In the early seventies, Irving Layton came to our High School in Montreal-North upon the invitation of our eleventh-grade North American Literature teacher. We were for the most part Italian immigrant teenagers and excited to hear the poems of a well-known Canadian literary figure. I remember how the larger-than-life poet, with the stentorian voice, used his hands to emphasize key phrases. I was enchanted.
Layton was fiery, heroic and fiercely prophetic, and I was captivated. It was epic, as though I had been struck by lightning. I decided then and there that I would be a writer! I started to attend poetry readings and literary events with as much passion and purpose as my classmates would rock and heavy metal concerts. I had found my religion and pursued my university studies in literature and history.
My focus would become the work of Irving Layton, working on a dissertation on excremental diction in his poetry. Layton had written that Einstein’s brain decays, Casanova’s genitals rot away, and philosophers turn into sod. In his poem Fornalutx, he states categorically: “I have in mind Dante’s famous rungs / excrement not brimstone was the smell.” Excrement, like death, is the final product in the breakdown of form.
Of the critics and academics who criticized Layton for his use of four-letter words, especially those having to do with excrement, he would point to the hypocrisy of it all. Had no Canadian ever made love or had a bowel movement? Inherent in many of the poems containing excremental imagery was the theme of eternal recurrence. Good, he claimed, would always exist, but so would evil. Layton fought against Puritanism, materialism, and philistinism all of his life! He believed in the beauty and terror of the creative process, which entails creation and destruction.
My thesis adviser at the time, Wynne Francis, encouraged me to meet Irving Layton. After some hesitation, I mustered enough courage to do so. Would I be intruding? Just another student requesting more of the poet’s precious and limited time? Would he dismiss my hypothesis, or look at it with interest? Would he think my work overly simple? I did not know what to expect. However, what an opportunity it would be to actually speak with a literary icon! How many students of literature would get to meet their idols?
The appointment was finally confirmed, thanks to my professor. It was all so surreal, yet I felt prepared. I rang the doorbell of the house on Monkland Avenue in Montreal’s NDG neighbourhood, trying to remain calm, but my heart was pounding. I was about to meet one of Canada’s greatest poets! It was a woman, who turned out to be his wife Anna, who greeted me at the door. Her warmth and enthusiasm were infectious. I later learned that their door was always open to literature students.
Irving Layton instantly put me at ease. He asked me what a nice Italian girl was looking for in his poetry. He was very curious about my background. At one point, it felt like he was the one interviewing me!
Indeed, Italians loved Irving Layton and Irving Layton loved Italians. He was twice nominated by the Italian Nobel Committee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and he was the first non-Italian to win the coveted Petrarch Prize in Poetry! Anna shared how Irving had been greeted in Italy with the raucous applause usually reserved for rock stars. I could almost hear the thunderous applause as she described the scene. Layton wrote beautifully about the Italian landscape, in poems such as Bambino in Cagliari, Poet on the Square in Bologna, Lady on the Piazza in Rome, or Necrophilia in Palermo.
It was a personal triumph to finally submit my dissertation. Not only did meeting Irving Layton give me a greater understanding of his works, but Anna also encouraged me to the finish line.
After graduation, I started working full-time. The following year, I gave birth to a baby girl, who my husband Nick and I named Aviva. Upon hearing the news, Irving Layton wrote me the most beautiful letter, with his face stencilled on the envelope – an item I keep in a safe place to this very day. He congratulated me on producing two masterpieces in the space of one year: a Master of Arts degree and a beautiful baby!
In 1985, when he published his memoir, Waiting for the Messiah, he wrote to Nick and me that we gave him hope as he “waited for the Messiah to come.” We were so deeply touched. Sadly, he passed away in January of 2006.
That year, I attended an event honouring his life and works at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal. There were two empty chairs by the panel – one for those silenced around the world, and the other for Irving Layton. In April of that same year, I paid tribute to him at the Dante Alighieri Society. At the 2017 Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, I was once again given the distinct pleasure and honour of speaking about Irving Layton.
The years have passed at lightning speed and I often think about those encounters with Irving and Anna in the eighties. In retrospect, I was very lucky that the stars aligned so I could meet Canada’s foremost poet and his muse. Irving Layton, for his kindness, warmth, and support, was a shining example of why you should – in some cases – meet your heroes.
Maria Luisa Ierfino-Adornato is a Montreal freelance writer. She is the author of the historical novels McCord’s Quiet Rebellion and McCord’s Griffintown (Chronicler). Maria is a regular contributor to Accenti Magazine.