Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Al Purdy Day, April 21

It's "Al Pudy Day" in Canada, and the league of Canadian poets suggests parties to celebrate the great poet. I'm not much of a party animal but I have been thinking of him throughout the day, leafing through his books, reading his poems. I decided I should write an entry for this space; then decided to publish here a posthumus letter I wrote to him. It's a summary of a presentation I did for last year's "Pudy Fest" in Marmora.
Hey Al,

I never knew how much your presence in my life meant to me until I was left holding your absence. Like they say, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Now you’re gone, I felt I had to inspect this poet I call myself, and look closely at the way you helped shape me.

Remember Yorkville in the sixties? With my developing thirst for poetry I was hanging out there with a bunch of out-of-towners. The others looked for folk musicians; I looked for poets. And found them.

They didn’t congregate in the Yorkville and Avenue Road clubs, they hung out at the Bohemian Embassy in an alley off Yonge. It was not only a place for musicians, it was the haunt for writers, actors, poets. One evening one of the featured readers was this Al Purdy who had won the Governor-General’s prize for poetry. When you read, I was spellbound.

You reminded me of the Beat poets I had heard in the States, rough and uncouth in appearance with the sounds of everyday words coming from your mouth. And I suddenly realized that to express myself in poetry, I didn’t need flowery language and classical allusions to gods and muses. Carefully crafting common language made your poetry feel and sound natural. I approached you afterward, got you to sign a copy of a book. I told you my name but you never spoke it.

The next time we met face to face was over dinner ― for ten. I had persuaded the local Arts Council that a reading by the great Canadian poet Al Purdy would be a wonderful way to end a week of literary celebrations, and now I was plunked among the artistic movers and shakers in a fancy restaurant. I don’t remember the dinner conversation. I remember little of the reading you did.

I did, however, come away with a concept that has stuck in my mind ever since, always connected to your words at that time. Over dinner and during the reading, you emphasized how poetry and individual poems build community: in exploring common experience they build an intrinsic, common bond that is easily recognized.

Through the years there were several of your readings and other gatherings I attended. Only one really stands out, again here in Hamilton, and that because you brought home to me another simple but vital concept.

Poetry is truth, you claimed. No, not the legal, factual definition of truth. Its strength lies in its ability to connect, to connect over distance and across time. It holds the truth that is not “out there” but inside everyone. That wasn’t the way you expressed it. I don’t remember your words, not even an approximation, but that is the lesson I retain.

Three very important and fundamental concepts for this poet’s development, and for this I thank you, Al. I never got the chance to do so in person. We never got that close.

Our paths crossed several times over the years and one small thing keeps irritating me. You never gave any indication that you recognized me or knew my name. Will you do me a favour?

The next time we meet, greet me by name.

With gratitude and respect,


And it's not just me; in some way or other he influenced most of the poets who followed him. He has become an icon in Canadian letters, but remains so human, so much a poet of the people and the voice of this land.

1 comment:

annaken said...

I really enjoyed your writing about Al Purdy. Poetry is a wonderful means of touching the human heart and bringing a moment's joy to others.

I hope that there will always be poets writing about human emotions and events.

Life changes so fast and not always for the better.

Poets and other writers have such an opportunity to speak to the issues of the day and perhaps in a hundred years time, another human will pick up their work and it will bless them, at least for a moment.

What a priviledge to have Al Purdy's writing and other fine Canadian poets to read.