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Travel Grants: Andrew French’s Reflection

Exploring Cohen and Purdy’s Poetry in the GTA

From June 7th to 12th, 2018, I travelled to and around Toronto, looking into the poetry of Leonard Cohen and Al Purdy – two poets who are of great interest to me academically, but who I was unable to take an outstanding number of courses covering during my undergraduate studies. Going on my trip to Toronto and the surrounding area allowed me the opportunity to learn what exists behind and beyond the poetry of two of Canada’s most renowned literary figures, developing a personal connection to their works in the process.

During my time in Toronto, I worked with the collection of both Purdy and Cohen manuscripts available at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. With the manuscripts, my goal was to track changes made to different drafts of poems that appeared in Cohen’s Let Us Compare Mythologies, and Purdy’s Poems for All the Annettes. While gaining insight regarding the poetic process of these two poets was incredibly interesting to me, the best part was finding notes that had nothing to do with the books I originally intended to study. These marginal notes often provided commentary from the poets on the poems themselves, and gave an interesting glimpse into how they regarded themselves.

In addition to working with manuscript materials at the archives, I spent time listening to original tapes from the 70s that CBC recorded of Al Purdy reading from Poems for All the Annettes. With Purdy’s unique voice, it was an incredible experience being able to hear the poems brought to life in an oral reading, and really cast the poems in a new light for me. The Purdy tapes were also uncut, meaning that the poet would stumble over lines here or there, provide commentary between takes, and again offer the listener an opportunity to hear the poet be themselves, which is something I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else (since there are very few Purdy readings or interviews online).

While the entire trip was amazing, the best part had to be visiting the A-frame cabin that Purdy built in Belleville, on the shore of Roblin Lake. As a Purdy scholar, this site was like Mecca – all of the poet’s books were stocked on floor-to-ceiling shelving in the living room (both his own work and his personal library still remain at the property). Another really unique experience I had, as an aspiring poet, was being able to write in the writing shed attached to the main cabin, where Purdy wrote almost all of his poetry. In the shed there was an incredible inexplicable air of inspiration, and seeing things like Purdy’s typewriter when I looked up from the page was truly amazing.

Finally, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Purdy’s wife, Eurithe, and ask some questions that only she would know the answer to. Eurithe was incredibly sweet, and had so many stories to tell. Of particular interest to my research were Eurithe’s anecdotes about having Cohen to the Purdy A-frame, and hearing her praise his music.

Between working with manuscripts, listening to recorded readings of Purdy’s poetry, and visiting the A-frame, I came to realize that these two poets who are no longer physically alive are still very much so living metaphorically through the items and stories they left behind. Having gone through the process of researching and visiting that I did as part of my travel grant, I feel as if I have a more personal connection to two literary figures from whom I once felt quite removed, and this connection certainly impacts the way I now approach their work.