The man who would be immortal has finally died.
For 10 years, like the mythic sibyl who wished for immortality and got it only to live on in ever-shrivelling agony Irving Layton lived on in a Montreal nursing home, a victim of Alzheimer's.
I thought I'd be happy when his release came a couple of weeks back, at the age of 93. But I'm hit surprisingly hard, as though part of myself has died.
I loved Irving Layton. He was the anti-Canadian. All the alleged reserve and complacency of the stereotypical Canuck found its antithesis in this big, brash guy.
Layton was loud, charming, lush, visceral and vulgar. He had an enormous need to aggravate something, anything: language, feminists, WASPs, Jews. His penchant for effrontery usually worked well for the spirit of his poetry, but not always so well socially.
This was evident in the skewed, flattened state of his nose, which had been roughly adjusted by numerous street fights in his youth. It gave him a great look, though. And great tone.
He had an accent and vocal style I've never heard before or since. He also had more than his fair share of literary scuffles, some of which have outlasted him, but most of which he took pleasure in reconciling later in life.
The rage sometimes got the better of him, and he wrote some lousy insulting poems, but he also wrote great poems. Good enough to be nominated for the Nobel Prize.
Of course if there were a Nobel Prize for ego, he probably would've got nominated for that, too, but at least it was professed ego, somewhat easier to bear than the more brittle subdued egos of literary counterparts who followed him.
The notion of "poet" in the grand sense has lately fallen into disrepute. But Layton was that kind of poet. "As a poet, I've claimed the right to enter imaginatively into the seminal tensions and dilemmas of our age," he once said.
I was lucky enough to have been mentored by Layton. He heard me read poetry in my early 20s and took me under his wing in a big way.
When I was threatened with a lawsuit over a poem, he gave me legal advice. ("Take that letter and wipe your ass with it!) And when I was terrified for my sanity, he gave me psychological support that made all the difference in the world.
He also gave me money. I'm almost embarrassed to say that now, when I know he died penniless. But that was the kind of larger-than-life figure he was. What a blessing.