Irving Layton’s big birthday party

By P.A. Sévigny on March 13, 2012

For a man who left specific instructions not to place a marker or a stone over his grave, Montreal’s Irving Layton isn’t the only poet who would be pleased to see his work is still alive and doing so well. 

Leonard Cohen once wrote that, “I always think of something Irving Layton said about the requirements for a young poet, and I think it goes for a young singer, too, or a beginning singer: 'The two qualities most important for a young poet are arrogance and inexperience.' It’s only some very strong self-image that can keep you going in a world that really conspires to silence everyone.

Maybe so, but even if the arrogance continued to define the man’s character and his art, it was Layton’s own experience which began to set the tone and the template for the poetry modern Canadian literature. Some have called him Poetry's Hemingway for the direct force of his words and imagery. One hundred years after he was born in a tiny Rumanian town, it was SRO (Standing Room Only) as Layton’s friends and admirers took their place in Concordia University’s  Alexandre De Sève theatre to celebrate the life of one of Canada’s leading poets. 

Montreal's poet Laureate, Claude Beausoleil read his own Le Nageur which was inspired by Layton’s work and brash poetic imagery. Musia Schwartz, one of Layton’s dear friends who took care of him during the final years of his life, spoke of the kindness and patience he displayed as a teacher and Canadian media leader Moses Znaimer described a harrowing first day when he was just a boy in Layton’s high school English class. Znaimer said Layton walked in, took one look at his 9 students, picked up some chalk and scrawled a big 99 followed by a decimal point. Without saying a word, he then proceeded to fill both blackboards with  long lines of nines until there was no more place to place any more numbers. 

“Ninety-Nine point nine nine nine per cent of the people you will meet are philistines,” said Layton. “Not me,” thought Znaimer even if he did not know what the word meant at the time.”But that’s the kind of impression Layton made when he would walk into class.”

Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler, another of Layton's celebrated students, said, "He wasn't just my teacher, he was my lifelong friend. I didn't just learn about literature and history from him, I learned about justice and life."

Apart from reading Layton’s Composition in late Spring, federal MP Tyrone Benskin described Layton and the rest of the nation’s poets as “…the architects of our souls.This is our legacy, as artists,” said the former actor, “…to tell the world’s stories, [because] without our art, we have nothing.”

Poet and author Catherine Kidd gave an excellent reading as did playwright and actor Joel Miller. Layton's sensual poetry was scathingly legendry and apart from reading Layton’s famous haiku about a poor girl’s imperfect devotion to literature when she moved away after he placed his hand upon her thigh, Jason Camlot’s reading of Layton’s Sparks in which he poses the question about ‘Orgasmless women who have dreadful taste in literature’ drew the biggest laugh of the evening. In the end, even if he could not make it in time for Layton’s big party,  another one of Montreal’s famous horsemen said it best when he spoke of Layton, “There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us,” said Leonard Cohen. "He is (note the present active verb) our greatest poet, our greatest champion. Alzheimer's could not stop him, nor will death silence him."


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