by Judith Fitzgerald

The Toronto Star, August 1, 1999

(This one's for you, Jarkko -- Have a bodacious birthday!/Judith)

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 friend.

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 Irving Layton.

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 might become:

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,
Layton solemnly inquires:
Leonard, are you sure you're doing
the wrong thing?

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 me.

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.

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 happening.

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.

Me, too.

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.