Spit great mouthfuls of water
over the boats
whining like tethered horses,
and crack your long, green fingers,
Neptune, on island walls
Cleanse me, gods, of the insincerity
learned in cities
– from Storm At Ydra by Irving Layton
Israel Lazarovitch was born in 1912, miraculously already circumcised, his mother later told the boy, just like Moses, she added. Like Moses, he was expected to be a prophet or, perhaps, a messiah himself.
The boy grew into another name, that of the earthy Canadian poet Irving Layton, whose early life of poverty, injustice and guilt prepared him for greatness. In 1985, having published thousands of free-form stanzas and rhyming verse, he published his memoirs, Waiting For The Messiah.
Layton’s poetic tome makes real the Jewish immigrant experience of the early 20th century and ends with the urgency and broil of Montreal’s birthing of his generation of poets.
Irving was an angry and unsatisfied child, with no patience for the sadistic or uninspired dullards who tried to teach him his letters and numbers. He later discovered the beauty of words thanks to a single high school mentor, but was publicly humiliated by others for his reading choices. One teacher grabbed a copy of Omar Khayyam’s work from Layton’s hands: “In a loud mock-falsetto voice he began to read some verses. He must have enjoyed his histrionics, for his performance lasted for the better part of the lesson. Affecting to skirt around the poet’s sensualism as though it were a sewer, he stopped sneering at it only to assail the immortal Persian who had given it winged words.”
For Layton, the English are condescending, their Canadian counterparts prissy WASPs with rods up their butts. The French-Canadians are anti-Semites (“no dogs or Jews allowed“). His Jewish outsiderness helps him see the absurd and explore the pain, joy and evil of the human animal.
Entertainingly, the poet who would shock with his written explorations of sexuality — helping drag Canadians into a more modern morality — had an unfortunate first experience. His virginal visit to a prostitute ended in shrivelled failure.
Waiting For The Messiah touches on Stalin (whom Layton rejected, while yet adopting socialism), the Depression, lost loves, friends and mistakes. “Art is the distillation of life’s sewage,” he writes. There is nonetheless a great deal of joy here also, in a very readable and humorous memoir — even if you’ve never pored over Layton’s poetry. Layton’s story is great history and makes for compelling reading. The man is in turn self-obsessed, appalling and inspiring.
If you do want to explore the verse, follow up his memoirs with The Unwavering Eye, Selected Poems 1969-1975.
Layton is called “angry” in Eli Mandel’s forward, and a critic of “gentility” — the type of passive gentility that dooms your neighbour to die in the Holocaust. The poet certainly doesn’t deny his anger, just as he doesn’t deny his thoughtful comments on his fellow human beings and the emotions, positive and negative, which drive us.
From the poem Pomegranates: “In the heat/ one of them split/ right down the centre;/ the other didn’t/ They reminded me/ of two sisters/ I once knew.”
You can hear some Layton works read out loud — as poetry is intended! — at www.irvinglayton.com/
Layton’s 100th birthday will be celebrated next year, though the man himself died in January 2006. The Lennoxville Library, also 100 years old in 2012, is alive and still going strong – and also celebrating!
– Eleanor Brown, July 15, 2011