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The More Easily Kept Illusions: The Poetry of Al Purdy

by Robert Budde, editor
80 pages,
ISBN: 088920490X


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Purdy Redigested
by Jeremy Lalonde

Upon reading that Wilfred Laurier Press was putting together a selected edition of Al Purdy's poetry that included "lesser-known gems [along] with Purdy's greatest hits," I feared the worst. I didn't know anything about the editor of this book, Robert Budde, but I worried that the gems in question were none other than those poems of the 1940s¨that Purdy himself referred to as "crap"¨gussied up for the occasion. Happily, I was wrong about Budde's sense of smell; The More Easily Kept Illusions selects thirty-five of Purdy's finest poems published between 1962 (Poems for All the Annettes) and 1997 (To Paris Never Again). "After Rain" delivers one of the great epiphanies of the collection:

The world pulses and throbs
bathed in a thick gold glow
the world is a heavy
gold bangle on the universe
burnt brown grass turns live yellow
the shithouse is a green dollhouse
even grey muffin-shaped stones
are throbbing small hearts
across the dark south
lightning semaphores north
Suddenly ű say ten seconds
ű everything thickens
as if someone had stirred
and mixed in another colour
I am almost what I was
a bored child again
experiencing magic
but that's a lie
I never did experience magic

This is a poem I had forgotten, but nevertheless I feel it should be counted among Purdy's finest. I'm sure that other readers who are familiar with Purdy's poetry will have similar experiences with different poems. And, at some point, these readers will have to decide whether this experience is worth the price of admission.
Although I'd like to endorse this book, I simply can't. For me, the following passage, taken from Budde's introduction, encapsulates all of the book's problems:
"If you already know [Purdy's] poetry, you've got all you need. This selection will intrigue you because of my choices for inclusion and exclusion¨undoubtedly there will be squawks and exclamations of chagrin at some elided gem or missed masterpiece. Of course I've missed some, I admit it. But tell me this is not a good read."

First off, a squawk: you will not find "The Country North of Belleville" in this book, despite the fact that its title, The More Easily Kept Illusions, is taken from that poem. I don't care how widely anthologised "The Country North of Belleville" may be, excluding it is an act of lunacy, especially when one considers how many other widely anthologised poems are included ("Remains of an Indian Village", "Hockey Players", "Home-Made Beer", "At the Quinte Hotel", "Trees at the Arctic Circle", and "Wilderness Gothic"). I imagine that other readers will react in similar ways to the exclusion of "Necropsy of Love", "The Dead Poet", or "Elegy for a Grandfather". The list could go on; indeed, the passage quoted from Budde's introduction invites this kind of criticism. Although I could spend this entire review battering Budde's strawmen, I'd rather assess whether the "intrigue" engendered by Budde's idiosyncratic choices and the fact that this book is a "good read" justify its publication.
Budde's implied audience seems to include readers who are familiar with Purdy's work and Canadian literary history despite his own admission that this audience isn't really in need of this book. I think that he has this kind of audience in mind when he states, in his introduction, "Robert Kroetsch argues that Canadian modernism never happened, but I would argue it did . . . and furthermore, that Canadian postmodernism has barely nudged aside this dominant tradition." Why must Budde whip up this tired old argument? Let it rest, readers like myself will want to say. Kroetsch probably didn't believe that when he said it; he certainly can't believe it now. And a student new to the study of Canadian literature will likely say, Who's Robert Kroetsch, and why is there no reference to him in the bibliography?
It's as if Budde can't make up his mind about his readership. More importantly, I don't think that this book lives up to the mandate of the Laurier Poetry Series, which aims to improve on "the usual practice of teaching a poet through eight or twelve poems from an anthology" and promises "readers in and out of classrooms . . . more useful, engaging, and comprehensive introductions to a poet's work." Just so you know, I'm actually flapping my arms as I write this¨but one peck at a time. How can a book that leaves out "The Country North of Belleville" claim to provide a comprehensive introduction to Purdy's work? Budde also omits poems that contain "racist and sexist elements" (poems like "The Cariboo Horses" and "Song of the Impermanent Husband") while maintaining that "this selection will give you a clear and representative window into the art and thought of this great Canadian poet." Personally, I think that Budde ought to have included these poems, along with his caveat, and let his readers assess these highly problematic aspects of Purdy's poetry.
In fairness to Budde and the editors of the Laurier Poetry Series, I do think that they're caught up in a terrible bind. If the Laurier Poetry Series didn't include a volume of Purdy's work, there would probably be a great deal of squawking. But there's really no need for another selected edition of Purdy's poetry¨not so long as Harbour Publishing's Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems 1962-1996 remains in print. Maybe that is why Budde tried to do something a little bit different and made some unconventional editorial choices. In the end, Rooms for Rent (which is twice as long as The More Easily Kept Illusions and only a little more expensive) offers a much better sample of Purdy's poetry. Moreover, I prefer the afterword in Rooms for Rent (in which Sam Solecki culls some of Purdy's thoughts on poetry from his prose writing) to Budde's introduction. The More Easily Kept Illusions also has an afterword, written by Russell Brown, but it's short and mostly anecdotal. Also, while Brown's discussion of Purdy's "anticlimaxes" is enlightening, one gets much the same thing from his 1993 essay, "Perhaps He'll Fall: Reading the Poetry of Al Purdy".
If you want an introduction to Purdy's poetry, I'd still recommend reading Rooms for Rent in conjunction with Dennis Lee's afterword to Purdy's Collected Poems (1986)¨with the usual disclaimer about Lee's nationalism. If you're interested in some of Purdy's more obscure poems, they can all be found in Beyond Remembering. Well, that's not entirely true. I began this review with some disparaging remarks about Purdy's early poetry. In retrospect, I see that these remarks may have been unwise, and they're certainly at odds with what's to follow. I'll take my cue from "Trees at the Arctic Circle"¨a poem in which Purdy admits, "I have been stupid," but ultimately refuses to "alter the poem"¨and suggest that a critical edition of Purdy's early poems (1944-1961), which have long been out of print, would have been a more worthwhile publishing endeavor for Wilfred Laurier University Press. While such a book would have a rather limited appeal, it would fill a gap in Purdy scholarship. Not convinced? Since I can easily imagine the resulting squawk of objections, maybe I'll just reiterate my suggestion with emphasis on the word more. ˛

Jeremy Lalonde is a Ph.D. candidate at Queen's University.

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