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Charles Bukowski, Al Purdy, Writers' Friendship
Charles Bukowski

Long interested in the nature of writers' friendship. My personal experiences have been mixed, to say the least.

Lived in Canada for 14 years and got to know Al Purdy, well-known north of the border, little known in the U.S. If there's any Canadian poet who bears a resemblence to Bukowski, Al Purdy's the man.

A while back I had the opportunity to review THE BUKOWSKI/PURDY LETTERS published by Paget Press. Today a scholar in Spain, researching Bukowski, emails a request for info about HARLEQUIN, a little-known magazine Bukowski himself edited in the mid-1950s. I had some work in HARLEQUIN and that scholar's query brought to light this review, 980 words...

"THE BUKOWSKI/PURDY LETTERS, A DECADE OF DIALOGUE, 1964-1974," Charles Bukowski & Al Purdy, Edited by Seamus Cooney, The Paget Press, 117 pages, $10.00 paper (0-920348-25-4).

    In 1964, Canadian poet Al Purdy (author of THE STONE BIRD; SEX AND DEATH; etc.) discovered and reviewed Charles Bukowski's IT CATCHES MY HEART IN ITS HANDS (Loujon Press, New Orleans) for "Evidence Magazine." Purdy mailed a copy of his review to Bukowski who responded with a letter and the correspondence that gave rise to THE BUKOWSKI/PURDY LETTERS, A DECADE OF DIALOGUE was underway.

    What was in it for Bukowski?

    "Getting a letter from Purdy always got my day up off the floor. I found my life more than unappealing and his letters lent a steadiness, some hope, and some hard-rock wisdom," wrote Bukowski in the book's Preface. "I wrote letters to many in those days, it was rather my way of screaming from my cage. It helped, that and the gambling, the drinking, the paintings, the poems and the short stories."

    Purdy, in his Foreword to this handsomely designed Paget Press book, describes himself as "a pretty callow 45-year-old... with too much ego and too little talent." Purdy is by turns modest, boastful, belligerent, charming, supportive--as only a friend can be--of Bukowski's numerous ups and downs and not at all reticent about expressing his opinions.

    Purdy says, for example, that the best American poets of all time are Charles Bukowski, Robinson Jeffers, and Emily Dickinson. He is unimpressed by Walt Whitman who, he says, makes him sick to his stomach. But he admires James Dickey, e.e. cummings, Ramon Guthrie and Elizabeth Bishop, poets who, Purdy says, "wrote a few poems" though they are not of the "top level."

    The letters are anything but mealy-mouthed and devious. Bukowski and Purdy alike delight in a cheery, take-no-shit-from-anybody attitude. Writing about the Black Mountain poets, who continue to be greatly esteemed in Canada, Al Purdy has this to say:

    "I don't like the togetherness let's everybody pat each other of the Duncan-Creeley-Olson bunch. And I don't like their so-called poems either. And I don't like the holy attitude noli me tangere (whatever that means) of their awed disciples."

    Bukowski, for his part, says little about other poets. However, he comes through loud and clear in other ways:

    "...I live in a whorehouse district of east Hollywood. I was walking down the street today when one of the girls in a love parlor hollared, 'Hey, come on in!" I didn't even blush, man..."

    or,

    "...I sit here at my small kitchen table, after shooting my mouth all night in order not to have to listen  to the other workers, and the half pint of Cutty Sark is about gone and only 4 or 5  bottles of beer left, and soon the sun will be making it in with its mockery. Somebody sent me a roundtrip ticket to Santa Fe, and I might as well go down there for a couple of days..."

    "Drunk again... fuck guilt..."

    If you like reading other peoples' mail and have a taste for Bukowski, THE BUKOWSKI/PURDY LETTERS are for you.

    I've been reading Purdy for the last twenty years. What's his take on this exchange?

    "This Buk-Purdy thing was a private correspondence, which neither of us expected to see in public, gossiping away like a dumb loudspeaker. I do confess, it makes me a little morose, the way I don't feel when I have lost myself in poems," says the Canadian who concludes his Foreword with the words: "I hope nobody likes me for it, but someone might be slightly interested."

    Well, this reader likes him for it. I like in particular the sense I get of Purdy's warmth, humor, generosity and his capacity for friendship.

     Imagine, two poets who never met actually writing one another, helping one another and sustaining a friendship for over twenty years!

    British Columbia's [and Ameliasburgh, Ontario's] Al Purdy and California-based Charles Bukowski had much in common. Exuberent, anti-academic, prolific, scarred heavyweights, survivors, veterans of innumerable brawls, literary and not-so-literary. Yes, both shared an appetite and burly love for strong drink and women.   And both assumed in their poems the stance of the poet as tough guy and played the part convincingly. Both shared a suspicion of non-drinkers, critics and academics. Lovers of women, both spoke of womenkind in terms that might likely offend one-half the human race.

    "I suppose I've been through the mill as you mention," wrote Purdy. "I've ridden the freights, been in jail a few times, done a fair amount of fucking, been unwise, silly, foolish, cowardly, braggardly, loud, etc.--a character of excess in most ways..."

    What did they say about one another's work?

    "I'm very like you in poems in many ways, and very unlike you in others. My so-called world-view is close to yours, tho at the same time has variations. But yours is only what I see in poems. Tho I think that must be, has to be, authentic."

    Can you guess who wrote the above? A free copy of the Paget Press book to those who guess correctly.

    The answer is Canada's Purdy who, by the way, comes across as more analytical, more self-conscious and oddly "stable" than Bukowski who, from the nature of his ailments and complaints, sounds as if he were more often than not in pain and, therefore, in need of his friend's humorous advice and merry, if not raucous, consolation.

    If you're looking for a rough and ready view of the 1960s and early 70s as experienced by Charles Bukowski and his Canadian counterpart, check out THE BUKOWSKI/PURDY LETTERS.

Copyright (c) 1997, Robert Sward.