Canadian poet Israel Pincu Lazarovitch, or Irving Layton, was born in the Romanian town of Târgu Neamt in 1912, the youngest son of an accountant. His family moved to Montreal when he was a year old; when his father died, Layton, just 13, briefly left school to sell household goods door to door before enrolling in high school, where his encounter with Tennyson’s poem “The Revenge” inspired him to try writing. He earned a degree in agriculture at Macdonald College, where he joined the Young People’s Socialist League. His involvement with the League led to his being banned from entering the United States for 15 years. Layton enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1942 and was honorably discharged a year later. He served as an editor for First Statement Press, which published his debut, Here and Now (1945), as well as for Contact Press. Poet and singer Leonard Cohen was his student and became a close friend.
Layton’s lush, elemental poems explore sexual and spiritual intimacy. He published numerous collections of poetry, including The Black Huntsmen (1951), A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959), The Pole-Vaulter (1974), The Selected Poems of Irving Layton (1977), Final Reckoning: Poems 1982-1986 (1987), and A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected Poems 1945-82. His prose includes Engagements: The Prose of Irving Layton (1972), Taking Sides: The Collected Social and Political Writings (1977), and the memoir Waiting for the Messiah (1985). Critical studies of his work include Raging Like a Fire: A Celebration of Irving Layton (1993) and Francis Mansbridge’s biography Irving Layton: God’s Recording Angel (1995). His correspondence is published in the volumes Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton (1989), An Unlikely Affair (1980), and Irving Layton and Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978 (1989).
His honors included two Nobel Prize nominations, Italy’s Petrarch Prize for Poetry, grants from the Canada Council, the Governor General’s Award, the Senior Arts Fellowship, and several honorary degrees. Layton taught at Sir George Williams University and York University. In the mid-1990s, he received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, which led to his death in 2006. The University of Saskatchewan Library holds a selection of his papers.