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On the Occasion of Layton's 87th Birthday
by Doug Beardsley

A birthday tribute to Irving Layton is a dangerous undertaking, particularly so at this time. He is still passionately with us, at eighty-seven, very much with us, though slowed now by old age, that affliction that catches up to us all on the way to the end. But even now, one has to tread carefully; one is liable to receive an early morning phone call and hear his booming bardic voice questioning the rightness of some casual comment or pointing out the distinction between tribute and elegy. One writes on eggshells.

I've long felt my dearest friend to be a tzaddik in the guise of a poet, a wise man whose wisdom comes not only from sacred books of literature but from his having been battered by life's experiences. For such a figure there can be no relief; he is compelled to harness the creative energy of the universe in his poems, to tell the truth about humankind, its monstrous behaviour in our dark time.

For Layton, poetry was never less than a calling, a sacred flame that fuses the poet to God through the imaginative power of the poem. From the first time we met, some thirty-five years ago, he seemed to emanate from another place, though, like the Greek god Epimetheus, his craft and sullen art reflected upon our own time, the here and now of our barbarous century. He has sometimes been accused of lacking in compassion for his fellow man but I've always felt this stemmed from his sense of what men and women could be, of what they could achieve. His familiarity with the contradictions and paradoxes of human nature never blinded him to the promise and the possibilities that were there, however tantalizingly out of reach.

What Layton was always trying to do was to give us, in Kenneth Burke's phrase, the "equipment for living" in a world that is too much with us. His belief in the power of poetry to redeem our little lives was-and is-absolute. And out of fashion. But the latter was never a concern.

He has often called me brother and I'd like to think our thirty-five-year friendship has been a family affair, but I can only feel unduly flattered. And thankful simply to have been included. To have known the man.

If I could grant my old Irving a birthday wish, it would be mitat neshika: that when his time does come the angel will embrace his chosen one with the same love and compassion that Irving offered when he first took me under his wing. 

Doug Beardsley is a poet who lives in Victoria.


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