Hearing Al Purdy

Al Purdy Was Here, directed by Brian D Johnson

Brian D Johnson was the film critic for Maclean’s magazine for almost 30 years before retiring in 2014, and on the basis of his 92-minute-long first feature, he learned a good deal about making a documentary by looking at how others had made theirs. Al Purdy Was Here (co-written with Marni Jackson) is an utterly enjoyable film, almost classical to the extent that it wants to entertain and instruct in equal measure. You come away from it with a feeling that you have encountered a writer, a location and a country that are so seamlessly entwined as to be inseparable. In setting his documentary sights on Alfred Wellington Purdy, Johnson has assumed an ambitious task: to tell how a poet who showed remarkably little talent for two decades was able to transform himself into a two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for poetry and in finding his own voice, managed to discover a voice for his country as well. His gravestone in Grove Cemetery, Prince Edward County is in the shape of a book, on the spine of which is written, “Voice of the Land.”

The documentary is full of testimonials from poets who agree with the centrality of Purdy’s role in our national literature. When he learned that Al had cancer, Michael Ondaatje sent him a letter that he read for the film: “You are the best and most important poet Canada has given the world and the most enjoyable and the least complacent. You brought your voice alongside poetry and you changed it.” Dennis Lee finds evidence of Purdy’s greatness in his vocal range; in his effortless movement from a corny sense of the vernacular to an intense lyricism. His great gift, one that is Whitman-esque in its imaginative reach and subtlety, is the ability to shift perspective in a single poem from the leaden cold of a winter geography to the intimate register of the fine gold hairs on the belly of his lover. As he says in “The Country North of Belleville,” “a man might have some opinion about what beauty is.”

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Al Purdy Was Here is all about appreciation, beauty and the struggle to achieve it. Purdy’s personal life had its messy side. In an interview Pamela Wallin says, “You were a high school dropout, a demoted soldier, a bankrupt businessman, an inconsiderate son, a problem husband,” at which point Purdy interjects and says, “Look, if you start feeling guilty about yourself, it isn’t going to help things, is it?” Al could write with a startling degree of sensitivity—he was, after all “a sensitive man”—but there was little danger that he would live introspectively. He sought out literary sons in the young poets he encouraged, while he neglected his birth sons, Jim, who was schizophrenic and died in 2012, and Brian, who was unacknowledged until he was 15 and largely ignored for the rest of his father’s life. Nothing got in the way of his writing, least of all his paternal responsibilities.

Johnson’s inclination is to use quick observations and reminiscences to get across the complications of Purdy’s life and writing. While the technique makes the film move at a compelling pace, you couldn’t sustain a lengthy documentary with pieces and fragments, no matter how good they are. So he uses a series of chapters and musical performances to add weight to the sound-bite duration of many of the comments people make in the film. There are six chapters—including “Transient,” “Piling Blood” and the “Country of Our Defeat”—each of which takes its title from a Purdy poem and its visual character from a woodcut by Alan Stein.

The documentary includes a lengthy and oftentimes stellar list of contributors, but Purdy has a lot to say on his own behalf; no viewer will be disappointed by too little of the Bard of Belleville. The poet is present and his inquiring, mischievous and contrarian nature, his wiliness and sense of play, are apparent throughout the film. Johnson has the good sense to let us make our own determinations about how much to believe of what Purdy says; Al was prone to loopy generalizations and he constantly made pronouncements about failure and defeat, about the impossibility of knowing how to write a poem, and about the fragility of human existence and the frailty of human emotion. While his homemade philosophizing could be wayward, the expression these ideas found in his poetry was not. As Margaret Atwood says, you had to be able to separate the shambolic, chaotic prankster from the speculative poet; one insulted you and pissed on your car tire, while the other asked profound questions, like “what are we doing here?” and “what is poetry?”

Purdy was also careful at every opportunity to reinforce his outsider status. He viewed questions put to him as some variation of a challenge, a rebuke or a trap, and he responded in kind. For the most part, these tête-à-têtes are great fun. He accuses Daniel Richler in an interview of cultivating the myth of the rough-and-tumble boozy poet; in 1968 he challenges William F Buckley Jr.’s ridiculous snideness on The Public Eye; and he interrogates Milton Acorn’s claim that politics is the source of poetic inspiration rather than a shared humanism. The film sustains a constant tone of gentle second-guessing. George Bowering warns that “you stay out of the way of a man of Al’s stature” (he was six foot, three inches) and in the next scene we see Purdy interrupted in his reading of EJ Pratt’s Collected Poems by a housefly he has to swat twice to dispatch. “Yeah,” he says to himself after the second blow, “kill him the rest of the way.”

These encounters are also evidence of Johnson’s judicious use of archival material. Along with film sequences of riding the rails, assembly work in a mattress factory and a wonderful scene tracking the progress of a freight train as it snakes through black tunnels in the mountains, there are segments of interviews with Adrienne Clarkson on Take 30, with a pre-senatorial Pamela Wallin and an entrancing conversation between Phyllis Webb and Purdy about good (and not so good) poetry. They are brief and make me think that sometimes less is not more, but too little. The only time in the documentary when Johnson loses his impeccable sense of timing is in his overuse of Katherine Leyton, the first winner of the residency in Purdy’s restored A-frame cottage. She is an attractive individual, both in what she says and how she looks, but her observations are not weighty enough to justify the time given her to make them. She becomes a story within the larger Purdy story and undermines the sense of proportion the film has worked so effectively to establish. The only other misstep is setting up Steven Heighton to argue that there are more important poems in Purdy’s canon than “At The Quinte Hotel.” He is right and the film amply proves that to be the case, but the placement of his demurral interrupts a superb performance of the poem by Gord Downie.

But these are quibbles. The film’s overall achievement is unassailable. The story of Al Purdy and what his poetry means to Canada is not an easy one to tell and Johnson doesn’t shy away from its complexity. As much as the story about the life of a poet, his documentary is also a story about the life of a house, the A-frame that Al and Eurithe built in 1957 out of salvaged lumber from boxcars, gymnasium floors and the old Belleville train station. It was never really finished and what did get done, was done badly; the crawl-space floor was below the level of Roblin Lake. Nonetheless, they lived in the house for over four decades. Then 15 years after Al’s death in 2000, a concerted effort was begun to save the house and turn it into a writer’s retreat.

Al Purdy Was Here begins with the first of many fundraisers convened by the Al Purdy A-Frame Association. The A-frame has so much history attached to it that it emerges as a character in the documentary. We are 90 seconds into the film and while we have heard from Purdy on the accidental nature of good poetry, all we have seen is the schematic architectural drawing of the A-frame.

The house is a useful magnet for attracting content; there are sequences of Al Purdy and Milton Acorn working on its original construction, “struggling at carpentry” during the day while Eurithe goes to work; there are photographs and testimonials about the A-frame’s role as a meeting place for a generation of poets that included Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen and George Bowering. The story of the transformation of the house into a livable writer’s retreat means that Johnson can use footage from the various fundraisers, as well as information from an architectural historian, a poet-loving expert on A-frame restoration and the writers who become the first poets-in-residence.

The house story also creates a setting for Eurithe, Purdy’s 90-year-old widow, to speak about life with her husband as both family man (an ongoing disaster) and poet (an emerging triumph). The house and what it represents even generates one of the musical links in the film, Sarah Harmer’s “Just Get Here;” her music and Al’s lyrics are a tribute to a mutual understanding of the importance of a place where creative people can congregate.

I have to say something about the musical sections of the documentary. There are seven major performances inside the film and they act not as interludes, but as integral components of the story of Purdy’s position as the voice of this country. Among their company is Neil Young, Felicity Williams, Tanya Tagaq, Sarah Harmer and Bruce Cockburn, who plays his rollicking, bluesy “3 Al Purdys” as the credits roll at the end of the film. There are also arrangements by less-known musicians, like folk singer Doug Paisley and the Gerry Shatford jazz trio, who have been inspired by Purdy’s poems. Every one of these music and lyric collaborations is excellent and together they add a rich dimension to the film. What makes them even more effective is the camerawork by Nicholas de Pencier, whose picture-framing and lighting always do exactly what they need to do. Al Purdy Was Here is consistently a good-looking film.

The connection the documentary establishes between here and hear is an important one; it is about articulating presence and being sensitive to what that hearing means. The film engages a series of voices reading poetry; Purdy himself, other poets, broadcasters and actors and musicians, and significantly ordinary people. Putting Purdy’s words into the mouths of others is a persuasive strategy; it is another way of recognizing that his is the voice of the country. Among the most moving of these various hearings is Eurithe reading a poetic note about Al’s wish for their mutual burial. She delivers it with characteristic plain-spokenness, a tone that makes even more powerful the emotion underlying the Berger-like commingling of ashes he is requesting: “for all the red days of autumn / for all the white days of winter / and when the first trilliums come / small dancers of the springtime / my own dust will be waiting for you.”

Johnson brings her full circle in this round of elegy. At the beginning of the film she is at Al’s gravestone in the early autumn remarking on small mementos—a shell, a beer cap, a metal turtle—left by visitors paying tribute; at the end she is back in the cemetery, this time in winter, the landscape a grisaille wonderland, clearing the snow from the top of the stone, opening the way for the turtle’s immovable crawl across time. The scene is gorgeous and the voice we hear under it is Leonard Cohen reading “Necropsy of Love,” Purdy’s small 1965 masterpiece that makes a Möbius of love and death. Eurithe is still looking after Al, preparing the way for him in death as she always did in life. Under the quiet whiteness of the wintering A-frame, we hear his voice before we see his face, filling the frame, asking a question this affectionately intelligent documentary has made unnecessary: “What else would one want to do with one’s life except write poems?” ❚