by Rich Baines

Irving Layton
March 12, 1912 – January 4, 2006

If one wishes to understand the work and words of Leonard Cohen, to cut aside the peel and get to the sweet core of his poetic condition, one must first investigate the passion that was handed down to the “Young Prince of Montreal” from his verse-clad forefathers of page and song. From lines such as “If the moon has a sister, it’s got to be you” we can distil the hand of Garcia Lorca (the namesake of Cohen’s daughter) through the Spanish poet’s smoky sensual poem La Luna Y Salome.

From the swell of Judaic imagery in Book Of Mercy and the raw nerves of the poem made song entitled To A Teacher, we can chase down in Leonard’s words the ghost of A. M. Klein, the Montreal based psalmist surgeon of open-hearted verse. Ultimately however, for a writer such as Cohen, guilt by association is an effective tool when trying to sort out influences of writings and character, and the poet Leonard was most associated with in the living world would certainly have been Canadian Irving Layton, whose funeral took place in Montreal on January 8, 2006.

Layton was Cohen’s teacher and friend, helping Leonard to get his first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, published at McGill University in 1956. I first came upon Layton’s name in one of Cohen’s poem, in the form of a complaint: “You always have blood on your apple” writes Leonard, perhaps a reference to Eden and the deep humanity that continually comes through in Irving’s verse.

I followed these literary bread crumbs regarding Layton to the library, where waiting for me was a cornucopia of ballsy volumes, over forty publications, dust jackets proudly baring quick statements of vision to the world. Amongst these titles were A Red Carpet For The Sun, Europe And Other Bad News, Love The Conqueror Worm, Lovers And Lesser Men and my personal favorite, A Laughter In The Mind, wherein Layton proclaims “Whatever else, poetry is freedom”. After devouring these volumes hungrily, I saw the connection to Cohen’s work…both brought to the page a pantheon of demons and desires, burning passion for life and its bloody cold cruelty, and most of all, their own authentic voices, robust with warts and triumph. Leonard has said of Layton: “I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever”. If one wants to truly touch Cohen’s works, one must also grasp for Layton’s.

The day of Irving’s service had come. I found myself at Paperman’s Funeral home on a brisk Montreal winter morning. A crowd slowly followed their feet into a large pew-filled room, and I grew a little colder as I glimpsed toward the front of the room and spied a large white coffin, now the eternal throne for a great poet’s fleshy leftovers. The room heaved with seven-hundred mouths that chatted and spilled brief half-hearted introductions.

Hushes rolled through the crowd as Canadian media mogul and Layton student Moses Znaimer took the stand, having been pushed into emcee duties at the last moment. He spoke briefly, and then brings attention to Layton’s youngest daughter Samantha Bernstein, a friend of mine and fellow writer, who recited a well-wrought poem about her father, in a clear, steady voice. Shortly thereafter a well dressed man in dark suit and a grey poor-boy cap strode to the podium, carrying a book of Layton’s poetry.

The whispers of the crowd around me were electric. ”Do you know who that is?”, "Is that…that’s Leonard Cohen!” the old Jewish women in the pew behind me crackled as they gasped. Then Leonard’s deep, tobacco filtered voice filled the room: “Whatever was between Irving and I…does not bear repeating, but what does bear repeating and will be repeated endlessly are these poems, which live and continue to live”.

Leonard continued: “Irving would have been very angry if there were this many people here and none of his poems were read”. Smiles at this last comment broke out among the solemnity, and Leonard read Layton’s The Graveyard, his deep richness of tone rhythmically climaxing with the final lines of the poem – “There is no pain in the graveyard, for the voice whispering in the tombstone, rejoice, rejoice.”

With that Leonard stepped away, and several other poets and statesmen, friends and students spoke at length as to why Layton was a great poet. This aspect in particular struck me as strange, so much so that I later spoke of it to Leonard: “Leonard,” I said, "it strikes me as odd that there were several speakers up there who were trying to make a case for Irving’s work….” Leonard smiled at me and replied “I’m glad that you got that, man, that’s how I feel about it, that it’s un-necessary. I’m glad that came across….”

Afterward at the private reception I had the honour of speaking at some length with Leonard, who confounded me with his easy manner and kind attention, given his business difficulties of late and the death of his dear friend. Tanned and of a healthy countenance, his green eyes alive, we stood with others in a small living room near a makeshift buffet table and a small shrine to Layton. One couldn’t help thinking that in ages gone past, a poet with such an international reputation as Layton’s would have had statues cast and set proudly on great marble plinths in piazzas…but in our age here and now, there was but a tiny wooden table holding a up a few portraits, Irving’s Order Of Canada medal, and a few lines of his poems on scraps of paper taped to the wall. But Leonard was right, it is his poems that are his monuments, and they stand in homes and hearts all over the world.

My friend Samantha (Layton’s daughter) and I asked Leonard about his experience joining the IDF during the 1973 Israeli war, and why he would have done so…Leonard with a wide grin replied “I had to get out of the house”. I mentioned to him that years ago it had taken him several pages (In the Death Of A Lady’s Man poem An Unclean Start) to describe that which he had just summed up completely in one sentence, at which point he chuckled. Upon my asking if he could still get behind a poem that he had written almost fifty years ago (To A Teacher) he said from behind a smile “Let me put it this way, I’ve got nothing to recant, if that’s what you mean”.

Near the end of the party, Leonard, after asking me in the front hall whether it was snowing (which it was), he graciously inscribed my original hardcover Harold Town-illustrated copy of Beautiful Losers. ‘Rich, Good Meeting You, Leonard - January 8th, 2006’. His hands scanned the beautiful figures depicted on the cover, while his face seemed to acknowledge a quiet thought. We then had time for a quick photo, a firm hand shake and the dark melody of Leonard’s parting words “Nice to speak with you Rich, see you soon”

To draw words from Death Of A Lady’s Man, I have always felt that Leonard’s work was “An hydraulic jack” that “tapped me on the shoulder”…such a surprising happening, to simply read someone’s work, then at some point later to have a casual conversation, to turn away, and fully realize a massive impact in one’s life by another. I think Leonard must have recalled a similar, yet far deeper feeling when speaking of his friend upon hearing of his passing: "There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us. He is our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry. Alzheimer's could not silence him, and neither will death."

© 2006 Rich Baines