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Vancouver Sun: Purdy Darn Good

If Shelley was correct, and "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world", I wonder what he would think of these two books of commentary on poets. Here, the lover of poetry has the opposite ends of the spectrum: Sam Solecki's The Last Canadian Poet is a meticulous work of appreciation and scholarship on Al Purdy's body of work, and Doug Beardsley's and Al Purdy's The Man Who Outlived Himself is a dialogue between two friends and fellow poets about a handful of poems by John Donne, whom they agree is splendid.

Beardsley's and Purdy's book is far more accessible, but no less valuable, than Solecki's. Beardsley and Purdy repeat the pattern of what they did in No One Else is Lawrence!, in which they reprint some of D.H. Lawrence's poems and offer commentary. At the end they each include a poem based on Lawrence. In the Donne book, this format is followed, with the addition of five new poems jointly written and derived from five of Donne's elegies - three poets working together. Donne fans will find much to argue with; I think the commentary on The Flea misses the point, but Beardsley and Purdy are not trying to offer definitive readings of poems. They are allowing readers the honour of being in on conversations two poets are having about another.

Aware of his persona as folksy poet, Purdy is usually the one to cut to the chase, occasionally asking his cohort, "Don't you think you're reading too much into this?" and then happily carrying on the dialogue. Both men are fascinated by the love and passion in Donne's poems. Regarding "The Good Morrow," Purdy remarks, "This is a very simple poem in which the images and everything about it is so open and shut. And it's not that which makes it so great. Possibly it's the extreme simplicity alone. If I read the poem often enough, probably I'll get tired of it - but I can't conceive of that!" Beardsley reveals that the poem was part of his wedding service. Beardsley compliments Donne on his "forthrightness of language," and that's precisely what makes The Man Who Outlived Himself such a lovely volume. All three - Donne, Beardsley and Purdy - are open and direct, and the latter two exhibit a refreshing humility. Their book fulfils its purpose. It pays tribute to poetry in general and Donne in particular. It gives readers something to bounce ideas off, and it offers the opportunity to read Donne anew.

Solecki's book is almost completely different. First, as subject substitute a 20th-century Canathan poet for a 17th-century English one. Substitute a relentless academic voice for a conversation. And substitute abstruse and prolix prose for short, pointed commentary. But Solecki, a University of Toronto English professor, is as admiring of Purdy as Beardsley - and Purdy - are of Donne. Therein lies the worth of his book.

The Last Canadian Poet elevates Purdy to near iconic status. Solecki devotes himself to showing how and why Purdy has achieved - simply by placing him in his historical context. And in an invigorating manner, Solecki has no problem making judgments about literature and developing an argument about the folly of the "critical amnesia" suffered by "poststructuralist and postcolonial critics." I think "theorists" is a better word here, but I delight in Solecki's argument that it is Purdy's nationalism that contributes to his aesthetic. Anyone who has read "The Country North of Belleville", "The Last of the Dorsets" or "The Cariboo Horses" is struck by their sense of place.

The most readable part of Solecki's book, and probably the most useful for anyone but a Purdy scholar, is the first part: "Poetry, Nation, and the Last Canadian Poet." In about 40 pages, Solecki locates Purdy's place in late-20th-century poetry, cultural, critical, and historical contexts. Solecki's vast knowledge is pleasingly presented in largely jargon-free language.

He points out that Purdy deserves more attention than he has been given, and perhaps when this particular wave of literary theory washes over us, more students of poetry will turn to poetry instead of academic politics.

In the meantime, the poetry-reading (and writing) public is out there in apparently large numbers. And lovers of poetry will be encouraged by both The Last Canadian Poet and The Man Who Outlived Himself to return to where it all starts: the poem. Isn't that the real point?
-Candice Fertile, Vancouver Sun