Sunday, February 17, 2008

Purdy to be Perch for Birdies

So there's to be a big-ass statue of Al Purdy installed in Queen's Park in May. I'm not surprised to hear that this is happening and I don't think it's inappropriate. I'm a fan of Purdy's best poems and he was an early influence on my own writing. But this is a bit irksome on a couple of counts.

Altho Scott Griffin and Toronto City Council and no doubt many others have "no doubt" that Purdy "was the guy, if you were going to do it at all,"--really, what else would he say after dropping a couple hundred grand?--it seems to me that if we're going to have a statue for just one Canadian poet, it should be Irving Layton (whom, it should be noted, Purdy once hailed as being "as close to genius as any poet alive"). For that matter, I don't find Purdy's best poems as compelling as several other Canadians' top-drawer verses: Elizabeth Bishop, Earle Birney, Milton Acorn, P.K. Page (altho I don't think we should raise statues to poets while they're still among the living), Charles Bruce, Kenneth Leslie, Richard Outram. Several other poets are/were as good as or better than Purdy.

But of course, the business of statues has much to do with the business of status. In his life and in his work, Purdy did more to enhance and cement his status as a writer--and as a Canadian Poet--than most other poets (Layton probably did more, but his public persona was much less cuddly than Al's). Purdy did far more than just write poems: he travelled widely, he mentored, he anthologised, he edited, he welcomed admirers and disciples into his home, he banged the drum of cultural nationalism, he ambitiously cast himself as a national poet in a country of regions. In short, he made a myth of himself, and his particular myth (the wearing-his-learning-lightly autodidactic, aw-shucks, late-blooming, plain-speaking man of the people and man of the place) is one that most Canadians cotton to far more readily than, say, Layton's vituperative, bawdy, brash, self-aggrandizing and world-historical cosmopolitan projections. Since his death, the Purdy hagiographers have been busy accentuating the positive and glossing over the negative aspects of Purdy's life (including portraying bad habits as lovable eccentricities) and the limitations of his poetry. He's become something of a symbol, and I think this would genuinely bug the guy were he still alive. I'm sure he'd be the first to take a leak on that big bronze statue.

PS: In response to Brian's comments to this post about the nationality of Elizabeth Bishop: It is true that Bishop is most commonly labeled a U.S.American poet. Canadian grandparents, however, also means a Canadian mother. And her father, tho a successful entrepreneur in New England, was originally from Prince Edward Island. So, two Canadian parents, a Canadian childhood and several returns during adulthood to visit Canadian family. Biographically, a very Canadian person. The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia recently acquired Bishop's grandparents' house in Great Village NS, and have made it into a writers' retreat.

Literarily, the subject matter of many of her most famous poems ("Filling Station"; "Sestina"; "At the Fishhouses"; "The Moose"; "Sandpiper"; "Cape Breton"; "First Death in Nova Scotia"; "Manners") as well as that of her most acclaimed short story, "In the Village," is explicitly Nova Scotian. And while Nova Scotia may have more in common with Massachusetts than it does with Saskatchewan, last I checked, it's in Canada. Speaking of which, a handful of Bishop's poems appear in the 2002 anthology Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada, and very recently "The Moose" was featured in Arc's all-Canadian "How Poems Work" column.

It says on that page that Bishop's publisher granted permission to reprint "The Moose." I haven't got my copy of Coastlines handy (it's in Nova Scotia, dagnabbit!) but I assume that Goose Lane's reprinting was also authorized. Perversely, I was recently
denied permission to reprint a Bishop poem in my fortchoming anthology of Canadian sonnets--because Bishop "is considered an American poet and including her work in an all-Canadian anthology may cause some confusion." Well, I doubt that. The "confusion,"--let's call it ambiguity, since that's a more neutral way of labeling it--caused by the facts of Bishop's life, already exists; putting her in the book would only reflect it. Denying permission, on the other hand, is causing me some confusion. The reasons for denying Bishop's Canadianness are arbitrary, the reasons for acknowledging it anything but. Once her work passes into the public domain, I hope it becomes routine to put her in our anthologies. She deserves it far more than many--most--of the usual suspects.


Brenda Schmidt said...

Oh my.

Brian Campbell said...

I never heard Elizabeth Bishop described as a Canadian before. She was born and died in the States, but spent some time with Canadian grandparents.

I'm glad some poet's getting a statue; for Canada, that must be a first.

rob taylor said...

"I'm sure he'd be the first to take a leak on that bronze statue."

A bit of Purdy myth-making yourself there, eh... ;)

Zachariah Wells said...

Hey, I never said it wouldn't have been a calculated gesture!