I am learning what a strange lonely place is myself
reflecting the present reiterating the past
Reconnoitering the future
These are my history
the story of myself
-Al Purdy from his poem, "Man Without A Country"
Countless summers ago I woke up in a field of rich earth, beside the Fraser River with the sun pressing down through my soiled eyelids like a yellow and red corkscrew. Eyes pulled up, my brain filled with a vision of the east and I went from Vancouver to Charlottetown in search of wine. I'm not sure if I was dead or alive.
I travelled like a ghost above Canada and met Maitreya sitting there fat, spinning pieces of formless sky into images that I could barely comprehend. I think there was a raven, a bridge, and a bright red star. Maitreya looked at me, laughed, dissolved into nothingness and I was in that empty field beside the Fraser again.
The next summer I made the same sojourn but this time instead of the Buddha sitting there in the sky with his rough images, I saw three men. The three men, Maurice Richard, Al Purdy, and Pierre Trudeau sat in the ether of the sky smiling, looking back and forth across Canada from east to west, occasionally sharing a knowing glance with one another.
I barely knew who these men were, but after an incalculable amount of time Purdy lifted his eyes and caught me in his gaze and without his lips moving I heard him say "You've never seen yourselves so well." The words were whispered, knowing as the ocean.
But that was so long ago and I didn't even know who I was then.
I've been a closet poet since about 1992. When I first applied to a major west coast university's writing department I crept in and dropped off a hand-written prose poem and left as quickly as I could, not saying much and hoping that my rugby buddies would never find out. I was embarrassed at being a 6-foot, 200 LB man who liked poetry.
In one of my first classes I remember going to hear poet Al Purdy. In the spring of 2000, moved by his death, I began to further explore Purdy's poetry with the intention of writing a small piece on his life and work. I quickly found out that "big" Al is no small story.
Al Purdy was born December 30, 1918 in Wooler, Ontario. He died on April1, 2000. Purdy's rough, pure voice still rumbles across Canada like the fracturing of an ancient glacier in the vast Arctic or the hollow caw of a crow slicing through stiff winds above the wheat fields of the prairies. His poems do, and will always, articulate what it means to be Canadian.
During the great depression,
when Purdy was only 17, he road the trains from
Trenton to Vancouver for the first time. Arriving
on the West Coast Purdy promptly turned around
and went back east sighting the same restlessness
that drew him to travel in the first place. That
restlessness lasted a lifetime.
Doug Beardsley, a writer with
whom Purdy co-authored several books, says Purdy
is one of the most definitive Canadian voices
"He arose out of our own soil,"
says Beardsley. "He spoke to us, for us, he gave
articulation to our lives as Canadians. He consciously
set out to map this country with poetry and he
Even when he knew the end of
his life was near Purdy would talk to Beardsley
with fire in his eyes about some poetic journey
They talked about the Epic of
Gilgamesh and about getting a Canada Council grant
to go to Mesopotamia so they could fill in the
missing sections ofthe classical Greek poem using
their own modern language.
"I'd leave the hospital high
as hell after talking to him but falling apar
inside because I knew we'd never go," says Beardsley.
"But it was the voyage of the imagination that
mattered most to Al. His body may have betrayed
him in the end but his mind never did. Who knows
maybe he's there right now. You beat me again
you old bugger, you beat me again."
In 1944, Purdy self-published
a book of poems entitled The Enchanted Echo,
a collection of various poems Purdy had printed
in magazines like Canadian Forum and in
the long gone poetry section of the Vancouver
Sun. It wouldbe the first of 41 books.
The Enchanted Echo did
not bring Purdy fame or fortune and he was forced
to continue working in a mattress factory, and
at other jobs he clearly loathed, for the next
20 years to support his poetic habit.
Purdy condemned much of the
poetry he wrote in the first 40 yearsof his life
including The Enchanted Echo. But in the
late fifties and early 60's Purdy went through
a personal revolution that he said shaped the
rest of his life and work.
In his autobiography Reaching
for the Beaufort Sea Purdy says of the year1965,
"My own Character changed as well. As if everything
that happened before 1965 was an apprenticeship,
an uncertain testing of my footing, amysterious
A waiting period.
According to governor general
award winning poet Patrick Lane, a close friend
of Al's whom he is said to have mentored, Purdy
began to write really well during this period.
"The first time I ever read Al
Purdy was in 1961," says Lane, himself awinner
of the Governor General's award for poetry. "Contact
Press brought out two small books, one called
Jawbreakers by Milton Acorn and one by
Alcalled Poems for all the Annettes. And
they were wonderful. They blew my mind. I said
fuck these guys are great. They were going in
a direction that I was already going myself and
that just validated it. That was a huge change
in Canadian poetry. Those two little books."
"Al's life was coincidental with
a whole new cultural nationalism and cultural
awareness that happened in Canada in the late
fifties, sixties, and seventies right up until
Mulroney when cultural nationalism became a real
no-no." says Lane. "I don't think that a year
went by that he didn't get a grant. There was
a lot of money around with Pearson and Trudeau.
In the process Al became a great, great poet."
In 1965 Purdy's book Caribou
Horses won the Governor General's Award for
Poetry and the poet was once again able to comfortably
feed his restless heart.
Purdy's vast travels seem an
incredible accomplishment for any Canadian, let
alone a lanky 6'3" ex-cabdriver who often described
himself as dumb.That dummy travelled to Baffin
Island where he lived among First Nations Canadians.
He travelled with an elite group of Canadians
to Cuba where heformed a friendship with a young
Pierre Trudeau and spoke with Fidel Castro about
left wing politics. He travelled all over Europe
both b yhimself and with his wife Eurithe, but
his heart and his spirit always remained in and
In his autobiography Purdy recalls
feelings of sorrow and separation on his first
trip away from Canada: "And on our slow passage
eastward down the St. Lawrence, while light faded
at days end, I watched the Quebecshoreline despairingly:
homesick before I ever left home. I felt like
aghost in transit from life to death. It was the
first time I'd ever left Canada, and whoever was
wearing my clothes was almost a stranger to myself."
There was no more important thing
to Purdy, it seems, than this love of Canada and
Lane remembers the early seventies
when Purdy organized readings following the release
of Storm Warning I and Storm Warning
II, two small press anthologies highlighting
the talents of Canada's young poets.
"I was almost a little too old
(for Storm Warning, but Al threw me in
anyway. And away we all went to some 5000 seat
hall to read. The hall was full and there were
3000 people out on the street waiting to get in,
so when we finished inside we all went outside
and read in the street. Eight thousand people
feeding off the poetry. It was never like that
again. I don't think you'll ever see that again."
But the influence Purdy had on
writers in the 60's, and the way he set about
challenging them to find their own identity as
distinctly Canadian writers, is a tradition that
remains defiantly in tact.
At 21, Brad Cran, publisher of
Smoking Lung, a series of seven chap books
featuring the west coast's best young writers,
remembers sleeping through a fiction final and
fearfully realizing he had to take Lorna Crozier's
poetry class. When he went to her, announcing
failure before he began, she pointed him in the
direction of Purdy and it changed his direction
as a writer.
"I had never really read poetry.
I grew up in (the suburbs), not really thinking
of poetry. There was no real role model so I just
never thought about it. And then I read Purdy.
His writing opened my mind and made me realize
that there was room for masculinity in poetry."
Cran had his introduction to
poetry through Purdy and today works at publishing
personally crafted literary journals, chap books
and zines, filling a commonly talked about void
in the voice of Canada created by the domination
of large American publishing houses. Cran, like
most of the best Canadian poets before him including
Purdy, realizes this glut and publishes small,
staying true to his own Canadian vision of poetry
Purdy mourned the transformation
of Canada into an American outpost, butwas active
in pushing his own politics of discontent. The
New Romans, ananthology of Canadian writers,
ranging from Farley Mowatt and Margaret Laurence
to Eric Nicol and Dorothy Livesay, was published
shortly after Purdy won the Governor General's
award in 1965, right at the precipice of his influence
as a poet. It was aimed at getting Canadian views
about America in to the open.
In the introduction to the book
Purdy challenges, "I happen to think thatit is
already too late. Therefore, all this book may
do is register a sullen protest, a belated yap
from a captive dog. It will scarcely raise more
than an eyebrow on the big real estate dealers
in Ottawa who have sold this country down the
river to the Americans for the last thirty years."
That Purdy came to an understanding
of himself when writing about Canada and its geographic
and social position, is probably the most important
part of his writing. In the process he gives Canadians
as a people a truly whole and distinct sense of
identity for the first time in our country'shistory.
Lorna Crozier, another close
friend of Purdy's and herself a winner of the
Governor General's award for poetry, says Purdy's
poems offer an unparalleled insight into the Canadian
consciousness. "He probably usedevery place name
in Canada in one poem or another," says Crozier.
"Hemapped us in words and tried to find insight
in the places that people live. He was a nationalist
and believed Canada was a wonderful place."
Crozier says that Purdy's poems remain humble, identifiable and human, yetleap across time with wisdom and understanding. She says it is hard tobelieve that Purdy could possibly be gone.
"He's in the words that he left
us. I can still see him and hear him (Al) is with
us. It is important to remember him. We need to
respect what a great writer he really was. To
be writers we have to read the best and he mightvery
well be the best. That's how we learn to be human."
It was a Purdy poem I first had
the nerve to read to an unknown audience.One day
I will read or publish something of my own. Good
or bad, I'll add to the swell of Canadian literature
in some redoubled way, looking to Purdy's balance
as poet, admiring and further celebrating his
mixture of Canada's soils into the eternal reflections
of "a woman inside of a woman", "an image inside
of an image."
In his transition from the thereal
to the ethereal, it is Purdy coming from the shadowy
caves of eternity, reverberating across Canada's
vast expanse. His is a face in a totem that has
been, and will continue to be, a beacon to every
young Canadian writer.