Hammering in the Sky
- Sam Solecki (Editor)
Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Paul Denham
In The Last Canadian Poet: an Essay on Al Purdy (1999), Sam Solecki argued that Purdy’s work represents a phase in Canadian poetry which culminated in the 1960s and has since been in decline: his poetry articulates a “master narrative of Canadian nationalism in Canadian literature, criticism, and politics,” a narrative which is at present no longer seen as central to English-Canadian culture. “Read in chronological sequence,” Solecki claims, “the poems reveal an individual discovering himself and his country, and in that act of discovery describing or ‘mapping’ it in its full complexity.” Solecki’s edition of Purdy’s collected letters extends our understanding of this process of mapping the self and the country. Yours, Al is a thick collection of letters beginning in 1947 and ending only a week before Purdy’s death in April 2000. It is unusual in that it includes not only letters written by Purdy, but also many letters to him. As a result, we can follow conversations and the development of personal friendships, literary arguments, and ideas about Canadian life and society, sometimes over several decades.
Purdy clearly enjoyed writing and receiving letters; Solecki suggests that he wrote them in part to stay in practice when there were no poems or articles to be written, rather as a musician practices every day even though there may be no performances imminent. Purdy may be the last Canadian poet, as Solecki claims, but he is also one of the last typists, Canadian or otherwise. So along with a disappearing set of poetic and political attitudes, this book implies a lament for a disappearing technology. Poets will continue to write letters, but now that e-mail and word-processing have largely replaced the typewriter, one wonders if it will soon become impossible ever again to assemble such a comprehensive collection of letters of a contemporary Canadian poet—or of anybody else.
Solecki has included brief biographies of all Purdy’s correspondents just before their first appearances, and plenty of helpful footnotes identifying people, events, and books referred to in the letters. The effect is a narrative line in which Purdy appears as a central figure not only in his own story but also in the literary history of the period. He did not correspond with absolutely everybody—not Dorothy Livesay, for example, nor Gwendolyn MacEwen nor Margaret Avison—but the list of his regular correspondents over a period of years is pretty impressive: Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Margaret Laurence, Milton Acorn, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Jack McClelland, and George Woodcock are major players, and George Bowering, Northrop Frye, John Glassco, Pierre Trudeau, and John Newlove make appearances. Solecki comments on the absence of letters to and from Purdy’s wife Eurithe, noting that the two did not correspond because they were seldom apart. But there is only one letter—a rather impersonal one—to his son Brian, and no references to him in other letters. The single letter is cordial enough, but one wonders what kind of father-son story is not being told here, and why.
One good reason to read this book is for the comments to and about other literary figures. He admires F.R. Scott but says he was not one of the “great poets.” He argues endlessly with Milton Acorn; he likes and admires Irving Layton, but sees his limitations too (“his concern for publicity and mistaking [his poetic] ability”), and supports Elspeth Cameron, Layton’s biographer, against Layton’s vitriolic attacks on her work. There’s a delightfully sarcastic letter to Warren Tallman, noting Tallman’s enthusiastic support of American poets reading in BC, and wondering when Tallman might use his US connections and citizenship to organize readings by Canadian poets in the US. And his dislike of the Black Mountain poets, their Canadian disciples (“Davey and his boys”), and their model William Carlos Williams is frequently expressed. He and John Glassco exchanged parodies of Williams, and he seems to have got into some ill-tempered arguments on the subject with Fred Wah and others.
On one occasion Purdy writes to John Newlove: “Reading Livesay is too big a penalty for doing your antho. The only really good woman poet I know is Atwood.” We would like to hear more about Livesay, but are not surprised that Atwood is the only woman poet who makes it into these pages. The letters between her and Purdy are mostly good-humoured and respectful, occasionally testy; Purdy’s comments to others about Atwood, however, indicate some reservations about her work: “I think perhaps the worst fault I could find with Atwood’s novels is that I think they’re written to some kind of formula, a fashionable formula, as it turns out.” “But she is a writer more than being a poet. . . . Somebody invented her, and it wasn’t her.” Likewise, Purdy’s long-standing friendships with Birney, Acorn, and Layton do not preclude his expressing opinions about them to which they all probably would have taken exception. We should not be offended by such inconsistencies; they are the product of a man who had a gift for friendship as well as strong literary and political opinions. These letters should be cherished not only as documents of their historical moment, but also as fine letters in themselves. Solecki, as always, has done Purdy proud.
- Quêtes by Emmanuel Bouchard
Books reviewed: Epiphany, Arizona by Pierre Barrette, La lenteur du monde by Michel Pleau, and Les Yeux sur moi by Martin Thibault
- Family History by Claire Wilkshire
Books reviewed: Hard Light by Michael Crummey and Memoirs from Away: A New Found Land Girlhood by Helen M. Buss and Margaret Clarke
- Clichés and Landscapes by Alexis Foo
Books reviewed: Active Pass by Jane Munro, Moving by Elizabeth Greene, Unfurled: Collected Poetry from Northern BC Women by Debbie Keahy, and Walking to Mojacar by Di Brandt
- Two Saskatchewans by John Considine
Books reviewed: Heartland: A Prairie Sampler by Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet and Yvette Moore and The Song Within My Heart by David Bouchard and allen Sapp
- Lost in the Staging by Ryan Fitzpatrick
Books reviewed: Every Day in the Morning (Slow) by Adam Seelig, How to Write by derek beaulieu, and Open Air Bindery by David Hickey
MLA: Denham, Paul. Hammering in the Sky. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #189 (Summer 2006), The Literature of Atlantic Canada. (pg. 175 - 177)
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