Poets’ letters show work of meticulous editor

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December 18, 2014

We Go Far Back in Time:

The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947-1987

Edited by Nicholas Bradley

Harbour Publishing

480 pages, $39.95

Reviewed by Candace Fertile

Being able to read the private correspondence of two notable Canadian poets feels a bit like getting away with something, even though Earle Birney and Al Purdy were well aware that eventually their letters would be read by others. At least, they hoped that would happen; both were intent on squeezing as much money as possible out of their writing through publishing and the selling of manuscripts to archives. Purdy, in particular, was conscious of the need to create income as, unlike Birney, he was not a professor.

Purdy starts the exchange when he submits poems to Canadian Poetry Magazine, then edited by Birney. Fourteen years younger than Birney and an autodidact, Purdy initiates a discussion about poetry which quickly develops into friendship and continues for 40 years. The two men don’t always agree or get along, but they had much in common apart from poetry. They admired each other’s poems. They loved to travel. They both loved to drink. They loved women, lots of women, and their testosterone-fueled excesses and sophomoric jokes quickly become tiresome. But they were men of their time, I guess, and probably not much has changed except that university professors are now perhaps a bit more reticent to pounce on their students.

The editor, Nicholas Bradley, who is a professor in the Department of English at UVic (and recently named William Lyon MacKenzie King Junior Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies at Harvard University), has done a monumental job in compiling this book. Perhaps the simplest way to indicate the amount of work he did is to remark on the number of footnotes: 947. And these footnotes are full of helpful, if not essential, information.

Bradley has an immense knowledge of his subjects and a clear understanding of their failures and successes. In his introduction he says, “If We Go Far Back in Time illuminates the poems and serves to sustain interest in them, then the edition will have met its goal.” As Birney and Purdy often commented on each other’s work and included poems in their letters, and I was driven to rummage about in my copies of their work, I think Bradley achieved his goal. Anyone unfamiliar with the poetry is likely to be lost in myriad references.

The meticulously documented letters also reveal the landscape of Canadian writing over four decades: the generally small community of Canadian writers, the utter necessity of the Canada Council, and the problems writers have in trying to make a living (it’s likely much worse now).

But even more than all that, Bradley elevates the role of the scholar. His apparently dogged determination to discover as much as he can about these letters and their writers is a testament to the power of curiosity. Like the best detective, Bradley has tried to lay bare the mysteries while acknowledging that some things may never be completely uncovered. He includes a note on editorial procedures, a timeline of the writers’ lives, a short appendix of undated letters, a short appendix of Purdy’s written comments to others about Birney, a glossary of selected names, a bibliography, an index of titles, and an index of names.

In the age of email, texts, Twitter, Skype, and stuff I have no idea about, such a collection is unlikely to be compiled again. And that is sad.

Reviewer Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College.

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