Arthur Purdy isn’t a shy man; he has been an active member of the Jewish community in Union County and at his synagogue, Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark. But it took him 90 years to really raise his voice as a poet.
On Oct. 27, at the temple, before an audience of around 50 people, the nonagenarian read from the collection of poems his children published in book form back in May to celebrate his birthday. While he has published poems in publications over the years, including Tikkun and American Scholar, this is his first book.
“Reality is the only, but, a difficult delight,” goes a line from one of his poems that gives the book its title, Difficult Delights.
“Poetry is feeling; it’s an experience,” Purdy said. He loved poetry from about age 13, when his English teacher at his high school in Elizabeth, Margaret MacFarquhar, kindled a passion for great writing, starting with the Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Born in Newark and raised in Elizabeth, he set out to become a doctor, but his college education was interrupted by World War II service in the U.S. Army. Purdy returned to college after the war thanks to the GI Bill. “That was the greatest thing our government ever did,” he said. “It did more than anything else to lift the intelligence of the country.”
The war and its aftermath led him to make a promise. “I pledged to know thereafter, every day, that I am alive. Poetry is my path to that knowledge,” he said.
His poems are attuned to human suffering, as in “1932,” which appeared in Tikkun in 2001. It recalls that era’s homeless “Singing their hunger/ In limp voice with limp cap” and how “My mother thrust bread/ My mother thrust coffee/ From behind the door/ To still their singing.”
Living in Clark with his wife, Thelma, who has worked as a journalist, and their three children, poetry was part of their lives. “We read poems to the kids, and we had a Robert Frost poem up on the wall,” he said. “Both our sons and our daughter have been involved with writing.”
Now, finally, seeing his poems all together in print, Purdy admitted a minor regret: “The book is pretty good; I should have done it years ago….” he said.