Culture  The house that Al built

Contemporary poets seek to preserve iconic sanctuary of Canadian poetry

Jack Kerouac had his ’49 Hudson; Leonard Cohen had his tower of song; Al Purdy
had his humble A-frame cabin in Ameliasburgh, Ontario on the edge of Roblin Lake.

The poet George Bowering writes that Prince Edward County, in which Ameliasburgh is situated, reminded him of “certain half-abandoned farm valleys of eastern British Columbia.” Purdy’s A-frame, Bowering adds, is composed of “lots of inexpert finishings made up for by the sense of talent and energy, and honest usefulness.” Its charm, apparently, was also appreciated by Bowering’s wife Jean Baird, who described it over the phone as “a true cottage in the sense of old-time Canadian cottages, with the extra cups and saucers from your real house.” It was a project that entailed years of work, and Al called it “the house that was never finished.”

Today, 10 years after his death, this spirit continues in a campaign to preserve this heritage site, one that many argue is an irreplaceable artifact of Canada’s literary and cultural past. Lead by Baird and a number of other contemporary figures in Canadian literature, the program will foster new generations of poets through a writer-in-residence program, providing them with the same creative sanctuary that spurred Purdy’s leap into the Canadian literary canon almost five decades ago.

Some say that Al Purdy was an underdog, or that he was, at least, an ally of underdogs. Al Purdy was a vital voice from working class, anti-authoritarian, and anti-establishment Canada. Bowering writes, “While [Milton] Acorn has found the search for beauty consistent with the proletarian cause, Purdy has supplied the robust humour without which the prol [sic] would be unrecognized as the authentic Canadian item.” Purdy’s friend and poet Dennis Lee has been quoted as saying, “He broke with the old, colonial mode of poetry and recast our imagination, so that it seems perfectly rooted in the place we occupy. No one else in English-Canadian poetry had really done that.” It is difficult to resist mythologizing him as the quintessential Canadian poet, as many literary critics have done. A self-taught erudite with negligible formal education, he was among the many men who rode the rails to Vancouver during the Great Depression. Purdy also served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he wrote his first collection of poems, The Enchanted Echo – work that he retrospectively labeled “crap.” His best work was yet to come.

What began as an empty plot that the Purdys bought for $800 in the late fifties later became the place where Purdy’s creative work flourished. In the early years on the property, Purdy was indigent, foraging through dumps for food – he even admitted to eating roadkill. However, in the years following the construction of the A-frame, Purdy came to see increasing literary and financial success. An archived photo of Purdy from the University of Saskatchewan library shows the writer doing yard work, wearing sunglasses and a plaid shirt rolled above his elbows – apparently, the same way that he read his poems in front of university audiences.

While he was building the house by Roblin Lake, Purdy also immersed himself in Canadian history and began to research Owen Roblin, grandson of a United Empire Loyalist and founder of “Roblin’s Mills” in Ameliasburgh. Purdy had deep roots in the loyalist bastions of Ontario: he himself was the descendant of loyalists and was born in Wooler, Ontario, a settlement near Kingston that has, by now, nearly disappeared. Baird claims that Purdy’s work on the house and his inquiries into the community surrounding Roblin Lake changed him from a “failure of a man” into a prolific poet.

Beyond its importance as Purdy’s artistic retreat, the A-frame famously nourished rising talent in Canadian poetry, a role that Baird and her collaborators hope to re-ignite. Purdy was a notorious host to dozens of guests, including Canadian literary A-listers like Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, Margaret Laurence, and then-unknown Michael Ondaatje. Despite his open-armed hospitality, Purdy avoided coteries with other writers. Writing to his wife from Ameliasburgh on Milton Acorn, in a letter dated 1969, he writes, “Acorn is not like other acorns, he does not lie still on the forest floor and shut his big yap… [he] stalks thru the house reciting poems, all of which sound like the King James version…. I expect pity by return mail.” When I spoke to Baird, she said, laughing, that Purdy could be a “grump.” Despite this, he was indiscriminate with his houseguests, welcoming both renowned authors and virtual unknowns. On the Montreal poet Bryan McCarthy’s eight-day visit to the A-frame, Purdy wrote in 1966, “We spent two days consuming beer and the rest yak-yak, which consisted of 18-20 single-spaced pages of question and answer by the time he finished.” After Purdy’s death in 2000, the house continues to be visited in what Baird called “the Canadian poetry pilgrimage.”

To maintain this emblem of Canadian poetic achievement, Baird and Howard White, Purdy’s publisher, have attempted to preserve the house by founding the A-frame Trust. Poets David Helwig, Steven Heighton, Karen Solie, and Rob Budde have also designed the writer-in-residence program, in which chosen writers will receive a $2,500 monthly stipend to write while living in Purdy’s former abode. The A-frame Trust is an attempt to raise money to buy the house, make renovations, and establish funds for a writer’s endowment – a project that will cost $900,000 to carry through. If this writer-in-residence project succeeds, it will be one of only a few similar projects that exist in Canada, alongside the Kogawa House and the Haig-Brown House in British Columbia and the Berton House in the Yukon.

Purdy continues to be a name that is oft repeated and resonant in discussions about Canadian literature – but his legacy, hopefully, will live on as a “small whisper” in the woods near Roblin Lake.