Al Purdy Was Here
Running Time: 91
Directed by Brian Johnson
Executive Producer Ron Mann
Al Purdy Was Here is the story of a crusade to revive the legacy of an iconic Canadian poet. It revolves around a fundraising campaign to restore Al Purdy’s A-frame house on Roblin Lake in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, and make it a writing retreat for young poets. Built by Purdy and his wife with salvaged materials in 1957, the A-frame was a mecca for the pioneers of CanLit, including Margaret Lawrence, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. Now, 14 years after the poet’s death, as a new generation discovers his work, Al’s modest cabin becomes an unlikely beacon for a creative renaissance.
Purdy has been variously called the last, best and most Canadian poet. We learn how this Trenton high-school dropout, who hopped freights during the Depression and worked at mattress factories, forced himself to be a poet—writing bad verse for two decades before finding his voice at the A-Frame. Saving a ramshackle cottage built on a bog seems a quixotic enterprise.
But with the triumph of The Al Purdy Show, a star-studded benefit at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, it becomes clear that there’s more to the crusade than preserving a literary landmark. It’s generating its own art, from a new play about Purdy’s formative years to The Al Purdy Songbook, a benefit album featuring artists such as Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn and Sarah Harmer. The film’s ultimate focus is not on a dead poet, but on the living characters bound up in his legacy—from Al’s 90-year-old widow, Eurithe, who watches the restoration with an unrelenting eye, to the A-Frame’s first resident poet, a vivacious young feminist who finds herself strangely falling for the old-school male whose secrets lie buried in its walls.