Saving the House Al Built

Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail

Poetic myths can be hard to sustain in a prosy age, but every versifier in Canada will tell you something uncanny happened 50 years ago on a bush lot in the country south of Belleville, Ont., where local couple Al and Eurithe Purdy had retreated after the former’s failure to thrive as a writer in the big city of Montreal, where they built a cramped “A-frame” shack to live in and survived on such delicacies as wild asparagus and roadkill.

“It’s well known that when Purdy began his career as a poet he was quite a terrible writer,” says Paul Vermeersch, editor of a new book, The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology, that celebrates the magical transformation of a literally starving hack into the breakthrough voice of modern Canadian English.

“I don’t want to paint any supernatural picture or anything,” Vermeersch adds. “But moving to Ameliasburgh was the missing piece in the puzzle. As Atwood has said, it’s the moment when Purdy’s poetry suddenly shifts from being terrible to being remarkable. It was when he began writing there that it happened.”

Poet after poet extols the majesty of that “it” in the pages of the A-Frame Anthology: Michael Ondaatje, Dennis Lee, George Bowering, Margaret Atwood and a host of lesser known belletrists, all of whom hovered like bugs around the shining light of Ameliasburgh from the 1960s until Purdy’s death in 2000. Many of them are gathering again tonight at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, both to launch the book and to make a plea for the preservation of the humble landmark.

The Toronto gathering is one of four organized this fall and winter to raise funds to buy the old house from Eurithe, 85, restore it to habitable condition and operate it as a retreat for future generations of Canadian writers. Last week, an event was held in Waterloo, Ont. and the others will take place in late November and December in Halifax and Victoria.

“It’s not just a shack in the woods,” says Jean Baird, the Vancouver editor who is leading the preservation effort. “It has been a pilgrimage place for decades for young writers – for all writers.” Acolytes who never knew Purdy or drank his wild-grape wine out of old whisky bottles still leave totems on his nearby grave, according to Baird. “If the e-mails I get are any indication, the back roads of Prince Edward County are full of lost poets, looking for the A-frame.”

There’s nothing else like it in the country, she adds. The boyhood home of Pierre Berton in Dawson City operates today as a writers’ retreat, but that late author never wrote there and wouldn’t recognize it if he were alive today, according to Baird. Purdy not only hand-built and lived in the A-frame, he made it and its landscape the focus of some of his finest poems. “Berton House doesn’t have the clout of this place,” Baird says. “On a heritage meter, this one’s off the charts.”

Not only a place of pilgrimage for such young, unpublished writers as Michael Ondaatje, the Purdy A-frame also appears to have functioned as the drunken boat of Canadian literature. Blackouts, broken legs and furious arguments mark the anthologized reminiscences.

Atwood contributed a cartoon in which a petite young ingenue sipping homemade wine experiences “a sudden attack of bladder cancer.” A spectacular portrait by photographer John Reeves summarizes the prevailing mood. “Several years later, Al would say, ‘No, I’ve never met John Reeves,’” Baird says.

Organizers of the Al Purdy A-Frame Association hope to raise $1-million to repair the house and create an endowment that will enable young writers to use it. “The place will come down if we don’t succeed,” Baird says. In the eyes of the 21st-century real-estate market, the shack is no more than a blight on a desirable lakefront lot.

“But I and many others think it’s the most important literary house in the country,” she adds. “We really need Canadians to step up. This is not the time for people to be saying, ‘Somebody else will do it’ – because it won’t happen.”