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Al Purdy fights on beauty's side
After 78 years, he walks a bit more gingerly, is an inch shorter and claims to steer clear of several of his famous vices, including the lakes of beer that dot the surface of his verse. Yet Al Purdy's lungs can still produce such a voluminous, bellowing din that the restaurant must find a separate room to contain it.

And his poetry is best heard in that unforgettable voice - at one moment a crowing bark, then suddenly almost singing, a foghorn that doubles as an oboe, always loud, never timid, breaking every now and then for an ironic aside.
Or as he has 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."

He has just published his 40th book poetry, though most Canadians will never see it. In Mexico is a gorgeous, hand-printed book produced at Allan Stein's Church Street Press in Parry Sound, Ont., an 80-page single poem illustrated with Stein's hand-painted engravings. Only 50 copies and they cost $350 each. The world can rest content that Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems 1962-1996, published in November Harbour Publishing and selling for a more modest $16.95.

He may still be loud and given to inflexible opinion, but the gangly man looming over the restaurant today insists he is not the Al of legend, the abrasive, fist-swinging, elbow-bending libertine of life. "That whole bit gets little thin after a little while," he admits. Today he is simply a writer, albeit one who can be described with a straight face as Canada's greatest poet, and he'd rather talk about the mysteries of the muse, the love of old books and the literary cannon.

And Mike Tyson.

"I was in a way rooting for him," Purdy admits. "Everybody was happy to see him go down, except that it ruined an icon in a sense. Yet there was another part of my mind that would want to see him get beaten. There was always a grand quality to son's fighting. These people are fighting monsters. I shudder. I think I would run like hell from one of these people, on my arthritic legs."

Even as an armchair pugilist, Purdy's verse and world view are still infused with a street-fighting spirit, a crystalline lack of ambivalence that does not bother obscuring beauty and profundity with impenetrable cloaks of symbol and form. He doesn't read most modern, academic poets. "I can't bother with the esoteric stuff they come up with, which is shit," he says, "Are you for beauty?" His dining companions can do little more than nod. "I'm for beauty. Good. We're on the right side."

Like so much of his work, In Mexico is drawn from his travels, in this case the many trips through Mexico he has taken with Eurithe, his wife through the thick and thin of half a century. And Rooms for Rent contains poems written from tents in the high Arctic, from every Canadian city and innumerable smaller places, from Havana, Athens, Moscow and the Galapagos. It is as if his muse is activated by running away.

"That's the reason you go, to write, to think other things than other people have thought," he says. "You get bored. Aren't you bored a lot of the time? That's why you change wives, girlfriends or jobs. That's why you move."

His Mexican adventures bring to mind Malcolm Lowry, whose equally rootless Canadian life led him to write Under the Volcano in Mexico while drinking himself to death. In fact, Purdy once spent a weekend with Lowry, not in Mexico but in British Columbia, where they lived impoverished lives in home-built shacks on opposite sides of the Georgia Strait during the 1940s.

"Lowry always looked at you as if he wasn't quite sure who you were," says Purdy, whose own sizable thirst was trumped by the older writer's astounding appetite for gin.

Purdy launches into a reeling tale in which Lowry sneaks into a church while a wedding is underway, planting himself between pews during the ceremony with six bottles of Bols gin on the bench behind him. "It was just like the albatross around the Ancient Mariner's neck, those bottles of gin."

But, tales of gin and fighting are simply the stuffing in any poet's life; most of the rest is a tortured search for the next turn of phrase. And Purdy, of course, has hard-defended views even on such ineffables. "If a poem has too much metrics, too much rhyming, it goes bong-bong on the head and you don't get the sense," he says. "What you want is a sense that you've forgotten the metrics."

Purdy's perspective has always come from ground level, from a deep faith in the human condition freed from the old fall-backs of spiritualism, invisible forces and linguistic ambiguity. The way he writes, he says, is much the same: There is no magic, just long, careful searching for words, a voyage that can take him across continents and into lonely seclusion.

I heard someone talking about Nolan Ryan, how he put everything he had into one pitch and I remember thinking that you don't write a poem that way. Because you don't. All you do is say a sentence that comes into your mind first. And then other thoughts join it after a while if it's relevant, or maybe it's just a connector. If it's relevant or very, very important, then you think about it some more, and search for more. You don't know what's happening inside your own head, of course, but you know that one thought is coming. And you're not satisfied; you keep looking until you find it. You hope.?
-Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail

Paying attention to our best poet ever
This is Al Purdy's 39th book and 78th year. Yet, for someone who seems to have been with us forever, he only hit his sizeable stride when he was in his 40s, as attested by the title of his early collection, The Crafte So Long to Lerne (1959). That he has learned his craft hardly needs saying.

For this selection of poems, the first substantial gathering in a decade, Purdy has switched from his long-time publisher, McClelland & Stewart. . .

Purdy is the best poet Canada has ever had.

Ornery and hospitable, prickly and generous, Purdy has been for poets like me a father figure toward whom two instincts war. Our first instinct is to worship him. The second is to bash his head in with a rock. We have never suffered, however, the Oedipal fear of being subsumed into his outsized personality and work. Both are unique and, for his part, Purdy has only demanded from us our own uniqueness.

In Canada, Purdy's public image as a beer-swilling, cigar-chomping bumpkin, a sort of hoser savant, means that he's seldom taken altogether seriously. The Globe and Mail's recent description of him as a "wild man" is typically misleading - this wild man has been married for 55 years and has spent far more time scouting for used books than he has in downing pints in taverns.

Outside Canada, Purdy has received scant attention, which may pertain to literary politics, but even more to the extraordinary mixture he offers for anyone foolhardy enough to introduce or translate his work for a foreign audience. Here is a self-mocking self-interlocutor who no sooner reaches a conclusion than he starts to doubt it, who teeter-totters between comedy and grief, who shifts in mid-line between today's headlines and the paleolithic past, who sometimes sounds like the Three Stooges reciting Shakespeare.

A stranger also might be baffled by the blend of plebian and mandarin diction that Purdy supplies, and his characteristic mix of rambling prosiness combined with aphoristic or, imagistic insight: "the trembling voltage of summer," "rails run down the day's horizon," "ocean a jump away and the sky beneath you," "chain saws stencil the silence in my head." Women have "whiskey coloured eyes," grandfather is "260 pounds of scarred slag," hockey is "this combination of ballet and murder," an eagle's eyes are "a golden snare."

Then there are the permanent phrases: "the ivory thought is still warm," "the land of permanent ice cream," "north of summer," "This is the country of our defeat, "The shape of home is under your finger-nails." These are like talismans for us to touch as long as Canada exists.

No one really knows the man who wrote this glorious stuff. The dark side of Purdy, the record of the sordid and regrettable, will be glossed over until the inevitable tell-all biography. One can detect a curious woundedness, anger and vulnerability in Purdy, a lifelong bruise that may have something to do with his having been an only child raised chiefly by his mother. The importance of his wife Eurithe to his life and work is beyond speculation. As his autobiography, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, makes plain their marriage has hardly been a monument to domestic bliss, but it is also an ongoing tribute to Eurithe's shrewdness, dignity and intelligence. At the deepest level, she, is present in every line he writes.

One test of a poet's originality is whether you instantly identify him or her, with someone or something else. Irving Layton is the Hebrew psalm and jeremiad. Leonard Cohen is Hebrew scripture also, overlaid with the English ballad and love lyric. Margaret Atwood is Sylvia Plath and Ontario Methodism. Dennis Lee is Martin Heidegger and Ontario Methodism.

But Purdy is sui generis. Perhaps because he was a high-school dropout and educated himself, he has all the eccentricity, willfulness and stubborness of the autodidact. He owes little to specific poets or poetic traditions. He does not resemble even the two, writers whom he says have most influenced him, Layton and D. H. Lawrence. When he's at his best, Purdy's senses live boldly on the page, his work concretizing a mind in motion. A Canadian mind for any year.
- Fraser Sutherland, The Globe and Mail

Purdytion
For reasons I choose to cherish, Al Purdy and The PH Factor (a.k.a. The Goal) shine luminously in my memories as intermeshed miracles meant to last forever.

It's 1972, first year of university and it's hockey, hockey, glorious Canada-Russia hockey with Henderson's delirious goal one of the goddawful greatest climaxes in the sport's history.

Poetry on blades, poetry on our minds, Purdy's Cariboo Horses wreaking havoc with our delicate young egos - we flagrant droolers and worshippers of the kind of talent we believed we'd never match: not its perfection, not its clear, cool, and utterly spare beauty and most certainly not its moxie, so magnificent and unmuzzled, so wild and drop-dead true:

We sit up there in the blues
bored and sleepy and suddenly three men
break down the ice in roaring feverish speed
and we stand up in our seats with such a rapid pouring
of delight exploding out of self to join them why
theirs and our orgasm is the rocket stipend
for skating thru the smoky end boards out
of sight and climbing up the Appalachian
highlands
and racing breast to breast across laurentian
barrens
over hudson's diamond bay and down the treeless
tundra where
auroras are tubercular and awesome and
stopping isn't feasible or possible or lawful
but we have to we have to
laugh because we must...

("Hockey Players', The Cariboo Horses, 1965)

Dr. Eli Mandel, gifted poet, critic, and teacher, spoon-fed our class of greedy greenhorns and intellectual rednecks Purdy's Poems for All the Annettes, painstakingly explaining the genius of the poet's art and craft, his measured eye, his wicked ear, his cockeyed spit and polish.

Defenceless against such passion, intelligence, and irresistibly enthusiastic seductions to transport, we sat enraptured as Mandel dished up delicious dollops of personal anecdote alongside a technical and textual feast of poetic logic and theory.

"You know," he'd start, "the wonderful thing about Purdy's tribute to Milton? The two of them did actually do all those things he mentions in the poem, more or less?

"Yeah. Al and Milt. Hard to imagine, eh? Still Purdy certainly had no difficulty conveying exactly that; plus, he also made this amazingly beautiful thing about their experiences, somehow perfectly expressing, through the words and the lines and the breaks, both the raw and the consummately finished....

"When Purdy describes how he and Acorn argued over everything, you simply know it's the truth. Besides, I know these guys and trust me, knowing Al and knowing Milt, you can trust it's pretty much the absolutely accurate truth. For one thing, Milt'd argue with a fence-post. For another, Al would probably take the side of the post, if only to get Milt going ... BUT, that's not what makes it a great poem, no. You tell me why it's a great poem."

For two months we quarrelled over socialism
poetry how to boil water
doing the dishes carpentry Russian steelpro-
dution figures and whether
you could believe them and whether Toronto
Leafs would take it all
that year and maybe hockey was rather like a
good jazz combo
never knowing what came next...
and working with saw and hammer at the house
all winter afternoon
disagreeing about how to pound nails
arguing vehemently over how to make good
coffee
Marcus Aurelius Spartacus Plato and Francois
Villon
And it used to frustrate him terribly
that even when I was wrong be couldn't prove it
and when I agreed with him he was always
suspicious

and thought he must be wrong because I said be
was right...
we argued about white being white (prove it
dammit) & cockroaches bedbugs in Montreal separatism Nietzsche
Iroquois horsebreakers on the prairie
death of the individual and the ultimate destiny
of man
and one night we quarrelled over bow to cook
eggs
In the morning driving to town we hardly spoke
and water poured downhill outside all day for it
was spring
when we were gone with frogs mentioning
lyrically
Russian steel production figures on Roblin Lake
which were almost nil
I left him hitchhiking on #2 Highway to
Montreal
and I guess I was wrong about those eggs

("House Guest", Poems for all the Annettes, 1962)

Eli, it's a great poem because Al Purdy's a great poet. Ain't no two ways about it.

In his introduction to Poets of Contemporary Canada, 1960-1970, Mandel does indeed explain something of Purdy's greatness, providing readers with abbreviated lessons in Purdytion: "Choice, for me at least," writes Mandel, "finally comes down to knowing that Al Purdy's off-handed manner has forever altered my own sense of the possibilities of rhetoric, and that after reading him I could not again ignore the ghosts of history, place, or family...."

In the summary of his argument, Mandel ices the theoretical cake: "It is easy enough to seek an explanation for the diminished, ironic self of contemporary poetry in sociological and psychological patterns of the kind that form a popular mythology: the radical decentralization of the self in Norman 0. Brown's psyehomania, for example, or the politicization of ego in R. D. Ling's paradoxical inversions of sanity and insanity. But whether contemporary social psychologists, or poets like Pound, Olson, and Creeley provide the appropriate explanation, what is clear is that the disappearing self of the poetry of the sixties is related in some way to the sense that myth and history, like political and psychological metaphors, are interchangeable in new and disturbing ways."

A decade or so later, I visit Eurithe and Al Purdy at their home in Ameliasburgh (in order to interview the poet in situ on the occasion of the publication of his Collected), a collection he tells me he never thinks about unless it's to tell you I never think about it."

Purdy also gravel-slur-grumbles his wily way through the first dozen or so questions before he vividly describes everything he believes a poem isn't:

"Sentimental! Superficial! Imitative! Derivative! Garbage, absolute garbage is all it is. You don't think so at the time you're writing it; but, when you wake up the next day, you find out it's just a piece of shit!' He tells me it took him twenty minutes to write "The Cariboo Horses" and seven years to write 'Post Script'.

He tells me he thinks he interviewed Irving Layton better than I am interviewing him and accidentally knocks a brimming glass of wild grape wine all over the front of my best white summer dress.

He tells me he believes "there's a discipline, a very clear sense of discipline and tradition: If you don't want to be influenced, you aren't writing poetry at all. I hope to tell the truth - or my truth; objective truth is something else - in the best way and it may include beauty and it may not. I think I have said, in most cases, what I have wanted to say. And, I don't think it's beautiful nor is beauty what I was after. I wanted to find out - in my head and in my mind - what I really felt about things."

See, that's the truth and beauty of Purdy's latest book, Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems 1962-1996.

The first time you read a poem by Purdy, it insinuates itself into your nervous system; so, each subsequent reading provides an accretion of delights, memories of memories, and all the things he's done and all that stuff he did and how, even now, the poems resonate and reacquaint you with one of the world's finest wordsmiths, growly grace and all.
-Judith Fitzgerald, Books in Canada


Canadian Book Review Association
When a poet of Al Purdy's calibre is involved, a book of well-picked selected poems ought always to be available; Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets should fill the bill admirably now and in the immediate future. The selections are Purdy's own, and the range of tone is remarkable, from the disturbing hilariousness of "When I Sat Down to Play the Piano" through the surreal lyricism of "The Runners" to the eloquent sublimity of "The Dead Poet." With shrewdness and an enviable self-critical rigor, he has drawn on 13 of his earlier volumes, from Poems for All the Annettes to Naked with Summer in Your Mouth.

This book contains virtually all the well-known poems that Purdy aficionados would expect to see included. Those same aficionados will also be intrigued to discover that "Elegy for a Grandfather," a poem first published as early as 1956 and one that Purdy has been tinkering with for most of his life, appears in yet another (and considerably expanded) version here.

A notable and welcome feature of this edition is the afterword, a collage of Purdy's prose comments about poetry, deftly selected and arranged by Sam Solecki.

An excellent introduction to Purdy for poetry lovers, students of Canadian literature, and general readers.
-W.J. Keith