Pacific Rim Review of Books

About Us
Current Issue
Issue Archives
Upcoming Reviews

Contact Us
Pacifica Poetry Prize

[Back to Issue Features]

Al Purdy After a Century

Review by Linda Rogers

An Echo in the Mountains: Al Purdy after a century
Editor: Nicholas Bradley
McGill- Queen’s University Press, 310 p.

First thing first, an echo is a transformation. Al Purdy shouts from his podium, a big hill in his Purdy-centred world, and the rock faces respond, bending his voice, as scholars take note. All of it is vicarious. That’s how we live in the world of “he said.” He said what? Listen to the echo. Is it real?

In our all-mutable world of false information and projection of moral failure, there are many angles from which we examine poetry, prayer, and politics, the ultimate spoken word. Bradley gives opportunity to many voices in the choir as abstract expressionism morphs into formalism and finally to the Al in algorhythm, the self creation of runaway myth in the age of social media undermining civilisation as he knew it.

And Al, the conscious self-creator most of the essayists notice, struggled to find that voice, the one that would lead him to the celebrity he encountered in an Atwood, his formidable and stubborn frenemy, finding her apotheosis in the dystopian present. At the unveiling of Al’s statue in Queens Park, I found myself laughing with her as little children troubled the stone carved in his image and I apologized for dead Al and live myself for describing her as cold. “The world needs Romantics,” she said, her point taken.

Was Purdy a romantic at all? In the Aristotelian ways, yes, but in the broader sense of enthusiasm for all of nature, including the rights of women and children, then no. This is the angel Shane Nelson wrestles in his essay, “Purdy’s Mock Love Poetry, Misogyny, Nation and Progress,” where he questions the intent in the so-called love poems which make the disaster film ‘The War of the Roses” look like innocent foreplay.

Nelson also finds offence in the awarding of the singular Voice of the Land award which, in the end was actually a private subsidy to allow Eurithe to afford the double wide graves that would give them equal space, perhaps a joke by one of our greatest ironists and at least one major donor. In the end, the frugal depression survivors decided to share a plot and justice will see Eurithe on top at last, because Purdy’s offences were all bids for freedom. It bears mentioning that, in poetry and in life, from the toddler moment he hid on his frantic mother to his rejection of family and the concept of love, he sought freedom.

No one knew that Atwood was constructive in assisting her old sparring partner’s end days, and instrumental in his selection as The Voice of the Land. His was not the only one, but it was a legitimate poetic voice of his generation, an uneasy moment between recognition and attempted reconciliation of our colonial past. In China, there is a tone for the reign of every emperor. Al prevailed because he crafted a sound that fit his time.

Poets know the importance of order in organizing a collection of poetry. The editor of An Echo in the Mountains arranged the various arguments so they move as poetry does, from the particular to the universal, starting with essays by friends familiar with the rhythms of this very unique individual, his life and his work.

Doug Beardsley examines the reach in “The Man Who Lived beyond Himself, the Transcendental Al” as the poet uncovered mysteries buried in layers of language.

He comes to the only possible conclusion: the deep syntax and tone of Al Purdy was prayer, a bridge to the unknown. That it came from a plainspoken man of exquisite vulgarity, a rude man who never swore around women, was his ticket to rapture.

Jamie Dopp, in “Six ways of Looking at ‘Elegy for a Grandfather’,” confirms this mythic quest for perfect utterance, the songline that connects past to present, which is at the heart of this book whose moving parts are more about poetry than one poet standing in for the transformative language that defines all of us. Then may not describe now, but it stood its’ place in time. It is not a question of great poetry, but poetry that connects the “we” to the “me” and Al, he argues, found the language for that ‘in a series of attempts, using different strategies, to bring back the near mythic figure that Purdy’s inner child will never let go of.” Understanding, articulating the past is the first task in human existence. Know thyself.

Once we had Ten Commandments, and they were indisputable. Now nothing is sacred, not even fame. Now poets representing variety in the Canadian mosaic inscribe the new holy words.

Purdy became famous as the everyman poet of his generation in Canada, and now his wake is examined in the context of new political realities, diversity and revealed authenticity. In this book, his oeuvre and his reputation are parsed by poets and scholars of a generation informed by post, post-modernist consciousness.

Bradley has selected points of view that tell us as much about poetry as they do about the subject poet, a big man whose hubris may have been reach exceeding grasp, or a declaration of the ongoing potential to experience heaven reflected in a still Ontario Lake or asparagus growing in a ditch. The difference is in point of view.

This inclusive poet’s dozen, one short, debates the aspects of a complex/simple man, whose long shadow may or may not reverberate in the concrete towers replacing mountains in the urban landscape of Canadian consciousness. “Say the Names” he shouted in possibly his last great poem, but, they are overwhelmingly masculine and white, their energy concentrated in nouns that transform even as they are spoken into a vernacular incomprehensible to a mid-century man.

Al may be laughing at the confusion his poems have caused in the minds of academics who require the last word for context. Several essayists in this volume lament the impossibility of nailing down the intention of poems that saw many variations, the sheer volume of revisions.
Purdy was a hunter-gatherer trapped in a settler reality, and he threw nothing away. Every critic should be required to visit his virtual basement filled with papers, books, photographs and not the least, recordings. He abhorred cant and dogma, stasis, adored the legato of Verdi, Lawrence, Bjorling, boy voices without end, infinite variation until he landed on the final jarring note, self-termination.

Al was not interested in the Sutherlands and Stills, or even the Atwoods and Lawrences although several scholars comment that he was fascinated by their access to fame. He was reaching for something primal, the male voice he heard in the womb, reverberations from the Halifax explosion, maybe cymbals, the tragic ending. If he ever got a handle on his slurry consonants he would have been a happy operatic baritone. This never varied, his preoccupation with maleness, his narcissism.

It is easy to forget that in this time of instant revision, poets of his generation typed laborious revisions on typewriters. Discarded words that now live in the sky are the paper trails of the past. Al had several typewriters, one in every location where he might meet up with his muse for furtive sex. We have one and it won’t stop talking in that slurry growl that once translated the music of time into poetry.

It would be easy to imagine him a curious child on the floor taking a typewriter apart and putting it back together his own way. He was stubborn, would have tried as he succeeded in finding his own poetic persona after many failures, especially his infamous attempts to emulate my kinsman Bliss Carman, “Make me over Mother April, when the sap begins to stir. “Make me over,” he did and critics who wonder at the final construct, a giant baby stepping over mountain and prairie, riding the train, while proclaiming discovery and conquest, get their answer in his confessional letters with Margaret Atwood whose celebrity persona he envied.

In her comical essay, “One of us, Purdy Elite Culture and the Visual Arts” Ernestine Lahey laments the creation of a one dimensional Purdy by his “friends,” myself included. “All these activities have the hallmarks of a branding exercise, one in which Purdy is packaged, marketed, and sold (with the help of celebrity endorsements) with the help of souvenirs and fan ‘experiences’.” I think Al would be forgiven for saying this kind of “scholarship” with its own agenda doesn’t know its ass from a hole in the ground. Now that is plain speech but real poets have the prerogative to comment on unfamiliars making soup out of their bones.

Purdy intimates might have preferred a little more civility, not in his work, but in his behaviour. His best work transcends human behaviour and that is why he is an emblem of his generation, something Bradley recognizes, even though he generously gives space to dissenting opinions.

Lahey’s other contention that Purdy experienced interior and exterior landscape visually is also a projection. He was in fact an autodidact who informed his poems with references to visual art, treasure he discovered in books, an aspect of craft, sets for his operatic productions in plainsong. She mentions Van Gogh and the prints hung in their bedroom by Eurithe, who scooped crockery and pictures while her husband foraged for books at yard sales and other nuisance grounds.

It is hard to think of a poet who knew or cared less about art than Al Purdy. Eurithe was the eye. He was the voice. That was the partnership.

Al created Al the common man quite intentionally, selecting from his various aspects as he confessed in letters to Atwood, the persona that fit his time and place. That was his genius. For anyone to suggest that his fellows had anything to do with it is quite comical in the context of the man who made impressions on his wife’s wrist: “I act, she reacts.” His friends reacted by ignoring the unkind Al and focusing on his somewhat naïve enthusiasms. That was the enjoyable Al, not the one who edited out both his children and watched his wife suffer.

Although his letters with women writers offer some insight into the character of the man and his poetics, the many letters I received that were written on hotel notepaper felt like his grip on Eurithe’s wrist. I answered only once, when he was dying. “Now this is a poem,” he shouted, waving an unsigned poem he’d received in a card. “This was written by a man.” “Sorry Al, it’s mine,” I said.

Purdy’s misogyny, his casual intolerance of a woman who put it all aside and still does for him, a woman who might have had her own identity, who secretly aspired to be a doctor or photographer or even a better mother, her repressed ambitions, is front and centre in poems that never speak of love. He could not say the word, because that is the nature of narcissism. He felt enthusiasm. Al admired, and usually what he admired was masculine models of aspiration.

The other deficit mentioned more than once is racism with regard to Indigenous people. Al Purdy was not a racist, but he was thick as mud when it came to understanding the effect of colonialism on First Nations. An admirer of male intelligence, he simply didn’t understand that it was the imbalance created by The Indian Act, the devastation of genocide and destruction of Native habitat and balanced hegemony that destroyed community.

The hunter-gatherer couldn’t fathom the importance of women as knowledge keepers, within and without his settler culture. When women spoke up, they had to be challenged, an almost sexual sport that often ended at an attempt at seduction, not from love but conquest, to silence the subject female.

Bradley is proximate in his exegesis of Purdy the ethnographer, his song catching parallel to the quests of Marius Barbeau and others who respected the cultures that came before settlement. Then as now the land speaks through many, and, if Purdy is now “out of date” in the scramble for literary recognition, that does not negate his significance in his own time and place.
In the days before appropriation was strictly applied to literature, Purdy assumed he could reconstruct traditional stories.

“Yehl the Raven” shows that, at the outset of his career as a mature writer, Purdy was determined to render his poetry a means of exploring Canadian history and geography, in which he included Indigenous cultures, even if so doing took him away from personal experience and his home in southern Ontario.

Those were the days when scholars traced the gestalt of the Golden Bough, when poets admired and emulated Robert Graves. We may still subscribe to the one in the many but the many have now asserted sovereign rights to land and culture.

Most of the scholars in this collection are perplexed by the anachronisms of Al Purdy, and the multiplicity of influences in his own voice. He was a stranger in a strange land trying to find his way home, reaching for markers that resonated his unique experience, one that is now in the historical past. To answer the doubters, he made his own footprints on a land that did not belong to his forefathers and mothers, but that he was making his own, blazing a literary trail.

There is a constant refrain in this book about the need for textual criticism, the requirement for consistency in his multiple-baked poetry. As if Purdy wrote for the convenience of academics, whose noise he would cut off with an ill tempered “Cut the crap.” His laughter resounds in limbo or wherever he is waiting for Eurithe to make his last meal. Although impressed by the interest, he would probably threaten to take the pages and pages of footnotes in this volume to the outhouse.

It is interesting how the age of information and disinformation has affected the protocols of critical writing. The poet might ask, does the footnote affirm the accuracy of this remark or is it just another opinion. Poets are about truth. Is truth in the end a footnote or a gathering of words in psalm or song?

What are the received conventions in an era when social media control the collective soul, 1984 realised in the demise of civilisation? Bradley et al are scrupulous. They are fact checkers. We take comfort from that, but not in the way that Al might have.

In her essay, “Purdy, Margaret Atwood and the Malahat Review,” Natalie Boldt examines a rare friendship where Purdy barely restrains his urge to dominate. She is too big for that as were the flowers she sent to his hospital room when he underwent surgery for the cancer that almost killed him. The flowers kept on breathing as Eurithe controlled his oxygen for months.

Purdy, who had been considered a colonial enigma when he read at Oxford in the Seventies, noticed Atwood “travelled well,” her fame fitting the geist of a new generation. He kept his eye her vibrant bouquet, wondering aloud which would wilt first, the patient or the flowers.

Carl Watts gets the last word while considering the precocious Carmine Starnino’s disparagement of the loose in/formalism of an apparent school of free verse influenced by Purdy. “Purdy is far from formally experimental but he is consistent; his form as unspectacular as it may be when read in isolation from his subject matter, never the less exists in symbiosis with the persona that emerged from the confluence of content, context and stylistic regularity.” It is what it is, not a school, not a contrivance, but a man enchanted by an echo in the mountains, the sound of himself magnified, free. In that moment, it was perfect. Home to his grave, with a tombstone designed by my husband, who agrees he was an uncommon common man.

Al Purdy

‘This is where I came to
when my body left its body
and my spirit stayed
in its spirit home’

Linda Rogers, Canadian People’s Poet and former Poet Laureate of Victoria was recently awarded the Gwendolyn MacEwen Award for the second time and the Carter Vanderbilt Cooper short fiction award. Her recent books include Repairing the Hive and Yo!Wiksas? with Chief Rande Cook. Mother, the Verb, an anthology of women’s art and writing, is forthcoming.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #26