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Monday, March 05, 2012

An Author Remembers A Poet

I've often said that there are two distinct kinds of poetry; good poetry and most of it. A man whose work fits into the first category was one of my first inspirations. He later became my teacher, and my friend.

One day, when I was about twelve years old, my sister lent me a book, Irving Layton's Collected Works. I can still recite my favourite poem from that book.

On my way to school
I used to pass
A Baptist church
And fields of grass.

"Jesus Saves"
Above the gate
Would comfort me
If I were late.

The church is gone,
The street is paved,
The Home Bank thrives
Where Jesus Saved.

When I went to York University in Toronto, my English professor was Irving Layton, I was thrilled, and more than a little bit intimidated. 

On a September morning, I was walking down the hall past Irving's office. As I past, I heard him shout a great cheer. I looked in, and he beckoned me to enter. On the corner of his desk sat a small black and white television. The picture wasn't great, but all you could expect from the small antenna. Sitting in the cramped office, along with Irving were two of the other lecturers from the course, Eli Mandel and Dennis Lee, both were also poets of renown. Amid the piles of books and papers, I managed to find a place to squeeze into the small office to watch the remaining moments of the 1972 Canada-USSR Hockey Summit. 

With just 34 seconds left to go in the game, Paul Henderson scored what has come to be known as "The Goal." Cheers erupted throughout the Ross Building, but I doubt that any were louder than the ones coming from three poets and a freshman.

Irving Layton was an incredible lecturer and he filled his students with a love for the writing that was coming out of Canada at that time. Our lecturers were the people he could cajole into coming into the lecture hall, including a young Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, and many others. 

Over bottles of beer that afternoon, Irving assigned me to Dennis Lee's tutorial classes. Dennis, who would later be the poet laureate of Toronto, and the lyricist for Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock TV series, was exactly the sort of person I needed to foster my love of writing.

Irving and I would become friends during the remainder of my stay at York. He once told me that I should be out writing and not sitting in lecture halls studying other people's writing. I took that to heart, and tucked the idea away for several years, while life got in the way between me and my career as an author. I am pretty sure he would be happy that my name is now appearing on best-seller lists, knowing that he is one of the people who helped me get there.

I owe Irving a lot. From the earliest inspiration as a child just becoming exposed to writing that didn't involve the Hardy Boys to my first publication credits, Irving was always a part of my life. Sadly,  Alzheimer's disease  took his mind and then in 2006, at the age of 93, it took him from us. I miss him.

This weekend is the 100th anniversary of Layton's birth. Poets are gathering across the country to honour him. I will honour him in my own way, and in a way I think he would appreciate. I'll raise a glass to him, and remember that day with three poets and a freshman cheering at a snowy picture on a tiny TV screen, watching "The Goal."

Thank you Irving. I wouldn't be where I am today without you.

MisunderstandingBy Irving Layton

I placed my hand upon her thigh.
By the way she moved away
I could see her devotion to literature was not perfect.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this Gordon, can't even begin to tell you how jealous I am.....


Gordon Kirkland At Large

Writings and Wramblings from the Wandering and Wondering Mind of Gordon Kirkland