One of Canada’s most influential poets
Born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Romania on March 12, 1912, Irving Peter Layton was one of Canada’s most influential and widely recognized poets.
Layton was an infant when his family immigrated to Canada in 1913 and settled on St. Urbain Street in what was then Montreal’s Jewish immigrant neighbourhood. Growing up, his family faced many struggles at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant in Quebec society.
Layton attended Baron Byng High School where he became enraptured by literature and the works of the great poets, novelists and essayists.
In 1930, Layton met poet and novelist A.M. Klein, and the two met weekly to read poetry together. Klein published Layton’s first poems in The McGilliad, a literary journal at McGill University.
Layton earned his bachelor of science degree at Macdonald College, McGill University’s agricultural school. During this time, he became involved in artistic circles and was following a career as a poet. He befriended many fellow Canadian poets and they created a new Canadian movement in poetry, independent of British influences.
Layton served in the Canadian Army during the Second World War and afterward returned to Montreal where he became involved in several literary magazines. In 1946, Layton earned an MA in economics and political science from McGill.
In addition to establishing his reputation as poet and as a mentor to younger poets such as Leonard Cohen, Layton developed a reputation as a debater and appeared frequently during the 1950s on the CBC-TV debate show, “Fighting Words.”
During the 1950s, he also became an English and history teacher at Herzliah High School – a Jewish community high school in Montreal. Many of his students at Herzliah – including future television magnate Moses Znaimer and future justice minister Irwin Cotler – have spoken of being inspired by Layton’s teaching. He would later become a professor of poetry at Sir George Williams University (now part of Concordia University) in Montreal and at York University in Toronto. Layton received an honorary doctorate from Concordia in 1976.
More than 40 volumes of Layton’s poetry were published between 1945 and 1992 and he was a nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. Layton received the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 1959 and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1976.
Late in life, Layton suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died at age 93 at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Montreal in 2006.
Throughout 2017, in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is publishing a series of profiles spotlighting the contributions of historically important Jewish Canadians to our country. Previously in the series: