Allow me to tell you a little about Irving Layton, the big guy with the
aggressive ego and impressive credentials I first met behind the poet
desk at York University in the early '70s.
On the cusp of 20, perched nervously on the edge of the student chair
during that all-important initial consultation, silently chanting Hail
Marys while the maker-breaker of my dreams looks me over critically, I
lower my eyes to one hell of a cluttered desk.
You're too pretty to be a poet, he sighs, returning the requisite
portfolio, smiling broadly and rising to dismiss me.
Really? I dead-pan. And, you're too ugly to be one.
That's my girl, he roars, accepted into the course!
That's Irving, the poetic genius I am privileged to call both mentor and
Me, too, opines Leonard Cohen agreeably, except I think I might more
readily consider Frank (F.R.) Scott or Louis Dudek mentors or teachers;
but, even there, the lines often blur because of the enterprise in which we
were all more or less willing participants and the fact it was happening
then, in the '50s and '60s, in those days...
Those days? Ah, those days, those nights, those times, drawls the
mischievous Maestro of Timing, it seems so long ago ...
Touche. The long-distance line groans with pixilated gravelly giggles.
Cohen, the creator of a stellar body of work and several certified
masterpieces across a swath of genres, is in fine form; and, yes, thank
you, he's absolutely delighted to talk poetry, Montreal and especially
Like Spain's Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), Layton's one of the key
artists from whom Cohen sought direction concerning the kind of poet he
I feel utterly blessed by Irving's friendship and regard. During those
days, it was quite magical. There was a kinship, a common ground, an
atmosphere that, to my mind, was unique. Ours has always been a mutually
rewarding friendship; we complement, support, like and generally listen to
each other. That's why I wrote -- well, I might or might not call it a
poem -- Layton's Question for Irving:
Always after I tell him what I intend to do next,
You know, he confides without missing a beat, I've been rereading his
poems a lot lately. I've even gone so far as to compose some music for a
few of them. 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
Layton solemnly inquires:
Leonard, are you sure you're doing
the wrong thing?
I would say, adds Cohen, in some indescribable way, it's ultimately
about an absence of cynicism. It has never been an attractive strategy, in
my opinion. I never saw it as one, at any rate. I tend to find things
more amusing or bemusing or perplexing or... But, such things do not
reduce me to cynicism. We are all, after all, human beings. Irving can be
acerbic, bombastic, vitriolic and ruthlessly lucid; but, he always
maintains and even nurtures a generosity of spirit that precludes cynicism
as a viable position from which to either write, teach or live. I think
that may be where his greatness resides.
These days, Layton (87) resides in his long-time home in Montreal's Notre
Dame de Grace neighbourhood with round-the-clock caregivers.
Not surprisingly, he still recites entire poems -- both his own and others
-- from memory, recalls seemingly mundane details about his visitors (many
not afflicted with Alzheimers would probably have forgotten by now) and
strings together language that is his usual everyday poetically precise and
eloquently beautiful, at least to hear Musia Schwartz, the poet's fiercely
loyal lifelong friend tell it (especially when pressed for details on her
early days hanging out with Layton and Cohen).
She speaks with a tender awe tempered by sagacious sensitivity. Just
imagine, recalls Schwartz, it's the late '50s. Two of the world's best
with new books under their belts spending the evening celebrating the
double triumph: It was a fantastic night, fantastic! Leonard was Leonard.
Very much there; but, quieter, more watchful and reserved than Irving.
Irving? Already then he was eloquent, passionate, fiery...
Of all the places where two great poets could have been, they were both
together at Leonard's mother's house launching those books. It was the
most unforgettable night in the history of Montreal.
Montreal, in possession of a literary legacy embracing the Preview, First
Statement, Northern Review and Contact groups from the '40s through the
'60s, continues to prove fertile ground for a distinguished crop of poets
commencing with A.J.M. Smith, A.M. Klein, Eli Mandel, Phyllis Webb and John
Newlove and winding up, at the end of this century, proudly boasting at
least one Nobel-worthy poet.
The central figures defining the very essence of this country's poetic
sensibility, Cohen and Layton yoked their radical humanism with prophetic
ruminations and gaudeous proclamations of lust inextricably intertwined
with supple and sensuous poetry of divine longing at precisely the moment
when po-mo primitivism (The Beats, e.g.) superseded the modern movement
in art and literature. Most assuredly at their best illuminating the
post-industrial dispossessed, each tireless worker in words would prove to
be a valuable counter-balance to the deconstructionist head-wind (steadily
picking up hot air).
In 1997, Layton, the author of The Cold Green Element, The Bull Calf,
Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom, Butterfly on Rock and The Birth of
Tragedy -- to identify but a classic few -- told The Vancouver Sun:
This is my home territory. I still find it the most colourful and
exciting city on the continent. I love Montreal. I love the clash of the
two cultures. I love the scenery. I love every blessed centimetre of
Montreal. McGill. Jarry Park. The Main. Mont Royal. As most poetry
aficionados readily acknowledge, it's a lovely frisson de fact that the
St. Lawrence city's the birthplace of modern English-Canadian writing
(particularly since its golden boy, now a 64-year-old craftsmaestro,
continues to hammer away at perfecting his skills and honing his talents).
I wouldn't be who I am if I had been born anywhere else, maintains
Cohen, I have close ties with the city because it's my birthplace; my
sister still lives in my old house; and, of course, Irving and many other
friends are still there, too.
Regrettably, he sees neither book nor performance tour looming in the near
future; but, he's working on a new studio album and reports his next
collection, tentatively titled The Book of Longing, is definitely taking
shape. I've got about 100 poems, now; so, it could be as soon as next
year. Some share a kinship with Book of Mercy, others relate to song and
still others are simply lyric poems. For some reason, I'm writing a lot,
right now, too -- something I've learned not to question when it's
Internet-savvy readers seeking a sneak preview of the upcoming volume will
find a generous selection of new poems at The Leonard Cohen Files (http://www.nebula.simplenet.com/cohen/), a work of cyber-art in its own right created by Finland's father-and-son team, Jarkko and Rauli Arjatsalo:
Jarkko's such a sweet and kind man, Cohen confides, he and his family
finally came to LA to visit me. A lovely family. A kind and selfless man.
I can't say enough good things about him.
An incomparable artist supremely capable of living privately in full
public view and equally adept at reinventing not only himself but also his
relationship with the world around him, Cohen is to contemporary music and
literature what Shakespeare was to Elizabethan arts and letters. His
staggering command of several genres places his oeuvre alongside that of
the traditional giants (while his ability to successfully marry art and
popular culture without diminishing either bespeaks a facility that comes
along once every millennium or so).
Cohen takes no personal credit for honouring the gift, explaining he
doesn't write to control the chaos, not at all. No. If there's one thing
that I do know, it is that I am definitely not in control.
In his recent biography, Ira Nadel recounts the story of the time in 1991
Toronto when the reclusive Cohen was scheduled to appear as the surprise
guest at a tribute honouring Layton:
His appearance was a well-guarded secret because he did not want to
upstage Layton. When he appeared, Cohen told the audience that exposure
to [Layton's] work moves us.... This is the tonic, the elixir.
Irving, I salute the aching and triumphant impeccability of your life.
Judith asks Leonard:
"What brings you joy?"
Judith Fitzgerald's contemporary epic, Twenty-Six Ways Out of This World (Oberon), numbered among the Toronto Globe and Mail's Top 100 Notable Books 2000. Her biography of Marshall McLuhan, Wise Guy (XYZ) will be published September 2001. She's currently completing Adagios, a four-part long poem (Oberon, Fall/Winter 2002).
Book review Beautiful Loser, Beautiful Comeback
New poem Coda
New book of poetry 26 ways out of this world
Read more on Judith's cybersite
© 1999-2001 by Judith Fitzgerald (print version)
© 1999-2001 by The Leonard Cohen Files (electronic version)
Photo of Leonard Cohen © 1999 by Jarkko Arjatsalo.
All rights reserved.
Black&white photo of Irving Layton taken from The 1999 Canadian Encyclopedia by McClelland & Stewart.