What does it take to carve out a career as a poet? Why on earth would anyone attempt it? Al Purdy Was Here is the portrait of an artist driven to become a great Canadian poet at a time when the category barely existed. Al Purdy is a charismatic tower of contradictions: a "sensitive man" who whips out a poem in a bar fight; a factory worker who finds grace in an Arctic flower; a mentor to young writers who remained a stranger to his sons. Purdy has been called the last, best and most Canadian poet. "Voice of the Land" is engraved on his tombstone. But before finding fame as the country's unofficial poet laureate, he endured years of poverty and failure. Born in Wooler, Ontario in 1918, Al was a high-school dropout who hopped freight trains during the Great Depression. He lived all over the country, working in mattress factories. After two decades of writing what he admits was bad poetry, in 1957 he and his wife build an A-frame cabin on Roblin Lake in Ontario's Prince Edward County. There he finds his voice, and surprising success. The A-frame soon becomes a mecca for the early pioneers of Canadian literature, writers like Margaret Laurence, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. And in this rustic salon, irrigated by Al's wild grape wine, a cultural community takes root. Now, 15 years after Purdy's death, artists and patrons have rallied to restore his shambling cabin as a writers' retreat. It's a quixotic enterprise. But as the A-frame comes back to life, it generates a Purdy revival, and an album of original songs inspired by his life and work. The film features performances by artists including Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Gord Downie, Gordon Pinsent, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Sarah Harmer, Tanya Tagaq and Joseph Boyden. The narrative, meanwhile, moves between Purdy's story and the compelling characters bound up in his legacy. They range from his 90-year-old widow, Eurithe-who reflects on their turbulent marriage while overseeing the cabin's restoration with a vigilant eye-to the A-frame's first resident poet, a spirited young feminist who finds herself conversing with the ghost of an old-school male.
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