In celebration of the publication of We Go Far Back in Time (a new book collecting forty years of letters between poets Earle Birney and Al Purdy) and in preparation for The Al Purdy Show: Vancouver Edition, PRISM international and Harbour Publishing have partnered to present you four excerpts from the Birney/Purdy letters throughout October (you can read all the posts in the same place here). Today we present you a letter from Birney to Purdy involving (among other things) the rejection of a poem Purdy had submitted to PRISM. On Sunday, October 19th we will share Purdy’s reply to the rejection and Birney’s other assertions. Both letters will be posted 50 years to the day after their composition. [Update: You can read Purdy's reply here]
A note from Nicholas Bradley, editor of We Go Far Back in Time, on the next two excerpts: In this selection of letters from 1964, Earle Birney and Al Purdy write about several matters of concern: Birney’s letter in support of Purdy’s application to the Canada Council; the state of Purdy’s submission to PRISM, the journal of which Birney was the editor; and the influence on Canadian poets of Bliss Carman. As the letters show, Birney and Purdy took literary history very seriously.
To Al Purdy (Ameliasburgh, Ontario) from Earle Birney (Vancouver, British Columbia)
October 15, 1964
Haven’t had a chance to answer yours of Sep 24 till now. However, I did send a chit to the Canada Council. I hope it helps. I thought you might like to see what I wrote, and attach a copy.
The Poetry Ed. liked “Mr. Greenhalgh’s Love Poem” which you sent on Sep 15 but wasn’t too happy about the way in which the associations get so loose at the end; most of the way, he says, they’re exciting and free; at the end, for him, just free. Well, it’s a criticism, though I suspect if the poem had been shorter it would have passed more easily through his needle’s eye. There wasn’t time for it or the other one, for this Prism anyway, so I am returning them both so that you can feel free to get them in somewhere else earlier than we could now plan for. You asked me whether I think “On a Park Bench” is a poem. Of course I do, though for me an incomplete one, one that leaves the essence unexplored, the mysterious moment of communication between poet and mother-on-bench: what happens to it? How did it start, finish, or didn’t it happen at all, didn’t her nerves quiver at all in the poet’s? I want to know more, and a poem for me isn’t just a titillation, it’s a satisfaction, an orgasm not a belly rub.
You have a review in the September Canadian Forum containing, in the opening of its 2nd para., one of the more remarkable misstatements of the year. “Twenty years ago young poets,” you tell us, “imitated Bliss Carman (in Canada anyway), Eliot, Auden and the 19th century romantics.” Jesus! What “young poets”? Name ONE in Canada (you certainly couldn’t outside of Canada) who was imitating Bliss Carman in 1944 or indeed in 1934 or 1924, anyone who was, is, a poet by any honest definition, and who was young, or even not really young, say under forty. NAME ONE! Do you know who was writing poetry in 1944 in Canada? I’ll tell you, and I’ll tell you who I think they were imitating, insofar as they were imitating anybody:
Anderson at age 29: Dylan Thomas
Bailey at age 39: Eliot, Pratt
Avison at age 26: Marianne Moore? Yeats
Daniells at age 44: Eliot
Dudek at age 26: Pound, Auden
Finch at age 44: French symbolistes
Gustafson at age 35: Hopkins
Klein at age 35: Eliot
LePan at age 30: Lewis
Livesay at age 35: Auden, Sitwell, Symbolistes
Lowry at age 36: Aiken, Melville, Elizabethans
MacKay at age 43: MacNeice, the Greek poets
Page at age 28: Anderson, Thomas, Barker
Wreford at age 29: Auden, Lewis
Whalley at age 30?: Lewis
M. Waddington at age 27: E. Sitwell
Souster at age 21: Whitman
Wilkinson at age 34: Dickinson
Smith at age 42: Yeats, Eliot
There isn’t one damn poet, old or young, worthy at all of the name, none writing & appearing in the mags and anthologies, who was being influenced 20 yrs ago by one damn nineteenth century romantic or by Bliss Carman. No nor 25 or 30 yrs ago. Forty years ago, yes. Man, don’t think everybody a little bit older than you is CGD Roberts vintage. You’re half right about Eliot & Auden, if you have to make superficial generalizations, but the real truth is more like this column — all over the place. I left myself out because I KNOW how scattered & unconcentrated my influences were. Sure, they included Audenspenderlewis, & Eliot whom I always despised, but these influences were no more important than those of Cynewulf, Chaucer, John Skelton, Herrick, Homer, Hardy, Robinson Jeffers and Wilfred Owen. And of all these only Chaucer seems to have been abiding within me, and yet led to little I could claim by kinship with him.
Excerpts from We Go Far Back in Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947–1987, edited by Nicholas Bradley, appear with the permission of Harbour Publishing. © 2014 Nicholas Bradley, Eurithe Purdy, and Wailan Low. The excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.
The Al Purdy Show: Vancouver Edition is a PRISM international-sponsored event happening on October 26th as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest. All funds raised at the event will go directly to the Al Purdy A-Frame Association. Click here for tickets and more information.