Canada Celebrates the Centenary of Poet Irving Layton’s Birth
Sold Out Event at Harbourfront Centre
Events are scheduled for the days surrounding Layton’s birth in all ten provinces. To follow the path, go to the Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Irving-Layton-Centenary-HUB/305476089472566.
Twice nominated for the Nobel Prize, and the author of more than forty books of poetry, Irving Layton was born in Romania and was brought to this country at the age of one by parents who did not speak a word of English. Incredibly, Layton rose from the slums of Montreal to influence generations of younger poets such as Al Purdy and Leonard Cohen.
The culmination of Layton’s extraordinary career is the publication A Wild, Peculiar Joy (McClelland & Stewart, 2004), the definitive selection of his poems, edited by Sam Solecki.
“Irving Layton was and continues to be one of the most influential poets of our time. We are pleased to host an entire evening honouring such an important figure in Canadian literature and to bring a part of the national celebration to our international stage,” says Geoffrey E. Taylor, Director of Authors at Harbourfront Centre.
Wednesday’s event at Harbourfront Centre featured such luminaries as Margaret Atwood, Barry Callaghan, Priscila Uppal, Julie Roorda, Dennis Lee, Jacob MacArthur Mooney, Moses Znaimer, and Canada’s Poet Laureate, Fred Wah, reading their favourite Layton poems as they shared their memories.
“For me, this is the culmination of a life-long relationship,” said Max Layton. “Aside from being a great poet, he was also my Dad and a really good friend, especially as an adult. Our talks were among the greatest moments of my life. Conversations would literally go on for days, and continually evolve. His death was a tremendous loss, but this is something good I can do for him.
““The Swimmer” was the first poem which convinced him he was a great poet. I would invariably come back to it in my high school teaching. It’s really about the poet diving into creativity, water being a symbol of creativity.
“This is also a coming of age of Canadian poetry itself. To have feature displays of Canadian poets in bookstores is a beautiful thing. Local poets are reading at Indigo. I have to thank them for that.
“For two months, I was involved in the exhausting process of using Facebook, e-mail, Twitter, to create a chain link fence of poets and lovers of poetry recommending each other. It’s has been a marvellous thing, how everybody has gotten involved and wanted to be involved and get everyone else involved.
“Nationwide, I am the co-ordinator for all the Centenary events. At Harbourfront, I served as the host. Students of my Father were involved, as well as Scott Griffin, the greatest supporter of poetry in Canada, and Leonard Cohen and Anna Porter (via videos). But, the legacy doesn’t end with that generation.”
Uppal recounted the story of how she rented a basement apartment from Irving Layton’s son David during her undergraduate years, before reading “Keine Lazarovitch 1870-1959”, a moving elegy to Layton’s Mother.
“It’s wonderful to see how influential he is still. He has a huge body of work which is universally loved yet also debated. He made the poet a celebrity, especially in Canada.
“This reading features a mix of generations getting together to celebrate his work, which is a great tribute to his legacy.
“I’m working on a new book of poetry, as well as a play,” while on sabbatical from her professorship at York University.
“I have a specialty in CanLit, and Irving Layton was one of the first poets I ever read.
“I’ve known Max for years. He is part of an incredibly interesting and talented family.”
“I think he has a real importance to the cultural inheritance of Canada,” Mooney said. “Both for people who know his work and have some sense of where to place it inside the context of Canadian and world poetry, as well as to people who’ve never read it. Layton is one of those rare modern poets who have entered the vernacular associations of his home country. You don’t need to have read Layton to have your life affected by him.
“In a poetry climate here that, even when at its best, can often be insular and bordered, it’s important to remember how adored he is by the Italians and the French. And he managed to weave the national and the regional, with the general and global so well. His oeuvre includes a lot of poems that could really only have been written in Canada, but more that they are sort of incidentally Canadian, by location but not by borders.
“It’s always great to read at Harbourfront. And what I like about this event is that it’s a series of events all over the country, really, and we’re just sort of joining in on that party. I like that Max Layton picked people who knew his father personally and then a bunch of younger dudes like me who are obviously working in his shadow in one way or another.”
Roorda gave a very strong reading of “New Tables.” “I chose this poem because I liked the metaphysical bent, which is a little unusual, I think, for Irving Layton’s poems. It’s also very passionate. It was a real honour to be asked to participate in this event and to perform with so many other writers that I admire.
“It was a moving and very entertaining evening, a fitting tribute to an icon of Canadian poetry. This country needs to celebrate its poets more often.”
Coinciding with Layton’s Centenary celebration is the digitized re-release of the 1986 National Film Board of Canada documentary Poet: Irving Layton Observed: http://www.nfb.ca/film/poet_irving_layton_observed/. “The filmmaker (Donald Winkler) had been in touch to get the film online,” said James Roberts, Director of Asset Management for the NFB. “Then, we found out about the Centenary, which was a wonderful coincidence.
“Canadian poets are an important part of the NFB collection. They speak directly to a program of study, a documentation of Canadians who have marked our culture.
“The drive to digitize this started in January of 2009. This is a great opportunity to have the collection better known, and to connect the dots, so to speak, with other initiatives of the NFB.
“In the next few months, “Payback”, by Margaret Atwood will be coming out as a new project.
“Irving Layton also gives life to obscure films in our collection.”
Wah was the final reader of the evening. He told how, in 1959, he borrowed Red Carpet to the Sun from a British Columbia library. Furthermore, in the early 1960’s, his teacher, the great American poet Robert Creeley, showed him his copy of In the Midst of My Fever, Layton’s first mass marketed book. Then, he read “The Birth of Tragedy.”
Max lauded Mooney’s reading of “The Bull Calf”, but also everyone’s interpretations of his Father’s master works.
I asked him how a poet from my generation might aspire to be remembered as Irving Layton undoubtedly always will.
“The secret of my Father’s success goes back to his honest sense of servitude to the muse. The poet has to be true to their own vision – unswerving. If something is uncomfortable and risky, say it anyways.
“If you are true, the world will come to you. People will want to spontaneously celebrate you. Do it for the love of it; an honest motive.
“(Irving Layton) was an incorruptible servant to the truth of his poems, a central fact to his life which was an unshakeable quality.”