by George Galt
Sweeping broadly across time and space, Al Purdy's collected poetry is less a monument to the poet than a beacon to others
In less than two years Al Purdy will turn 70. He has published more than 30 books of poetry from which the work of this thick retrospective collection has been culled. The new volume is a rare accomplishment, because Purdy's poetry is unique, but also because few poets approaching old age exhibit his fresh imagination and still expanding insights.
Purdy's post apprentice writing, which began 25 years ago, stands high above what most of his Canadian contemporaries have done (here I place him loosely in the generation born between 1900 and 1930). His distinct style, which has spavined many imitators; his broad sweep across time, the earth, and its universe; a full emotional range, nuanced through despair and boredom to ecstasy, love, and laughter, his ability to give voice to what readers recognize as Canadian experience (without trapping himself as a spokesman for the parochial); and his vast bookish learning, which almost always illuminates a passage where it is deployed, escaping the drag of pedantry - these are the qualities that set him apart from his peers. Of the poets born in the 30 years I have bracketed, only Bade Birney and Irving Layton have achieved the impact on our culture that Purdy can claim. (Draw a smaller circle, around our poetic culture, and you have to include writers like P.K. Page and Margaret Avison).
The publication of Purdy's Collected Poem should be a major cultural event, and the book itself lives up to all expectations. Its reception may not do it justice. Purdy was lionized 9n the late 19501 and early '70s, when he was writing prose pieces for the old Maclean's and for the weekend rotogravures, editing anthologles and other poets' books, and accepting commissions to compose poems. During the same period he was also making noise off the page as an active Canadian nationalist, which further enlarged his constituency. He had become a national literary star. I suspect that his strong personality, the rough-hewn figure he cut at the podium, and his appealing capacity for selfdramatization at readings endeared him to an audience much larger than those who read and understood all his work.
As age and arthritis began to slow him down. Purdy gave up the frantic pace, stopped tearing around on freelance magazine assignments, and began travelling for longer periods outside the country, concentrating on his own poetry. His dropping from view has meant less public attention for his books, but if he has fewer readers now, it's the public's loss. His two books in the 1980s, The Stone Bird and Piling Blood, along with a dozen new poems in this collection, are a departure from his earlier work - in some ways superior to it and certainly as vigorous.
Ironically, when Purdy was at his most popular, in the first half of the 1970s, he was not writing as well as he had in the previous decade, nor as well as he would later. I think his best books are The Cadboo Horses (1965), North of Summer (1967), Wild Grape Wine (196, and the two volumes in the 1990s; mentioned above. Many fine poems populate the books in between, but there is also a slackness in parts, a suggestion on some pies that the poet can't find his ignition keys and is thumbing a ride in the back seat of his own previous work.
Pieces like "Place of Fire," a poem about writing a poem. "Picture Layout in Life Magazine," a predictable (though not unmoving) shot at glossy American journalism and "Ritual," a brooding, self-involved list of winter complaints, all strike me this way. They are not clumsy and clichTd, not meritless, but they lack adventure and surprise. Later Purdy seems to have known that his work had staggered through an uneven period. Being Alive (1978) included "On Realizing He Had Written Some Bad Poems." (Whatever Purdy judged rally bad has been kept out of this new volume. It does not contain off his published poems, only the ones he likes best.)
Still, during flat same period he wrote more excellent poetry than most poets produce in a lifetime. Among the successes are "Hands," about pressing the flesh with Che Guevara; "The Beavers of Renfrew." a meditation on man's place in nature (with the peculiar twist on history that only Purdy can fashion); "Pre-School," a flashback to the clear-eyed awe of first things
I said as slowly as I could "You're red"
and it was so and I knew
I knew for the first time
that I could invent the world
- and "In the Darkness of Cities," an anguished song on behalf of the earth's dispossessed.
Sometime in the late '70s Purdy's writing voice began to modulate from loud solos, which gave full vent to the poet's brash, sprawling ego, into a softer harmony with ambient sounds and sights. The change is evident at the end of "After Rain" (1978):
one day of least stands
indomitable as a potato
its light curving
over the roof of the world
a samovar of the sun
enclosing my pest.
the great blue heron
including a hunched figure
on some porch steps
between lightning flashes
No longer trying to goose the goddesses in heaven, no more a cosmic prankster who "fails magnificently," the poet has now adopted an almost reverential stance, a "hundred figure" pondering the luminous roof of the world. I doubt that any poet could have sustained both the freshness and the manic energy that much of Purdy's earlier work displayed. Something had to give. By turning his high volume down, and using his presence in the poems more as a filter and mixer than as an amplifier, he has moved into softer ballads that explore in new ways his old concerns.
Exactly what the principal concerns of this agile poetry have been since 1962, when Poems for All the Annettes first appeared. Dennis Lee elucidates in an afterword. One of the many joys of this book is Lee's insightful essay, as brilliant an exposition of Purdy's work as we may ever have. Lee's interpretation locates
Purdy's uniqueness in his settle of process and his ability to mimic the nuances of life-as-process in a poem. "It is characteristic of the process that it is chock-a-block with things which are in commensurable with one another."
Out of the rush of everyday incommensurable spring Purdy's unpredictable epiphanies, which are, according to Lee, "what theologians call the experience of mysterium tremendum - the encounter with holy otherness, to which an appropriate response is awe, joy, terror, gratitude." Anyone familiar with the poems will recognize the passages Lee means, the near-visionary moments when Purdy leaps over a few million years in a line, or transports the poem halfway around the earth and back again in one breath. It is his ability to traverse time and space, and to make the traversal seem natural and immediate, his giant steps across the back yards of history and prehistory, often climbing inside the skins of creatures who inhabited other times, that give Purdy his huge poetic grasp. Lee calls this talent an appreciation for "the eternal now." Purdy, in "Lost in the Badlands (a poem from the 1980s), says he means
the simultaneity of things
not the false measurement of clocks
but the instant of the dinosaurs
whose instant I am part of.
Twenty years earlier, holding in his mind a piece of Eskimo sculpture ("Lament for the Dorsets"), he explained:
After 600 years
the ivory thought
is still warm.
Allied to the notion of an accessible "eternal now," I would add, is Purdy's sense of collapsible space, and his intuition that all living things are intimately related. In "Seal People" (from Piling Blood) the poet wretches sea animals scrim off the Galapagos, and then suddenly his own entrails enter the water as metaphors:
liver a dark shadow remembering
kidneys and heart
bob la the salt sea
when it's time to go
I have not retrieved all of rnyseff
and may never.
At the end of Purdy's new book appear three poems that reveal an increasing preoccupation with death. In an eloquent introduction, the poet says a "collected" is "either a gravestone or a testimonial to survival." Nothing feels feeble or terminal in the new poems that close this volume. Purdy's lifespan aside, this book is less a headstone than an iridescent beacon. But inasmuch as such books are inevitably taken as a kind of monument, I'll predict that this one will last as long as Canadian writing lasts. Certainly long after most books from our little slice of the eternal now have been forgotten, the best poems of AI Purdy will continue to give light.