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January, 2008

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Irving Layton 1912-2006
Self-proclaimed Jewish prince vitalized Canadian verse
By  Daryl Jung

Irvng Layton delighted students of all ages for decades with irrepressible charm.
y own little slice of the life of legendary Canadian poet Irving Layton, who died this month, is that he was my first big-name teacher.

He taught a 400-level poetry workshop at York University in Toronto in the mid-70s, for which you had to submit — and be judged — to be admitted. It was thrilling to be accepted, and the experience of a term in his thrall lived up to all of Layton's hype.

He was famous for so many things. His celebrated row with biographer Elsbeth Cameron, his ongoing camaraderie with fellow Jewish prince poet/pundit Leonard Cohen and the fact that he was born, in Romania, circumcised, a story he relished repeating, all come to mind. He was brash, visionary and high-powered then, a man's man, a bit of a rogue. He had multiple wives and his own unique womanizing style.

The great thing about Layton as a teacher was his undeniable love of his work, which very much included his work with us kids. He gave freely of himself as he'd read our poems in front of the group and discuss them afterwards.

Then, on your days, you'd retreat mano a mano to his office for further discussion, dissection and direction — electrifying and hilarious sessions that remain precious memories. And his tutelage inspired me even beyond the profound power of poetry that he espoused.

From Layton I learned such visceral poetic terms as "mental excretion," "chestnuts" (almost became the name of my band) and "adjectival rot" (ditto). You don’t write a poem, you “sculpt” it. I still use 'em all in day-to-day trash-talking.

And when a sweet gal in our workshop asked him at term's end if it would be presumptuous of her to ask for a letter of recommendation, and he replied, "Not at all! But it would be presumptuous of me to give you one!" — he became a hero. Few profs, memorable or otherwise, had Layton's bounteous, irrepressible eloquence and guile.

He wrote the letter, of course, but that rapier sweet wit could never be contained. I never asked for a letter — likely afraid of his response! — as we both kinda knew I was a lousy poet, and not terribly interested in the discipline, but we nevertheless enjoyed each other's efforts. Few university classes, especially undergrad, persevere in the memories of reformed academes like me who for the most part detested classes.

I ran into him some 10 years later at Toronto's International Festival of Authors, at which I was covering the late great African American novelst James Baldwin, and Layton was promoting his memoir Waiting For The Messiah, when the feud with Cameron was at its lascivious peak. At a crowded reception following his raucous appearance, I reminded him of York. I knew he didn't have a clue who I was, though he claimed to remember the name. In any case, he wrote:

"For Daryl Jung. To remind you of some wonderful hours we had at York U. Good to see you again! Irving Layton, October 17, 1985."

May we always be reminded of Layton, and the enormous contribution he made to Canadian letters — and their sense of humour. IN Icon

Daryl Jung is editor/publisher of IN.

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Writer’s Block
The path to inspiration starts
Upon the trails we’ve known;
Each writer’s block is not a rock,
But just a stepping stone.

Poetry Is Not
Penned to the page
Waiting for us to admire.
It is only a lonely thought
Caught by tears on fire.

Silent Echoes
A quiet rhyme upon a page
Is what a poet gives;
Some gentle words whispered in trust
To see if memory lives.

Bard From Deadlines
What makes a poem finally work
Is not the time it takes;
It’s how the poet used the muse
To prophet from mistakes.

Be Mused
The art and craft of poetry
Are not so far apart;
The craft comes from the cunning,
The rest comes from the heart.

Fine Vintage
Don’t plant your poem on the page
As though you’re hanging drapes;
It’s shape and flow should come and grow
Like wild summer grapes.

Getting It Write
Writers write what they know best,
Their passions, fears, and dreams;
Writers rarely write about
What other call their “themes.”

Double Vision
A writer’s life is paradox,
It’s more than what it seems;
We write of our reality,
The one inside our dreams.

The echo of a promise,
The thunder of a sigh,
The music of a memory,
A child asking why.

Letter Perfect
Twenty six symbols arranged on a page
Can send a soul to heaven or torment it with rage,
Can free a fragile world or hold it in its net--
The power and the magic of the mighty alphabet.

The Write of Passage
The jump from writing just for fun
To getting paid for it
Begins when you first realize
You know you’ll never quit.

It is not the magic of his wings
That sets us free from our bond.
It is the muse within ourselves
That lets our words lift us beyond.

Photo Poet
Consider your mind the darkroom,
Consider your life the lens,
Consider your eye the camera
On whose focus the poem depends.

Rising Moon
A poem is a rising moon
Shining on the sea,
An afterglow of all we know,
Of all we hope to be.

Star Light
Writing a poem,
Reaching a star,
In making good art
We find who we are.

Spider Web
A poem is a spider web
Spun with words of wonder,
Woven lace held in place
By whispers made of thunder.

The final draft upon the screen,
At last my poem’s through;
A verse of only four short lines--
I rewrote twenty-two!

Read All Of Charles Ghigna's Poetry at

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