Skip to main content
film review

Al Purdy has been called ‘the greatest poet that English Canada has produced,’ even though he didn’t know how to be one.

"There's something about playing pool," Al Purdy was saying. "When you're playing well, there's a felicity about it. There's a degree of smoothness, even a slight fever about it – a smooth, good feeling of doing everything right. You're just playing and it's working and you've forgotten all outside surroundings. You don't expect to miss; you expect to win."

On a roll, unconscious – writing poems or doing great eight ball. In his vibrant, inquisitive new documentary Al Purdy Was Here, first-time director Brian D. Johnson fluidly and idiosyncratically chronicles the life of a reflexive, unschooled man. Purdy didn't know how to be a poet – he just did it. Likewise, Johnson, a long-time movie critic for Maclean's magazine, didn't know how to make a film – he just did it.

He did it marvellously, I think. Using a wealth of archival footage, interviews with poet-world talking heads, chats with family members, missives from an unusual Twitter account, new graceful music inspired by Purdy and trips to a famous A-frame in Ontario's Prince Edward County, Johnson weaves a story still happening (though the man has been dead since 2000). If we didn't know who Al Purdy was before, we do now.

Of course, some knew him well. With cameras rolling, writer Dennis Lee calls lanky, beery Purdy the "greatest poet that English Canada has produced." And then we see an old new clip in which former news broadcaster Pamela Wallin introduces him as a high school dropout, a demoted soldier, a bankrupt businessman and an inconsiderate son. Did we leave anything out? Oh, yes, and a "problem husband."

One won't see that indecorous description on Purdy's gravestone – we know because the marker is in the film more than once – but the unapologetic man didn't deny Wallin's provocative assessment. "Oh, of course," he said. "Look, if you're going to start feeling guilty about yourself, it's not going to help things, is it?" (In retrospect, we can presume Wallin, a now-unrepentant suspended member of the Canadian Senate, was taking notes.)

The title of the film broadly refers to the imprint the foghorn-voiced Purdy and his work left on Canada, but specifically to the cottage that Purdy and his wife, Eurithe, began building in 1957 and never did really finish. Set on Roblin Lake in Ameliasburgh, Ont., it is the rustic, bucolic and central place of Johnson's documentary, and a metaphor, too: Purdy had as little an idea of how to build a cottage as he did of how to build a career as a poet.

We see the process in which the A-frame is refurbished; it is now used as a writers' retreat. Purdy's wife, a hard-boiled, sensible woman, pitched in on the project. Interviewed extensively for the film, she unblinkingly admits that Purdy was not father material. "It didn't make for a great childhood for our son," she says, speaking of the troubled Jim Purdy. "But that's the way things were."

Eurithe declined to speak about the poet's son from another marriage. Brian Purdy speaks for himself though, reminiscing about his father in a Toronto tavern. "He owned whatever space he was in," he says.

Poet-novelist George Bowering would seem to agree. Al was big, Bowering says, "and with a lot of things that are big, you really admire them and stay out of the way."

The advice is sound, but it is not taken by director Johnson. He gets in Purdy's face a bit and his uncompromising film is much better for it.