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‘A quiet madman, never far from tears’

Colourful Canadian poet Irving Layton, twice considered for a Nobel Prize in literature for his provocative verse, died on Wednesday in Montreal at the age of 93, according to media reports.

Layton, who once described himself as “a quiet madman, never far from tears”, wrote about 50 books of poetry and prose over five decades, including Here and Now (1945), The Black Huntsmen (1951) and A Red Carpet for the Sun, which won a Governor General’s Award in 1959.

In 1993, he became the first non-Italian to win the distinguished Petrarch Prize for poetry.

Layton died in a long-term care facility where he had lived for five years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

“There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us,” his friend, poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, wrote in an e-mail to the Gazette newspaper. “He is our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry. Alzheimer’s could not silence him, and neither will death.”

Brushing aside Canada’s “puritanical” notion of verse, Layton’s gritty, satiric, abrasive and sometimes bawdy poetry often dealt with violence in everyday life and the frightening side of free will.

He will be equally remembered for his boisterous reputation, abrasive ego, outrageous opinions, rousing love life and bitter feuds.

Layton was born Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in Tirgu Neamt, Romania, on March 12 1912. His parents changed the family name after immigrating to Canada the following year.

Layton was married five times, including to Betty Sutherland, a sister of actor Donald Sutherland, and had four children. His son David wrote Motion Sickness in 1999, a memoir of growing up with a capricious father.

Layton taught English literature and counted justice minister Irwin Cotler among his students. Cotler described him to reporters as “a mentor, a colleague and a friend”. — AFP

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