- Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy
Al Purdy once remarked of Northrop Frye, 'when I read him or think about him or see his name, I can still hear the voice and see the face, the twinkle in his eye. Doesn't seem as if he is dead, for a moment anyway.' Such is the feeling one may experience about Purdy after reading Sam Solecki's carefully compiled collection.
Yours, Al consists of 323 letters written to over eighty correspondents and a few newspapers between 1947 and 2000. Interspersed among these are 50 letters and a postcard written to Purdy and one letter to his widowed wife, Eurithe. A score of Purdy's letters also contain drafts of poems, some previously unpublished. Editorial apparatus is minimal and includes a helpful introduction, a brief chronology of Purdy's life, headnotes succinctly identifying each new correspondent, appropriate explanatory notes, and an accessible index.
The letters are arranged chronologically, with no chapters or breaks, a format that tumbles the reader into a roistering half-century of poetry, politics, and personalities alongside Canada's trademark poet. The many correspondents include poets, novelists, intellectuals, critics, academics, and publishers like Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, George Woodcock, Fraser Sutherland, Elspeth Cameron, and Jack McClelland, to name but a few. There are also letters to Pierre Trudeau, Darryl Sittler, and Revenue Canada, and the text of a postcard from literary groupies. Aside from some correspondence with Charles Bukowski and a few letters to William Golding, however, there is little communication with anyone outside Canada.
These letters are best read in their entirety but will not disappoint the reader who wants to dip in randomly. Purdy's earthiness is ubiquitous but seldom gratuitous, although Solecki may well qualify for the most deadpan interpolation award for his editing of a letter wherein Purdy describes to Bukowski the effects of his homemade wine on the digestive system - and apparently provides a sample. But that same impulse towards candour also results in some very poignant passages, as in his letter to Margaret Atwood on the death of Margaret Laurence, wherein Purdy's sorrow is almost palpable.
Taken together, the letters provide a fascinating study in the development of Purdy's mind and career, from self-conscious fan letters to Birney in the 1940s to retrospective impressions of his life as a poet in the 1990s. They reveal a complex figure, a man driven by conflicting ambitions and desires, a man whose insistence on poetic authenticity was the driving force behind the dominant figure he became. For those who know Purdy through his poetry and other works, this collection may not hold many [End Page 388] surprises, for the simple reason that Purdy was Purdy. Nevertheless, the letters reinforce through their interesting and intimate details a deep and impressive picture of his multifaceted character. We read his rants against the Black Mountain school of poetry, his bemused frustrations with Milton Acorn's obtuseness, his stubborn fights with McClelland over shared royalties for an eventually stillborn book, his weariness over Layton's 'imitations of himself,' his respect for men like Trudeau and F.R. Scott whom he deemed truly accomplished Canadians, his generous help and advice to friends and acquaintances, and, through it all, a hammering out with fellow writers of his thoughts and practices on the essentials of poetry. What ultimately emerges is a portrait of a big-hearted figure who, despite the rough edges, embodied much love and compassion for friends and country.
Purdy's expansive empathy was reciprocated by many, perhaps most fittingly in a 1999 tribute by Michael Ondaatje upon receiving the news of Purdy's cancer diagnosis:
We never get to tell our favourite poets that they are our favourite poets. So Iwill now. You are the best and most important poet Canada has given the world.And the most enjoyable. And the least complaisant. You brought your voicealongside poetry and you changed it. And as a person you were genuinely generous to all of us who were starting...