Al Purdy, Poems for All the Annettes

Al Purdy’s Poems for All the Annettes is a collection that resists being defined by any particular stylistic element, because Purdy’s style varies so considerably between its poems.  He is at times lyrical and reflective, like in “Whoever You Are”, where he writes,

Clouds must be clouds always, even if
they’ve not decided what to be at all,
and trees trees, stones stones, unnoticed,
the magic power of anything is gone.
But sometimes when the moonlight disappears,
with you in bed and nodding half awake,
I have not known exactly who you were,
and choked and could not speak your name…

In other poems, like “Archaeology of Snow” or “Love Poem”, he employs a more visual style, making use of the space on the page to convey to the sense of the poem, and the collection also contains examples of his conversational poems, like “At the Quinte Hotel” and “The Listeners”, which begins with the memorable lines, spoken in a bar by a man who looks like a truck driver,

“I might have married her once but
being an overnight guest of hers changed my mind–“

What unifies these various styles, and what makes Poems for All the Annettes a coherent whole despite them, is the quiet but irresistible sense that every poem is part of Purdy’s own life, that they are not artistic exercises or aesthetic experiments, but an integral part of his living, inseparable from it.  This is where their unity lies, so that the style of each poem seems merely to be the form closest to hand, the one best able to say what Purdy needs to be said, less significant as a stylistic statement than as a poetic vehicle for a unique moment that he has lived.

It is in this sense of interconnection with the poet’s life that I think Purdy’s value as a poet primarily lies for us today, in his ability to write poetry that speaks to a lived life rather than to some stylistic fad, because while there are certainly those who are writing poetry in Canada, and while there are even those who read it, there is very little sense that poetry in Canada is relevant to what is often but wrongly called the commonplace events of our lives.  There is instead the overwhelming impression that poetry is the domain of academics and artists, at home only in classrooms and in reading groups.  Purdy’s poetry opposes this entirely, not by speaking overtly against it, but be being entirely different from it.  His poems are poems of the pub and the bedroom and the grocery store and the dock and the home.  They were written there, and they are best read there.  It is a poetry that refuses to be separate from the life it describes, a poetry that has made itself at home wherever life is lived, and this is how poetry needs to be understood once again.

This is why I welcome House of Anansi’s reprint of Poems for All the Annettes in The A List series, because Purdy’s poetry should be a model for us, not in its style necessarily, even if it could be described by a single style, but in its willingness to inhabit the life it describes, to be neither obscure nor faddish, but to reveal how uncommon the apparently common things of our lives really are.

* This review has also been posted by Bookshelf Reviews.

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