Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy

by Sam Solecki, Al Purdy
ISBN: 1550173324

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A Review of: Yours, Al
by Jeremy Lalonde

Shortly after the death of F.R. Scott, Scott's biographer, Sandra Djwa, wrote to Al Purdy and asked him to consider writing a couple of pages of prose about his relationship with Scott. In Purdy's response, spurious indignation-"You want pages from me? Is this ten volumes or one?"-quickly gives way to a very personal tribute. The final lines of Purdy's letter read like much of his poetry-they slip in and out of regular iambic meter and end with a measure of elegiac consolation: "Every day men die, but this man's life makes dying somehow seem unimportant: all that he was, except his body, still is and goes on and on-" In the brief postscript, Purdy self-consciously clears his throat: "Sandra: Maybe some of this gets too carried away. You decide that. And let me know if you want any more."
There's a succession of moving moments in this passage: Purdy grieves for Scott and celebrates the lasting power of words in remembrance; he worries over the sentimentality of the lines he's written, retracts them to an extent, then offers them back to an amazed reader. In fact, the tonal and thematic transitions in this passage-from high to low and back again-define many of Purdy's greatest poems. Reading Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy, I often felt that familiar double clutch, followed by the surge ahead. Of travelling in Spain, Purdy remembers, "I kept lookin for Cervantes' ghost in Spain, but all I saw was Quixote iron-cut-outs pluggin hamburgers. But the flowers, migawd the flowers, roadside red poppies like sunken flags of the Armada."
I never met Al Purdy. Once, I had a chance to attend one of his readings, but some reason that I've since forgotten prevented me from attending. That's my Purdy-story. If you ever met him or attended one of his readings, you likely have a Purdy story of your own-if you're lucky, it's a story in which something actually happens. My point is that there are few Canadian poets whose correspondence I would be interested in reading. But I knew enough about Purdy when I began reading Yours, Al to be genuinely interested.
What was I really expecting? I have to admit (somewhat sheepishly) that I looked forward to alcohol-fuelled anecdotes like the following: "I'm told I tried to devour [Ralph] Gustafson's tie, and he told me about this somewhat aggrievedly next day while wearing a roll-neck sweater." While there's no shortage here of buffoonery or brawls involving famous Canadian writers, Yours, Al often reveals the extent to which some of these events were self-consciously built up to epic stature when they were retold in Purdy's autobiography, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea. It's not as if the sensitive man upstages the brawler in these letters-rather, both are revealed as masks that Purdy wore from time to time. Both are a part of what Sam Solecki calls a "complex, almost cubist self-portrait in various styles." Reading Purdy's letters, you're there when he limps off stage, complaining about a bad back and a bum knee; you're there when he worries over his weight.
Purdy's list of correspondents reads like a who's who of Canlit: Milton Acorn, Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, George Bowering, Leonard Cohen, Louis Dudek, Northrop Frye, Patrick Lane, Margaret Laurence, Irving Layton, Dennis Lee, Jack McClelland, Susan Musgrave, John Newlove, Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields and George Woodcock (this list is indicative rather than exhaustive). Together, these letters amount to a subjective, largely anecdotal and manifestly entertaining literary history that spans fifty years in Canada.
Since my use of the words "literary history" (however qualified the usage) may have just induced a transnational yawn, I'll quickly defer to Purdy; in a 1972 letter to Earle Birney, Purdy reflects on what it means to be a famous Canadian poet:

"whether your poems or my poems ever get published elsewhere or not, I can't think yours are anything but good, and don't feel any inferiority in myself eitherI realize I'm taking the stance of an old lady in full flush of euphoria after having written a poem, and she believes it to be the greatest ever-all her friends tell her so. Perhaps we are like that old lady in a way (altho I doubt it), our friends (fellow Canadians) saying we are great etc."

Despite any reservations he may have had about boosterism among Canadian poets-as-critics, Purdy helped along the careers of many writers, offering feedback on everything from poetry to grant applications. In fact, I can think of only one occasion in Yours, Al when Purdy manifests any disenchantment with his mentorship role. Writing to Jack McClelland in 1975, Purdy describes the overwhelming response to a press release calling for submissions from women poets for an anthology that he was editing:

"I suggest you issue another press release immediately: pleading with all the women in Canada to stop sending poems. Roblin Lake is nearly filled with poems, the village of Ameliasburgh is threatening court actionI now have some 250 pieces of mail (rough estimate) and presumably there could be another thousand by month's end. About fifteen of those were registered."

Even in this moment of exasperation, there is a form of irony present that I find difficult to decipher.
I think a meaningful distinction can be made here between Reaching for the Beaufort Sea and Yours, Al: while the former autobiography serves as an affirmative record of a literary career, Yours, Al catalogues the literary projects that Purdy abandoned for various reasons: editorship of several anthologies, authorship of a Canadian literary handbook, a study of Earle Birney's poetry and a history of Ontario. Writing to John Newlove in 1976, Purdy turns down an invitation to edit a McClelland and Stewart anthology and bleakly assess the work of some well-known Canadian poets:

"Reading Livesay is too big a penalty for doing your antho. The only really good woman poet I know is Atwood, and she is possibly repeating herself as we all tend to doI grew up with Carman, Roberts, Lampman, D.C. Scott etc. I think now that all but Scott are shitSmith and F.R. Scott will stand up to a degree, without being extraordinary. I respect Pratt, but his goddam rhythms bore meLayton is good, but over-inflated both as to reputation and self-opinion. Cohen has been washed up for some time, but at his best pretty good. Nowlan is too sweet, Souster bores me."

Purdy rarely offers unsolicited criticism in his letters (the notable exception being his opinion of the Tish poets); indeed, he often appears reticent to review poetry written by his friends.
In one noteworthy case, Purdy agrees to review Earle Birney's Collected Poems for Canadian Literature, then asks George Woodcock to relieve him of the assignment, citing a current interest "in young poets, whose talent you can't entirely predict." In a letter to Birney written several months later, Purdy claims, "I've heard nothing of your Coll. Poems, except did see their listing in McStew Cat." Through much of his later correspondence, Purdy remains enthusiastic about Birney's poetry, but it is most often Birney's early work, specifically "David" and "Mappemounde", that Purdy singles out for direct praise. If Purdy thought that Birney's poetry had become somewhat predictable (and this conclusion admittedly involves reading between the lines), it highlights the distance Purdy has come-from writing Birney fan-mail in the 1950s, to acknowledging the unevenness of much of Birney's later work.
While the correspondence between Purdy and Charles Bukowski, Margaret Laurence and George Woodcock has previously appeared in print, this is the first time that the extensive Purdy-Birney correspondence has been published. These letters, especially those exchanged between Purdy and Birney while both were living in Vancouver during the 1950s, are revelatory. Birney supplies Purdy with judicious literary criticism as well as answers to practical questions about publishing and grant applications. Although he is wont to tease Birney about his academic credentials, Purdy admired Birney and greatly valued his opinions, frequently enclosing drafts of his poems with his letters (Solecki includes many of these uncollected poems alongside the letters). So, it is with a measure of pride that Purdy tells Birney in 1959, "I'm writing too. Have a book out with Ryerson this fall called The Crafte So Longe to Learne-ought to be an invitation to critics. It's 26 pages, but still a chapbook I'm told." Birney had written his Ph.D. thesis on Chaucer, and his response imposes a gentle corrective on Purdy's spelling: "Your title-Robinson's edition spells it The Craft so long to lerne'- anyway I don't think Chaucer ever spelled it learne,' but a small point." Later that year, The Crafte So Long to Lerne appeared in print with its amended title.
The footnotes to the letters are well-researched, yet unassuming-that is, Solecki provides brief entries for major figures in Canadian and world literature without patronizing his reader or descending to pedantry. This is, in total, an exemplary edition that opens up suggestive lines of inquiry for scholars interested in Purdy's work, while simultaneously offering a narrative that is engaging in its own right. I have to disagree with Solecki's choice to forgo a chronologically arranged table of contents (he offers a detailed index instead), but that may be a matter of personal preference and not a valid criticism. I have long shared Solecki's sense that Purdy "has been curiously ignored in recent years." Solecki began The Last Canadian Poet with those words; I'm not sure how much has changed since 1999, but I remain hopeful that Yours, Al will impose a corrective on that disappointing trend.

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