Friends Talking Poetry

  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (Editor) and Jonathan Ball (Editor)
    Why Poetry Sucks. Insomniac Press (purchase at
  • Nicholas Bradley (Editor)
    We Go Far Back in Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947-1987. Guernica Editions (purchase at
  • Laurence Hutchman (Editor)
    In the Writers' Words: Conversations with Eight Poets. Guernica Editions (purchase at
Reviewed by Owen Percy

The letters between poets Earle Birney and Al Purdy collected in We Go Far Back in Time chart a lengthy friendship between two CanLit giants, and offer a backstage glimpse of two recognizably literary lives. Purdy’s early letters to Birney are marked with a self-conscious formality and anxiety; he first writes to “Mr. Birney” as “Alfred W. Purdy,” before becoming “Al Purdy,” and finally in 1964, “Al” (long after Birney had become “Earle”). The early, discernable aesthetic tension between the two is shattered by a hilarious drunken 1955 missive penned by Purdy and a friend alternately praising and lambasting the notoriously touchy Birney. Birney’s response, excusing the drunken gall and inviting Purdy to lunch, sets the tone for the gracious and forgiving friendship that was to unfold over the next half century.

As the poets warm to one another (and as Purdy essentially becomes a poet throughout the 1950s) the letters begin to take on greater substance and intimacy. They write of love and sex and aging and travel, but also of what editor Nicholas Bradley calls the “business” of poetry—publishing, grants, festivals, and tours—through the mid-twentieth century. These letters show these poets in their respective primes as they exchange drafts of poems and variously offer, take, and leave advice on each other’s work. They gossip and kibitz about writers they love, loathe, or can’t agree on, and navigate the uncertain waters of living a life in service of their art. The poets are versions of their public selves here, but often much more too; as Bradley puts it, in the letters Birney is “laconic and often guarded,” revealing his petty jealousies, his vulnerability to criticism, and his substantial ego, whereas Purdy is “digressive and anecdotal,” laying bare his self-doubt, stubbornness, and, well, substantial ego. What becomes clear throughout several letters (performances as they might be) is the mire of struggle and satisfaction the writing life afforded each. Even as Purdy’s reputation begins to eclipse Birney’s in the 1970s (and both seem to know it), Purdy still finds cause to ask advice about how to write, why to write, and what to wear to receive his Order of Canada (Birney’s response: “Only poetaster finks wear monkey suits & medals—be Al Purdy for christ’s sake.”)

Bradley notes that this volume, at 479 pages, contains most but not all of the correspondence, and that he has “silently corrected” some typographical and spelling mistakes and omitted parts of some letters that contain sensitive medical information or when “the poets express views that seem to me gratuitously offensive, tactless, or cruel about people who are not public figures.” Whatever one thinks of this decision, this excellent volume—the first significant publication of Birney’s letters and the latest in the long line of Purdy’s—will prove as valuable to scholars as it will to fervent devotees eager to pull back the curtain on two giant poetic personas.

Like Bradley, poet and professor Laurence Hutchman performs a great service to Canadian letters with the publication of In the Writers’ Words, a series of interviews he conducted between 1991 and 2003 with eight poets who shaped Canadian verse in the twentieth century. Hutchman proves to be the best kind of interviewer, intimately familiar with and appreciative of the work of his subjects, and spare but generative in his questions. His conversations with Ralph Gustafson, George Johnston, Fred Cogswell, P. K. Page, Louis Dudek, Purdy, Anne Szumigalski, and James Reaney are all very different in tone and pacing, but share a sense of generosity and openness. Interestingly, most interviewees mention Yeats, Blake, and Housman as influences. The names Rilke, Eliot, and Wordsworth pop up regularly (for better or for worse) and many of the interviewees are, strangely, in the process of reading Ahkmatova around the time Hutchman darkens their door. This metaphor is not accidental: Hutchman interviews all but Reaney in their own homes, which seems to set the poets, and us, at ease as we listen in on their relatively uninhibited exchanges. In the interviews, there is a general malaise about the encroachment of technology on literature (Johnston asks not to be tape recorded because it creates an “artificial effect”), a host of assertions about what is most essential or difficult about writing a good poem (Gustafson: “love and a sense of comedy”; Johnston: “anonymity”; Page: “the unreliability of the senses”; Szumigalski: “punctuation”), and a general hatred of academic literary theory and criticism (Dudek: “[t]he plain synonym for deconstruction is destruction”). As such, there are many revelations in In the Writers’ Words, even if many seem familiar. At its best the book does what good poetry itself does: allows us to understand anew that which we thought we already knew.

One general rule of comedy is that if a joke requires an explication in order to be funny, it’s not really that funny. But Jonathan Ball and Ryan Fitzpatrick, editors of Why Poetry Sucks, will be first to tell you that the hallmark of Canada’s “experimental” poetry is that it throws the general rules out the window. In the introduction to this new anthology, the editors do a lot of explicatory set up, but the poems themselves deliver inconsistent punch lines. The editors (both of whom, along with seventeen of the forty-three contributors, have studied and/or worked in the English Department at the University of Calgary) begin with a theory-heavy introduction that wonders, “What sucks about poetry? The short answer is the words, and their combinations.” They go on to posit, after Victor Shklovsky, that, like comedy, poetry relies on defamiliarization as its basic gesture. The joke of most of the poems seems to be confronting strawman readers.

In defending the hilarity of this kind of conceptualism in their preamble to derek beaulieu’s poems, the editors assert that “the concepts involved are often obvious jokes that its critics just don’t ’get’.” Truer words might not be found in Why Poetry Sucks. The funniest poems in the anthology are those by Annharte, David McGimpsey, Ian Williams, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Kathryn Mockler, and Dina Del Bucchia; but they also tend to be the least recognizably “experimental” in that they do not require anything outside of themselves to be funny, even though each section in the collection is graced with a biographical and explanatory note contextualizing why and how the poems that follow are humorous. We learn, for example, that what we are about to read “produces a static snow between the guffawing and weeping that accompanies cultural recognition,” or that a contributor’s dark poems “don’t simply parody the primness of poetry through a fusion of high and low culture” because the poet’s “black jokes and bad taste both puncture and secure the tragic stance.” Suffice it to say that laughter is visceral and involuntary; applause, on the other hand, is deliberate. Why Poetry Sucks seems more concerned with how it’s funny than how funny it is.

This review “Friends Talking Poetry” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 148-50.

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