The man on the phone claimed to be Al Purdy, but I wasn't convinced. I thought it was a friend of mine imitating the famous poet's foghorn voice. But it was Purdy. Astoundingly, he'd read my first book of poems and now wanted to meet me. And so it happened that a neophyte writer found himself talking over beer with the author of The Cariboo Horses in a Toronto backyard one warm summer evening in 1979. Al was 60 at the time, but he still had a young man's brazen vitality. Another writer played the trumpet, and Al, with a lot of Molson's in him, danced in the street with his shirttails out. I was amazed and enchanted and appalled. Twenty-one years later, as news of his death comes from his home in Sydney on Vancouver Island, what I think of is his generosity. The time he gave to other writers, especially younger writers, was a second vocation.
Though it was common knowledge that Al had been sick for months with lung cancer, his death still came as a shock. He had been a fixture of the literary scene for so long - ever since 1965 when The Cariboo Horses won the first of his two Governor General's Awards - that his steady churning out of poems seemed destined to go on forever. He wrote nearly every day, faithfully, compulsively, turning out 33 books of poetry as well as prose, including his marvellous 1993 autobiography, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea. If you told him some story, his first response was always: "Have you written a poem about it yet?" Life existed to be turned into poetry. His reach, as befitted his six-foot, three-inch frame, was vast. More than any Canadian poet, he took the whole country - in fact the whole world - as his bailiwick, and he was as at home writing about the ruins of Troy as about the poor, cedar-dotted farms of his native eastern Ontario.
How good was he? Al wrote a lot of casual poetry - humorous anecdotal stuff that was always a hit at public readings. Listening to it, you could hear how he'd taken the rhythms of ordinary Canadian speech and shaved and fitted them into his particular brand of free verse. But at his best, he went much further. In poems such as "Wilderness Gothic," his deep elegiac instincts, his ability to shift tone in a twinkling and his gift for elaborating metaphors fused in poetry of a high order. His friend the poet Dennis Lee says flatly: "His best two dozen poems make him one of the enduring poets of the century in English. They earn him a ranking with figures such as Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and D. H. Lawrence."
Lee also argues that Purdy was one of the "heroic founders" of modern Canadian literature. "He broke with the old, colonial mode of poetry and recast our imagination, so that it seems perfectly rooted in the place we occupy. No one else in English-Canadian poetry had really done that." In one of his finest poems, "The Country North of Belleville," Purdy did for the hardscrabble townships north of Lake Ontario what the Group of Seven had earlier done for the Canadian Shield: he made visible, in the mind's deep eye, what had been there all along. He wrote: Old fences drift vaguely among the trees/a pile of moss-covered stones/gathered for some ghost purpose/has lost meaning under the meaningless sky...
This is the country of our defeat/and yet/during the fall plowing a man/might stop and stand in a brown valley of the furrows/and shade his eyes to watch for the same/red patch mixed with gold/that appears on the same/spot on the hills/year after year/and grow old/plowing and plowing a ten-acre field until/the convolutions run parallel with his own brain.
Alfred Wellington Purdy was born in 1918, on a farm near Trenton. His father, Fred, died before Al turned 2, leaving the only child to be raised by his mother, Eleanor. In his autobiography, Al describes himself as a bookish and secretly fearful child - though he also loved sports and never tired of playing hockey on the frozen Bay of Quinte. A poor student, he left high school early, and in 1936, at 17, rode the freights west to British Columbia. During the war, he served with the RCAF - high blood pressure limited him to guard duty - and married Eurithe Parkhurst. He wrote poetry for most of his adult life, but by his own admission most of it was terrible - until the critical early years of the 1960s. At that time, Al, then in his 40s, Eurithe and their only child, James, were living in poverty in a house they had built themselves on the edge of Ameliasburg, south of Belleville. They were reduced to picking over garbage dumps and, Al claimed, they once ate a road-killed rabbit. He also endured bouts of severe depression. But he kept writing, struggling to find the poetic voice that finally emerged in his 1962 volume, Poems for all the Annettes. Purdy's devotion to his craft during that period became something of a legend, and an inspiration to Canadian writers ever since.
I last saw Al in the Ameliasburg house. We talked into the dusk - he didn't bother turning on the lights - while outside the window Roblin Lake turned silver. I can remember his voice, going on steadily in the failing light - plangent, irascible, passionate, self-enjoying. It is the voice of his poems, and in his poems it will never stop.
Maclean's May 8, 2000