Al Pittman: Savory on the Tongue
When I was growing up in Newfoundland in the 50s and 60s, I knew no poets. I read the poetry in school textbooks. I mostly read the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Hardy, Rossetti, and Dickinson. I occasionally read the Canadian poets Bliss Carman, Charles G. D. Roberts, and Archibald Lampman. I liked all the poetry I read, but it all sounded alien—distinctly separate from my daily lived experiences. Even when I read the poetry of E. J. Pratt, the only Newfoundland poet who was included in my school textbooks, I did not recognize my experiences in Pratt’s poetry. Pratt sounded like Carman, Roberts, and Lampman, and they all sounded like the British and American poets I read in school. Their poetry always sounded foreign. The language did not resonate with any language I knew, and the experiences and themes addressed in the poetry were similarly strange.
I was twenty years old when I first heard a poet whose voice resonated with mine. I attended a poetry reading by Al Pittman at the public library in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1974. I was completing a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in English literature at Memorial University of Newfoundland. I had never heard a poet like Al Pittman and I was smitten by his stories and wisdom, laced with sadness and humour. Al presented poetry that was narrative and personal, accessible and familiar, like a warm homespun sweater. Above all, I was entranced by Al’s voice. It was gruff and musical and earthy. I not only heard Al’s voice, but I felt it resonating in my body and imagination.
No poet has creatively influenced my poetry more than Al Pittman. Al’s poetry is autobiographical, and focuses on experiences of home, humanity, humour, and hope. Al was a professor of English literature, a poet and a playwright, a partner and a parent. Al died in 2001at the age of sixty-one after years of ill-health. All his life Al railed against politicians and priests and pedants with a prophet’s poetic voice. In order to understand the profound influence of Al Pittman in my life, I need to remember and narrate a few snapshots of my life as a child and adolescent and young man in Newfoundland in the 50s and 60s and 70s. Like Al, I grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Corner Brook is a pulp and paper mill town characterized by class divisions based on income (or at least the pretence of income) and social values that prioritized the Blomidon Golf and Country Club and townsite and manicured lawns. I grew up in the east end of Corner Brook. Al spent much of his life in the west end. Both the east end and the west end represented the less desirable neighbourhoods of Corner Brook. The throbbing heart of the small city was Bowater’s Pulp and Paper Mill. From the houses hammered into the east and west sides of the Humber Valley, we enjoyed stunning views of the harbour and the mill, even with the steady stream of steam and chemical waste that was an integral part of paper-making. The bosses of the mill and everybody who wanted to be a boss, or at least live like the bosses lived, mowed their lawns in the central townsite where the harbour and the mill could not be seen.
One of the poems Al read in the public library in 1974 was “Cooks Brook.” Al began:
At the pool where we used to swim
in Cooks Brook
not everyone had guts enough
to dive from the top ledge (p. 54)
I was captivated. Al wrote about my life. I recalled how Cec, Frazer, Macky, my brother, and I loved to swim in the pool at Margaret Bowater Park, a pool created by damning the Corner Brook Stream in late June till late August. We loved to play in that pool, and eventually I would write about our antics there and elsewhere in a few books of poems about growing up. But I was not only captivated by the stories in Al’s poetry. I loved the language, especially the rhythms. When I heard Al perform his poetry, he leaned and swayed, his right hand held his book, and his left hand moved up and down like his body was a musical instrument. He performed his poetry, but, even more so, he was his poetry. There was no pretence, no Hollywood actor’s trained intonation. Whenever I heard poetry recited in school classrooms, I was typically listening to recordings of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. who read the poetry of others with all the inflections of a suave Hollywood actor who was the son of a renowned Russian-born concert violinist and a Romanian-born opera singer. Zimbalist’s voice was pleasant but alien. Zimbalist’s voice was not like any voice I heard on Lynch’s Lane in Corner Brook.
When I heard Al read, I was mesmerized by the familiarity of his poetry. At the end of “Cooks Brook” Al writes about the divers who
… daringly defied the demons
who lived so terribly
in the haunted hours of your sleep (p. 55)
I was haunted by Al’s images and rhythms. I especially loved the alliteration in “daringly defied the demons.” I heard Al’s poetry resonate in my body. How can I explain how significant that experience was? When I was in grade 11, my English teacher passed back an essay and said, “Carl, you’ll never be a writer.” It was a cruel judgment, and I have never been able to understand why a teacher would say something so definitive and damning to a 16-year-old. Perhaps she meant that I would never be a writer like her (though I am not at all sure that she ever wrote anything). Perhaps she meant that I would never write in a voice that imitated some model essay or poem in a school anthology. Certainly she meant that I had no gift for words and her role as a teacher was to remind me that I lived with an abiding, even bountiful, lack.
I have not been well served by many of my teachers. In 1974, I began a Master of Arts in English literature at Memorial University of Newfoundland. I went to the Chair of the Department of English, Dr. David Pitt, to discuss plans for graduate research. Pitt was a Newfoundlander and a scholar who had written extensively about E. J. Pratt. I explained to Pitt that I wanted to write a Master of Arts thesis about a Newfoundland writer. Pitt asked with a sardonic smile, “Who would want to read it?” I recount that experience in order to remind myself (and anybody else who might be willing to be reminded) that school and university teachers are often like “guardians of the verse”—gatekeepers who determine what is rendered valuable, what will be taught and promoted. With Pitt’s response, I decided to research the fiction of Rosamond Lehmann, a minor British novelist. I never completed that thesis or degree. My heart was not in the project, and I have never been able to complete anything my heart is not invested in. Al Pittman was like that, too. He invested his heart in everything he undertook.
So, when I heard Al Pittman read his poetry in 1974, he spoke to me as no poet had ever spoken. In his insightful introduction to the selected poems of Al Pittman titled An Island in the Sky, Dr. Martin Ware (2003) explains that “the strength, simplicity and artistry of Al’s poems have their origins in his primarily oral conception of poetry” (p. 24). Ware also explains “Al’s belief that poetry is a collaborative art which flourishes in a mood of shared pleasure” where Al “created a space for his listeners” (pp. 28-29). Ware has evoked perfectly the creative energy of Al Pittman’s poetry. Al sings in his poetry, and he opens up generous and generative spaces for others to join him in a kind of choral performance that holds possibilities for many voices. In “Prose Poems,” Al hears the creation:
Down the beach the boys are singing. Sometimes it
is hard to tell their voices from the sound the wind
is making. (p. 72)
There are many voices—some are present, some are past, some are human, some are not human, but all the voices are mingling and intermingling and calling out with cacophonous enthusiasm for being alive. Al evokes an understanding of the creation as both cosmic and chaotic. In “Lines for My Grandmother Long Gone” he observes:
The field, the sea, the sky
thrive again in a confusion of movement. (p. 85)
Always there is a tempered and temperate wisdom in Al’s outlook on life. In “I Leave My Prayers” Al acknowledges a wise resignation or at least recognition:
Outside it is cold and raining,
not a good night to be going anywhere
but go I must because you are
only one of the choices I’ve made
and now must live with. (p. 89)
We make choices and we live with those choices, but Al’s philosophical perspective was always braided with a tender conviction. In “Old Soldiers” Al considers patience:
Because this place is as good as any
to sit in and remember while we wait
patiently to forget. (p. 91)
Al writes about childhood, family, seasons, strangers, landscape, history, all refracted through his sensual attending and imaginative re-creation. Al’s poetry is steeped in his personal experiences, but in poem after poem he recognizes the extraordinary in the ordinary; he sees again and again how everything is infused with wonder and mystery. Al’s task as a poet is to evoke that wonder in words that can be received by readers and listeners. Al’s poetry speaks to both the young reader just beginning to hear poetry as well as professors of English like Dr. Martin Ware and Dr. Stephanie McKenzie who co-edited An Island in the Sky. Al’s poetry has a deceptive simplicity that opens up to a meaningful complexity. Like a parable Al’s poetry speaks to a wide-ranging audience. Al was a philosopher-poet. In “Driftwood” he ruminates on driftwood and life:
How we’d stand. Amazed. In awe. Of our own
immutable and indescribable perfection. (p. 92)
Al’s poems are often humourous, always honest, always humane. In “Charmer” Al remembers the first time Patrick Lane met Al’s mother:
But then, that was Lane.
That was my mother.
And obviously at the time
I didn’t know either of them
all that well. (p. 118)
Because so much of Al’s poetry is readily accessible to a diverse community of readers, it can be misunderstood as prosaic, even lacking nuanced complexity and mystery. This is a facile response to Al’s poetry, the kind of response a reviewer with a fundamentalist view of what constitutes “a good poem” might declare. But Al’s poetry always points to far more than the words on the page or the images and sounds that are evoked by the words. In “What My Father Said about Sound” Al considers his father’s wisdom:
The sounds the sea makes
are the sea’s alone.
They do not belong
to poets or musicians. (p. 119)
Al devoted his life to poetry, to writing poetry, to teaching poetry, to publishing poetry. He wrote plays, fiction, and children’s books as well, and all his writing is wonderful, but his poetry fired my imagination as a 20-year-old, and he continues to inspirit me, even though he’s been dead for almost fifteen years. Al’s voice is Al’s. Others have their voices, or are seeking to hear their voices. Al listened carefully to his voice, and he listened carefully to the voices of other poets, too, with the kind of attention that can nurture the confidence to sing out.
Years ago, I wrote a poem for Al. I had the privilege of reading it at the annual spring gathering of poets and musicians called the March Hare in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Al was one of the poets who presented that night. He liked the poem.
The Poet Is a Poem
(for Al Pittman)
You were the first poet
whose voice in my ear
was not alien.
More than two decades ago
I heard your voice
like a homespun sweater.
When I started writing long
after English teachers told me
I’d never be a writer,
your voice sang in my head,
wove words with my words,
savory on the tongue.
For years I felt
your breath in me,
echoes in my ears.
So you could not know
how much your words
of praise meant to me
when my first book was born
and you swung to the center of the atrium
like a loose-limbed scarecrow,
and nobody knew what you were doing,
crashing the party perhaps,
and you sang the notes
scribbled at the Columbus Club
after hearing my poems on the CBC,
and a circle was formed
from the first time I heard you read
to the first time you heard me read,
our voices, one voice.
On a plane from Corner Brook to Vancouver
I held your new poems and wept
with dancing in limbo.
Months later you came to Vancouver,
a city with too many polite poets,
to the Writers’ Festival.
You began with a funny aside,
too much laughter, the audience
unsure how to read you.
I wanted to stand beside you,
welling up with words, and whisper,
our voices are one.
I wanted to put my arms around you
and ask you to recall the words
you had spoken about my poems.
I wanted to read one of your poems:
the house burning or no one calling you home
or refusing to give your daughter away.
I know you hear the rhythm
of your voice in my voice,
the voice you gave me long ago.
But I couldn’t move:
I am too polite;
I do not know you well enough;
I have no right to butt in;
I would cause a scene;
I am too polite.
I did nothing.
As always, I did nothing.
All alone, alone.
Your ten minutes were almost up
when you regained your voice,
gruff and rough and sweet.
And, Al, on the stage, alone,
hundreds of people staring,
people you knew were there,
but couldn’t see, blind with light,
you read a poem about being alone,
you were a poem about being alone.
I wept as I read your new poem.
I weep as I write my new poem.
The poet is a poem.
I miss Al Pittman. I am grateful for his presence in my life. In the moving poem “Kelly at Graveside” Al knows the profound impact of loss and grief:
In this wind-blown, wild-flowered
fenced-in meadow by the sea, this
bleak September day, we are the silent,
sombre witnesses to your burial
in the black earth. (p. 141)
I remain with many others as a witness to Al’s life and death, to his enduring influence, and especially to his poetry. There is always more in Al’s poetry than can be consumed. Ultimately his voice resonates with a mix of human, humourous, humble qualities that linger like a haunting note, full of the rhythms of ocean and wind and seasons, the heart’s rhythms, the systolic and diastolic iamb calling out the poet’s testimony: “I am.” Al breathes in his poetry. Al breathes in many poets and musicians and story-tellers. I am glad I am one of them. As Al understands in “To Kyran in Full Flight”:
Going toward yourself is
the longest journey of all. (p. 174)
May we all continue to take that journey in our poetry as we celebrate poets like Al Pittman, as we celebrate one another, for the gifts offered and the gifts received.
Ware, M. & McKenzie, S., eds. (2003). An island in the sky: Selected poetry of Al Pittman. St. John’s: Breakwater Books.
“Heed the Hare” in the Independent
“Al Pittman and Tom Dawe: Island Poems” by Terry Goldie
“Family of Al Pittman appreciates community recognition” in the Western Star
“Writer Al Pittman memorialized in Corner Brook” on the CBC website
“Heed the Hare” in the Independent
Carl Leggo is a poet and professor at the University of British Columbia. His books include: Growing Up Perpendicular on the Side of a Hill; View from My Mother’s House; Come-By-Chance; Teaching to Wonder: Responding to Poetry in the Secondary Classroom; and Sailing in a Concrete Boat: A Teacher’s Journey. Integral to his current creative and academic life, Carl Leggo is a happy grandfather to four darling granddaughters with the magical names: Madeleine, Mirabelle, Gwenoviere, and Alexandria.