Irving Layton Turns 100
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Irving Layton Turns 100

Authors at Harbourfront Centre paid tribute the late, great Canadian poet—and his great Canadian libido.

Irving Layton loved words and he loved women, twin afflictions that would reinforce each other over the course of his 93 years. Wednesday night’s Harbourfront celebration of the centenary of his birth paid tribute to both.

A cadre of Canada’s literary elite shared readings and recollections about the late poet, whose character—among certain, in-the-know circles—would become almost as widely discussed as his body of work. Poet/biographer Rosemary Sullivan recalled a student of Layton’s who described that character as “outrageous, pugilistic, priapic, and maybe a bit misogynistic.” But this was only part of the story—a mask, developed early in Layton’s career, that would stick.

Sullivan recalled Layton’s own explanation of the genesis of this brash, womanizing persona: “Starting out in the forties was just terrifying in this godforsaken country. If you were a poet, that meant you were a puff. You had to do something to prove you weren’t a puff.”

And so he did. ZoomerMedia founder Moses Znaimer credited the late author with having “reacquainted Canadian poetry with its own genitals.”

“He thought that life was essentially—and I quote—’a Dionysian private parts affair with time off for meditation,'” said Znaimer, to a chorus of knowing laughter.

Of course, beneath the notorious libido was a prodigiously gifted and broadly admired writer who authored more than 50 collections of poetry over the course of his life. And, underneath the descriptions of the author as a lovable lech, Layton’s centenary celebration was ultimately a tribute to the poet’s rich, immense body of work.

“Irving, when he was good, he was very very good,” recalled Margaret Atwood, who introduced Layton’s work in the 1983 edition of the Oxford Book of Canadian Poetry and was among the superstars of Canadian letters to present at Layton’s celebration. “Let us say that.”

Video clips courtesy of exilewritersseries on YouTube.