Where the Words Came From: A Letter to Al Purdy



Al Purdy 1


Dear Al,

I am writing to you first because in many ways it all comes down to you.

I met you in my OAC writer’s craft class in 2001. It was the year  after you left us, and the collection ‘Beyond Remembering’ had come out. My teacher was my father (the luck of a small town, and my inclination to take all Lit classes possible resulted in my being in his class thrice). That was the year after my Grandpa died of lung cancer, as you did, and there was a sort of comfort in this. A great admirer of yours, Dad brought the book into his class.

Seeing the sky darken & the fields
turn brown & the lake lead-grey
as some enormous scrap of sheet metal
& wind grabs the world around the equator
I am most thankful then for knowing about
the little gold hairs on your belly

-Winter at Roblin Lake


I had never read poetry like this. It was… unpoetic. And poetic. At turns, breathtaking. You sounded like a real person. I didn’t know you could just be a real person and write like that. I could hear the hammer across the lake in your voice, taste the tainted beer. It was a liberating thing, to realize that poems didn’t need to live in life’s most gloried moments, but in the real throbbing thing, life, stirring in the moments between the moments I wrote poems about.

Al Purdy Quote 1

You weren’t always good. That slays me. You didn’t hit your stride until you were 40. That thrills me. That buys me a decade. So many artists peak early, and it is easy, at 32, with a few poems published, and a couple of plays only whispering around stages to feel unprolific. I have always bragged that I am not ambitious, but that is a lie; I am afraid. What if it all goes badly? Where did you find the courage? What clicked in for you, at 40? How were you able to sit down in your back room and read and read and write and write, how did you spin your strands of words to gold?

I ask, but I know. I know how the beast can stir in your belly and rise up, breathing out the true you. Some call this the muse. Some call it God. I call it the spark. It’s an elusive bastard. You know that.

‘We made our speech from moving water

a sound that seems to ache

when there is no pain

whispering faintly in the heart’s darkness…’

– In the Beginning was the Word


In a way, you are the inspiration for this little experiment:

I studied Creative Writing at York, and one glorious day my poetry professor brought us up to the archives, where they had pulled out some boxes that might be of interest to us.And there you were. Holy hell. There were drafts, handwritten, by you, Al. I might have accidentally cried on one. I’m sorry about that. But the thing that really got me were your letters. There were so many. There were so many relationships and friendships and worlds built between your typewriter and somebody else’s. That doesn’t exist anymore. That’s kind of sad. So much has been lost in our new digitized world. I don’t think you would have liked it.

Al and Margaret.jpg

I read your letters to Margaret Laurence, watched appreciation bloom into friendship. I watched you relax with each other, saw your words loosen and become more personal. I watched you both struggle and succeed, and (somehow this hadn’t completely registered for me until then) underneath the incredible talent, the literary fame,  I saw two people who worked damn hard, felt doubtful about their work,  and encouraged each other. I saw diligence. I lack that. This is an exercise in diligence, I guess. And, I need to admit, in resilience.

We will see what happens.

You’ll hear from me again,




Recommended Reads:
Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy
Ed. Sam Solecki
Room For Rent on the Outer Planets: Selected Poems 1962-1996
The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology

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