Irving Layton (1912-2006) in Rome, 1981. Photo by Roloff Beny (1924-1984). Courtesy Library and Archives Canada / PA-193716.

Irving Layton
Born Israel Pinku Lazarovitch
March 12, 1912
Târgu Neamţ, Romania,
Died January 4, 2006 (aged 93)
Montreal, Quebec
Nationality Canada Canadian
Ethnicity Jewish
Education M.A.
Alma mater McGill University
Notable award(s) Governor General's Award, Order of Canada
Spouse(s) Faye Lynch, Betty Sutherland
Children Max Reuben, Naomi Parker

Irving Peter Layton, OC (March 12, 1912 - January 4, 2006) was a Canadian poet. He was known for his "tell it like it is" style which won him a wide following but also made enemies. As T. Jacobs notes in his 2001 biography , Layton fought Puritanism throughout his life:

"Layton's work had provided the bolt of lightning that was needed to split open the thin skin of conservatism and complacency in the poetry scene of the preceding century, allowing modern poetry to expose previously unseen richness and depth.[1]



Layton was born on March 12, 1912 as Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Târgu Neamţ, a small town in Romania, to Jewish parents, Moses and Klara Lazarovitch. He migrated with his family in 1913 to Montreal, Quebec, where they lived in the impoverished St. Urbain Street neighbourhood, later made famous by the novels of Mordecai Richler. There Layton and his family (his father died when he was 13) faced daily struggles with, among others, Montreal's French Canadians, who were uncomfortable with the growing numbers of Jewish newcomers.[2] Layton, however, identified himself not as an observant Jew but rather as a freethinker.

Layton graduated from Alexandra Elementary School and attended Baron Byng High School, where his life was changed when he was introduced to such poets as Tennyson, Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley; the novelists Jane Austen and George Eliot; essayists Francis Bacon, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, and Jonathan Swift; and also Shakespeare and Darwin. He was befriended by David Lewis and became very interested in politics and social theory.[3] He joined the Young People's Socialist League or YPSL (commonly pronounced "Yipsel"), which Lewis led.[3] He began reading Karl Marx and Nietzsche. His activities in YPSL were deemed a threat to the high school administration and he was asked to leave before graduating in 1930.[4] It was Lewis who introduced Layton to A.M. Klein.[4] Lewis asked Klein to be Layton's Latin tutor so he could pass the junior matriculation exams.[4] Lewis gave him $10 to pay the fee for the exam and he passed.[4] It was also during his time with Klein that he became interested in the sound of poetry.[4]

Klein and I met once weekly at Fletcher's Field just across from the YHMA [sic] on Mt. Royal Avenue, and I vividly recall the first lesson: Virgil's Aeneid, Book II:I[5]
...hearing Klein roll off the Virgilian hexameters in a beautiful orotund voice that rose above the traffic, I think it was then that I realized how lovely and very moving the sound of poetry could be. I must confess my Latin wasn't sufficient to appreciate the sense that Virgil was making with his marvelous hexameters, but Klein's zeal and enthusiasm, his forceful delivery, his very genuine love of language, of poetry, all came through to me at that time. And I think that was most fortunate for me. ...[6]

Klein published Layton's first poem in The McGilliad, the underground campus journal he was editing at McGill University.[7]

Emerging poet: the 1930's and 1940'sEdit

In light of his limited educational opportunities, with no high school diploma, and also due to limited finances, he enrolled in Macdonald College (McGill) in 1934 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture.

While in college, he was well known in artistic circles for his anti-bourgeois attitudes and his criticism of politics. He quickly found that his true interest was poetry, so he pursued a career as a poet, and soon became friends with the emerging young poets of his day, including fellow Canadians John Sutherland, Raymond Souster, and Louis Dudek. In the 1940's, Layton and his fellow Canadian poets rejected the older generation of poets, as well as critic Northrop Frye; their efforts helped define the tone of the post-war generation poets in Canada. Essentially, they argued that English Canadian poets should set their own style, independent of British styles and influences, and should reflect the social realities of the day.

In 1936, Layton met Faye Lynch, whom he married in 1938. When Layton graduated from Macdonald College in 1939, he moved with Faye to Halifax where he worked odd jobs, including a stint as a Fuller Brush man. Soon disenchanted with his life, Layton decided, one evening, to return to Montreal. He began teaching English to recent immigrants to make ends meet and continued doing so for many years.

Indecisive about his future and enraged by Hitler's violence toward Jews and destruction of European culture, Layton enlisted in the Canadian army in 1942. While serving at Petawawa, Layton met Betty Sutherland, an accomplished painter (and later poet), and a half-sister to actor Donald Sutherland. Layton soon divorced Faye and married Betty. They had 2 children together: Max Reuben (1946) and Naomi Parker (1950). In 1943, Layton was given an honourable discharge from the army and returned to Montreal, where he became involved with several literary magazines including the seminal Northern Review, which he co-edited with John Sutherland.

Layton's involvement with David Lewis and the YPSL matured into being active in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (of which Lewis was the National Secretary at the time). Because of his YPSL activities he was blacklisted in the 1930's and banned from entering the United States for the next 2 decades. While for a time he still considered himself a Marxist, he became anti-Communist at the lectures Lewis gave at YPSL [8] and broke with many on the left with his support of the Vietnam War. (Source: Toronto Star, January 5, 2006)

In 1946 Layton received an M.A. in economics and political science from McGill University (with a thesis on Harold Laski).

1950's: International "stardom"Edit

"Of the poets who emerged in Montreal during this period," of the early 1950s (says the Canadian Encyclopedia), "Layton was the most outspoken and flamboyant. His satire was generally directed against bourgeois dullness, and his famous love poems were erotically explicit."[9]

By the mid-1950's, Layton's activism and poetry had made him a staple on the CBC televised debating program "Fighting Words," where he earned a reputation as a formidable debater. The publication of A Red Carpet For The Sun in 1959 (which won the Governor General's Award) secured Layton's national reputation while the many books of poetry which followed eventually gave him an international reputation; never as high however in the United States and Britain as it was in some countries where Layton was read in translation.

Layton had begun teaching English, history, and political science at the Jewish parochial high school Herzliah (a branch of the United Talmud Torahs of Montreal) in 1949. He was an influential teacher and some of his students became writers and artists. Among his students was television magnate Moses Znaimer. Layton continued to teach for the greater part of his life: as a teacher of modern English and American poetry at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) and as a tenured professor at Toronto's York University in the 1970s, as well as delivering many lectures and readings throughout Canada. Layton pursued a Ph.D. in 1948 though he abandoned it due to the demands of his already hectic professional life.

In the late 1950's, friends introduced Layton to Aviva Cantor, who had emigrated to Montreal from her native Australia in 1955. After several years of painful indecision, Layton and Betty separated and Layton moved in with Aviva. The 2 had a son, David, in 1964. Though Layton remained legally married to Betty his relationship with Aviva lasted more than 20 years, ending only in the late 1970's when Aviva left him.

Later yearsEdit

It was in the immediate aftermath of this experience that Layton finally divorced Betty and, after a whirlwind courtship, married Harriet Bernstein, a former student. In 1981 a daughter, Samantha Clara, was born. The marriage was short-lived, however, and ended in a bitterly contested divorce. Layton then met Anna (Annette) Pottier and invited her to be his housekeeper, although it soon became apparent that she would play a far greater role in his life. Although 48 years his junior she became his 5th and last wife.

They lived briefly in Niagara-on-the-Lake in the fall of 1982 and then spent nearly a year in Oakville, Ontario, before moving, at the end of 1983, to the Montreal district of Notre-Dame-de-Grace. It was there that Layton wrote his memoir Waiting For the Messiah, and with Anna's support saw to the publication of his final books and translations. The couple eventually agreed that Anna needed to begin a life of her own, and she moved out on March 1, 1995.

Friends took care of Layton after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He died at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Montreal at the age of 93 on January 4, 2006.


Throughout the 1950's and on into the early 1990's Layton travelled widely abroad and became especially popular in South Korea and Italy. In 1981 these 2 nations nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Literature. (The prize that year was instead awarded to novelist Gabriel Garci­a Marquez) Among his many awards during his career was the Governor-General's Award for A Red Carpet for the Sun in 1959. In 1976 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. He was the first non-Italian to be awarded the Petrarch Award for Poetry.[2]

In his lifetime Layton attracted some criticism for his bluster, self-promotion and long-windedness.(Citation needed) He is remembered by many as one of the first Canadian rebels of poetry, politics, and philosophy. At Layton's funeral, Leonard Cohen, Moses Znaimer and David Solway were among those who gave eulogies.

A street in Montreal has been named Irving Layton Avenue. Irving Layton Avenue is located behind St. Richards Church and close to the corner of Guelph Rd. and Parkhaven Ave.[10]

An online scholarly journal, "The Bull Calf" (founded by Kait Pinder and J. A. Weingarten), is named in honour of Layton's famous poem of the same name.

He is considered Leonard Cohen's literary mentor. Cohen once said of Layton, "I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever."[11]




  • Here and Now. Montreal: First Statement Press, 1945.
  • Now Is The Place: Stories and poems. Montreal: First Statement Press, 1948.
  • The Black Huntsmen: Poems. Montreal: 1951.
  • Cerberus (with Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster). Toronto: Contact Press, 1952.
  • Love the Conqueror Worm. Toronto: Contact Press, 1953.
  • In the Midst of My Fever. Palma de Mallorca, Spain: Divers Press, 1954.
  • The Long Pea-Shooter. Montreal: Laocoon Press, 1954.
  • The Blue Propeller. Toronto: Contact Press, 1955.
  • The Cold Green Element. Toronto: Contact Press, 1955.
  • The Bull Calf, and other poems. Toronto: Contact Press, 1956.
  • The Improved Binoculars: Selected poems (introduction by William Carlos Williams). Highlands, NC: Jonathan Williams, 1956; Toronto: Porcupine's Quill, 1991.[12]
  • Music on a Kazoo. Toronto: Contact Press, 1956.
  • A Laughter in the Mind. Highlands, NC: Jonathan Williams, 1958. 2nd edition Montreal: Editions d'Orphee, 1959.
  • A Red Carpet for the Sun. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1959.
  • The Swinging Flesh Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1961. (poems and stories)
  • Balls for a One-Armed Juggler Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1963.
  • The Laughing Rooster. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1964.
  • Collected Poems. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1965.
  • Periods of the Moon: Poems. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.
  • The Shattered Plinths. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1968.
  • Selected Poems (edited by Wynne Francis). Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969. London: Charisma, 1977.
  • The Whole Bloody Bird: Obs, aphs & pomes. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969.
  • Poems to Color. Toronto: York University, 1970.
  • Collected Poems. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1971.
  • Nailpolish. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1971.
  • Lovers and Lesser Men. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1973.
  • The Pole-Vaulter. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1974.
  • Seventy-five Greek Poems, 1951-1974. Athens: Hermias Publications, 1974.
  • The Darkening Fire: Selected poems, 1945-1968. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1975.
  • The Unwavering Eye: Selected poems, 1969-1975. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1975.
  • The Uncollected Poems of Irving Layton, 1936-59 (edited by W. David John). Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1976.
  • For my Brother Jesus. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1976.
  • Uncollected Poems, 1936-1959 (edited by Seymour Mayne). Oakville, ON: Mosaic, 1976.
  • The Poems of Irving Layton (edited by Eli Mandel). Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977.
    • also published (with an introduction by Hugh Kenner) as The Selected Poems of Irving Layton. New York: New Directions, 1977.
  • The Covenant. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977.
  • The Tightrope Dancer. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1978.
  • The Love Poems. Toronto: Canadian Fine Editions, 1978. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1980.
  • Droppings from Heaven. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1979.
  • The Tamed Puma. Toronto: Virgo Press, 1979.
  • There Were No Signs. Toronto: Madison Gallery, 1979.
  • For My Neighbours in Hell. Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1980. ISBN 088962111X
  • Europe, and other bad news. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1981.
  • A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected poems, 1945-82 Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1982, 1989.
  • Shadows on the Ground: A portfolio (limited edition). Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1982.
  • The Gucci Bag. Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1983; Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1983; Flatiron Book Distributors, 1995.
  • The Love Poems: With reverence & delight. Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1984. Toronto: Mosaic Press; 2002.[12]
  • A Spider Danced a Cosy Jig. Toronto: Stoddart, 1984.
  • Dance With Desire: Love poems. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1986.
    • also published as Dance With Desire: Selected love poems. Toronto: Porcupine's Quill, 1992.[12]
  • Fortunate Exile. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1987.
  • Final Reckoning: Poems, 1982-1986. Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1987.
  • Fornalutx: Selected poems, 1928-1990. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992.


  • Engagements: The prose of Irving Layton (edited by Seymour Mayne). Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1972.
  • The Poet and His Critics (edited by Seymour Mayne). Toronto: McGraw Hill-Ryerson, 1978. ISBN 978-0-07082711-0


  • An Unlikely Affair: The Irving Layton - Dorothy Rath correspondence. Toronto: Mosaic Press, 1990.[12]
  • Wild Gooseberries: The selected letters. Toronto: Macmillan, 1989.[13]
  • Irving Layton and Robert Creeley: The complete correspondence, 1953-1978. Toronto: McGill-Queens University Press, 1990.[12]

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy University of Toronto.[14]

Audio / videoEdit

Irving Layton - There Were No Signs-000:43

Irving Layton - There Were No Signs-0

"7 O'Clock Show" - Irving Layton, 1966 (excerpt)01:07

"7 O'Clock Show" - Irving Layton, 1966 (excerpt)

RetroBites Irving Layton Prophet (1979) CBC03:28

RetroBites Irving Layton Prophet (1979) CBC


  • Six Montreal Poets. New York: Folkways Records, 1957. Includes A.J.M. Smith, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, F.R. Scott, Louis Dudek, and A.M. Klein. (cassett, 60 mins).[15]
  • Irving Layton at Le Hibou. c.1962. (LP)
  • Poems of Irving Layton. Jewish Public Library, c.1965. (cassette)
  • Irving Layton. Sir George Williams University, 1967. (cassette)
  • Irving Layton Reads His Poetry. Jewish Public Library, c.1967. (cassette)
  • An Evening with Irving Layton. University of Guelph, 1969. (cassette)
  • Irving Layton. High Barnet, c. 1972. (cassette)
  • Layton. Caedmon, c.1973. (LP)
  • A Red Carpet for the Sun. Trent University, 1975. (cassette)
  • An Evening with Irving Layton. Jewish Public Library, 1976. (cassette)
  • My Brother Jesus. Saidye Bronfman Center, 1976. (cassette)
  • An Evening with Irving Layton. Jewish Public Library, 1981. (cassette)
  • Irving Layton. TV Ontario, 1984. 14 mins. (video cassette)
  • A Poetry Reading by Irving Layton. League of Canadian Poets, 1982. (cassette)
  • A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected Poems 1945-82. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990. (cassette) ISBN 0771049501 "There Were No Signs" from A Wild Peculiar Joy, online at CBC Words at Large
  • Celebration: Famous Canadian Poets CD Canadian Poetry Association — 2001 ISBN 1-55253-029-9 (with Earle Birney) (CD#1)

Except where noted, discographical information courtesy University of Toronto.[14]

See alsoEdit



  1. T. Jacobs. 2001. Irving Layton, Biography Canadian Poets series, University of Toronto.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Poet Irving Layton dies at 93: Was nominated for Nobel Prize, Chatham Daily News (ON). News, Thursday, January 5, 2006, p. 2. accessed on October 6, 2006.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Smith, p. 155
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Smith, p. 149
  5. Layton, Waiting for the Messiah, p. 135
  6. Caplan, p. 36 Irving Layton describing his meetings with Klein and Lewis in an interview with the author.
  7. Bronwyn Chester, "Small Magazines, Big Influence," McGill Reporter, Mar. 11, 1999,, Web, Mar. 27, 2011.
  8. Smith, p.155-56
  9. Elspeth Cameron, "Layton, Irving Peter," Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), 1190-1191.
  10. "Please Join Us at the Irving Layton Avenue Dedication Ceremony Sunday, May 6th, 2007," Irving Layton, Poet (blog) May 4, 2007, Web, May 8, 2011.
  11. Rich Baines, "Irving and Leonard,", Web, May 8,2011.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 "Published Works,", May 7, 2011.
  13. "Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton,", Web, May 8, 2011.
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Irving Layton: Publications," Canadian Poetry Online, Web, May 7, 2011.
  15. "F.R. Scott: Publications," Canadian Poetry Online,, Web, May 7, 2011.

External linksEdit

Audio / video
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