Third Solitude Series

The blog of the Museum of Jewish Montreal

A Centenary Cette Semaine

Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen. Photo by Harry Rasky.

This week I’ve been thinking of Irving Layton, one of Canada’s first modernist poets who was born 100 years ago this week and died six years ago. My copy of his witty memoir, Waiting for the Messiah, is packed away among many other life stories in wine boxes in a garage. In my favourite passage Layton recalls his involvement with First Statement, the modernist literary magazine he and John Sutherland stapled together in the early 1940s. Out of a tight Stanley Street office Irving and John worked one of Montreal’s very few small presses. They prided themselves on being apart from the conservative and Britishist Preview magazine, a minor rivalry which didn’t prevent them from publishing the same poets and soon merging together.

Image from Gregory Betts in ‘The Rise
of the Small Press Movement in Canada.’

In this passage John and Irving receive a visitor to their office in the form of an old man, shrivelled like a tasty prune and I imagine bent over himself at a right angle supported by his weathered cane. He came to the ‘First Statement Press’ bureau on official business. He wanted John and Irving to print his grand-son’s bar mitzvah party invitations and he was going to pay for it. Layton describes tears dripping from his eyes.

Bar mitzvah cards. This did not resemble the literary material John and Irving envisioned their small First Statement press to publish between runs of Ezra Pound and Louis Dudek. To this unenlightened man’s crass proposition, Layton let it be known, albeit ever so subtly, that the First Statement press was a delicate virgin whose chastity was not up for grabs by anything to do with bar mitzvah celebratory events. The gumption! Good day, Sir.

Layton was a teacher for the better part of his life. Here he is with his Herzliah High School class in the early 1950s, where he taught History, English and Political Science. 

- Elizabeth Moorhouse-Stein

Reposted from Tansky’s Phone Booth.

Visit the Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal's exhibit on Irving Layton.