Irving Layton, 93; Outspoken Writer Transformed Canadian Poetry With Provocative, Gritty, Erotic Works

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Irving Layton, an internationally known Canadian writer who published about 50 books of poetry and prose over more than five decades and became one of his country’s top poets, has died. He was 93.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, Layton died Jan. 4 in a long-term care facility in Montreal. He had also suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

Controversial and outspoken, Layton wrote angry, gritty, romantic and erotic poems in an attempt to, in his words, “disturb the accumulated complacencies of people.” He criticized Canadians for blandness and dullness and insulted religion. He lashed out at the Holocaust and all forms of hatred and racism.


Layton seemed to revel in his raucous reputation. The more critics sneered, the more provocative and abrasive he became.

“I am a genius who has written poems that will survive with the best of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats,” Layton said in 1972.

Twenty years later, he told the Toronto Star: “My life has been a remarkable life and a beautiful life, and I can point to my achievements and know that my name will not die. I am quite famous and for me to have fame is to have the first installment on immortality.”

He was hypercritical of others’ assessment. Although he had authorized a biography of himself by Elspeth Cameron, when her “Irving Layton: A Portrait” was published in 1985, he publicly lambasted both the author and what she had written. He accused her of factual errors, misquotations and willful misinterpretations and told critics she besmirched his reputation.

The same year, he published his own memoirs, “Waiting for the Messiah: Reflections on My Early Days.”

In reviewing both books for the Toronto Star, Ken Adachi commented: “History and his undoubted talent, the revolutionary and visceral way in which he transformed Canadian poetry, have made Layton a public figure. His favorite motif seems to be the mirror, the reflection of a monumental ego and a flair for self-dramatization.”

Layton’s work often shocked critics in the 1940s and ‘50s. But subsequent experts declared him a major -- and even great -- poet whose work could be reread frequently without becoming tiresome and could stand up to impersonal, systematic academic scrutiny.

“He was as famous as a Canadian writer could get at the time,” said McGill University English professor Brian Trehearne after Layton’s death.

Layton was born Israel Lazarovitch to Jewish parents in Neamtz, Romania, on March 12, 1912.

His family immigrated to Canada a year later, settling in a tough multiethnic neighborhood in Montreal. Its mean streets later became the backdrop for many of his graphic, often bawdy poems.

Layton earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Canada’s Macdonald College and a master’s in political science and economics from McGill University.

He was a lieutenant in the Canadian Army during World War II. He taught and held university posts as poet and writer in residence for many years.

Layton married five times and had four children. Survivors include two sons and two daughters.