Al Purdy's Wild Peculiar Paradise

For reasons I choose to cherish, Al Purdy and The PH Factor (a.k.a. The Goal) shine luminously in my mind, 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 gaddawfullest greatest climaxes in the sport's history. (Yep, it *was* good for me, too <*grin*>.)

Poetry on blades, poetry on our minds, Purdy's The 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 and we have to
            laugh because we must . . .

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

Dr. Eli Mandel — gifted poet, critic, and professor — 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 theory and Purdystic logic.

"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?

"Yes. 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 . . .

Al Purdy, a Wonderful Poet and Friend

"When Purdy describes how he and Acorn argued over everything, for example, you simply know it's the truth. Besides, I know these guys and trust me, knowing Al and knowing Milton, you can trust it's pretty much the absolutely accurate truth. For one thing, Milt'd argue with a fencepost. 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 steel production 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 François Villon
And it used to frustrate him terribly
that even when I was wrong he couldn't prove it
and when I agreed with him he was always suspicious
and thought he must be wrong because I said he 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 how to cook eggs
In the morning driving to town we hardly spoke
and water poured downhill outside all day for it was spring
when were we gone with frogs mentioning lyrically
Russian steel production figures on Roblin Lake which were almost nil
I left him hitch-hiking on #2 Highway to Montreal
and I guess I was wrong about those eggs . . .

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

"I know, I know! Pick me, pick me!"

"You — the scrawny redhead at the back?"

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

Visit Al Purdy's Harbour Publishing

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 . . ."

Mandel ices the cake summarising Purdy's enduring universal appeal: "It is easy enough to seek an explanation for the diminished, ironic self of contemporary poetry in sociological or psychological patterns of the kind that form a popular mythology: the radical decentralisation of the self in Norman O. Brown's psychomania, for example, or the politicisation of ego in R. D. Laing'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 gathering of his greatest 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 20 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 (Harbour, 200 pages).

The first time you read one of the guy's poems, 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 said and all the stuff he's done and all the places he's visited and all the folks he's known and loved and how, even now, decades later, the poems resonate and reacquaint you with your own history as much as your country's and yes, how reading a Purdy poem eloquently reminds you, yet again, that the goddamned sonofabitch has got to ab-so-flippin'-lutely be one of the greatest goddamned poets of all time (whether he wants to wrangle with a fencepost about that . . . or not).

Guess what?  Yours truly, a LIFER in the CHURCH of MY HABS?  Har!  I R Official Poet Laureate of A Leaf Fan's Blog!!1!  [*SWOON*]

"Purdytion" was originally featured in Books in Canada's April 1997 edition.
© 1997-2011 Judith Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.

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