"Hi, Handsome! How are you?"
"Fine, I guess I'm fine."
"You're feeling fine, Irving?"
"Yes. You look good."
"Thanks, Irving. You look pretty good yourself. How are things?"
"I hear you're chasing the nurses?"
"Good for you, Irving. That's the spirit."
"Have you had a lot of visitors?"
"You. And you're looking good. You look beautiful."
"Thank you, Irving. Do you remember me? I'm Judith, one of your former students, Judith."
"No, I don't remember you. Were you a good student?"
"I think so. You thought so, too."
"In the seventies, at York University."
"Oh, at York."
"Right. York. When you taught Creative Writing: 'Whatever else poetry is
freedom.' Your line; you used to recite whole poems from memory."
"It's a good line . . . You're beautiful . . . Do I know you? Who are
"Judith, Irving, Judith Fitzgerald. I took your workshop the same year as Harriet Bernstein, Daniel David Moses, Sky Gilbert, Jack Urowitz . . . Harriet? Remember Harriet? Your ex-wife, now, I think. Harriet? The mother of your youngest? Samantha? Harriet always sat next to you. I was one of your students, then."
Dead-centre in the middle of his standard-issue hospital room, Irving Layton
appears to be right at home, comfortably reclining in his wheelchair,
casually resting his elbow on the arm of his walker, occasionally checking
the tiny crimson-flecked flag of tissue stuck to his freshly shaved face.
When it comes time to rise for the requisite greetings, Musia Schwartz,
Layton's fiercely loyal friend of five decades, hooks her arm protectively
through the poet's and expertly curls her tiny foot around the walker's leg
to drag it into position (so he might receive his visitor, one of the few
these days, on his feet).
Without missing a beat, Schwartz pats his breast pocket to ensure pipe and
tobacco are in place. Time for the morning smoke in the lobby. Layton's
looking forward to the highlight of his day.
At 88, one of Canada's most renowned poets is suffering the late stages of
Alzheimer's, the degenerative brain disease which diminishes its victims'
ability to govern emotions, co-ordinate movement, and remember anything
until all language, speech, reasoning, and motor functions eventually go
AWOL for the duration.
Recently, Layton took up residence at Maimonides Hospital Geriatric Centre,
a brick mid-rise building incongruously planted among comfortable homes on a
quiet street in Montréal's Côte Saint-Luc district. It is here he receives
the round-the-clock care he now requires.
Schwartz manoeuvres her charge through clusters of medical staff and
IV-toting seniors, some in wheelchairs, others balancing medical
paraphernalia on the bars of their walkers. She parks Layton in the lobby
corner he's favoured these past few weeks. With the morning sun slanting
through wraparound plate-glass windows, he loads his pipe. She lights it.
The poet inhales with gusto, a satisfied smile spreading over his
crag-wrinkled-face. All is right with Layton's world here.
Then, in another world, Irving Layton built his reputation blowing smoke and breathing fire. He was the self-styled cock of the Canadian poetic walk with "The Cold Green Element," "The Bull Calf," "Composition in Late Spring," "A Tall Man Executes a Jig," "Berry Picking," and "The Birth of Tragedy" distributed evenly across roughly four dozen volumes of verse (commencing with 1945's Here and Now and concluding with 1987's Final Reckoning). In 1959, he earned the Governor-General's Award for poetry on the strengths of A Red Carpet for the Sun.
Layton took his BSc at Macdonald College in 1939, served in the Canadian
Forces (1942-43), and earned his MA (1945) from McGill before tutoring
immigrants at Montréal's Jewish Public Library, teaching at Herzliah Junior
High, and lecturing part time at Sir George Williams University (now a Campus
Among the well-known group of exuberant Montréal poets involved in First
Statement (1942-45), Layton would later serve on the editorial board of
Northern Review and co-found Contact Press (with Raymond Souster and Louis
Dudek) in 1952. By the time he was appointed professor of English and
Creating Writing at York University, the incomparable one had held several
prestigious writer-in-residence positions as well as spending goodly
portions of time in Israel, Greece, India, and Nepal courtesy of clearly deserved grant monies provided by the Canada Council.
As Layton would recall in 1989, the publication of The Improved Binoculars
(with an introduction by William Carlos Williams) in 1956 "was a vitamin
pill that restored my faith in mankind when the assaulting voices had become
too loud and noisy . . . New Directions, some years later, published a
Selected Poems with an introduction by Hugh Kenner. Not surprisingly,
some of my fiercest and most raucous critics in Canada began to discover
virtues in my work they had hitherto overlooked."
"He is," Northrop Frye observed in 1956, "the most considerable poet of his
generation," distinguishing Layton's "serious" work from his "stage
personality" and justifying his legendary contrariety by explaining Layton
"has satisfied the public with an image of its own notion of what a genius
should be like."
During the years he dominated our literature and single-wordedly elevated it to world-class standards, bluster by bluster, Irving Layton, a galvanising force unto himself and an utterly captivating catalyst for others, proved he possessed the poetic mind of a man-in-a-million. Leonard Cohen may have taught Layton how to dress; but, in return, as Cohen characteristically quips, Irving Layton taught him how to live forever. True to form (and content), my teacher communicated something of the same magnitude to yours truly. My mentor, my teacher, my main man with a plan deserves and has always managed to have the last word, himself being the first word on greatness in contemporary poetry in Anguish, er, English.
I was a redneck greenhorn, swollen with appetite (but shy to the point of terror); still, I found the courage to send Layton a fan letter; in return, he sent along a gorgeous couplet from a poem he was making, a couplet I now consider his signature pair of singular lines, a couplet I've pondered for over three decades. It continues to yield its multivarious insights, charms, shadings, and meanings as I grow with it and it goes with me, an astonishing couplet, one with legs up to its neck:
"Lord, I understand, the truth is out;
I kill him, he kills me, change and change about."
And, then, of course, there's "The Birth of Tragedy," the strengths of which alone secure the self-described "quiet madman, never far from tears," the self-same hard-scrabbling, hard-scrapping, hard-hitting OneOf his illuminated entry in the Book of Eternity. Indeed, Layton does "lie like a slain thing / under the green air the trees / inhabit, or rest upon a chair . . .:
. . . towards which the inflammable air
tumbles on many robins' wings;
noting how seasonably
leaf and blossom uncurl
and living things arrange their death,
while someone from afar off
blows birthday candles for the world . . .
"I am," declared Layton in 1972, "a genius who has written poems that will survive with the best of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Keats."
Bombastic? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Variously described as prolific shit-disturbing revolutionary and flamboyant yet turbulent latter-day Joshua — not to mention self-aggrandising egotistical philanderer — Layton's was an irrepressible blend of brilliance and braggadocio. Not only did he brazenly paw and claw his way to the top, he also pounded away at the edifice of Canadian pseudo-gentility and button-downed respectability until he'd achieved fame and international acclaim. The name of the raging bull of the CanLit stable would indeed live forever. You've got to hand it to the guy many consider Canada's finest poet: He certainly knew his stuff.
So, too, did CITYtv's visionary trailblazer, media-maestro Moses Znaimer, his student at Montréal's Herzliah High during the late fifties. Znaimer spotted Layton's stuff long before the world would come to know it.
"Irving was my first star," he says. "That's not to say he was world-famous the way a pop star might be today. But he took himself to be a star and behaved like a star. He didn't use the word star; he used the word poet. This big blustery, charismatic, self-aggrandising force had the courage to love himself, all of which he communicated not so much in his words but, more than anybody else, in his person.
"What Irving did — or didn't — do doesn't matter. What he gave us does. Why do we not elevate those — our icons — who have elevated us? It's pathetic. Irving's the progenitor of more poets than anybody else in this country and he inspired so many; he's a real pioneer."
Not surprisingly, that courage to love himself cost the pioneer dearly, particularly in his personal affairs. By the time his marriage to Montréaler Faye Lynch hit the ropes, artist Betty Sutherland (film-star Donald's stepsister) had waltzed into his world. The statuesque beauty subsequently bore him two children, Max (1946) and Naomi (1950), before their marriage dissolved and Layton found comfort with Aviva Cantor, the Significant O who accompanied him to Toronto where he assumed a professorial position at York University. Thirty-odd years later, the couple's only child, David, born in 1964, would throw his hat into the literary ring with 1999's Motion Sickness, a memoir chronicling his father's parental deficiencies in the context of his own troubled youth.
In the fall of 1974, Layton fell for Harriet Bernstein, the big beautiful
brunette who stole his heart and most of his attention during the year he
headed up our creative-writing course. In January 1981, Harriet gave Layton
his fourth and youngest child, Samantha, one of the few people who still
visits her father regularly.
Then, in 1981, the year Italy and Korea nominated him for the Nobel Prize in literature, Layton met his fifth and final mate, 22-year-old Annette Pottier.
He would change her name to Anna. She would change his name to Poops or, depending upon his behaviour, Anna's Good or Bad Biscuit Boy. Together, they would set up housekeeping in Montréal's Notre Dame de Grâce neighbourhood, in the Monkland Avenue dwelling Layton considered his true home.
It was Anna who had to cope with the onset of Alzheimer's in the early 1990s. "It became really obvious by 1992-1993 but wasn't officially diagnosed till 1994-1995," she said in an interview.
Layton — who never forgot names and faces — found it increasingly difficult to remember not only where he was but who he was. On good days, he could still effortlessly recite poems in their entirety; but, on bad days, which soon outnumbered the good, he would often find it a strain to match the names with the faces of even those closest to him.
In fact, the daily tasks we all take for granted — making a pot of coffee, brushing one's teeth, tying one's shoelaces — soon became major ordeals for him. The stress on both Layton and his partner was extreme.
On 1 March 1995, Anna left the house on Monkland.
"It was the only life I knew till I left; but," she says, "he knew and I knew I would have to go, to start another on my own, and he told me he wanted me to go, he understood that completely."
Not long after, the local community-services centre "felt Irving could not live alone in the house," recalls Schwartz as she empties Layton's pipe in the chrome pedestal ashtray and surveys the bustling scene in the lobby. "Irving needed constant care. He would wander off; it became more and more dangerous as his condition steadily deteriorated. On Monkland, he was completely isolated; the caregiver money ran out." Community services, she said, warned his friends and family: "You can't hold out much longer; Irving must be institutionalised."
Around that time, Musia and her husband Leon Schwartz heard from Sandra and Bill Goodwin, Layton's best friend of 80 years, that Quebec's Public Curator would intervene and take over Layton's case. They formed an ad-hoc coalition and became legal co-guardians responsible for his care and financial affairs.
By combining his pension and modest savings, they provided him with round-the-clock staff. Then, late last spring, as medical costs mounted and options — including an attempt to arrange a reverse mortgage on the Monkland home — dwindled, the funds dried up.
Layton's home was sold 7 September 2000. Sandra Goodwin, whose husband had passed away several months earlier, accompanied Anna to the house on Monkland to pick up her personal things before the property changed hands.
"I said to her, 'Anna, I don't understand something. You talk about loving Irving. How come you visit so rarely, like never?' She said: 'You know why? Because when I used to visit, I'd go home and cry for four days. I couldn't; I just couldn't.'"
"The last time I saw him was 18 August 2000," Anna recalls, "and he was in very good spirits, very animated, very much his old self; but, then he would ask the same questions five minutes later and you could see that he hadn't been able to retain what he had just been told . . . There are no words to describe the sadness, there are no words to describe my pain . . . to see him slowly slipping away."
His son, Max Layton, is also overwhelmed by the loss of "a truly great mind."
"I haven't been to visit him lately," he says. "I used to talk to him on the telephone but I found that very difficult. When I was calling, he would say, 'So, how you doing?' I'd tell him. A couple minutes later, he'd say, 'So, how you doing?'
"After a few of those, I began to realise phoning wasn't doing him any good. You know, to quote his lines about 'the inescapable lousiness of growing old' . . . He doesn't remember I've done it; it's a heartbreak for me."
One who still frequently visits Layton is his long-haul friend and confidant Leonard Cohen.
"Ours has always been a mutually rewarding friendship. We complement, support, like, and generally listen to each other," says the musician-poet. "The gratifying thing about reading his work now is that it grows with you. The older I get, the more his poems reveal. I'm knocked out by the richness, the resonance, the generosity, the hard intelligence, the clarity, the passion, and above all else, the great, great aching tenderness which remains very much a part of who he is and what he means to me."
Preparing to wheel Layton back to his room, Schwartz readjusts the poet's thinning white hair under his oddly jaunty beret and returns his pipe to its proper place.
"It's a fact of life," she muses, "even people who were big wheels, once they retire, they don't count any more, not even in this country so famous for its compassion and caring.
"Leonard comes. He spent time with Irving when he was here for Trudeau's funeral. Still, Irving's not a complainer. He adapts. And, I console myself: He's better off here because he has his physiotherapy and his pipe.
"I do worry, though, about the moments of clarity he still experiences," she says, dropping her voice to a hushed whisper. "Sometimes he looks at me and says, 'You know, Musia, I know. I know my mind is all gone.'"
When I saw my mother's head on the cold pillow,
Her white waterfalling hair in the cheeks' hollows,
I thought, quietly circling my grief, of how
She had loved God but cursed extravagantly his creatures.
For her final mouth was not water but a curse,
A small black hole, a black rent in the universe,
Which damned the green earth, stars, and trees in its stillness
And the inescapable lousiness of growing old . . .
— Irving Layton, "Keine Lazarovitch 1870-1959"
"Irving Layton at 88:
'The Inescapable Lousiness of Growing Old'"
originally featured on the front page
of The Globe and Mail's REVIEW (9 January 2001).
"Irving Layton at 88" © 2001-2011 László.
© 2001-2011 Judith Fitzgerald and The Globe and Mail.
Photographs of Irving Layton & Musia Schwartz
and Irving Layton © 2000-2011 Judith Fitzgerald.
All Rights Reserved. Duplication, reproduction, storage,
or transmission of any of these works in whole or in part
in any medium without the express written permission
of the copyright holder/s is strictly forbidden.