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“Al Purdy was here”

My tenant and friend Carol asked me, this morning, if I’d missed blogging, and I stared blankly at her. She had read my resolution to stop for two weeks, believed it and stopped reading! Ah well. I did try.

Today’s treat: a thoughtful, moving, funny, beautifully made documentary at the Bloor, “Al Purdy was here,” about one of Canada’s great poets, and about a time in our young country when Can lit was beginning to bloom and poetry mattered. A time when there were great hairy priapic poets like Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen and the young Michael Ondaatje, and wild-haired eccentrics like Milton Acorn and Purdy – and a few courageous women like Margaret Atwood, who appears often in the film showing off her very dry wit (telling a story about Purdy peeing on her car, among other tales). The doc shows how Purdy nurtured young male poets in a way he could not care for his own two sons, one by his long-suffering, heroic wife with the magnificent name Eurithe, the living star of this film, and the other by a woman he left Eurithe for and married briefly. In a telling moment, Steve Heighton, a poet, tells of bringing his baby to visit Purdy and trying to put the babe in Purdy’s arms. “Get that thing away from me!” was his response. Not a good dad, no, or husband, I’m sure, in many ways. But a cultural icon, a  hard-working, brave and crazy man of words at a time when writers could easily starve. As, hard-working, brave and crazy as ever, they still can.

There’s lots of music in the film, weaving in the story of how Purdy’s life and work continues to inspire young musicians and writers. Part of the tale is about his famous A-frame house on a lake in Prince Edward Country, and the successful effort to turn it into a writer’s retreat. And a wonderful on-going bit: there’s a bronze statue of Purdy in Queen’s Park that has a mysterious Twitter handle – @statueofalpurdy – and tweets regularly, though the doc does not tell us who the posts come from.

I had thought, when I arrived at the Hot Docs Cinema, that a 2 p.m. New Year’s day documentary about a dead Canadian poet would have an audience of seven people. But there was a huge crowd, many of them writers and artists – I saw playwrights, a biographer, an essayist and a novelist – though no poets, perhaps because I know very few and wouldn’t recognize them. It made me proud to be a small part of that world, Canlit today in its many forms. In one of the last moments of the film, Purdy asks why people waste time building skyscrapers when they could be writing poetry. And at the end of this powerful documentary, we understand what he means. All I wanted to do, as I left, was to go home and write a poem. Instead, here I am, blogging to you.

If you’re interested in writing, in Canada, in a fascinating life well lived, see this film.

Here’s an excerpt of the poem by Milton Acorn, Al Purdy’s good friend, that appears at the beginning of my book about writing, True to Life:

Nevertheless I’m a gift
Offered with no conditions
To you. Since I damn well exist
You do too.

Before I leave you – the last night for Christmas leftovers, and then a PBS special showing of Sherlock, what joy, set in the 1890’s – I’d like to go on a bit about last year. About what, in the spirit of Oliver Sacks, I’m grateful for. So much. So much.
Family: busy healthy children, busy healthy older grandson, a new grandson who’s healthy – yes, a wonky foot, soon fixed by our free health care system. I could not be more grateful for this.
Health: finding out I do not have osteoporosis any more. Amazing. More cheese please.
Friends: visiting all my nearest and dearest this year, not just the dear ones in Toronto, but Lynn and Denis in France, Penny in England and Hawaii, Patsy and Shari visiting here from B.C., Margaret and Chris in Vancouver, Bruce in Vancouver and Italy – thank you, brilliant fellow traveller – Lani here for my birthday. Wonderful friends.
Travel – Europe, Vancouver, Hawaii. Next year Vancouver, maybe New York, who knows?
Politics – in the madness that is our world, the election of a decent, sane, kind-hearted man. It seems a miracle and I know difficult times will come. But for now, my country beams.
Art – film, painting, dance, music – and words. Words words words. For all I’ve absorbed this year of the inspiring and beautiful work of my fellow artists, especially writers – thank you.

Thank you. And now this non-blogger is going to have a glass of wine and put her feet up for the night.



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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