Men of let­ters

Cor­re­spon­dence po­ets Purdy, Bir­ney con­tains hid­den gems

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jonathan Ball

IN Fe­bru­ary 1976, Al Purdy, then writer-in-res­i­dence at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba, wrote to Earle Bir­ney: “I’m in mid-win­ter Wpg. blues. De­pressed as hell. Great time to write you, eh?” A few weeks later, Purdy re­ported that he was “drink­ing far too much. But a bot­tle helps get me thru the win­ter and Wpg, so don’t knock it.” In ad­di­tion to be­ing a strong stu­dent of Win­nipeg winters, Purdy (1918-2000) was a cel­e­brated poet, like his cor­re­spon­dent Bir­ney (1904-1995). Ni­cholas Bradley, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of English at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria, has col­lected their cor­re­spon­dence in We Go Far Back in Time. Along­side these let­ters, Bradley in­cludes po­ems by Purdy and Bir­ney (shared within these let­ters), an ex­ten­sive but not in­tru­sive se­ries of foot­notes, and oc­ca­sional frag­ments that pro­vide ad­di­tional con­text for and in­sight into their lit­er­ary friend­ship. The re­sult­ing vol­ume is crit­i­cally use­ful and makes for an en­gag­ing read, although it’s of in­ter­est pri­mar­ily to those with a deep knowl­edge of Cana­dian po­etry or spe­cial in­ter­est in and fore­knowl­edge of these po­ets. In an in­tro­duc­tion, Bradley use­fully points the reader to other vol­umes that might shed fur­ther light on their re­la­tion­ship, as de­vel­oped in and through these let­ters. He like­wise notes some of the more em­bar­rass­ing as­pects of the let­ters (such as their oc­ca­sional, ca­sual sex­ism) and pro­vides a brief over­view of the po­ets’ crit­i­cal re­cep­tion. The cor­re­spon­dence, in some sense, doesn’t truly be­gin un­til Purdy gets drunk with his friend Curt Lang, and the two write to Bir­ney to al­ter­nately praise and in­sult him. A good sport about it, Bir­ney replies — these early let­ters are bom­bas­tic and full of vigour, with the po­ets prais­ing and be­rat­ing one another for their tastes (or as­sumed tastes). Even­tu­ally, as the friend­ship deepens and both be­come more suc­cess­ful, they dis­cuss lit­er­ary mat­ters less and busi­ness mat­ters more, along­side per­sonal mat­ters. As a re­sult, the let­ters be­come more hu­man and less in­ter­est­ing as the po­ets age. Oc­ca­sional holes in the cor­re­spon­dence, which Bradley notes are usu­ally the re­sult of lost let­ters or phon­ing in­stead of writ­ing, can frus­trate. Bradley’s in­clu­sion of frag­ments from let­ters to other fig­ures helps com­pen­sate. Ap­pen­dix 2: Purdy on Bir­ney dis­plays Purdy writ­ing to oth­ers, mys­ti­fied at some­how feel­ing both close to the poet, yet like he can’t “re­ally get at Bir­ney.” The let­ters are, as Bradley notes, to some de­gree re­mark­able for be­ing un­re­mark­able, and “less con­cerned with flam­boy­ant be­hav­iour than with dis­cus­sions of read­ing and writ­ing, and of liv­ing day by day.” Purdy nev­er­the­less re­mains fairly flam­boy­ant, and the let­ters sparkle on oc­ca­sion with hid­den gems. Dur­ing an ar­gu­ment about the in­flu­ence (or lack thereof) of Con­fed­er­a­tion poet Bliss Car­man, Purdy notes “that Bir­ney too at one time was one of my in­flu­ences. Still, de­spite this se­vere hand­i­cap, I sur­vived.” Else­where, gos­sip­ing about Irv­ing Lay­ton, Bir­ney wor­ries “he’s head­ing for some enor­mous gloom if ever he faces the pos­si­bil­ity that po­etry, his po­etry even, may not be the an­swer to ev­ery­thing af­ter all.” The col­lec­tion ends touch­ingly, and bit­terly, with Purdy writ­ing to be­rate the Globe and Mail for not in­clud­ing Bir­ney in its 1995 ac­count of no­table deaths. Although col­lec­tions of let­ters are al­ways a mixed bag, Bradley’s stel­lar com­pen­dium will, to bor­row the words of Purdy, get read­ers feel­ing “all lit­er­ary like.” Win­nipeg English pro­fes­sor Jonathan Ball (@ jonathanball­com) lives on­line at, where he writes about writ­ing

the wrong way.

Along­side let­ters be­tween Al Purdy (left) and Earl Bir­ney are po­ems shared be­tween the two.

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