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Irving Layton

LAYTON, IRVING (Israel Lazarovitch; 1914– ), Canadian poet. Layton was born in Romania and brought to Montreal, Canada, on his first birthday. His parents, Keine Wolfsohn and Moishe Lazarovitch, were traditional Jews who settled in the Yiddish-speaking enclave that extended along St Lawrence Street – the "Main" – and served as the boundary dividing the city's population: French-speaking Catholics on the East, English-speaking Protestants on the West. In the lives of his own parents Layton had an immediate, indelible exposure to the conflict of self-enclosed personalities who, in their distinctive individuality, represented to him the irreconcilable polar extremes of temperament and sensibility. In parental conflict he located the primal antinomies that he accepted as the basis of his character and from which he derived the dialectical structure of thought and feeling that is manifest in all his writing.

Layton was educated at Baron Byng High School, where he met his early intellectual mentors, David *Lewis, whose socialist ideology was persuasive, and the distinguished Jewish poet and novelist, A.M. *Klein. He graduated with a B.Sc. in agriculture from Macdonald College (1939) and earned an M.A. in political science at McGill University (1946). His vocation as poet was announced with the publication in 1945 of his first book of poems, Here and Now. That initial installment marked the onset of a literary career of exceptional range, consisting of over 55 volumes of poetry, short fiction, essays, reviews, memoirs, correspondence, and literary criticism, establishing the author as a central figure in the Canadian literary canon. From his earliest poems, which appeared in small literary publications where Layton and his like-minded contemporaries sought to redirect Canada's staid, provincial culture toward the challenging modernist temper, Layton's work always depended on a forceful, combative, representation of the self. This pervasive egotism has offended some; what his detractors fail to recognize is that an esthetic as well as a temperamental urgency underlie its literary deployment. Layton confesses to his self-conscious performance when he describes the polarities of identity revealed in the poems: "I became by turns prophet and clown." These self-selected personae are usually represented in the author's characteristic role as moral gadfly to his fellow Canadians, Jew and gentile alike, chastising their failings in a language of deliberate affront. Layton's open didacticism presupposes a privileged position for the poet in society.

Two themes inform Layton's prodigious creative imagination. The first, which extends from the 1940s to the late 1960s, is his commitment to enlarging the Canadian literary sensibility so that it responds to new areas of feeling and vital forms of emotional expression. Many poems written from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s address the subject of the Holocaust and Christianity's guilt for the destruction of European Jewry. In these poems Layton assumes the stance of a prosecutor, demanding confession from the Christian world for centuries of dehumanizing treatment of the Jews, which ultimately led to the death camps. In contrast to this national catastrophe, Layton invokes the birth of the State of Israel as the redemptive promise of Jewish continuity. Detached from religious authority, he has assembled a personal genealogy, secular in orientation and eclectic in scope. His progenitors are the Hebrew prophets, Heine, Marx, Jesus, Israeli soldiers, Babel, and Mandelstam, as Layton sees in them model Jews who exhibited unyielding moral purpose and assertion of the will in the face of evil.

In 1960 Irving Layton received the Governor General's Award for his contribution to Canadian culture and in 1963 the Prix littérature de Québec. In 1976 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in the 1980s was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize.


E. Cameron, Irving Layton: A Portrait (1985); I. Layton, Waiting for the Messiah: A Memoir (1985); H. Beissel and J. Bennett (eds.), Raging Like a Fire: A Celebration of Irving Layton (1993).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.