and best-known poems, including “In the Midst of My Fever,” which locates universal experiences in personal moments, and “The Birth of Tragedy,” which outlines the pleasure and importance of poetry for Layton. Often incorporating Western mythic themes of death and rebirth, a good deal of Layton's poetry concerns the presence of evil in the twentieth century—Auschwitz and Hiroshima, for instance—which he sees as the primary cause for the morally indifferent and culturally stagnant conditions of the contemporary world. Layton's poems also frequently rail against social injustice and denounce the materialistic bourgeoisie, exploring the elemental passions and the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds while exalting the individual—especially the poet. Another theme of Layton's poetry calls for honesty in poetry and renewal of the poet's vocation. Balls for a One-Armed Juggler, for instance, expands the tradition of social poetry in Canadian literature and history with its meditations on the devastation of European culture and on the failure of Christian humanism following World War II. In this volume such poems as “The Real Values” and “Thanatos” confront hard truths about hypocrisy and death, while “A Tall Man Executes a Jig,” one of his most complex and controlled poems, embodies the contradictions of violence with its dichotomous structure centering on attraction-repulsion.
During the 1970s, Layton's works continued to advocate poetic honesty, social responsibility, and engagement with history in such writings as Lovers and Lesser Men and The Pole-Vaulter. Typically equating the act of writing poems with making love, these collections also reaffirm Layton's view of poetry as humanity's salvation and of the poet's societal obligation to counter complacency and other maladies. For instance, many poems in The Pole-Vaulter develop the relationship between the poet and the violence of the mid-twentieth century, most notably “For Anne Frank,” “The Final Solution,” and “The Transformation.” Violent imagery carries over into another major part of his writings: Layton's love lyrics. Many of these poems feature the exotic settings of Layton's travels during the 1960s. Most notable is The Swinging Flesh, which celebrates sexual love. Replete with sensual, erotic, and explicit details designed to shock a puritanical and complacent society, Layton's love poems often juxtapose images of love and beauty with those of violence and death. Despite its satiric edge, Layton's love poetry also expresses precise emotions for specific people, often couched in intimate detail. The Love Poems of Irving Layton, with Reverence and Delight (1984) is the definitive collection of his expressions on love and reflects his multiple responses to various stages of love, including most of Layton's best-known love poems, such as “The Day Aviva Came to Paris,” “Seduction of and by a Civilized Frenchwoman,” and “Misunderstanding.” Another large part of his oeuvre deals with the Jewish-Canadian experience from the post-Holocaust generation's vantage, specifically Layton's quest for a Jewish cultural identity in an era of moral and social decline. Avoiding religious doctrines, Periods of the Moon and The Shattered Plinths, for instance, address the cultural, historical, and philosophical aspects of Judaism, most notably in the militant “For My Two Sons” and in the accusatory “The New Sensibility,” which is aimed at other contemporary poets who have failed to engage historical and political realities in their art. Harshly focusing on the Jewish crisis during the 1940s, Layton's controversial For My Brother Jesus culminates his response to evil in the twentieth century, blaming Christianity for anti-Semitism and reclaiming Jesus for the Jews. In poems such as “Displaced Person” and “For Some of My Best Friends” a voice identifying with the Jewish Jesus articulates the tragedy of the Holocaust and charges Christianity with the downfall of European civilization. In addition to its Jewish themes, For My Brother Jesus introduces new themes of nostalgia and remembrance, of mortality and the past. For example, “On Revisiting Poros after an Absence of Ten Years” contemplates death after the loss of various close friends, memorably his writer-friend Desmond Pacey. Another poem in this collection, “Act of Creation,” expresses the energy of his newfound appreciation for the past and for history in general, which typifies the tone of subsequent works. The Covenant, The Tightrope Dancer, and Droppings from Heaven engage the usual religious themes and confrontations with mediocrity, as in the poems “Freud with All His Knowledge” and “Father and Daughter.” Other poems of the late 1970s—such as “Takeoff,” a vivid description of flight, and “Senile, My Sister Sings,”a reassessment of his appreciation of women—exhibit a renewed lyricism and wit as well as a blend of ecstasy and elegy. For My Neighbours in Hell elaborates standard themes of social injustice and spiritual death during materialistic times in such poems as “The Burning Remnant,” which ponders the survival of Jews, and “Self-Interview,” which explains Layton's pessimistic outlook on humanity. The Gucci Bag not only echoes Layton's standard mantras of “poetry-as-salvation” during proud and covetous times, but also concerns love and conflict in the face of eroding personal relationships.
Layton's works since the early 1980s increasingly concern his literary legacy. The foreword to Europe and Other Bad News is an apologia that reviews a number of critical misinterpretations of his text, clarifying his major themes for the critics while complaining about contemporary poets who have avoided the Holocaust in their art. Modeled on the poetics of the biblical Jeremiah, the romantic William Blake, Lord Byron, and Walt Whitman, and the liberated Lawrence, the poems of Europe and Other Bad News condemn society's crimes, decry evil, and celebrate the triumph of Jewish survival, most notably in “Credo,” which ponders the divinity of humanity, and in “Reingemacht,” which bemoans the deep despair of the contemporary psyche. The retrospective view on Layton's career of “In Beginnings and Other Starts,” one of the most lyrical poems in Europe and Other Bad News, introduces the principal themes that define his later works: personal introspection and re-evaluation of his literary achievements. A Wild Peculiar Joy is a comprehensive selection of Layton's work, with minor revisions, chosen by Layton himself and the Canadian poet Dennis Lee. Final Reckoning summarizes his indictment against complacency in contemporary Canadian culture. Featuring many of Layton's atypical longer narrative poems—“Socrates at the Centaur,” for instance, humorously recounts the Greek philosopher's visit at a Toronto theater—this collection emphasizes the Holocaust, murder, and death, overwhelming its comic values. Marking Layton's seventy-fifth birthday, Fortunate Exile spotlights the strength and vigor of the poet and social critic searching for meaning in his religion, gathering poems from his entire oeuvre about Jewish history and experience and intimately portraying Jewish history and people. Layton's other writings began to appear late in his career and include the essay collections Engagements (1972) and Taking Sides as well as several volumes of selected correspondence with such notable contemporary literary figures as Canadian poet Dorothy Rath and American poet Robert Creeley. An Unlikely Affair (1980) chronicles Layton's relationship with Rath at the beginning of her career, including his advice to her in the form of suggested reading lists, original poems, and typical aphorisms. Wild Gooseberries (1989) documents Layton's correspondence between 1939 and 1989 with Creeley, the founder and leading member of the Black Mountain Poets.
Layton has both delighted and exasperated critics and readers alike with his ecstatic literary style, candid social criticism, and flaunting sensuality. At times, Layton has been criticized for either being too prolific or indiscriminately publishing everything he has written, which has caused some critics to remark that his oeuvre in general is inconsistent. Most commentators, however, have recognized Layton's role in expanding the limits of Canadian literature, claiming that the spiritual energy and visionary force of his romantic ideals, along with his ironic point of view, has revived long-stagnant poetic conventions. Some critics have compared the content and style of Layton's poems to those of Romantic poets Whitman and Blake, particularly Layton's explorations of the individual's status in the contemporary world and of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. Critics also have observed that Layton brought the Jewish-Canadian experience into global prominence, but because of his negative views on organized religion, he has antagonized some readers. In addition to aggressively courting controversy with his unconventional personality and often confrontational attitudes, Layton has also attracted considerable attention—both positive and negative—with his provocative use of sexual imagery and language. While many reviewers have acknowledged the liberating effects of this aspect of Layton's poetry—some have drawn comparisons to D. H. Lawrence's lyrical treatment of passion—others have debated the aesthetic and cultural merits of his contribution, particularly feminist scholars who have invariably deemed some of his writings defective, inferior, and second-rate. They are particularly indignant about Layton's erotica, castigating his explicit handling of human sexuality and deploring his treatment of women in general. Despite the occasional controversy, critics have generally acknowledged that Layton has changed Canadian letters.