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Al Purdy

Al Purdy, who has died at age 81, was one of Canada's most celebrated poets. As famous for his turbulent, working man's way of life as for his poetry, he was the walking definition of a poet whose work encapsulated his life.

His thunderous, resonant voice and personal charisma were unforgettable, among such contemporaries as Earle Birney, Milton Acorn and Irving Layton, he stood out easily. Proud of his working class roots in small-town Ontario, plainspoken and defiant to the end, Al Purdy helped define modern Canadian poetry.

His poems were wide-reaching, touching on everything from his endless travels to the beauty of nature, from hockey players to his vision of social democracy.

He wrote more than 30 books of poetry and prose and inspired and encouraged many young poets, among them Margaret Atwood, George Galt and Susan Musgrave.

To many, Al Purdy was Canadian poetry personified, an accessible, unabashedly patriotic voice that was often obstreperous and cranky but never stopped taking on the world.

It was a voice that had to be heard to be fully appreciated. Standing well over six feet tall, with a curiously loping walk, Al Purdy could inspire awe among his audiences, and his readings were as much theatre as poetry. His stentorian tones could clear a restaurant and his opinions were always passionate.

As he once put it: "I moo off key/ I bark like a man/ laugh like a dog/ and talk like God/ hoping/ they'll go away so Bacchus and I can get on with it."

Al Purdy relished a good feud - when a young Margaret Atwood poured her bottle of beer over his head after he dismissed her as an academic, he promptly returned the compliment, spritzing her right back. Another friend wrote a poem, "Prairie Crocuses," celebrating the beer bottles uncovered as the snow melted outside his window at the University of Manitoba, where he was writer-in-residence in 1975-76.

Often ornery, he told his friend and neighbour Susan Musgrave shortly before his death that all the best lines in her tribute poem to him, "32 Uses for Al Purdy's Ashes," were his, and he demanded half her royalties.

Impulsive, romantic and relentlessly flirtatious, Al Purdy got away with behaviour that would be considered sexist by today's standards. Though he enjoyed his street-smart image, he had a quiet side and was well known as a soft touch to down and out poets, students and his wide circle of friends.

There was an innocence and na´vete about him that informed his actions and his work; an absence of malice that made it impossible for anyone to stay angry with him.

Alfred Wellington Purdy was born on Dec. 30, 1918, in Wooler, central Ontario, in the heart of Loyalist country. He was the only child of an "educated farmer" and his religious wife, Alfred and Eleanor Purdy. His father died when Al was three, and he moved with his mother-to-nearby Trenton to live with Al's grandfather.

Young Al adored his grandfather, a whisky-drinking remittance man who later appeared in several of Purdy's works: in his only novel, A Splinter in the Heart (1990); in his autobiography, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea (1993); and in numerous poems, among them "My Grandfather Talking": "Not now boy not now/ some other time I'll tell ya/ what it was like/ the way it was/ without no streets/ or names or places here/ nothin but moonlight boy/ nothing but woods.

Al was educated at local schools. He wrote his first poem at 13 for his highschool magazine and was paid the princely sum of one dollar. The experience taught him that while writing poetry was hard work, the pay was laughably low.

In 1936, at the age of 17, he dropped out of high school and rode the rails to Vancouver. It was the tail end of the depression, and he found work as a manual labourer before enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force at the outbreak of war. He served for six years, managing to lose his seargents and corporals stripes on different occasions: "Only a humble airman who kept getting demoted and demoted and demoted to a point where I finally saluted civilians."

At the end of the war he moved back to Ontario and worked in factories and at odd jobs before settling in Ameliasburgh. There, with the help of Milton Acorn, he and his wife built a small house. He wrote with affection about Acorn in "House Guest": "and working with saw and hammer at the house all winter afternoon/ disagreeing about how to pound nails. . .Every morning I'd get up and say 'Look at the nails -/ you snored them out half an inch in the night...'"

By the early 1960s Al Purdy was able to support his family as a freelance writer - producing travel and magazine pieces, editing anthologies and writing essays, book reviews and television and radio plays. It was not until his 40s that he began to write poetry full time and he published his first collection, The Enchanted Echo, in 1944.

In the course of his career, Al Purdy's poetry evolved from traditional English lyricism to more relaxed, contemporary speech patterns that lent themselves to his readings. With his poet's knack for metaphor he was dubbed a 'versifying journalist' who incorporated his life experiences into his work, especially in volumes Poems for All the Annettes (1962), Being Alive (1978), The Stone Bird (1981) and Bursting into Song (1982). His style was sometimes compared to that of his friend the novelist Margaret Laurence for its celebration of ordinary people in language that was easy to understand.

Yet despite his modern technique, Al Purdy was fascinated by the past and wrote about Canadian history in such seminal poems as "The Country North of Bellville" and "My Grandfather's Country" and "The Battlefield of Batoche." He mined similar material in A Splinter in the Heart and in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea.

Al Purdy stayed at the height of his exceptional powers for longer than most poets, taking as big a chunk out of the oeuvre as he did out of life. Into his 70s he was still capable of such breathtaking lines as, in describing the colour of the quetzal bird: 'a green so imploded and concentrated one hears/ it chunking at the soul's rear window; or, in "Seven Ways of Looking at Something Else": "take for instance/ that planet they figured out/ had to be there on accounta how/ the others acted because of He wrote with affection about it/ like a dancer with an invisible partner."

Though money was often tight, it never dictated his actions; rather, it was more a necessary evil to sustain the years of hard drinking and wanderlust that fuelled his writing. With age, his fury mellowed somewhat, and in later life he revelled in chiding friends for minor misusages of language.

Al Purdy was an Officer of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. He was awarded two Governor General's Awards for poetry - one, in 1965, for The Cariboo Horses (1965); the other, in 1987, for his Collected Poems 1956-1986.

A homage to Canada, "Her Gates Both East and West," was published in the spring issue of the Imperial Oil Review. A final volume of poems, Beyond Remembering, will be published in September by Harbour Publishing.

Al Purdy was diagnosed with lung cancer more than a year ago, but he continued to travel between his homes in Sidney, BC, and Ameliasburgh.

He married, in 1940, Eurithe Parkhurst, whom he once dubbed "the Queen of Eternal Forgiveness." She and their son, Jim, survive him. His ashes will be scattered in Ameliasburgh.
-Valerie Gregory, National Post