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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.
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