Monday, May 08, 2006

Purdyesque, or dear Al
"I am no man because this is not a country"
Alfred Wellington Purdy

"The real show of power is restraint."
Over the weekend at the University of Ottawa was their annual conference, run through their English department, that prevented me from doing such things as email and sleep. With previous conferences on the works of Margaret Atwood, Canadian Modernists, Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Laurence and other topics (with an eventual book appearing from each, published by University of Ottawa Press), this year's conference, organized by the charmingly modest Gerald Lynch, was "Al Purdy: The Ivory Thought." Over the years, I've quite enjoyed the conferences I've been able to attend at the University, starting with the long poem symposium in 1996, which introduced me to the works of poets Dennis Cooley, David Arnason, Andrew Suknaski (topics) and Meira Cook, Andrew Stubbs and Karen Clavelle (presenters), as well as the book by critic Smaro Kamboureli (who was at the University of Ottawa for a whole other conference; Bowering introduced us, right after we discovered her in the pub late Saturday afternoon...), On the Edge of Genre, The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem (Toronto ON: University of Toronto Press, 1991). I remember a couple of the papers taking issue with parts of her book.

This year's conference, on the late poet Al Purdy, was extremely interesting for a poet that has been argued as "the most Canadian poet" (George Bowering), "the first great Canadian poet" (Dennis Lee), and "the last Canadian poet" (Sam Solecki), making him, as someone suggested, potentially making Purdy represent all of Canadian writing. David Bentley, one of the most perceptive critics in the room (although two centuries behind where I am, which must make me "strange and confusing" to him…) talked at the end about the notion of "greatness" for someone who was extremely uneven, wondering if perhaps another consideration could be offered about Purdy; one that doesn’t collapse under its own weight.

Part of what made the conference interesting was the fact that his widow, Eurithe Purdy was in the audience, graceful and demure through all of the papers. So much of the conference itself, since Purdy dead but a few years, felt very personal, even in the papers by those who had never encountered or met him. Pilgrimages to his infamous A frame house in Ameliasburgh have nearly become a Canadian staple; I remember when Toronto poet Paul Vermeersh did his a number of years ago, with other attempts by poets Andy Weaver and Gwendolyn Guth since. What is it about the poet, you might ask; what is it about the man? Some of the finest papers came from old friends and poets Doug Beardsley (who was one of the few who actually did the Purdy impression,despite the fact that Kingston writer and James Dean lookalike Steven Heighton has one of his own, which is quite legendary; ask him, too, when you see him next, about his impressions of bill bissett and John Metcalf...), talking about the weekly meetings he had with Purdy to collaborate on an editorial project, and George Bowering, who talked mostly about Tish and the alienation of west coast poetics (wonderfully put together as a letter to Al, along the lines of the ones they spent years back and forth writing their good natured arguments with each other about poetry), but in the end managed to say more perceptive things about the work and considerations of Al Purdy than most of the others (which shouldn’t have been surprising, since Bowering has not only been engaging with the work since the early 1960s, but wrote the first monograph on Purdy's work in 1970).

Since I enjoy the work of Purdy (his Poems for all the Annettes from the 1960s is still my favourite) but I'm not an enthusiast of more than a couple of the collections from the 60s and 70s (and I'm not an academic), what I took from the conference was more general; other presentations came from Solecki, Dean Irvine, Robert Stacy (from York University, who just got a job at U of O), Michael Hurley (who did a fantastic presentation on the "Ass-Over-Electric Kettle Crazy Wisdom of Al Purdy, Buddhist Mediator, Zen Fool & Sufi Mystic," David Bentley (suggesting that Purdy worked "not a poetics but a grammar…") and piles of others. Another highlight had to be Solecki (after I sang parts of the song "Volare" to him, replacing "Vo-la-re" with "So-le-cki," for him to sing it back to me), telling me that, thanks to her particular and repeated rhythms, all of the poems of Emily Dickinson can be sung to the tune of "The Theme from Gilligan's Island." He had easily made my day; Brockwell cringed, saying that it had ruined his (how is it those two things so often get paired?). Something that once heard, you cannot un-hear

Here's a poem I cobbled together from lines and phrases heard during the run of the conference. It reminds me somewhat of the Andy Weaver quote I included in that review I did of his book, about calling himself a "cobbler of words," with the follow-up by Newlove, that "the arrangement is all." Those who were there might recognize a few things, but maybe not.

false creek a print, a salty fishtail

of geo, a perfect count of lonely

or paint a child w/ toys

how darkness turned into dark velvet, light

a doorway of touch; who will offer

w/ the cupped hand, deep

whether or weather, the sleep of the almost

whatever gravity I have not discovered

an intimate, down to the pulled

like a testicle, ground; a burned house

if a ghoulish shirt a spirit posture

if he knows I; it is only your words

a landing voice, cool-bell & ivory

the potentially digress, yours

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