As The More Easily Kept Illusions: The Poetry of Al Purdy was being shipped to me for review, I had already developed one question-itch that I was desperate to scratch: Why the hell was someone putting out another Purdy book? Not that I was unhappy about it, Purdy being one of my favourite poets, but I figured the market on Purdy collections had already been successfully cornered. Those in need of a Purdy sampler could turn to the 1996 edition Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems 1962-1996, while those with heartier appetites could munch their way through Purdy’s posthumously released Beyond Remembering: Collected Poems(2000). What new market could be served by a 35 piece collection of poems already featured in one, if not both, of the aforementioned books? Such dogged competition over Canadian poetry, even Al’s, seems like a stretch.
The true, “new” intention of the collection, and, more generally, of the Laurier Poetry Series of which it is part, is revealed in series’ General Editor Neil Besner’s Foreword: “The hope that animates these new series…is that that these volumes will help to create and sustain the larger readership that contemporary Canadian poetry so richly deserves.” A noble goal, without question, and one Besner seems to believe can be achieved through the classroom, where, because of the Laurier series, “the practice of teaching a poet through eight or twelve poems from an anthology will be much improved upon” (v).
It seems only fair then to approach a review of The More Easily Kept Illusions from the perspective of the editors’ intended audience: “new readers” of contemporary Canadian poetry. In this sense, I can say that the poems selected for inclusion by editor Robert Budde give an honest taste of Purdy, both accessible and convoluted, often at the same time (a rare feat, in my mind). The point should be made, though, that any “introductory” book on Purdy that leaves out “The Country North of Belleville,” “The Cariboo Horses,” and many other of his most well known and heralded poems will leave the reader with an incomplete picture of the man and his work.
Only so much, though, can be achieved within 35 poems. Indeed, choices must be made as to which of Purdy’s many personae are displayed to new Purdy readers. Budde, a professor of creative writing and critical theory at the University of Northern British Columbia, reveals his personal bias in including a good number of Purdy’s reflexive poems on his own writing, and on the act of writing in general (“After Rain,” “On Realizing He Has Written Some Bad Poems,” “Trees at the Arctic Circle,” etc.). Budde balances these poems, assumedly of greater interest to creative writing students, with some of Purdy’s more free-flowing, funny, and biting pieces, such as “Home-Made Beer” and the unforgettable “When I Sat Down to Play the Piano,” which finds Purdy
sans Wm. Barret
and damn nearly sans anus.
Budde’s attempt to balance Purdy’s reflexive, quasi-academic pieces with some of his comical narratives is certainly limited, with the former group of poems firmly outnumbering the latter, causing the more humorous pieces to seem a bit out of place in the collection. Still, these poems, if read by the unfamiliar, will probably go further than any of the others in The More Easily Kept Illusions to achieve Besner’s goal of growing interest in modern Canadian poetry.
While some poems do appear a bit lost among their companions in this collection, others play off of each other in intriguing and often profound ways. The poem “Red Leaves,” for example, which addresses “red leaves / and the way humans attach emotion / to one little patch of ground” (64), is followed by “Orchestra” and its description of the “warm red darkness / of the cherry-coloured violin” (65). Likewise, the collection ends with a one-two punch of “Untitled” and “For Her in Sunlight” that would put the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots to shame.
Budde’s arrangement of the poems does help enhance the experience of reading Purdy’s work, but in the end it is hardly necessary. Purdy’s poetry in this collection, as in any, is rich, compelling and challenging. His is a landscape of “moonlight on running water / leaf-talk in the forest” (“In the Early Cretaceous” 57), where “Death is…howled thru the mouths of dogs” (“Remains of an Indian Village” 3). As Budde notes in his introduction, Purdy’s craftsmanship elevates ideas and images – even single words – to levels thought unimaginable before, as in the closing word “tenderness” in “In the Early Cretaceous” (59).
Both The More Easily Kept Illusions and Selected Poems would serve those new to Purdy’s work well as an introduction, because the poems within both are real and true Purdy, and real and true Canadian classics. The More Easily Kept Illusions, though, falls short of being what Purdy’s Selected is in that it is still stuck in the University classroom, a place with an all too finite audience, and does little to reach out to the wider Canadian society. How can that be accomplished? Drop the foreword, introduction, and afterword, and give the reader as much Purdy as you can. Leave the new reader to Purdy and his devices. Let them observe him “pitting fish eggs and bear grease against eternity” (“The Horseman of Agawa” 36). Let the poems be themselves, free from academic prodding, and, like a batch of Purdy’s wild grapes, watch them ferment in the minds of readers.