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We Go Far Back in Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947–1984

by Nicholas Bradley, ed.

The lost art of snail-mail correspondence often reveals the true personalities of those involved, especially when the exchanges are off-the-cuff and conversational. Al Purdy was a voluminous and candid letter-writer who, during his lifetime, saw publication of his correspondence with George Woodcock and (of all people) Charles Bukowski. A general collected letters appeared in 2004, four years after Purdy’s death, but there is little overlap between its contents and this new book of his exchanges with fellow poet Earle Birney, himself no slouch in epistolary  matters.

Birney was a leading light, an important champion of modernism, and one of the fathers of CanLit as a field of study, when he and Purdy, who was at the time largely unknown, began writing back and forth. Although Purdy will always be associated with Ontario, the wellspring of his finest work, he spent most of the 1940s and ’50s in Vancouver. One key document is a brief note to Birney from 1960: “Quit job. Going to Ont. to see if I can get any writing done.”

The differences in personalities are apparent from the first pages. Purdy was rough-hewn and unpretentious. He got along with people. One could say that, both in print and in person, his shirttail always seemed to be untucked. Birney was stiffer and more conventionally ambitious but considerably less productive. Although he could be generous with his charm, he was also litigious, the result of having a skin so thin that one needed a micrometer to measure it.

We Go Far Back in Time is especially revealing in light of the men’s posthumous reputations. The great majority of Purdy’s work is still being read, avidly. His Ontario A-frame has been preserved as a sort of shrine, and there is even a statue of him in Toronto’s Queen’s Park. Birney has had a far more difficult time, partly because he was the victim of Elspeth Cameron’s unflattering 1994 biography, but also, frankly, because he now seems to have been Salieri to Purdy’s Mozart.

This splendid collection, expertly edited and richly annotated, is indeed an important contribution not only to the available output of these two individuals, but also to the story of Canadian writing in the second half of the 20th century.