An icon of English Canadian letters, the late Al Purdy was equal parts rock star, raconteur and rabble-rouser—in other words, all poet. Coming to prominence in the 1960s alongside a crop of other extraordinary talents (including Leonard Cohen, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje), Purdy scorned the tired tales of rural life that had dominated Canadian literature and set out to create a different language, one that came from the contemporary Canadian experience.
Purdy’s impact on Canadian culture has now been lovingly detailed in this fine new documentary by Brian D. Johnson, the former film critic for Canada’s weekly news magazine Maclean’s. Al Purdy Was Here artfully combines archival footage—including some of Purdy’s priceless television appearances, where he played the eccentric contrarian with everyone from Adrienne Clarkson to William F. Buckley, Jr.—with readings and reminiscences from Purdy’s friends and colleagues, as well as performances from such musicians as Bruce Cockburn, Tanya Tagaq, and Sarah Harmer, who set Purdy’s words to music.
What emerges is a far more complex portrait of Purdy than was suggested by his public persona as the boisterous lover of booze, brawls and verse, immortalized in his best-known poem At the Quinte Hotel. While Johnson does not skimp on anecdotes about Al’s delightful debauches, the Purdy he presents is a diligent, hard-working writer, and one of the first in English Canada who was actually able to make a living off his work. Underlying the whole of Johnson’s affectionate elegy, and investing it with a sense of urgency, is the realization that the fiercely proud cultural nationalism that Purdy embodied has not been seen in Canada for decades—and perhaps never will be again.
“Brian D. Johnson’s excellent documentary about Al Purdy sparks a poetry revival in this country. At the very least it should generate interest in Purdy, who cultivated a regular-guy image while writing poems of the utmost craft.” (Glenn Sumi, NOW Toronto)