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Al Purdy – The Voice of the Land

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Al Purdy – The Voice of the Land

On May 20, 2008, a statue of the poet Al Purdy was unveiled in Queen's Park. Toronto poet Paul Vermeersch was in attendance for the dedication ceremony, and he takes this opportunity to reflect on Purdy's life, death and legacy.

Al Purdy, the man widely regarded as Canada's first true national poet, died in April, National Poetry Month, in the year 2000. In a way, his death marked the end of a century in which the Canadian cultural identity – under pressure from separatist tensions, two world wars, the rapid development of the mass media and the sensation of being a young nation adrift between older colonial powers and our newer imperialist neighbour – experienced its most profound growing pains. No other poet was as resolute in addressing those pains as Alfred Wellington Purdy. He did so not only by writing about the issues head-on, but also by listening to the people around him, by writing a poetry rooted in the daily life of the people and places of the Canada he knew and loved, from sea to sea to sea. He was writing poems that were relevant to Canadians, and, for over forty years, Canadians listened.

The position of Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate was not legislated into existence until 2001, so Purdy never ascended to the office that so many believed he was meant to inhabit. In lieu of any official laurels from Parliament Hill, the League of Canadian Poets created an award to honour Purdy for his exceptional status among Canadian writers, and, just weeks before his death, they invested him with the honorary moniker "The Voice of the Land." It was one of many accolades the poet would receive in his lifetime, and it would be among of the first to follow him, quite literally, to his grave.

Sculptors Edwin and Veronica Dam de Nogales with Scott Griffin.

The words "The Voice of the Land," along with the insignia of the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada, are inscribed on Purdy's book-shaped gravestone, marking the place where his ashes are buried in the modest cemetery at the foot of Purdy Lane in Ameliasburg, Ontario. It is a dignified, even lofty, moniker, but it was bound to stick, and eight years later when the statue of Al Purdy was unveiled in Toronto's Queen's Park, the sculptors Edwin and Veronica Dam de Nogales announced that the title of their work was, naturally, "The Voice of the Land."

Of course, in life, Purdy was often described in other ways. Dennis Lee once wrote that he was "lanky and rawboned in appearance, shambling and somewhat ornery in manner."1 When writing about her first impressions of Purdy's poetry in her foreword to Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood wrote, "This was a new sort of voice for me, and an overpowering one, and a little too much like being backed into the corner of a seedy bar by a large, insistent, untidy drunk, who is waxing by turns both sentimental and obscene."2 So vivid is her metaphor that one cannot help but wonder if Atwood was not only writing about her impression of Purdy's poetry, but also of Purdy himself. The caricature of Purdy as the rambling, beer-soaked bard was tacitly, and often actively, encouraged by Purdy himself. He once famously remarked that if he were aboard a rowboat afloat in the middle of all the beer he'd drunk in his life, he'd never be able to see the shore. Time and again, he portrayed himself in his many autobiographical poems as a boozer, a scrapper, a bumpkin, always the unlikely poet. He sometimes dressed the part. His booming voice aided the illusion. Atwood addresses this perception of Purdy, too, adding, "underneath that flapping overcoat and that tie with the mermaid on it and that pretence of shambling awkwardness – yes, it's a pretence, but only partly, for among other things Purdy is doing a true impression of himself – there's a skillful, master conjurer."

Mayor David Miller and Eurithe Purdy.

And conjure he did, a universe of home-made beer and wild grape wine, of Ameliasburg and Pangnirtung and Havana and Machu Pichu, of rooms for rent in the outer planets, the early Cretaceous and the country of our defeat. The breadth and depth and immediacy of Purdy's universe earned him the admiration of many of Canada's leading literary figures. He had long correspondences with Earle Birney, George Woodcock and Margaret Laurence, to name but a few. Of the generation that followed, in addition to Dennis Lee and Margaret Atwood, he could count Michael Ondaatje, David Helwig, Susan Musgrave and Patrick Lane among his poetry's biggest supporters. And Purdy offered them support, too. He was famous for the generosity and encouragement he offered younger writers. Still other generations followed: Steven Heighton and Lynn Crosbie both enjoyed close friendships with the man, and he encouraged me, too, as I was making my first shaky steps into my life as a poet. But Purdy was far more than a just a poet's poet; his work also struck a chord with the reading public, and his audience grew until he became a poet of true national prominence.

The day his ashes were buried in Ameliasburg, the little cemetery was filled with relatives, friends and neighbours, many members of Canada's literary establishment and a smattering of younger writers who had benefited from Purdy's legendary kindness – two hundred mourners in all – and I was among them. In literary terms, I was a freshman then, and I remember feeling a little starstruck by some of the "big names" in attendance. I quickly found my head, though, and committed my attention to the occasion of the day. There was a modest graveside service, nothing too religious for Purdy the atheist, but spiritual enough for the faithful among the mourners. Some solemn remarks were made, but the bulk of the eulogies would be delivered later on in Ameliasburg's town hall just up the road. Afterward, everyone would agree that the highlight of the graveside service was provided by poet and novelist Steven Heighton, who read a very special poem. A cento is a poem composed entirely of lines from other poets' work, and Heighton had prepared a cento to honour Purdy's life composed entirely of Purdy's own lines. It was beautifully done, and it not only showcased the power of Purdy's writing, but also the deep feeling of loss that Heighton felt. It was a feeling shared by all of us.

When the official talking was done, everyone milled about the gravestones, reminiscing. For some, it became a game to spot unusual things etched on the marble monuments: a motorcycle, a German Shepherd, a half-ton pick-up truck. Like the Pharaohs of Egypt, the people of Ameliasburg were buried with images of the things they loved. I found myself standing near Purdy's grave with Dennis Lee and his wife Susan Perly, who had brought me along with them in their car, as well as Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson. The day was wearing on, and there were still many eulogies to be given. Eventually, Atwood said, "Well, perhaps we should get going, then."

We were the first five guests to leave the cemetery and make our way along Ameliasburg's main road back to the town hall where the rest of the eulogies were to scheduled to take place. Across the road from the town hall there was a house, and its residents were busy tending to a yard sale. Rows of picnic tables were set up on the front lawn, and they were cluttered with decades of accumulated treasures: fishing poles with missing reels, a roadside mailbox shaped like a cob of corn, boxes of old records and old books, crates of dishes and various utensils, many of them never used and never to be used, a tea cosy shaped like chicken covered in crocheted posies. Again, it was Atwood who spoke. "I think Al would have stopped here," she said. And so we stopped.

I looked back down the road. A few hundred meters away, the crowd was filing out of the cemetery and starting to head toward us. As they approached, they noticed the five us perusing the tables at the yard sale, and they joined us. Soon, the yard sale was overrun with an unexpected (though I imagine welcome) two hundred mourners from the cemetery. Being a perfect occasion to pick up a souvenir from Ameliasburg, almost everybody bought something. I remember Dennis and Susan bought some folk art: a pair of one-of-a-kind animal figurines made of seashells glue-gunned together and brought vividly to life with the clever application of large googly-eyes. I remember Lynn Crosbie bought a drinking glass that had, for no reason anyone could discern, an image of actor Jamie Farr's face etched onto one side of it. Someone else bought the corncob-shaped mailbox.

By the time people had taken their seats in the town hall, the place was filled with junk from across the street. The fishing poles leaned against the wall next to a pair of badly beaten cross-country skis. One woman sat with a fourteen-inch black and white Zenith TV set on her lap. Some of the more serious readers in the room were comparing books they'd found: a book club edition of an Ian Fleming novel and a cookbook specializing in recipes for wild game. So filled was the hall with the genuine ephemera of Ameliasburg, it was as though an unwritten Purdy poem had come to life to remind us not to take matters too seriously. The presence of all these souvenirs cast a decidedly light-hearted tone over the rest of the day. The eulogies were delivered, by writers and friends and family, and the mood was now more celebratory than mournful. I had purchased an unused notebook at the yard sale, and I had resolved to write a poem of tribute to Al in it, but I left it on the floor of the hall under my chair, and the poem of tribute never happened. At least, not yet.

A lot of the people who were there that day in Ameliasburg were also present in Toronto this past May when the statue of Al Purdy was unveiled in Queen's Park. Emceed by the current Toronto Poet Laureate Pier Giorgio DiCicco and officiated by Toronto's mayor David Miller, the statue was ultimately unveiled by Eurithe Purdy, the poet's widow and the woman to whom he dedicated almost all of his more than forty books.

Felicity Williams and her band.

The statue was the brainchild of poetry patron Scott Griffin, who hatched the idea with former Toronto Poet Laureate Dennis Lee through a group called Friends of the Poet Laureate. The project would prove to be a long-term commitment, as governmental bureaucracy and red tape lengthened the process to seven years. Finally, though, the statue was installed where Griffin had always wanted it, in Queen's Park, at the heart of the city, where many people will see it and be reminded of poetry's place at the heart of our lives.

For the ceremony, a portion of Queen's Park had been cordoned off with a short, white picket fence. Strangely, the area contained was about the same size as the little cemetery in Ameliasburg, and the crowd was about the same size, too. Steven Heighton was not there to read his lovely cento, but Felicity Williams, a talented young jazz musician, was there with her band to perform songs she has composed based on Purdy's poems. Television and radio reporters were interviewing the guests. At the end of it all, Scott Griffin, the founder of the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize and the man ultimately behind the day's celebration, addressed the motley crowd, which included high-ranking publishing executives and former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, not to mention dozens of poets and a scattering of old coots who looked as if they might have been the Tuesday afternoon regulars from the bar in the Quinte Hotel. "Drink until we run out of booze," Griffin said.

Al's statue, finally revealed to the world, just looked on, lost in thought and contented.

Photographs by David Waldman. For more images of the May 2008 unveiling of The Voice of the Land, Al Purdy's statue in Queen's Park, visit Open Book's Flickr page.

Paul Vermeersch

Paul Vermeersch is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Between the Walls (McClelland & Stewart, 2005). He is the poetry editor for Insomniac Press, a teacher at Sheridan College and a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail books section. His next collection of poetry will be published by McClelland & Stewart in 2010. He lives in Toronto.

Notes

1. Body Music, by Dennis Lee, Anansi, 1998.
2. Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, Harbour, 2000.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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