Fraser Sutherland remembers Al Purdy
An Echo in the Mountains: Al Purdy after a Century. Edited by Nicholas Bradley. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020.
ONCE I WAS GIVEN the thankless task of introducing Al Purdy to a room full of university undergraduates. I didn’t commit the folly of saying “Al Purdy needs no introduction” but I did say “Al Purdy is a great friend of young poets.” Purdy wasn’t going to let me get away with that. He snarled or bellowed (in his case they were often interchangeable), “I hate young poets!”
He didn’t hate young poets; he was only seizing on the chance to embarrass one of them — me at the time. It was one way to pay us back for all the occasions I and many others had taken flagrant advantage of him in any way we could. We got him to endorse our grant applications. He put us in the anthologies he edited and wrote introductions to our poetry collections. As I wrote in a review of his Selected Poems, he was “a father figure toward whom two instincts war. Our first instinct is to worship him. The second is to bash his head in with a rock. But we never suffered the Oedipal fear of being subsumed into his outsized personality and work. Both are unique, and, for his part, Purdy only demanded from us our own uniqueness.”
As a minor quid pro quo we argued with him, knowing that he loved to argue. When we stayed overnight in the A-frame that he and his poet-carpenter friend Milton Acorn acrimoniously had constructed in Ameliasburgh on Roblin Lake (“Across Roblin Lake, two shores away …” he wrote in “Wilderness Gothic”), we needily availed ourselves of his hospitality, getting sloshed on his homebrewed beer, wincing at the taste of his legendary wild grape wine. We got a never-failing welcome from him and his infinitely forgiving wife Eurithe. Sheltered within the woods, we drifted asleep, pleasingly deluded that we were at the omphalos of something loosely called Canadian literature, under the roof of the best poet Canada had, or likely would have.
When he chose to enact a controlled suicide rather than go through the prolonged ordeal of death from cancer it was understandable, but I felt personally, unfairly betrayed because he had always been such an exemplar of physical and mental toughness. Now that he is gone it is time to measure his achievement. An Echo in the Mountains: Al Purdy after a Century, a compilation of mainly scholarly essays, is one way to do it. The task is not easy. As Nicholas Bradley, this book’s editor, rightly says of Purdy, “he wore a patchwork of literary passions, influences, and modes.”
PURDY'S CULTIVATED public image as a beer-swilling, cigar-chomping bumpkin, a self-schooled high school dropout and hoser savant, belied the fact that he was an insatiable reader and tireless book collector, spending far more time scouting for underpriced used books than he did in downing pints in taverns. Contradictions there were aplenty. Here was a self-mocking self-interlocutor who no sooner reached a conclusion than he started to doubt it, who teeter-tottered between comedy and grief, who shifted in mid-line between today’s headlines and the palaeolithic past, who sometimes sounded like the Three Stooges reciting Shakespeare. Lightning changes of register were characteristic, a clashing mix of plebeian and mandarin diction, prosiness combined with aphoristic or imagistic insight. His style does not at all resemble that of John Donne or D.H. Lawrence, the historical forbears he worshipped, or that of Irving Layton, the Canadian contemporary he most admired. Nor does it resemble that of Walt Whitman, to whom he sometimes was compared. Purdy loathed Whitman, whom he considered, he wrote George Bowering in 1973, “monotonous, long-winded and fulla s--t.”
Purdy was a late starter, and didn’t hit his stride until he was in his 40s. Writing of poems he published between 1959 and 1962, Bradley lists some of the rhetorical tactics he used then and later: bombast, “deliberate inelegance,” satires, portraits, affected meditations, “autobiographical depictions of impoverishment,” and, to women, “bawdy, roistering addresses.” To come were so many poems that they required two widely separated volumes of Collected Poems. Going by the number of poems he selected from them, Purdy considered his three best books to be Piling Blood (1984), The Cariboo Horses (1965), and Wild Grape Wine (1968). His poem titles are like an anti-breviary of fruitfully nagging questions and self-reflexive ruefulness: “What Do the Birds Think?”, “Song of the Impermanent Husband,” “Necropsy of Love,” Notes on a Fictional Character,” “Idiot’s Song,” “Temporizing in the Eternal City.”
Supremely sociable, Purdy typed or scrawled copious letters (548 pages of them in Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy) to far-flung correspondents, who included his American iconoclastic counterpart, the rough and nearly always ready Charles Bukowski. Bukowski was a contrast to Margaret Atwood, “Peggy” to her friends. She and Purdy had affectionate personal relations and respected each other’s work. But as Natalie Boldt makes clear in “‘Concerning Ms. Atwood’: Purdy, Margaret Atwood, and the Malahat Review,” Purdy’s respect did not extend to according to her the adulation that many, probably including herself, deemed to be her due. In any case, their careers took different trajectories. Atwood’s best poetry came early, Purdy’s came late. Atwood rose to international fame on the wings of her prose, Purdy’s magazine journalism, handy as a source of freelance income and collected in No Other Country (1977), was merely workmanlike-competent and his one novel, A Splinter in the Heart (1990), though enthusiastically conceived and containing biographical points of interest, was in truth not a very good novel.
IN 1975 WHEN invited to contribute to a special issue of the Malahat Review on Atwood’s work, he wrote that “she seems to me a very powerful and flawed poet. But then, I think all poets are flawed, since they can’t be all things to all people. As well, I don’t particularly like what I think is happening to her, and what she seems to be becoming … I like Peggy, respect her, think her probably the most important writer in the country today. That last for other reasons than writing. I don’t necessarily think she’s the best writer, since there are several very good writers in Canada, but probably the most important.” There was no question of her becoming his Muse. As Linda Rogers says in “His Muses, a mensa et toro,” he was “the country boy who had loved and then refused plainsong, his mother’s church language, and was searching for his own voice, just as he was coming to sexual maturity. Poetry was his new mother, his goddess, his lover, and his muse.”
Purdy had a gift for friendship. Besides friends who were close or relatively close to his own age like the poet R.G. (“Ron”) Everson and the novelists H.R. (“Bill”) Percy and Margaret Laurence they included the much younger Dennis Lee, Michael Ondaatje, Stan Dragland, Pat Lane, Susan Musgrave, and Lorna Crozier, all of whom go mostly unmentioned in An Echo in the Mountains. Doug Beardsley gets an essay to himself (“The Man Who Lived beyond Himself: Transcendental Al”) on the strength of his collaboration with Purdy on books related to John Donne and D.H. Lawrence.
BRADLEY RIGHTLY points out that “the writing of his life is probably the most urgent task in Purdy studies” but any future biographer will have no easy task. Elspeth Cameron’s biographies of Earle Birney and Irving Layton are by no means the best precedents. A better model might be Brian Busy’s trenchant and concise biography of John Glassco, One Life of John Glassco, Poet, Memoirist, Translator, and Pornographer.
Dealing with Purdy’s experience of, and attitude to women, for example, is a thorny and tangled matter. Shane Neilson is an intelligent poet and editor but he can be attacked by fits of obtuseness. In “Purdy’s Mock Love Poetry: Misogyny, Nation, and Progress” he asks, “Why is it that Canada’s so-called ‘most Canadian’ poet hasn’t written an outright love poem to a fully realized person?” In fact he did, the person was his wife Eurithe, and both editions of the Collected Poems are dedicated to her. Although never uxorious, and sometimes used as a comic foil, she’s a vivid and substantial presence and her importance to his life and work is beyond speculation. As his autobiography Reaching for the Beaufort Sea makes plain, their marriage was hardly a monument to domestic bliss, but it was also an ongoing tribute to her shrewdness, dignity, and intelligence. At the deepest level, she is present in every love poem he writes.
TO PURDY WE owe certain permanent phrases: “the ivory thought is still warm”, “north of summer”, “This is the country of our defeat”, “The shape of home is under your fingernails.” Although, to me at least, these are like talismans for us to touch as long as Canada exists, such a view has not gone unchallenged. Carmine Starnino, an accomplished poet, critic, and Walrus magazine editor, decried in his introduction to his presumptuously titled The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry (2005), “the plain, the soft-spoken, the flatly prosy, the paraphrasingly simple, the accessibly Canadian” that he hoped was “in its last throes.” Praising David Solway, his friend and fellow Montrealer (both Starnino and Solway are associated with poetic formalism), he describes “our current literary dispensation” as one in which free verse “continues its ascendancy with the emphasis on ‘free’ rather than on ‘verse.’” This prosiness (as well as Canadian nationalism, nay chauvinism), he attributes to Purdy’s baleful example. In an essay, “Standard Average Canadian” (2001), Solway asserts that Purdy summoned “mere narrative or reportage, the structure muddled and amorphous, the tone laid on with a trowel, lumberingly mock-plaintive and corny.” If I may reverse chronology, Starnino and Solway seem like young Augustans deploring the influence of an old Romantic. Purdy’s rhythms and diction can hardly be called demotically humdrum. Starnino and Solway are wrong-headed but, given that critical debate in Canadian literature is so moribund, some wrong-headedness is welcome.
In any event Purdy has been well served by his editors and commentators: Russell Brown, editor of the first Collected Poems (1986) and Sam Solecki, editor of the Collected Letters (2004) and, with Purdy himself, of Beyond Remembering, the second Collected Poems (2000).
In “Death of DHL” Purdy quotes D.H. Lawrence, “For me, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, or for flowers or beast or bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly and perfectly alive.” This was Purdy’s life to his last breath. He will live on for all who read him.
Fraser Sutherland, who died on March 28, published 14 books, most recently a new collection of poems, Bad Habits (Mosaic Press, 2019). Several of his poems were published in recent editions of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW.