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Poet Al Purdy’s life in letters

The Story

Over the course of his life, Al Purdy wrote letters to friends, associates and personal heroes including Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, writer Margaret Atwood, poet Earle Birney, and hockey player Darryl Sittler. He would write about anything and everything -- politics, poetry, unwanted houseguests, gossip and good books. In this CBC Radio interview, editor Sam Solecki discusses Purdy's life in letters. 

Medium: Radio
Program: The Arts Tonight
Broadcast Date: Dec. 22, 2004
Guest: Sam Solecki
Host: Peter Tiefenbach
Performer: Gordon Pinsent
Duration: 17:13
Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy (2004), Harbour Publishing.

Did You know?

• In one caustic letter, Purdy bemoaned the arrival of houseguest poet Milton Acorn. He wrote to Margaret Laurence, "Milton Acorn came down here for a - groan - several day visit. I would have you know that Acorn is not like other acorns, he does not lie still on the forest floor and shut his big yap. He talks. He wakes at 6 a.m. and stalks thru the house reciting poems, all of which sound like the King James Version." - from a letter dated May 31, 1969, in Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy (2004).

• Pierre Trudeau was one of Purdy's most famous correspondents. Purdy was often politically outspoken. He never hesitated to debate Canadian unity and the influence of the United States. In one letter to Purdy, Trudeau commented on one of Purdy's most famous poems about Canadian unity. Trudeau wrote: "I received your poem A Handful of Earth and found it very touching and beautiful.  It is that beauty and emotion which Canadians must feel surging within their hearts, if we are to will this country into its future." - from a letter dated March 16, 1977, in Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy (2004)

• In another letter, Purdy pokes fun at writer Susan Musgrave whose second husband dealt drugs and third husband was a convicted bank robber. He wrote: "I'd hoped to see you at that reading in Vic; but there you were, bargaining with gangsters, being a gun-moll and dangerous woman. Do you favour the shoulder holster or a discreet shiv at top of stockings? And there I was hoping for a gentle smile." - from a letter dated June 22, 1984, in Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy (2004)

• Writer Michael Ondaatje wrote Purdy a letter on June 28, 1999, when he learned of Purdy's illness. He wrote, "We never get to tell our favourite poets that they are our favourite poets. So I will now. You are the best and most important poet Canada has given the world. And the most enjoyable. And the least complaisant. You brought your voice alongside poetry and you changed it."


Al Purdy, An Uncommon Poet more