Something funny is happening in Toronto this winter: A group of leading Canadian literary figures is appealing to corporations to support the nation’s poetry.
“It is to laugh,” confesses one of them, writer Marni Jackson. “To get people behind the cause of poetry takes a certain amount of imagination.”
But imagination, if not money, is one thing the Al Purdy A-Frame Association has in abundance. Growing out of an alarm about the imminent destruction of the famous backwoods cabin where poet Al Purdy magically emerged as the seminal voice of a new Canadian literature, the group has spent years scavenging support in hopes of saving the cabin and giving it new life as a retreat for emerging writers.
Their latest coup: barn boards scrounged from a nearby demolition to replace long-rotted barn boards Purdy and his wife, Eurithe, themselves scrounged 50 years ago to clad their rickety home.
On Wednesday, the Purdy association is shooting for the moon with a gala fundraising concert in which leading writers and entertainers, including Margaret Atwood, Gordon Pinsent, Gord Downie and Dennis Lee, will read and riff on all things Purdy.
Statues of poets often last longer than the poems they write, notes Ken Babstock, a Griffin Poetry Prize winner who will be reading Purdy’s Wilderness Gothic Wednesday night. But the work of the rough-hewn bard of Ameliasburgh, Ont., is showing surprising vigour more than a decade after his death – and half a century after the almost legendary breakthrough that made his name.
Much of the reason for Purdy’s enduring appeal is his “genuine populist touch,” according to Babstock. He wrote about brawling in bars and rutting outdoors, and worked to cultivate a deliberately anti-poetic persona – that of “a favourite uncle, the one that shocks your parents and teaches you how to smoke,” according to editor and poet Robert Budde.
“There was no Mount Parnassus with Purdy,” Babstock says. “He was literally a regular guy, and it comes through in the poems. People who have read his poems fall in love with him for that reason – because he is not so up himself.”
But the yokel persona was a front, according to Jackson, “for a very intellectual turn of mind.” It was in Ameliasburgh where Purdy famously found his voice – our voice, many say – and became universal, charting the transcendental dimensions of mundane day-to-day life.
“He’s very metaphysical,” Jackson says. “He goes out behind the A-frame and suddenly he’s on Arcturus, or another planet.”
“This is an imagination which refuses to be housebroken,” Dennis Lee wrote in a now-classic essay on Purdy’s place in Canadian literature. “And if we approach even a classic Purdy poem too reverently, expecting a rarefied masterpiece, it is likely to light a cigar, tell a bad joke and leave halfway through the conversation.”
But what pulls people back to Purdy today is what now seems least fashionable about his poetry: its overt search for a distinctly Canadian language and poetics, what Lee called “a muscular, roomy, and persuasive vision of coherence centred in our own here and now” – something, he added, that did not exist before Purdy.
“He really was a national poet in a way that you only find occasionally in the life of a culture,” Lee said in an interview after Purdy’s death in 2000. His legacy, Lee wrote, is “an indigenous imaginative patrimony in English Canada.”
“There have been many Canadian writers whose excellence is unmistakable,” he added, “but in his rootedness, his largeness, and his impulse to forge a native idiom for the imagination, Purdy is one of a distinct breed: the heroic founders, who give their people a voice as they go about their own necessities.”
“You can see him going looking for a Canadian way of talking, which is a Canadian way of knowing the world, and it was a noble pursuit,” Babstock said.
As is the current effort to save the poet’s legendary workplace for the use of a new generation of writers – a legacy to outlast even the bronze Purdy statue that glints in the shade of the oak trees of Queen’s Park.
The gala fundraising concert for Al Purdy's cabin takes place Feb. 6 at Koerner Hall in Toronto.