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Al Purdy

Canadian Poets Pay Tribute To Al Purdy
Robert Bringhurst:Twenty years ago, I found myself in Canada again after one of many absences. I'd published a few books, but I had no reputation - nor did I deserve one. I also didn't know my way around the country. Nonetheless, I was booked for a few readings. In one of them, I read with Irving Layton, in another with Al Purdy. It was exciting stuff for a young poet: see Toronto for the first time, and read with famous poets.

Layton informed the organizers and me that he was going to read both first and last. He would allow me a few minutes in the middle. During those few minutes, he sat in the front row and rattled the keys in his pocket. He may have had his reasons, but after that, I was not looking forward to Purdy.

Al, however, said he didn't really care whether I went first or last. He listened while I read, then slouched away. And he wrote to me a little while later, taking the trouble to tell me, truthfully enough, that I had given a lousy reading, histrionic and overblown. He also asked to buy - I repeat, buy - copies of all of my books. When I tried to give him the books, he insisted on paying - Purdy came to poetry early but threw away nearly everything he wrote before his fortieth birthday. "I had no talent," he once told a journalist. "It's a craft, and I made myself." Well, it is a craft, that's true, and he did, as he said, "make himself." But he didn't make himself up. He made himself into. Into the very epitome of English Canadian poetry, which in fact had no epitome, no centre, no genuine sense of itself until he came along.

He built the original log cabin of words - with no pretense that he was the first or would be the last to live on the land, but with a sense of love and self-sufficiency that gives him a permanent claim. He built his house of words so it looked like it belonged in the rich, cold land that was his home. No ostentatious pillars copied from a London that had copied them from Rome that had copied them from Athens. Just a place to get out of the snow and the rain when they fell and the sun when it shone.

But when you get inside Al Purdy's house of words - the house that he kept building all his life - you see the shy love and unostentatious skill that makes it not just livable and warm and strong but nourishing, restorative, humane. His work has the simplicity of trees and stones. It has their great complexity as well. Not many other artists of their stature have been comfortable enough to insist on being known by their nicknames.

His Collected Poems published in 1986, when he was 68, had to be set in small type with the lines too close together in order to fit into 400 pages. It was called collected but was actually a rigorous selection. And it was scarcely off the press when another book of new poems appeared, and then another and another. Not because it was easy but because, after 50 years in training, he had really hit his stride.

Dennis Lee: He was without a doubt the greatest poet English Canada has produced. If you look at his best two dozen poems, what you have is one of the most enduring poets of the 20th century. His poetry tapped into an amazing range of emotions and facets of people's lives. He was the first person who created an English Canadian voice that could range from every day vernacular to soaring eloquence and everything in between. He's a poet who was discovered by people who didn't think they liked poetry at all. He had a popular appeal and taught a lot of people how to read poetry.

I learned a great deal from Purdy. A lot of poets have measured themselves against him.

Patrick Lane:There is no question he was the greatest Canadian poet of the 20th century. I don't think anyone could even begin to argue that point. Al was an exquisitely colloquial poet. He returned poetry to the common man. He wrote as a man of the people rather than as a high academic He liberated a whole generation of poets. He had an ability to cross over generations and still keep his voice intact. He didn't take poetry too seriously - he enjoyed it. He would often say that there are no mysteries in poetry - it's easy to understand if you take a little time.

Susan Musgrave: Al has given a voice to Canadian poetry. It's very much his own but it speaks for a lot of people. A lot of young poets are in awe of him - he is like a god. He was great in a quiet way. There was great lack of pretentiousness in his voice on the page. He changed the world in small, everyday ways. He had a huge [personal] presence. He would come over for dinner and only want to talk about poetry. You couldn't make small talk with him or Al would get bored very quickly. He engaged you at all levels, all the time, and forced you to engage - he didn't let you go to sleep. It makes death much more interesting to know that wherever he is, I will be able to join him there.