THE MAN WHO COPYRIGHTED PASSION
Irving Layton believes in premarital sex, life, love and Irving Layton. He may, or may not, be Canada’s best poet. But while the critics and public damn or praise him, he pursues with happy vigor his garrulous, fractious, strident career as
HER NAME WAS PHYLLIS, she went to high school in Montreal nearly forty years ago, and maybe she wasn’t all that pretty. But she had this wonderful way of saying “prunes,” and that’s why Irving Layton, a fourteen-yearold Jewish kid from St. Elizabeth Street, fell in love with her.
It used to drive him out of his mind, the way Phyllis said “prunes.” It wasn’t how it sounded, but what happened to her mouth when her lips formed the word. He’d hang around her, he’d try to sit next to her in Math class, he’d keep saying to her, “Look, I want you to say the word ‘prunes.’ Please say it. I just want to watch you.” He was always at her. He’d tell her how he worshipped her like a goddess, how he’d love her forever —fourteen! — and how he loved her eyes and her mouth and so on. One day he even wrote her a poem:
Come my love, since life is short And stormy as the ocean’s breast. We’ll anchor safely at love’s port A nd loudly laugh at fortune’s jest. Soon will our toiling lives be spent And dust and ashes be our clay.
So, dearest, to our hearts’ content We’ll live and love this very day.
A tender, metaphysical tribute, but Phyllis wasn’t impressed. When you’re almost fifteen you don’t get involved with crazy children. Besides, English wasn’t one of her strong subjects. So Phyllis went her toiling way and Irving
Layton, who’d loved her for all of six weeks with the calf-eyed, sexless reverence of the very young, went on to love other girls and write other poems.
That, broadly speaking, is what he’s been doing ever since. And now, thirty - nine years, several thousand poems and an indeterminate number of girls later, Layton has come to occupy a fairly unique position on the Canadian scene.
Today, he is indisputably Important — probably the least dispensable Canadian poet now living. It’s a little risky to go around calling him the best, but if you took every published poet in the country, locked them up in the ballroom of the Royal York Hotel and refused to feed them until they’d elected a president, Layton would probably emerge as the least objectionable compromise candidate. If this seems like a fairly timid appraisal of his worth, there are several foreign critics who go much further. William Carlos Williams, the late American poet and critic, was an extravagant Layton admirer. “He’s a backwoodsman with a tremendous power to do anything he wants with verse,” Williams wrote in the introduction to one of Layton’s books. “With his vigor and abilities who shall say that Canada will not have produced one of the West’s most famous poets?”
Let it be granted, then, that Layton is certifiably Important. What else has he got going / continued on page 45
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for him? Well, for one thing, he is the only Canadian poet to be president of his own real-estate investment corporation. For another — and in the tweed - thicket world of Canadian letters, this is unusual — he has a highly unpoetic flair for attracting personal publicity.
Because he talks so well, he has been a frequent panelist on several packaged-controversy TV shows. Because he has so many opinions and so many detractors attacking him in print, he has become, next to Eugene Forsey, Canada’s all-time champion letter-to-the-editor writer. And because he travels a lot, speaks in public a lot and happens to be immensely quotable. he is continually making headlines across the country.
What emerges from these headlines is that fact that Layton, in addition to being a major poet, has set himself up as a sort of press agent for passion. His most persistent conviction is that industrial society is turning us into a race of desiccated, suburban robots. Modern man. he believes, is in danger of forgetting how to feel deeply; and if the situation could be corrected by setting up an Eros Lobby in Ottawa, Layton would be the logical choice for executive secretary.
Like any good propagandist, he delivers his message endlessly: not merely in his poetry, but in classrooms and lecture halls, in restaurants and television studios, in print and at cocktail parties. Last year, for instance, before an audience at a Unitarian church in Toronto, he observed that Canadians “still think sex is a dirty word, something to snicker about. Our Presbyterianand priest-ridden society seeks to suppress the natural urges of the young. Yet at fifteen and sixteen, children are sexually mature. I hope my fourteen-year-old daughter has had six lovers before she’s sixteen.”
Naturally, this triggered the old outrage syndrome that is one of our more endearing national traits. Fearless Frank Tumpane galloped out with a Toronto Telegram column denouncing Layton as, among other things, a “sensation monger.” A few people wrote in to regret the existence of premarital sex in general and Layton in particular. And of course Layton wrote a letter to the Telegram's editor, too, explaining that he’d been sort of kidding about his daughter’s six lovers (“a teacher’s gay exaggeration”), but that he still favored premarital sex because “that’s the best time to enjoy it.”
The whole affair was just another two-day editorial tempest, the kind that city editors find especially helpful in the middle of a dull week. But for all its crashing banality, the incident at least demonstrated that Layton has become uniquely accomplished at provoking controversy — just as Whipper Billy Watson, the well-known Conservative, has become skilled at faking rabbit punches.
If Layton stays faithful to his image as the prancing, leering goat of Canadian letters, there should be some more editorial tempests any day now.
His publishers, McClelland and Stewart. are sending him on a cross-country speaking tour of Canadian universities this month to publicize his latest book. Collected Poems. With nearly four hundred poems, all but four of them gathered from previous books or published in the little magazines, it may not be the best book of verse
ever published in Canada, but it is surely one of the bulkiest. Although it doesn't include his Phyllis poem (which is the third verse he ever wrote, and the earliest he can remember), the new collection is still an exhaustive survey of two decades of literary production by an extraordinary man. Since most of Layton’s poems lean
heavily on incident and anecdote, reading the book from beginning to end is a little like reading an autobiography in code.
Essentially, it is a happy story. Layton grew up in the sort of environment that social workers now describe as “multidisadvantaged,” but he enjoyed it. His relations with the world of
committees, personnel men, officer selection boards and school trustees have been generally grisly; in this respect, his life has been one long rejection slip. But it's never seemed to bother him. Some people are lucky enough to know their own star and follow it, and Layton is one of them. He was probably destined, as some people apparently are, to be a happy man.
Novelist Mordecai Richler has described how it was to be a Jewish kid growing up in a Montreal slum in the
1940s. Where Layton grew up, twenty years earlier and not far from R¡chiefs neighborhood, it wasn’t much different. There were the same gangs of Italian and French punks rumbling with the Jewish punks. There were the same big, squabbling families, the same candy stores run by women with funny accents, with the same back rooms where the old men gathered to argue about the Torah.
Layton’s Romanian-born father was another stock figure: the Talmudic
scholar, in beard and kaftan, who meditated on eternity all day while his wife did the work. In the Laytons’ case, there was plenty to do; she bore nine children (one died in infancy) and supported them all by opening a grocery store in the front room of their house on St. Elizabeth Street. To Layton, his father was a silent and austere man “who was on more intimate terms with the angels than with the children he’d helped to bring into the world. He was a holy man who
burned with a love of God and God’s word.” Unsurprisingly, Layton has been an anti-daddy atheist since his early teens; but it is difficult to avoid the impression that he pursues the mysteries of human love with the same sort of Biblical intensity that his father focused on the divine.
There was never enough money. Getting through Baron Byng High School, where the fees started at $2.50 per month, involved pedaling around the neighborhood to dun pennies from neighbors who owed money on their grocery bills. And unlike Richler, David Lewis and A. M. Klein, Layton never graduated from Baron Byng. Three months before matriculation, he was expelled for refusing to apologize to a teacher who’d bawled him out in front of the class for being late with his monthly tuition fee.
The experience contributed to Layton’s lifelong aversion to the educational bureaucracy. In university — he attended Macdonald College, the agricultural faculty of McGill, because the government paid the fees — he caused the wildest scandal in that institution’s bucolic history. His articles in the student newspaper denouncing Chamberlain’s appeasement policy enraged his fellow students, who seized an entire issue of the newspaper and, according to Layton, even prompted the RCMP to send a man down to the campus to investigate.
Schopenhauer in a foxhole
When war broke out, the army wasn't ready for Layton either. He enlisted in an officers’ training course, and spent several months in battleground training at Camp Petawawa. But his fellow trainees were unimpressed when he tried to initiate them into the intricacies of anti-fascist politics. One senior officer was even less impressed when, during a mock battle, he discovered Layton lounging in a foxhole, with live shells screaming overhead, reading Schopenhauer’s The World As Will And Idea. The end came when Second Lieutenant Layton, in command of several hundred men, fumbled his orders during a battle manoeuvre. Somehow he'd managed to line up his troops so they were facing each other instead of the enemy. He was about to give the order to fire when a screaming major raced up in a Jeep, averted what would have been a massacre, and shipped Layton back to Montreal with an honorable discharge. The consensus. Layton feels, was that he just wasn’t officer material.
In Montreal he began writing poetry in earnest. He fell in with John Sutherland and Louis Dudek. who were editing a mimeographed poetry sheet called First Statement. They were all standard-brand socialists in those days, and their primary target was Preview, a little magazine edited by Patrick Anderson, Frank Scott, A. M. Klein and P. K. Page. Twenty years later, the nuances of this dispute are a little hard to grasp; but the idea seemed to be that Layton and company were the roistering, smell-of-theearth proletarians, while Scott and his well-bred, Oxbridge-oriented Preview crowd were guilty of writing effete verse. Despite this vast social gulf, the two groups merged to publish a bi-
monthly called Northern Review. It was an important magazine while it lasted, certainly the most important poetry magazine ever published in this country. Layton modestly feels it was “the beginning of a renaissance that is still continuing today.”
About the same time, in 1946. Layton effected a merger of his own with Sutherland’s beautiful sister Betty. He'd been married before—he doesn't talk about it. except to say that the marriage was contracted out of pity and survived three miserable years — but Betty was the first woman that mattered.
Betty was. and is, a painter, and Layton says he fell in love with her the first time he saw her: "She was unkempt, she never combed her hair, she didn’t care about clothes. She was a magnificent person with a wonderful embrace for people and the world.” They stayed married for fourteen years — years in which Layton built a large literary reputation, fathered tw'O children, bought a house and supported his family by teaching at Montreal high schools and moonlighting on the side, sometimes holding dow n as many as five teaching jobs at once.
The marriage ended in 1959. Why? ”1 don’t know,” says Layton. “1 still loved her, but it wasn’t working any more.” He feels it must have had something to do with the impulse, common in men approaching middle age, to destroy everything they’ve built, with a view to a new start. But such nuances of feeling are not really the business of journalism. That’s what poetry is for — and Layton has written it.
Whatever the causes of its failure, it had been a happy marriage — and in a way, it still is today. Betty lives in California with their fifteen-yearold daughter Naomi. Max. their nineteen-year-old son. now lives in Montreal and has gladdened his father's heart by writing a novel (unpublished) and quitting university in his freshman year because he felt it was a waste of time. They are, as they used to say in Hollywood, still good friends.
But now there is Aviva, a sweetiepie from Australia who writes children’s books and looks to be about eighteen. She was passing through Montreal ten years ago when she met Layton through a literary introduction. They were married in 1959.
Layton is fifty-three now, and thinks he's writing better than ever. He and Aviva live in a book-lined upstairs apartment in Notre Dame de Grâce with their year-old son David, a big kid who may grow up to be a literate football player. Layton feels good about David — as who wouldn’t if they’d produced a fine son at an age when many men are producing fine grandsons?
He is also displaying a late-blooming fertility in another field: real-
estate investment. Six years ago, after his nonconformist views had got him booted off the faculty of a Jewish high school where he'd taugh* for fifteen years, he began to appreciate the virtues of financial independence. He decided to invest several thousand dollars left over from a government grant in real estate, and picked out a property from the classified ads that looked good to him. The owners, a Montreal couple named Carl and
Gertie Katz, were ready to sell until they heard the name of their prospective buyer: then their tune changed. “Mr. Layton,” said Mrs. Katz. “I was studying your poetry this week at night school, and we're not going to sell you this dog.” The Katzes make their living from property investments, and they took Layton under their w ing. Today he is president of a company called Calais Holdings Limited which owns two apartment houses and several other properties. The result-
ant income, according to Layton, is "enough so 1 could retire tomorrow.” But he continues to teach at Sir George Williams, upsetting and enthralling a new crop of students every year. And he still has those sympathetic eyes that compel strange women to come up to him at cocktail parties and ask him what they should do about their floundering marriages. (Layton’s advice is always the same: “Since you’re asking me, it's time you left him." And often they do.)
Of course there are plenty of people who wouldn't ask Layton’s advice about poetry, let alone domestic relations. Most of the reviews he’s been getting lately have been unfavorable. Pop-culture worship is mandatory among intellectuals this year, and Layton's brand of bombast is faintly out of step with all the New Things that are happening in the arts. His views on sterility in the suburbs, the pedantry of anyone (except Irving Layton) who continued on paye 49
teaches English at a university, the ristng tide of conformity, and so on are . , . well, views like these are awfully easy to outgrow. Besides, there's this endless arrogance in his poetry, this pugnacious assumption that I'm Irving Layton and, dammit, I can outfight and outlove and outcurse you all with one hand tied behind my back.
Robin Skelton, an acute west-coast critic, pinned it down in a review of Layton’s last book. The Laughing Rooster: “Too often ... he appears to confuse nervous excitement with inspiration, and estimate a poem’s worth in terms of the feelings which caused it rather than of the feelings it displays.”
But there is no use nit-picking at Layton’s opinions and social attitudes. You can get plenty of those on the editorial pages, and they are incidental to the best of his poetry. As a matter of fact, there isn’t much point in saying anything about Layton’s poems. Either they move you or they don't. He is a man who feels things more deeply than most of us, and he has this itch to tell other people about things that can't be expressed in words.
Late in September, this itch gave rise to an untitled poem which, in Layton’s estimation, is one of his best. It doesn't mean quite what it says — I mean, Aviva isn't about to walk out on him or anything. Instead, it refers to the panicky, desolate feeling that afflicts some lovers when their girl walks out the door — even if it’s only to the corner grocery for a pack of cigarettes — and the rush of affirmation they experience when she returns:
The air is sultry.
So is my soul.
The coffee is bitter.
So are my thoughts.
The cigarette is stale.
Ditto my emotions.
There’s a filthy hole in the wall.
There’s one in my heart.
It’s going to rain.
The rain can’t help me.
My darling has run off with another man.
/ hear her knock at the door.
She brings me suffering.
She tells me she lores me.
/ tell her / adore her.
The air is sultry.
So is my soul.
To the unschooled critic, this might indicate that Layton has covered very little psychic distance between Phyllis and Aviva. In fact, it seems more adolescent than the poem Layton wrote thirty-eight years ago to the girl who had the wondrous way of saying “prunes.”
But any fifty-three-year-old property owner who can boast about writing pubescent poetry should be cherished, not derided. This country is getting richer all the time, hut it is not getting noticeably happier, and it has never been noted for its devotion to sensuality. We may need people like Layton more than we think. ★