Pacific Rim Review of Books

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A Great Soul

essay by Doug Beardsley

The recent centenary of Irving Layton’s birth brought tributes from all across Canada and around the world. Fellow poets, former students, and avid readers gathered in Victoria, BC, among other places, to celebrate the poet and teacher who inspired so many of us who had the good fortune to know the man and his “craft and sullen art.”

Layton’s need to become one with the 20th century knew no bounds. We spent many hours trading records and listening to the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, those two great Russian chroniclers of our barbarous century. One evening Irving announced that the reference books had got it wrong; his birthday was March 5th, not March 12th. He persisted to promulgate this myth for several years because we discovered that Prokofiev and Stalin had not only died on the same day, March 5th, but within one hour of each other. However, the Russian composer had died first, having been deprived of the knowledge of Stalin’s demise. Irving was outraged that such a social injustice could have occurred. But he also took it as a personal injustice. He saw his own place in the order of things to be so central he willed himself to believe that he had been born a week earlier, so he too could feel in harmony – or disharmony – with the temper of the times.

The first poem of Layton’s I encountered, over fifty years ago, was “On First Seeing the Statuettes of Ezekiel and Jeremiah in the Church of Notre Dame.” I was familiar with the church from my early visits as a teenager when I had been taken up by the mystery of the translucent light that seemed to emanate from the sanctuary, a blue light that offered up the hope of another world beyond our own. But I too had been struck by the incongruity of those two Old Testament prophets sitting astride one of the cold, grey, cement columns of this Catholic Cathedral. Layton’s poem spoke of an appropriation that I considered to be outright theft (I have since changed my mind) but I couldn’t help but be attracted to the creative curiosity that would centre on such a small detail in the overall scheme of the church and imagine it into a powerful work of art. I remember being struck by the feeling that these two “sultry prophets” had found a contemporary companion, another “hot Hebrew heart” with whom they could converse. I could not help but be struck by the emphatic authority of his language. Irving would often proclaim that the poet “was a prophet and a descendant of prophets,” especially in our troubled time, though he realized that a prophet had no place in 20th century society. Except as witness.

Decades before the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz lectured on and published “The Witness of Poetry”, Layton had considerable ‘second-hand experience’ of the Holocaust through his work with survivors who had made it to Montreal and was “bearing witness” through his poems. His Romanian birth gave him an empathic sense of their European background and, out of respect for those who were murdered and those who had suffered “all of Europe’s poison,” Irving taught survivors English and helped them adapt to Canadian culture.

Layton the poet was a permanent presence. He saw the poet as the conscience of humankind, a fact, he said, well-known to Stalin and Hitler. I remember the time that Al Purdy and I decided to put together an anthology of modern poetry. We’d choose a poet a week (Donne, Lawrence, Yeats, Eliot, Thomas, Plath, Page, Webb, among others), read all of his or her work, then meet for an extended liquid lunch to compare our lists of “excellent poems” and agree on what two or three or six would make it into our imaginary anthology. Most often we were in agreement, but the catch was that both had to be convinced. Naturally, this led to a great deal of back-and-forth of enjoyable banter. Most poets ended up with from three-to-six poems. When we reviewed Layton’s work we were astonished to find we both had an opening list of three dozen from which to choose. Was Layton really that good? Grudgingly, Al admitted that it was so.

Over a 40-year relationship that evolved from student-teacher through friendship to fellowship to his calling me brother, I gained the benefit of his over-whelming intelligence, his deep sense of morality, and the precision and clarity of his thought that led to the passion – and compassion – of his best poems. Layton knew what it meant to be fully human and this gave him an intimate knowledge of the human condition; he always tried to give us, in Kenneth Burke’s phrase, “the equipment for living” in a world that (to quote Eliot), “cannot bear very much reality.” His greatest wish was to convert the world to a larger self-awareness in order to bring about a more compassionate community.

During the mid-1960s, Irving became enamoured with the work of European filmmakers such as Bergman, Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, who he saw as “poets with cameras in their fists,” seeing the world through image and symbol. Many years later, while visiting Roma, Irving and his beloved Anna became honoured guests at a dinner for Frederico Fellini. A Fellini entourage of 40 was in attendance, dutifully bowing and scraping before the Master and hanging upon his every word. After-dinner toasts were made and Irving was asked to address the group. Rising to his feet – and the occasion – Layton launched into a quarter-hour dissection of every image and symbol Fellini had employed in his most recent filming of “Casanova”, then sat down. The table fell into stunned silence; all heads turned toward Fellini with fear and trembling as to what the Master would say. After all, no one dared talk to Fellini in this way. The great film director rose to his feet, stared down at Irving, then threw his triumphant matador’s cape across his body and exclaimed: “What do you say to a man who has stripped you naked?” The entire table rose as one, burst into applause, and raised their glasses shouting: “Viva, Layton! Viva, Layton!” Years later, Irving said it had been one of the greatest moments of his life.

On the rare occasion I had some disagreement with Layton I reread “King Lear.” I learned to drop the ‘King’ – those that didn’t quickly disappeared – but I never lost sight of the ‘Lear’ in Layton. What does greatness do when it grows old and there is nothing more to teach or learn about life? It descends into madness. Or it eats, sleeps, sits in silence and closes its eyes.

The last time I saw him face to face was three months before he died. We were in Maimonides home for the aged in Montreal. I fed him pizza and talked incessantly about the many years we’d spent together. His eyes never opened. But by the way he squeezed my arm I knew he heard every word. I told him I loved him. And then Irving looked at me and uttered the first words he had spoken in several months. He said, “I know.” He wept. I wept. And I kissed him on the forehead, like he used to do when he blessed me.

Doug Beardsley is the author of eleven volumes of poetry. He studied at Sir George Williams University where he came under the poetic tutelage of Irving Layton, with whom he corresponded until Layton’s death in 2006. He lives in Victoria.