We Go Far Back in Time (Nicholas Bradley)

In February 1976, Al Purdy, then writer-in-residence at the University of Manitoba, wrote to Earle Birney. “I’m in mid-winter Wpg. blues. Depressed as hell. Great time to write you, eh?” A few weeks later, Purdy reported that he was “drinking far too much. But a bottle helps get me thru the winter and Wpg, so don’t knock it.”

In addition to being a strong student of Winnipeg winters, Al Purdy (1918 – 2000) was a celebrated poet, like his correspondent Earle Birney (1904 – 1995). Nicholas Bradley, associate professor of English at the University of Victoria, has collected their correspondence in We Go Far Back in Time. Alongside these letters, Bradley includes poems by Purdy and Birney (shared within these letters), an extensive but not intrusive series of footnotes, and occasional fragments that provide additional context for and insight into their literary friendship.

The resulting volume is critically useful and makes for an engaging read, although of interest primarily to those with a deep knowledge of Canadian poetry or special interest in and foreknowledge of these poets. In an introduction, Bradley usefully points the reader to other volumes that might shed further light on their relationship, as developed in and through these letters. He likewise notes some of the more embarrassing aspects of the letters (such as their occasional, casual sexism) and provides a brief overview of the poets’ critical reception.

The correspondence, in some sense, doesn’t truly begin until Purdy gets drunk with his friend Curt Lang, and the two write to Birney to alternately praise and insult him. A good sport about it, Birney replies … these early letters are bombastic and full of vigour, with the poets praising and berating one another for their tastes or assumed tastes. Eventually, as the friendship deepens, and both become more successful, they discuss literary matters less and business matters more, alongside personal matters.

As a result, the letters become more human and less interesting as the poets age. Occasional holes in the correspondence, which Bradley notes are usually the result of lost letters or phoning instead of writing, can frustrate. Bradley’s inclusion of fragments from letters to other figures helps compensate. “Appendix 2: Purdy on Birney” displays Purdy writing to others mystified at somehow feeling both close to yet like he can’t “really get at Birney.”

The letters are, as Bradley notes, to some degree remarkable for being unremarkable, and “less concerned with flamboyant behaviour than with discussions of reading and writing, and of living day by day.” Purdy nevertheless remains fairly flamboyant, and the letters sparkle on occasion with hidden gems.

During an argument about the influence (or lack thereof) of the Confederation poet Bliss Carman, Purdy notes “that Birney too at one time was one of my influences. Still, despite this severe handicap, I survived.”

Elsewhere, gossiping about Irving Layton, Birney worries “he’s heading for some enormous gloom if ever he faces the possibility that poetry, his poetry even, may not be the answer to everything after all.”

The collection ends touchingly, and bitterly, with Purdy writing to berate The Globe and Mail for not including Birney in its 1995 account of notable deaths. Although collections of letters are always a mixed bag, Bradley’s stellar compendium will, to borrow the words of Purdy, get readers feeling “all literary like.”