The poet Al Purdy’s iconic A-frame cottage, where he wrote many of his famous poems, is in Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County, Ont. This article, by Purdy’s good friend George Bowering, first appeared in our May 2011 issue.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree / And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made
W.B. Yeats was one of Al Purdy’s favourite poets, and Al often quoted or misquoted “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” However, when it came to building a place beside a lake, he gave no thought to clay and wattles, but rather cadged or liberated second-hand boards from demolition sites, and built one of the most interesting cottages still standing in Prince Edward County. When he started, he was an unknown and plain mediocre poet. A few years later, he won his first Governor General’s Literary Award in poetry and became the unofficial poet laureate of the whole country.
Roblin Lake, named for Owen Roblin, a flour mill owner and United Empire Loyalist, is a superannuated pond in the middle of Prince Edward County, an irregular splat of land hanging off the torso of Ontario and almost floating away into eastern Lake Ontario. In 1957, Al Purdy, the failed poet, was 38 and living with his wife, Eurithe, in the house of his mother in nearby Trenton, where he had dropped out of high school partway through Grade 10. He and Eurithe had a thousand and some dollars somehow saved from their scrabbly jobs in Montreal, and they were looking for a way to live cheaply while Al made them a living by writing plays for the CBC. A site was available for $800 on a corner of Roblin Lake, and they snapped it up. Now they had a few hundred dollars and no house.
Like so many other things in their lives, the Purdys’ cottage started in a magazine. In his autobiography, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, Al writes that they came across a copy of House Beautiful that featured pictures of an A-frame that anyone with opposable thumbs could put together. I think he just figured that the magazine name he reported was funny, given his circumstances. In actuality, they were looking at the June 1957 issue of Canadian Homes and Gardens, which was subtitled “12 Summer Cottages.” The cover featured a dramatically posed and glassy A-frame and the promise “You can build this cottage for $2,000.” Al and Eurithe did not have $2,000, but they went daily to their little bit of paradise and began the unglamorous work of turning a sloping and willow-tangled plot into something flat enough to put a floor onto. And they sent away 12 more of their dollars for the A-frame plans, as prepared by the eminent architect Leo Venchiarutti.
From the beginning, Eurithe, who had worked as a secretary, but who had to figure out how a hammer worked, was at least her husband’s equal when it came to labour, endurance, and sense. Together they moiled on that lakeshore, and eventually there was some flat ground they measured with string, and they did not keep track of the number of swear words and epithets. Now if they only had some building materials, they could start this adventure in what has come to be called “vernacular architecture.” Did I just hear Al Purdy laughing somewhere?
I was a boy in the Okanagan Valley as it was in the 1950s, so I didn’t really know what a cottage was. A cottage, I learned by reading poetry, was something that William Wordsworth wrote poems in, in what the Brits called “the Lake Country.” Then I heard that it was a place that middle-class Torontonians went to in the summer, either down by the lake or up in Muskoka.
So, I figured, cottages are next to lakes, and you can write poems in them.
Where I come from, a few people may have a cabin somewhere in the mountains. Back in town it would have been called a one-room shack. It was not until the late 20th century, when Central Canadian professors came to teach on the west coast and thought they needed a summer place on one of the Gulf Islands, that we got cottages. But by then I had seen cottages in Ontario.
The first I ever saw was one used by a bunch of London artists in a strange little place called Grand Bend on Lake Huron. They were Greg Curnoe and his lot, members of the artists’ anti-music ensemble the Nihilist Spasm Band. They called their place No Haven. I suppose that I was still thinking “cabin,” but I was a little surprised when I got there. What they called a “cottage” was a house, and it was on a street with other houses, and nearby was a strip of gaudy hot dog stands and circus rides. But I had just moved to southwest Ontario and had to learn the language. A cottage was a house near a lake that was a drive’s distance from Toronto. A one-storey house, someone told me. But in the Okanagan all the houses were one storey.
There are no hot dog stands anywhere near Roblin Lake. Ameliasburgh—a smattering of buildings across the lake—is the rural part of rural eastern Ontario. If you read Purdy’s autobiography and early Ameliasburgh poems, you will read that he was a “sallow-complexioned” exile from the big city. But if you ask Eurithe, she will tell you that she was small-town (Belleville) and Al was even smaller-town (Trenton). Luckily, small-town guys know how to saw a straight line, and they tend to know people who will tell them where some second-hand lumber might be found.
When I walk around inside the A-frame now, I hear myself saying, “I couldn’t have done this.” I helped my dad build our house in B.C., but I am just amazed that the Purdys put this place up starting in the cold winter of 1957–58. When Purdy’s first Ameliasburgh poems were published, the Canadian poetry world felt just as amazed. And numerous commentators have said that both the building and the poetry were constructed with a happy makeshift vision. Forget any clay and wattles—think boards hauled from a demolished building in Belleville. As the years go by and extensions and outbuildings are added—think boards from a CPR freight car, think the floor from the Anne Street School, think Al’s mother’s house. When Trenton decided to widen its streets, the front porch on her house had to come off. Those porch boards are now doing duty as a few interior walls at Roblin Lake.
They got help. This is what the local road signs call The County, after all. Eurithe’s father lent a hand and a truck. While reading a couple of Al’s poems, you might get the impression that the poet Milton Acorn paid rent and board by sawing and hammering. The more reliable myth is that Eurithe hammered nails while Acorn and Purdy argued about ancient Greek history.
While ice covered the lake, the brave pair and their son, 12-year-old Jimmy, made it through that first winter in the 17-by-30-foot A-frame with the little kitchen attached. They had a small woodstove to take care of the four rooms, and groceries that were found much the same way as the building materials. As the years went by, they added a little tool shed–writing room out back, a garage-guesthouse, which would later burn down, and, in the ’70s, a 14-by-28-foot addition to the A-frame, making a new kitchen and a big dining–living room. This space boasts the first tailor-made boards in the building, long planks cut from trees on someone’s farm up north and made into a beautiful ceiling that the six-three Al Purdy could touch. Touch and own and look on with satisfaction.
On a green island in Ontario / I learned about being human / built a house and found the woman / and we shall be there forever / building a house that is never finished
And so it seems. Like just about every Canadian poet I know, I visited the ongoing project, and had some stew Eurithe made and a stubby of “golden flowers” Al put in my hand. I came first in 1967, then about once a decade, until the fall of 2010, when I sat and rested, or washed my hair and brushed my teeth with lake water, while Eurithe and my wife, Jean Baird, did an inventory of the whole shebang. Jean is leading the effort to save the A-frame as a writers’ retreat, fighting off the developers who would love to convert the treasure into a teardown. In the days we spent there, the house was full of people. But that’s nothing new.
Shortly after we arrived last October, another car came down the almost invisible grassy driveway. It contained a young woman who had recently studied Canadian literature and, like so many others, was ravaged by Al Purdy’s talent. She just wanted to look around the yard, maybe, look across the lake at the famous church steeple in one of Al’s poems. Eurithe, as she had done countless times before, asked her in to look around and struck up a conversation. When the happy young woman had signed the guest book and driven away, Eurithe told us that the day before she had been visited by a group of 50 cyclists.
All day there were knocks at the door. Librarians, teachers, plumbers, in-laws, UEL descendants, and good citizens from The County arrived to lend a hand, try a new idea, find out more about the A-frame Trust, and tell the delighted Ms. Baird how much Ameliasburgh and the environs were animated by the idea of saving a cottage. In Canada there are a lot of rubble piles that used to be the homes of painters and writers and even architects. Al Purdy’s legendary cottage is unlike any other. It was built by the poet himself. It is a rare surviving example of the alternative homes put up by amateurs in the ’50s and ’60s. It is the site where a pretty bum rimester turned into a masterful national poet. But it would not matter if the joists were made of the True Cross and Noah’s ark—there is a developer not far away who would like to set a bulldozer on it and put up a piece of gracious living in its place. A piece of prose.
But Ms. Baird and the A-frame Trust have been gathering momentum, and people all over the country have been springing to the defence of Purdy’s Folly. Poets, musicians, academics, foundations, booksellers, fast-food executives, farmers, fishermen, and friends have been cutting cheques. People who will never see the A-frame have sent their wages. Poets who had the fortune to sleep in the A-frame’s loft have mailed in their support. And what about the citizens of Ameliasburgh and Prince Edward County? There’s the great news.
There was a time when the Purdys could toil in anonymity on their side of the lake, even remain unseen while chopping through the ice to get cooking water. But the poetry kept getting better, and the village kept getting more famous, and the cars full of poets kept coming through the village looking for the cottage on Gibson Road. Ameliasburgh is a backwater’s backwater, but it is just that kind of community that found it perfectly fine to accommodate a big raw-boned galoot who split his time between bottling wild-grape wine and scrawling poems about Owen Roblin, the most prominent name in the graveyard beside his old millpond.
So when it came to celebrating its celebrity, as small burgs like to do, Ameliasburgh named a lane after him. Al was amused by the fact that Purdy Lane led down to the graveyard. It is now called Purdy Street, and you can follow it down to the beautiful book-shaped stone with Al Purdy’s name on it, not many steps from Owen Roblin’s resting place.
Since Al’s death in 2000, the village and county have embraced him as their favourite son. The little library at the end of the main street now bears his name, and inside it you will find a collection of Purdy stuff, including the ribbons and medals commemorating his inductions into the Order of Canada and Order of Ontario. You won’t find these kinds of things in many cottage areas.
When a poet lives and writes in lake country, his songs reply to the songs that nature brings him. That’s what happened to William Wordsworth in his lake country, as told in his poem “The Ruined Cottage”:
A linnet warbled from those lofty elms, / A thrush sang loud, and other melodies, / At distance heard, peopled the milder air.
Al Purdy liked such poetry, but he was no Wordsworth. His sleeve was rolled up to his biceps and he had no ear for linnets or any other literary birds. He listened to the voices in and under his own trees:
The starlings strut jaunty and raucous / with just that little swagger which says to hell with you bud
And now how the local people respond to Al’s gruff songs! There are teenagers at the A-frame tearing apart the old imperfect sun deck and hammering it together again, painting it and putting the heavy red wooden deck chairs back on. Meanwhile, at Trenton High School they are studying Al’s poetry, the poems about being bored at school and the poems about living poor beside a lake, and they are digging poetry. Al said that he dropped out of school because he was not improving at football and the only room he liked was the library. Soon the one at Trenton High will be called the Al Purdy Library, and there are already kids in it writing poems. The art students are planning sculptures and installations for the library. Not to be outdone, the tech students are going to spend the winter on their own Purdy project.
I have mentioned most of the buildings that have been put up on the Purdy Compound. It is time to mention the most famous outhouse in Canadian literature and photography. Perhaps shovelling is a simpler skill than sawing or hammering, but in the late ’50s on a plot beside a sylvan lake in The County, it was equally necessary. The privy was a one-seater with a pointy roof that, like the workshop and the little pump house, echoed the shape of the A-frame. Al Purdy was an artist as well as a carpenter, after all.
Eventually a chemical toilet appeared indoors, and eventually that was replaced by regular big-city plumbing. But Al liked the outhouse. He went on using it after its successors arrived. It is not unusual for the beginnings of poems to come to poets while they are on the throne. I often wonder whether Yeats’ line came into Al’s head while he was in the biffy: “I will arise and go now…”
Like a lot of literary folk, I used the outhouse back in the day, and I followed the rule ordained by its builder. You were supposed to employ a marker to write your name and perhaps some rural sentiments on the interior walls. It is for this reason that Ottawa poet Seymour Mayne once gave his opinion that Purdy’s outhouse should be given a place of honour at Library and Archives Canada. Wordsworth and Yeats, after all, must have had outhouses, but did they immortalize them in verse and photo?
But back to the tech students of Trenton High School. The English students were reading Purdy poems for credit. The art students were going to decorate the halls. The tech students wanted in on the act. Why not the outhouse, someone asked as a jest. We can refurbish the outhouse and get credit and have a story to tell our grandchildren, came back the serious answer. The truly enlightened shop teachers opened their eyes wide, and before you knew it, a trailer and crew showed up in the backyard of the cottage. Cameras clicked away as five guys with enviable skill strapped and buttressed the delicate old structure and lowered it gently onto the trailer. Eurithe got them to sign the guest book.
One of the first things the tech students will try to do is to remove the blue paint from the interior walls, because under that paint they’ll likely find Earle Birney’s autograph, Michael Ondaatje’s autograph, Irving Layton’s autograph, Margaret Laurence’s autograph. You see why those kids will be earning their marks. What if there is an otherwise unpublished Margaret Atwood poem under that paint? Excitement builds at Trenton High, as we anticipate Roblin Lake’s version of the Dead Sea scrolls.
As the venerable edifice on its tidy trailer climbed the grass driveway, I found myself hoping that those students don’t do a perfect job. It is not just the cottage that is “never finished.” Al did not believe in a Robert Frost–like ending for his poems, no slamming shut, no final word. For some of them, it seems as if he has just left the typewriter for a while. We are more likely to get an off-hand remark, a contradiction, a question, than any formal closure. Even after the poems were published, Al would revise them. Readers who notice a similarity between these poems and the lovely dark-skinned A-frame behind the ash trees on a corner of Roblin Lake are feeling that sense. “I say the stanza ends but it never does,” wrote Purdy in an early poem.
With the outhouse gone, I returned to spend the rest of the day at my favourite post, in a comfortable chair in the annex, looking out through the giant picture window. The window was intended for a big commercial building in Belleville, but wound up here in the cottage, turned to become horizontal. All the rest of the afternoon, a hornet whizzed his wings and bounced against my side of the glass.
I saw a fat beagle come around to pee on the corner of the front deck. A black squirrel I had been watching for three days took his usual route, into the trees in the yard, leaping from tree to tree, then back down once he was next door. All the squirrels around that end of the lake know that Eurithe takes no prisoners.
Then I looked up and saw that one of the tall cedar trees down near the water has wide deciduous leaves projecting from its top. What can those be, I asked Eurithe. Wild grapes, she said. I know just the winemaker, I said.