How I Didn’t Meet Al Purdy, or Spiritually Canadian


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The great poet Al Purdy – being Canadian he is generally ignored, although not so specifically by anyone truly familiar with English literature – being a combination of poetical qualities seen in Leonard Cohen, Patrick Lane, Walt Whitman, Charles Bukowski, Irving Layton, William Carlos Williams, etc., etc., has always had qualities in his work that I’ve admired; not merely due to the work itself, but as aforementioned also due to the associations that rang true in the work of other writers of equal and lesser lights that I either read and/or knew.

That he knew the writers and their works was due to a manoeuver of deciding to gather different anthologies together, along with accompanying readings at various times as well as frequenting various shitholes passing themselves off as taverns in and around Cabbagetown, Toronto – and other areas. A not totally unfamiliar habitat of many other artistic devotees as well.

What Al could do in his work seemed effortless, not artless – yet even with an artistic finger in a metaphorical eye there was a general sense of grace in his accomplishment – that may have been seen to be less of a literary punch than what his friend and mine, Irving Layton, was known to lean towards (an attitude that cost him readers who most would have benefitted from persevering past such a thing).
In this, to a degree, he could be likened to P.K.Page with associations through with Gwen MacEwen, John Newlove, and others.

What Al did accomplish in his work and still does, without being present here on earth physically, is the transformation of the weary ordinariness of everyday things into wonder, and by the act of creating into poems of a common sense transformation: he took the observable without the tripe of scholarly interference designed to embroider an academic or intellectual pretense onto the work and made it in such a manner that the work stood as truly classic, great and unique.
Work that is a wonder, that is spiritually and uniquely Canadian: without the designation as such being hijacked by so-called scholars, academics and jealous Midianites.

Al had the calm center of a true poet, born to his creations – and in the process becoming and thus creating something greater.

There wasn’t a false sense of needing to achieve an aim with a perspective on reception by the USA, British traditions, nor Israeli-diasporic involvements. Though well aware of such things and writers and poets in the midst of those interests, he absorbed and transformed these as well.

(He knew his Classics as well, as I found out at another time we spoke when I mentioned at 17 I had buzzed off high school to go to the University of Toronto library to investigate, through my passion for my high school Latin and poets, and Greek writers, a comparison of early Greek and Modern Greek side-by-side as I did some likely passable translations of the two, and ran into John Robert Columbo, though we did not speak).

Why I’m writing this is due to the fact that something someone said recently – could have been myself out talking to the trees around here – reminded me of how I came to know other poets than Irving Layton, whose work I read in high school, along with John Newlove’s (and of which we talked), and whom I decided one day I’d meet, but after the fact of finally seeing there’d be a poetry reading at York University where John would be reading, along with Joe Rosenblatt, and Francis Sparshott.

Woo! and wow. Got up to the northern wilds of Toronto, walked all-round the halls looking for the location, came around a corner suddenly, and there were those three in lock-step coming towards me.
Internally I was shocked, but outside, cool.
Maybe more than so, as I recognized them but still said, “I can’t find the room where the poetry reading is. Maybe you guys could direct me?”
John Newlove spoke up: ”Well, we are going there.”
Then Joe Rosenblatt, “Yeh, come with us.”
And the procession proceeded with Francis Sparshott looking a bit taken-aback, John saying a few things, and Joe and I mostly going back and forth until we got to the room and it was left at the fact we’d talk after the reading.

Sweet deal for me I thought. I’d published some poems in Canadian literary magazines, England, Australia, Italy, etc, and a bunch in the USA, but had no photo out, so to them I was I’d guess a very interested reader.

Upshot of this particular to what I’m writing here is that one day out of the blue my phone rang and a sort of gruff, but welcoming voice rang out: “Is this Dean Baker?”
“If this isn’t the cops, it is. Who’s this?”
“This is Al Purdy, I got your number from Joe.”

Thus went the time I didn’t meet Al Purdy, and many more besides.

Do yourself a favor, really get to know his work. You’ll thank him later.
(And hey, don’t neglect the others: John Newlove, Irving Layton, Patrick Lane, Milton Acorn, Ted Plantos, Joe Rosenblatt, P.K. Page, Gwen MacEwen, Bill Bissett, etc., etc.) Later on I got to meet and know Milton Acorn, Gwen MacEwen (picked up adverts for her memorial from Michael Ondaatje at his house down the street from hers; and met her and Judith Merrill, and Marian Engel – with whom we spoke about her book Bear, among other things)

©Dean J. Baker

Main Blog: http://writingsofdeanbaker.wordpress.com

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