Poetry for Students

Lament for the Dorsets

Lament for the Dorsets

Al Purdy 1968

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Criticism

Sources

For Further Study

“Lament for the Dorsets,” from Al Purdy’s 1968 collection, Wild Grape Wine, is a quintessentially Canadian poem from Canada’s superstar-poet of the 1960s. “Lament for the Dorsets” appeared at a stage in Purdy’s career in which he had matured in both vision and technique. The poem is informed by Purdy’s experience during the summer of 1965, during which he wrote poems in a tent in an Inuit village on Baffin Island, located in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The Dorsets of the poem’s title are a people who are distant ancestors of contemporary Inuits. The name derives from Cape Dorset, situated on the southwest coast of Baffin Island. Dorset civilization was spread over an extensive area of northern Canada and is thought to have existed for approximately two thousand years. While the Dorset people became extinct in the fourteenth century, a remnant of their culture has been preserved in the tiny tools and artifacts they left behind.

Although Purdy is a prolific poet who has published more than 600 poems, “Lament for the Dorsets” is one of the few known to Americans— if indeed Purdy is known at all to Americans—because it was included in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1986). “Lament for the Dorsets” is an elegy for a unique civilization that died out because it was unable to survive in changing conditions or because it was pushed out by a more technologically sophisticated people (the Thule). The poem, however, is not just a lament. It is also a paean to the permanence of art and the importance

of the artist to the life of a people. Purdy shows that a tiny carving of an ivory swan is what enables the Dorsets to live beyond their graves until their civilization is discovered some 600 years later.

Author Biography

One would be hard put to find a more prolific poet than Al Purdy. As of 1989, Purdy had thirty-seven books of verse, one novel, an autobiography, a memoir, several edited collections, and two books of correspondence—one with critic and scholar George Woodcock and the other with barfly-poet Charles Bukowski. Purdy is also one of Canada’s most eminent poets: his numerous awards and prizes include the Order of Canada (1987). Though hardly known in the United States, four of his poems are included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

Born December 30, 1918, Purdy was raised by his mother, his father having died when Alfred was two. Purdy went to college and served as a non-combatant in the air force during World War II. His many jobs and avocations include riding the rails, running a taxi business, and five years making mattresses. At age thirteen, he began writing poetry and published his first poems in The Enchanted Echo (1944), a volume he paid for and later referred to as “crap.” By the 1960s, with the help of the Canadian government’s support for artists, Purdy began writing full time, supplementing his income with reading, speaking, and teaching engagements. Up until 1962, Purdy said his style was derivative, but he asserts that with Poems for All the Annettes he had abandoned traditional rhythm and stanza forms for ones demanded by the poem being written. Other critics have disagreed as to when Purdy broke through to his own style: some say it was with The Crafte So Longe to Lerne (1959). Others say it was The Cariboo Horses (1965), for which he won the Governor-General’s award.

Purdy’s style is singular: “I believe that when a poet fixes on one style or method he severely limits his present and future development. By the same token I dislike the traditional forms. But I use rhyme, metre, and (occasionally) standard forms when a poem seems to call for it.” In subject matter, Purdy is firmly Canadian and also a poet of underdogs—be they workers, prisoners, or Eskimos. He is also a poet more of the immanent than the transcendental, of earthly more than fantastic worlds. Finally, in reception, Purdy’s independence has made him one of Canada’s most respected and most popular poets: a nonacademic respected by the academy and a popular poet whose poetry shuns pop. Purdy is the consummate autodidact and individual, and in this sense is a poet not only of and for Canada but for the United States.

Poem Text

(Eskimos extinct in the 14th century A.D.)

Animal bones and some mossy tent rings
scrapers and spearheads 
    carved ivory swans 
all that remains of the Dorset giants 
who drove the Vikings back to their long ships 
talked to spirits of earth and water                    5
—a picture of terrifying old men
so large they broke the backs of bears 
so small they lurk behind bone rafters 
in the brain of modern hunters 
among good thoughts and warm things 
and come out at night                                  10
to spit on the stars
The big men with clever fingers
who had no dogs and hauled their sleds
over the frozen northern oceans
awkward giants                                         15
  killers of seals 
they couldn’t compete with little men
who came from the west with dogs 
Or else in a warm climatic cycle                       20
the seals went back to cold waters 
and the puzzled Dorsets scratched their heads 
with hairy thumbs around 1350 A.D.
—couldn’t figure it out
went around saying to each other                       25
plaintively
    ‘What’s wrong? What happened?
    Where are the seals gone?’ 
#And died
Twentieth century people                               30
apartment dwellers
executives of neon death
warmakers with things that explode
—they have never imagined us in their future
how could we imagine them in the past                  35
squatting among the moving glaciers
six hundred years ago
with glowing lamps?
As remote or nearly
as the trilobites and swamps                           40
when coal became
or the last great reptile hissed
at a mammal the size of a mouse
that squeaked and fled
Did they ever realize at all                           45
what was happening to them?
Some old hunter with one lame leg
a bear had chewed
sitting in a caribou skin tent
—the last Dorset?                                      50
Let’s say his name was Kudluk
carving 2-inch ivory swans
for a dead grand-daughter
taking them out of his mind
the places in his mind                                 55
where pictures are
He selects a sharp stone tool
to gouge a parallel pattern of lines
on both sides of the swan
holding it with his left hand                          60
bearing down and transmitting
his body’s weight
from brain to arm and right hand
and one of his thoughts
turns to ivory                                         65
The carving is laid aside
in beginning darkness
at the end of hunger
after a while wind
blows down the tent and snow                           70
begins to cover him
After 600 years
the ivory thought
is still warm

Poem Summary

Lines 1-12

The first stanza, or section, is actually one sentence describing what the Dorsets have left behind. …