See biography by F. Mansbridge (1995); D. Layton (his son), Motion Sickness: A Memoir (2000); studies by M. L. Rowe (1972), S. Mayne (1978), and H. Beissel and J. Bennett, ed. (1993).
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.
On March 12, 1912, born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Târgu Neamţ, a small town in Romania, to Jewish parents, Moses and Klara Lazarovitch, he emigrated with his family to Montreal, Quebec in 1913 and was forced to live in the impoverished St. Urbain Street neighbourhood, later made famous by Mordecai Richler in his novels. 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. 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 Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley; the novelists Jane Austen and George Eliot; the essayists Francis Bacon, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, and Jonathan Swift; and also William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin. He was befriended by David Lewis and became very interested in politics and social theory. He joined the Young People's Socialist League or YPSL (commonly pronounced "Yipsel"), which Lewis lead. He began reading Karl Marx and Nietzsche. His activities in YPSL were deemed a threat to the high school administration and was asked to leave before graduating in 1930. It was Lewis who introduced Layton to A.M. Klein. Lewis asked Klein to be Layton's Latin tutor so he could pass the junior matriculation exams. Lewis gave him $10 to pay the fee for the exam and he passed. It was also during his time with Klein that he became interested in the sound of poetry.
Klein and I met once weekly at Fletcher's Field just across from the YHMA on Mt. Royal Avenue, and I vividly recall the first lesson: Vigil's Aeneid, Book II:I
...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. ...
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 pursued a career as a poet and became friends with the emerging young poets of his day, including fellow Canadian poets John Sutherland, Raymond Souster, and Louis Dudek. In the 1940s, 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 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 two 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 Young People's Socialist League matured into being active in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation(Lewis was the National Secretary at the time). Because of his YSPL activities he was blacklisted in the 1930s and banned from entering the United States for the next two decades. While for a time he still considered himself a Marxist, he became anti-Communist at the lectures Lewis gave at YPSL 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 (with a thesis on Harold Laski). Three years later he began teaching English, history, and political science at the Jewish parochial high school, Herzliah (a branch of the United Talmud Torahs of Montreal). He was an influential teacher, and some of his students became writers and artists. Among his students were poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen and 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 his Ph.D. in 1948 though he abandoned it due to the demands of his already hectic professional life.
In the late 1950s, 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 two had a son, David, in 1964. Though Layton remained legally married to Betty, his relationship with Aviva lasted more than twenty years, only ending in the late 1970s when Aviva left.
Throughout the 1950s and on into the early 1990s, Layton travelled widely abroad and became especially popular in South Korea and Italy, and in 1981 these two nations nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Literature. (The prize that year was instead awarded to novelist Gabriel García Márquez.) 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, an Italian award to recognize a poet's talent.
In his lifetime, Layton attracted some criticism for his bluster, self-promotion and long-windedness. 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. He is considered Leonard Cohen's literary mentor -- and some would argue spiritual guru.'
Leonard Cohen once said of him, "I taught him how to dress, and he taught me how to live forever." Layton wrote more than forty books. While many of his later poems are mediocre in quality, he also wrote some indisputably fine work. "A Tall Man Executes a Jig" is representative of Layton at his best.