The last book Al Purdy wrote – co-wrote, actually – was The Man Who Outlived Himself. It wasn’t about him, but the title applies. Purdy, the iconic Canadian poet who died more than 22 years ago, is having a moment.
This week in Wellington, Ont., near where Purdy was born, a theatrical song-cycle inspired by his work premieres at the Red Barn Theatre. The Shape of Home: Songs in Search of Al Purdy is billed as a “radical re-imagining” of the man’s poetry and letters.
Produced by the Festival Players of Prince Edward County, The Shape of Home was developed by writer-journalist Marni Jackson in collaboration with the some of the same musical theatre people who created The Secret Chord: A Leonard Cohen Experience and Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene for Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto.
The production comes on the heels of David Yee’s among men, a drama about Purdy and fellow poet Milton Acorn which made its premiere this spring at Toronto’s Factory Theatre.
Why a Purdy boom, and why now? Perhaps he’s just what we need right now, and Purdy has helped us out before.
“We’re going through a bad time for art, and we went through a difficult and challenging time for art back in the 1950s,” says Jackson, whose husband Brian D. Johnson directed the 2015 documentary Al Purdy Was Here. “Canadian literature was a handful of people working alone, and Al helped bring them together with gatherings at the A-frame.”
The A-frame is a cottage at the edge of Roblin Lake in Ontario’s Prince Edward County that was built in 1957 by Purdy and his wife Eurithe. It became a literary muster station of sorts, where for decades the likes of Acorn, Margaret Laurence, Lynn Crosbie, Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, Dennis Lee, Steven Heighton and Jack McClelland came together.
Today the A-frame is still home to writers. The poet John Barton is the current writer-in-residence at the small house. He sees today’s interest in Purdy as more an evolution than a resurgence. “He’s entering into his posthumous career, where people who may studied him in school have continued to read him,” says Barton, who leads a Purdy workshop on July 18 at the Picton Library. “This new production is just a manifestation of him entering a wider culture.”
Though Jackson says the song cycle is irreverent at times, the homage is sincere. “Al Purdy wrote about Canadians and our lives in a way that really hadn’t been done. Before that, our poets and writers would try to be Wordsworth and 19th century and so forth. Al brought things home.”
selected by Juno-winning singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer
I was given Purdy’s collected poems a number of years ago while writing the song Just Get Here for the documentary Al Purdy Was Here. I tucked a few of his words and ideas into it to expand my musings about what the Purdy home was like 50 years ago when he was holding court in the county. Resting and ancient but still contributing and supporting all kinds of life, The Nurselog is perhaps like Al Purdy’s poetry – still providing. “Green haired children and grandchildren…their bones from my bones, they droop in rain and move in unison toward some lost remembered place.”
selected by playwright David Yee
I chose House Guest because, to me, it’s sort of drawing back the veil on two literary icons: both Purdy and Milton Acorn. In their respective reputations for bawdiness and “everyman” qualities, what’s sometimes overlooked is their fierce intelligence and breadth of knowledge and influence. Through his own recounting of the time he spent with Milt up at Roblin Lake, we are treated to a vision of Purdy here that is as perspicacious as he is juvenile, as scholarly as he is petty and as irrepressible in life as he was in letters.
The Country North of Belleville
selected by actor Graham Abbey
Among my many favourite Al Purdy poems, The Country North of Belleville always stands out for me. I chose the poem for a Grade Eight school project and in a last-minute attempt to avoid a failing grade, I managed to connect with a Purdy relative by telling the 411 operator I was “looking for an Al Purdy somewhere north of Belleville.” Whenever I re-read the poem I am struck by Purdy’s uncanny ability to capture with extraordinary detail the feeling I have whenever I drive past the city lights into the rolling landscapes of Ontario’s eastern counties; “a little adjacent to where the world is,” where “old fences drift vaguely among the trees” and one might make room for “some of the more easily kept illusions.”
The Last Picture in the World
selected by Sam Solecki, editor of several Purdy poetry collections
I’m fond of some of Al’s shorter poems like The Last Picture in the World, a reflective lyric written in his last year. Not typical Purdy: no beer, no anecdotes, no Canadiana. In 18 short lines the 80-year-old poet describes watching a blue heron “standing on our/ little point of land/ like a small monk” and sensing that “if I were to die at this moment/ that picture would accompany me/ wherever I am going/ for part of the way.” He had been diagnosed with cancer, and the lyric – almost a last testament – anticipates his death.
As part of the Festival Players Summer Festival in Wellington, Ont. The Shape of Home: Songs in Search of Al Purdy runs July 14 to 31.
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