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Al Purdy

People's Poet Made Art of the Ordinary

Right up until the end, poet Al Purdy was as spirited as ever. When friend and fellow poet Patrick Lane offered to fix Purdy's rickety bed by placing a couple of books underneath one of the legs, Purdy screamed, "Don't use that one!" pointing to the signed Ondaatje work.

Days later, another fellow poet and neighbour, Susan Musgrave visited Mr. Purdy. They began discussing one of Ms. Musgrave's works, "28 uses for Al Purdy's ashes," written last year after he was diagnosed with cancer. Purdy turned to Musgrave and demanded royalties.

"He was as feisty as ever," Musgrave recalled Sunday from her Sidney, B.C. home, a five-minute walk from where Purdy lived with his wife of 60 years, Eurithe. Purdy died of cancer at the age of 82 Friday morning.

His first published work appeared at the age of 13 when he was paid a dollar for a poem printed by his high school magazine.

Purdy recalled that he saw the poems in the student periodical and thought, "If they can do that, I can do that," assuming it was an easy way to make a buck.

It wasn't. He spent the next quarter century making a buck any way he could - from labouring jobs to posing for Arthur Lismer's art class.

Purdy only began to write seriously in his 40s. But he made up for lost time, winning two Governor General's awards and an appointment to the Order of Canada.

Born in Wooler, Ont., he was educated in Trenton and Belleville but could not attend university.

During the Depression, he rode the rails to Vancouver where he spent several years supporting himself with a variety of manual jobs.

He served with the RCAF during the war and afterward worked as a casual labourer in Ontario, eventually settling in the small Loyalist community of Ameliasburgh, which came to be celebrated in his work. By the early 1960s, Purdy was able to support himself by freelance writing, turning out radio and TV plays, book reviews, travel articles magazine features as well as more than 25 volumes of poetry.

Purdy's final collection of poems, Beyond Remembering, will be released in September by Harbour Publishing. Harbour president Howard White called Purdy a poet of the people. "He wrote about going to good hockey games and fighting with the foreman at work . . . the kind of things that occupy ordinary people," White told Newsworld.
-Douglas Quan, Ottawa Citizen