Adapted from a paper delivered May 5, 2006, at the University of Ottawa symposium “Al Purdy: The Ivory Thought,” and published in The Ivory Thought: Essays on Al Purdy (University of Ottawa Press, 2008). He delivered this paper while wearing a loud blue polyester shirt that had belonged to Purdy.
One afternoon sometime in 1983 or ’84, Dr. Leslie Monkman of the Queen’s University English Department managed to bring both Al Purdy and Earle Birney into our Canadian Literature class for a reading. I was in my early twenties, just beginning to write poetry, and in awe of both poets. Birney, tall and cadaverous, read first, in a croaky voice, ancient and wavering. He read for about twenty minutes and clearly it taxed him. He had a heavy cold. He seemed to grow smaller and more concave as the reading went on. He left immediately afterward on the arm of a beautiful young Asian woman who looked as though she could have been a student in our class.
When Al Purdy got up for his turn and peered down at us, the crown of his head almost grazed the bank of fluorescent tubes on the ceiling, or so it seemed to us—or seems to me now. In a big, barging voice he prefaced his reading by asking what we had thought of Birney’s performance. Nobody spoke. Purdy’s high, sunned forehead was stamped with a scowl and his shaded glasses made it hard to decode his expression or even to know exactly where he was looking. After some moments of laden silence I put up my hand and offered that I’d liked the reading, but had hoped Birney would also read from David, his famous long poem. Purdy stared at me with an unamused grin. A few long moments more and he said, “Yeah, sure, nice old man like that comes here to read, what else are you going to say.” And took the toothpick out of his mouth and launched into a long reading, brilliant and riveting.
If I was surprised that Purdy would crack wise about a fellow poet who’d just left the stage—in fact, an older poet, and one who, I later learned, had influenced and encouraged him—it was because I was naïve then, maybe a bit wilfully, about a natural and unavoidable aspect of the literary world: the competition. Every poet wants to loom tall. Fiercely competitive poets like Al Purdy aim to loom tallest.
How do we come to wear the shirts of mentor poets? Is it a good thing, bad? Is it a gesture of loyalty or a ghoulish appropriation? Or is it neutral—utterly beside the point? I’m going to talk here in an impressionistic, non-syllogistic way about wearing the shirt of an admired older poet while trying to fill it out in my own manner.
Recently I happened on a fact that at first I doubted: in the morning, when you get out of bed, you’re almost an inch taller than you will be at nightfall. I supposed that if it was true, it must be owing to the nightly relaxation of the cushioning tissues around the vertebrae and joints, while the body is more or less free from gravity’s tight-wound guy wires. So that you get up tall, but then, throughout the day, gravity slowly compresses and slightly shrinks you. As if a day were a sort of re-enactment, or pre-capitulation, of a lifetime’s trajectory; the life-impulse boosting you upward as far as it can, and then, after a point, gravity starting to work you back down to the ground you sprouted from years before. With a tape measure I marked out six feet on the inside of a doorway—whose shape and size, come to think of it, are pretty much the same as a coffin’s—and got my daughter, standing on a chair, to measure me in the morning and then again after dinner. And it was true. I was an inch closer to the earth.
Martin Amis puts it this way in The Information, a novel about a writer who is shrivelling on all fronts: “Gravity . . . wants you down there, in the centre of the earth.” To say it another way, gravity wants you under the ground. Gravity is the principle that resents our fleeting verticality—envies the passionate aberration of our being. In fact, gravity seems to take our upright posture personally. Maybe the horizontal hours of sleep are not just a pre-enactment of our eventual state, but a sort of daily gravity tax.
In her novel A Game to Play on the Tracks, Lorna Jackson observes of one of her characters that “Like most men, he is just under six feet but claims to be six feet tall.”
A scene from the early nineties, one of our by-now annual summer visits to Al and Eurithe Purdy in Ameliasburgh. Al has taken me into his windowless, clammy, mildewed writing shed. It’s above ground but feels like a root-cellar. Still air, muffled sounds. From one of the bookshelves he pulls a slim volume—his first published book, The Enchanted Echo, from 1944. “Here, have a look at this poem.” Al has shown me new work before—and an hour ago, in the house, he showed Tom Marshall and my wife Mary and me a broadsheet that Irving Layton had just sent him from Montreal, then watched us as we read it. You could feel the concentrated, impatient attention behind his dark lenses. I had mixed feelings about Layton’s poem and said so, although I told Al I did like the final image. He seemed irked by this imprudent diplomacy and said, “Aw, hell, I don’t think it’s any good at all!”
Now, out in Al’s creative sanctum, I felt I was being tested again. An awkward moment. These were Al’s first published poems. I’d heard he’d disowned them, more or less, but maybe he’d had a change of heart, or had always retained a private affection for the one poem he was now asking me to read. It was clumsily rhymed doggerel, a sort of Edwardian pastiche. I hadn’t known Al long enough to be frank. “Well,” I said softly, “I think there are some nice sounds in it, but I guess on the whole I prefer your more recent work.” Something like that. Al snorted, grabbed the book away and bellowed, “Now don’t be so goddamn mealy-mouthed—it’s a piece of goddamn shit!”
I never saw Earle Birney read again after that one time at Queen’s. He died in the autumn of 1995, I heard, after climbing a tree and falling and breaking a leg or arm or hip, then going into a downward health spiral, as nonagenarians will after a bad break. Apparently he’d been trying to impress his young lover and companion. “My love is young & i am old / she’ll need a new man soon . . .”
A good story, but it turns out to be wrong. The fall from the tree happened some years before. All the same, the poet’s late climb stands out as another assertion of verticality, a gesture of ascent, in defiance of the way time and gravity are hauling one steadily downward. The sort of defiance that male writers, especially, always seem determined to play out.
I remember saying to Eurithe Purdy, shortly after Al’s death, that I thought Al was a man who had always taken death very personally. And she said, “Yes, I think that’s true.” I will add that I think his life’s work in poetry was a way of talking back to death, to time and gravity—the gradual attrition of the flesh. In fact Al competed with death—not just with other poets, mentors, and himself. I sense that for him this vying with death was the ultimate competition. And the beautiful fuel of his best poems.
Sometime in the early nineties John Metcalf sent me a photocopy of a now-notorious comic poem, a piece much in the spirit of Amis’s The Information. This poem, by Clive James, begins: “The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am pleased.” It proceeds in that spirit for another fifty-four lines. I thought it was hilarious and mailed a copy to Al. In his quick response he said that he found the poem in bad taste, unnecessarily crass and cruel. I’m still a bit surprised by his reaction; it must have had something to do with how the poem’s journey to him had started at the desk of John Metcalf, a writer whom Al quarrelled with on and off over the years. But I didn’t think about it again for some time. Then, around 1996 or so, I got a typed letter from Al that included, among other things, a copy of that same masterpiece of exuberant envy. Found this under a pile of papers on my desk, Al wrote. Don’t know where it came from, but think it’s pretty damn funny and thought you might get a kick out of it.
In 1995 , in Kingston, I got to read with Al for the first time. I was opening up for him. The audience packed into the Sleepless Goat café was there for him, of course, but an audience that size will straighten any performer’s spine and the atmosphere in the room was thrilling, so I was stoked to go. In a photograph taken outside the café just after the event, in front of 350½ Princess, Al looks as tall and dominant and self-contained as ever, but in a second, candid shot, taken briefly after, he looks smaller, receding into himself now that the energizing gaze of the crowd has been withdrawn. He looks thinner than I remember, and his short-sleeved, collared white shirt looks baggy, like the skin of somebody who has just lost a great deal of weight. I sense the fatigue in his posture and behind those big shaded glasses. He’s almost eighty years old and has just read his poems for thirty-five minutes in a room sweltering with a dense crowd and its enthusiams, its mobbish yearning to converge on celebrity.
In the spring of 2000 I saw him for the last time, dying at home in Sidney, B.C. Jay Ruzesky and I drove up from Victoria and sat at his bedside for a couple of hours, talking with him and at times just sitting there as we waited for him to wake from another short nap. At one point he tried to eat a piece of bread we brought him, but he couldn’t manage. Some people may die in their boots, but no one really dies on his feet. And no eighty-two-year-old, horizontal for the last time, exhausted and unable to eat, rages at the dying of the light. That, after all, was a young poet’s prescription. A heroization of the mechanics of dying. Or, as Al himself put it in his de-poeticizing way in “How a Dog Feels to Be Old”: “[This is] as good a way / to leave as any / (Dylan notwithstanding).” So that this poet who took death very personally appeared at the end to have made a grudging peace with it . . .
And what do you, the apprentice, feel now in watching the mentor leave? Along with the inevitable sense of loss, you suddenly feel (like a child watching a parent die) much older. You sense how promise is no longer enough and it’s necessary for the real work to begin. You feel the truth of George Eliot’s insight—that it’s never too late to become the man you might have been. Death as the gift of a call to life. Seems the front-line trench, long occupied by elders, who stood between you and mortality and other apparent failures, has suddenly been vacated. You and your generation are going to have to fill it, as you’ll have to fill, or try to fill, the shirts of those who came before.