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Review

We Go Far Back In Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947-1987

By Nicholas Bradley, editor

November 7, 2014

Review By James Gifford

Nicholas Bradley is to be commended for this edited collection of Earle Birney and Al Purdy’s correspondence. As might be expected from two epic figures of Canadian literature who lived and worked in British Columbia, many of these poets’ letters relate to this province directly or indirectly. The volume also shows both men connecting to other iconic authors linked to British Columbia, including Malcolm Lowry, George Woodcock, bill bissett, George Bowering, and Robin Blaser. Bradley’s exemplary introduction, with its thorough editorial apparatus and clear writing, will be accessible to scholarly and general readers alike. The initial surprise of Bradley’s opening reference to W.H. Auden on the publication of letters and correspondence, and his continued comparisons of Birney and Purdy to established British and American writers such as William Kittredge, Richard Hugo (14), Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell (15), and Kenneth Rexroth (26), passes when we realize Purdy and Birney’s cosmopolitan familiarity with the San Francisco Renaissance poets, Canadian poetry broadly understood, and an impressive range of nineteenth and twentieth century writing. What at first appears in the Introduction to be an unusual move outward and away from Birney and Purdy, retrospectively prepares the reader for the scope of the letters and for both poets’ extensive influences and networks. Likewise, Bradley’s apologia in the Introduction, with its rationale for not seeing Purdy as abandoning or being disloyal to Birney in the later letters (21), and Bradley’s playful caution that their casual sexism “requires an ear for tone” (27), retrospectively appear as preparatory devices for readers who might otherwise skim the book, as readers of correspondence sometimes do.

Technically, the volume’s editorial apparatus (footnotes, references, etc) and the Introduction and the Editorial Note are most welcome contributions. Apart from the obvious merits of better understanding a literary relationship and the milieu in which both authors moved (and also edited), both of which tend to become biographical or historical endeavours in any publication of an epistolary relationship, the letters themselves are also of distinct literary merit. As Bradley notes, many of Purdy’s letters describe the episodes that would later appear in his autobiographical Reading for the Beaufort Sea (23 and passim). The footnotes, especially, help mark this recycling of material, as do several incidental connections in the poetic projects of Birney and Purdy during the forty years of their correspondence. Their letters also touch on their creative practice, or what Birney called “making.”

In addition to finding here two poets’ serious consideration of each other’s work and self-reflection on their own poems and creative process, many readers will turn to these letters for insights into other Canadian literary figures. Birney and Purdy’s more personal thoughts on figures ranging from Lowry to Laurence are well known in gossip, but the concrete instances will make us read their critical and editorial work differently. For example, Birney remarks on his unpublished critical edition of Lowry’s poems that, “It’s been this fucking Lowry stuff. I hate him now, just as you would be hating me if you had stuck with that book on me …. God knows what will happen now because, once Margerie Lowry sees those notes, all hell will break loose” (204). Such candour is, of course, also based on deep affection, but this Birney voice sings out clearly. Critics and reviewers should also be mollified by his observations, for example, “they are such fucking anxiety-driven bluffing knowitall nincompoops, our CDN reviewers, that when they notice you dedicated the book to me they panic … maybe he was INFLUENCED by him once” (204). Purdy limits himself to observations on Birney climbing in a giant stone vagina in the mountains (376), a problematic moment Bradley considers in his introduction (27); but as with any correspondents, they also turn again and again to the quiet moments of reflective introspection that nurtured their craft.

The volume benefits from a well-produced index of names, an index of poem titles, a bibliography of both poets’ significant works, a chronology, and a glossary of names. While a traditional thematic and topical index may seem desirable, the division of information into two distinct indexes and ancillary sections will best suit scholarly needs and student use. The letters are complete for public figures, even where the comments are bitter, but invective content related to private persons and medical information have been editorially excised when not of literary note. Also, as Bradley comments, he regards the collection as “primarily curatorial rather than archaeological: as a complement to Yours, Al” (30), since several of the early letters first appeared in the general collection of Purdy’s correspondence. The inclusion of drafts and excerpts of poems by both Birney and Purdy is of particular value.

Bradley’s edition of the Birney-Purdy correspondence will be essential for university and college libraries and for the general reader curious about these poets’ relationship, influences, influence, and their extensive literary milieu. The detailed descriptions of their experiences in Canadian landscapes, and British Columbia in particular, will also appeal widely.

We Go Far Back In Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947-1987
Nicholas Bradley, editor
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2014. 480 pp. $39.95 cloth