The late poet Al Purdy.
THE AL PURDY SHOW featuring readings by Margaret Atwood, Ken Babstock, George Bowering, George Elliott Clarke, Michael Enright, Phil Hall, Steven Heighton, Dennis Lee, Gordon Pinsent, Robert Priest and Karen Solie, and music by Gord Dow-nie, Bidiniband with the Billie Hollies, and the Skydiggers. Wednesday, February 6, at Koerner Hall (273 Bloor W), 7:30 pm. See listing.
An impressive group of writers and musicians gather tonight (Wednesday, February 6) at Koerner Hall to pay tribute to late poet Al Purdy and raise funds to help restore the A-frame cabin he shared with his wife, Eurithe, on Roblin Lake near Ameliasburg.
Dave Bidini, whose Bidini-band debuts a new song based on Purdy's poem Say The Names at the benefit, is a fan of Purdy's and even borrowed a couple of lines from Wilderness Gothic for the song Me And Stupid (on the Rheostatics' 1994 album, Introducing Happiness).
"What first got me [about Purdy's poems] was that they were funny," says Bidini. "Before I got into him, I believed poetry had to be very austere and formal, serious and dark. Al has all those qualities in his work, but they are propelled by a sharp wit and energy. He was exuberant and Canadian without being corny or hinterland."
Kingston-based writer Steven Heighton, who reads at the benefit, wrote the introduction to House of Anansi's new edition of Purdy's Poems For All The Annettes. He made regular summer visits to Al and Eurithe's cottage, starting with a pilgrimage he made in 1989, shortly after his first book was published.
"He was a dominant male, a classic alpha," says Heighton of his mentor. "He didn't really want to talk about other poets' work - poets of his own generation. He wanted to talk about the writers he loved, like Lawrence and Donne, and he wanted to talk about his own work."
"That might [make him] sound overbearing, even unpleasant," he says. "But he wasn't. That was just his character; he could also be very warm, supportive and encouraging."
Heighton, like Bidini, recognizes the humour and accessibility in Purdy's work, but encourages readers to look for Purdy's deeper themes.
"When you find a poet like Al who has really accessible, entertaining poems [At The Quinte Hotel, for example], it's natural that people will latch onto them and pass them around and say, ‘Look, here's a poet who played pool and drank beer and was a real man.'
"But go past that to the poems that came out of the deepest part of him. Look at Necropsy Of Love, The Country North Of Belleville."
Purdy was preoccupied, he says, with what endures over time.
"He was always looking for that thing that somehow lasts, that leaves a trace of itself behind in the snow - whether it's some principle left behind after the farmhouse is gone or the Dorset Inuit have disappeared and leave their carvings behind."
Sounds a little bit like the A-frame itself, which needs "quite a bit of work" to be properly preserved. Once it's ready, the A-Frame Association plans to choose writers from those who apply to stay there on retreat.
What can lucky writers expect from the space? Silence, for one thing.
Heighton visits in the summer. Purdy's writing shed is unheated, and there's no telephone or internet.
"It's this airless, mildewed shed that feels like a root cellar," he says. "The silence is something you never hear in the modern world any more. It really feels soundproofed, partly because there are books on the wall. He was writing in a kind of privacy and silence that's almost impossible for creative people to find."
Heighton plans to read excerpts from his essay On Trying To Wear Al's Shirts as well as Necropsy Of Love.
Bidini, whose annual Torn From The Pages event returns this spring to Hugh's Room, says Canuck music makers relate to Purdy's Canadian identity.
"Al had a hold on a generation of Canadian musicians who are devoted to Canada," he says.