Irving Layton, one of the most influential and controversial Canadian poets of the 20th century was born on March 12, 1912 as Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Târgu Neamţ, Romania.
According to family legend, Layton was born naturally circumcised, a sign in Jewish mysticism that he was, if not the messiah, then definitely destined for greatness.
His family emigrated to Canada a year after his birth and Layton grew up in Montreal’s hardscrabble Saint Urbain Street neighborhood during a time when tensions between poor European Jewish immigrants and working class French-Canadians was at its height.
Layton was known as “Issie” at home. To his devoted mother he was “Flamplatz” (Yiddish for “Exploding Flame”). But on the streets the kids called him “Nappy,” short for Napoleon, for his diminutive stature and aggressive demeanor.
After his father died when Layton was thirteen, he took to selling trinkets door-to-door to keep the family afloat.
As a teenager Layton was introduced to left wing politics by his friend David Lewis, later leader of the socialist New Democratic Party of Canada. He also discovered the world of poetry through a self directed program of reading the classics.
Layton’s socialist activism led to his being expelled from his high school, but he later went on to earn a Masters Degree and eventually become a tenured professor at York University in Toronto.
Layton’s poetry began to take hold of readers in the1950s and 1960s at the same time as his public persona as a brash, sexually provocative enemy of bourgeois proprieties began to crystallize in public opinion through his many media appearances.
Layton was married five times and had many affairs. His poetry is celebrated by his fans for its frank sexuality but his celebrations of machismo and its underlying misogyny has proved problematic for later generations.
Critic Joel Yanofsky referred to Layton’s poetry as having “the righteous zeal of an Old Testament prophet and the bravado of a streetwise brawler.”
Layton himself said that “The Holocaust is my symbol. If you read today’s poets, you’d never know the kind of barbarous world we live in. A man forgets what a terrifying monster he can be.”
Fellow Montreal poet Leonard Cohen was Layton’s pupil and devotee and a resolute friend from the late 1950s to Layton’s troubled final years and was a pallbearer at his funeral. Layton died in 2006 at the age of 93, having suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for the previous five years.