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Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Irving Layton's centenary will be celebrated in Niagara-on-the-Lake on March 12, and at Harbourfront in Toronto on March 14.

Hammered Out #8 published this tribute in 2006, the year he died.

Raging Bull: Irving Layton, 1912 - 2006
There are occasions when the poem writes you. The energy within yourself becomes externalized and takes over and you merely become the instrument for the externalization of your own psyche.*
*Irving Layton, in "Click! Another Poem Is Born", Sunday Star, May 4, 1980.

Irving Layton is dead. The man who claimed equality with "that unscaleable pinnacle of excellence" that is Shakespeare in a flourish of bravado worthy of one of Jack McClelland’s best marketing ploys, who kept company with Dionysus and Apollo, and who counted Jesus as his brother, is dead.

From childhood when his parents’ home was trashed by neighbouring toughs acting out their parents’ prejudices in a country which professed religious freedom and was governed by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, whose advisor once told him "One Jew is one too many"; in a city where Anglos and French-Canadians and Jews found their battleground not on the plains of Abraham but in the streets; Layton’s rage was born.

No wonder that his poetry illuminates polarities, or that his defiant voice, unassailable in its certainty, is as suited to a prophet as to a poet. His targets were complacency, oppression, hypocrisy. "It’s not enough to have the energy to create. You also must have the energy to fight the opposition to your creativity, because society is not really interested in creativity," he told reporter Deborah Shackleton in 1980.

Though his last decade was confounded in a fog of Alzheimer’s and "the lousiness of growing old", that is not how I remember him. Long ago, I attended a reading he gave in the hall of a Hamilton synagogue, at which he asked the audience if anyone had a favourite poem. I was going to ask for "Keine Lazarovitch 1870-1959", a perfect poem about his dead mother, but opted for the often anthologized "Birth of Tragedy" instead. He smiled, obviously glad that someone had recognized what he considered to be a masterpiece of poetic genius that would immortalize him.

To alter a phrase, Whatever else, his poetry is passion. Like Dylan Thomas, he wrote of love as a driving life force. Like Henry Miller, he wrote of sex as an urgent scream in a Puritanical darkness. And perhaps like his friend Leonard Cohen, he wrote of "the beastliness of men" as a familiar hound at his heels. He would not be silenced, and he would not let us sleep.

Perhaps his tormented childhood on the streets of Montreal put the acerbic wit into his pen. Perhaps his mother bequeathed to him her ferocity, and lifted his eyes to beauty. Perhaps, as a Jew, he could be the best witness to our humanity and inhumanity. And for all his effrontery and his enormous personality, his wonderful energy embraced us.

There is no death in all the land,
I heard my voice cry;
And brought my hand down on the butterfly
And felt the rock move beneath my hand.
- Irving Layton, "Butterfly on Rock"

Author:  David Haskins

Editor's Note:  This article was written by a writer friend of mine to honour Irving Layton.

1 comment:

  1. Wilma, thanks so much for re-publishing this wonderful tribute. And, David, thanks so much for writing it. I especially love the fact that you have recognized that Layton was a deeply Jewish writer.