Irving Layton
Collett Tracey

While In/Words is devoted to publishing and celebrating the works of new and aspiring Canadian writers, we believe it is also important to acknowledge those who came before us. One of Canada's most influential writers who began his career in a little magazine like In/Words, is Irving Layton. Born, naturally circumcised, his mother's favourite child, on March 12, 1912, in Romania, Layton grew up believing that he was special. There is no doubt that these circumstances contributed to Layton's seeming arrogance, however, it is precisely that arrogance that inspired Layton to believe he might change the course of Canadian literature in the 1940's - and make that belief a reality.

I was very fortunate to meet and interview Layton several times during the 1990's as I worked on my Ph.D. dissertation, the focus of which was the advancement of three consecutive little presses that span the rise and development of Modern poetry in Montreal. Layton was involved in the first two enterprises - with John Sutherland and Louis Dudek, in First Statement Magazine and Press, and with Ray Souster and Louis Dudek in Contact Magazine and Press. At our initial interview he recalled, with a great deal of affection, the first meeting he had with Louis Dudek at McGill University's Literary Society, after which the two walked home across the Jacques Cartier Bridge. Believing each had found a fellow visionary and soul mate in the other, they stopped at the centre and declared to the world, as loudly as they could, that they were going to produce what was required for Canadian literature to be recognized as serious and important. Layton spent the rest of his life living up to that commitment.

Each consecutive collection of Layton's poems confronts what it is to be a writer, a poet, and a Canadian. He focuses a microscopic gaze onto the smallest detail of the smallest living organism and makes each significant and magnificent. In his work he celebrates all that lives and breathes, and he challenges his readers to do the same. That is what real literature is about. It is not something to be studied for three hours every week - it is something to be reveled in, to be breathed in and exhaled. It reflects and reveals the essence of life - the essence that fuelled Layton to continually search for deeper meanings and greater challenges than those that confronted him on a daily basis. That was his gift and his curse.

From Cerberus, to Red Carpet for the Sun, to the Improved Binoculars and more than thirty five or so more books, Layton exposed himself, believing that the poetry that came out of him was important - that poetry inspires people to consider and connect with the world in which they live, and, as a result, contribute to making it a better place. In return, he was awarded the Governor General's Award, in 1959, the Order of Canada in 1976, and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. Beyond these awards, however, Layton died, on January 4, 2006, with the knowledge that while his life might end, his words, his ideas and his images will live forever...

I have dipped my broomstick into the life swirling around me and written it into the hearts and speech of men. Yahoos, sex-drained executives, pimps and poetasters, limping critics, graceless sluts and the few, the rare few, who gave me moments of insight or ecstasy: I am crazy enough to think I have given them immortality. (1)
I celebrate him.

(1) Layton, Irving. "Foreword" The Collected Poems of Irving Layton. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. 1971.

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