Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2547
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...
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