Purdy, Al(fred Wellington)

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PURDY, Al(fred Wellington)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Wooller, Ontario, 30 December 1918. Education: Dufferin Public School, Trenton, Ontario; Albert College, Belleville, Ontario; Trenton Collegiate Institute, Ontario. Military Service: Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. Family: Married Eurithe Parkhurst in 1941; one son. Career: Has held numerous jobs; taught at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, spring 1970; poet-in-residence, Loyola College, Montreal, 1973, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 1975–76, and University of Western Ontario, London, 1977–78. Awards: Canada Council fellowship, 1960, 1965, 1968, 1971, award, 1973, and grant, 1974, 1975, 1980; President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, 1964; Governor-General's award, 1966, 1987. A.J.M. Smith prize, 1974; Jubilee Medal, 1978. Order of Canada, 1987. Address: Rural Route 1, Ameliasburgh, Ontario K0K 1A0, Canada. Died: 21 April 2000.



The Enchanted Echo. Vancouver, Clarke and Stuart, 1944.

Pressed on Sand. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1955.

Emu, Remember! Fredericton, University of New Brunswick, 1956.

The Crafte So Longe to Lerne. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1959.

Poems for All the Annettes. Toronto, Contact Press, 1962.

The Old Woman and the Mayflowers. Ottawa, Blue R, 1962.

The Blur in Between: Poems 1960–61. Toronto, Emblem, 1962.

The Cariboo Horses. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1965.

North of Summer: Poems from Baffin Land. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1967.

Poems for All the Annettes (selected poems). Toronto, Anansi, 1968 Wild Grape Wine. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1968.

Spring Song. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1968.

The Winemaker's Beat-étude. Willowdale, Ontario, Fiddlehead, 1968.

Interruption. Willowdale, Ontario, Fiddlehead, n.d. Love in a Burning Building. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1970.

Five Modern Canadian Poets, with others, edited by Eli Mandel. Toronto, Holt Rinehart, 1970.

The Quest for Ouzo. Trenton, Ontario, M. Kerrigan Almey, 1970.

On Being Romantic & 5 Love Poems. Vancouver(?), Deodar Shadow Press, 197-. Selected Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

Hiroshima Poems. Trumansburg, New York, Crossing Press, 1972.

On the Bearpaw Sea. Burnaby, British Columbia, Blackfish Press, 1973; revised edition, Toronto, Red Maple Editions, 1994.

Sex and Death. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1973.

Scott Hutcheson's Boat. Prince George, British Columbia, Caledonia, 1973.

In Search of Owen Roblin. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1974.

Sundance at Dusk. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

The Poems of Al Purdy. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

At Marsport Drugstore. Sutton West, Ontario, Paget Press, 1977.

A Handful of Earth. Coatsworth, Ontario, Black Moss Press, 1977.

No Second Spring. Coatsworth, Ontario, Black Moss Press, 1977.

Moths in the Iron Curtain. Cleveland, Black Rabbit, 1977.

Being Alive: Poems 1958–78. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1978.

The Stone Bird. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1981.

Bursting into Song: An Al Purdy Omnibus. Willowdale, Ontario, Fiddlehead Press, 1982.

Piling Blood. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1984.

Collected Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1986.

Two/Al Purdy. Vancouver, Colophon, 1990.

The Woman on the Shore. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1989.

Naked with Summer in Your Mouth: Poems. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1994.

Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems, 1962–1996. Madeira Park, British Columbia, Harbour Publishing, 1996.

To Paris Never Again: New Poems. Madeira Park, British Columbia, Harbour Publishing, 1997.

Recording: Al Purdy, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1971.


Point of Transfer: The Selected Plays of Al Purdy. Trenton, Ontario, Harbour Publishing, 1991.


A Splinter in the Heart. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1990.


No Other Country. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

Morning and It's Summer: A Memoir. Montreal, Quandrant, 1983.

The Bukowski/Purdy Letters: A Decade of Dialogue 1964–1974, with Charles Bukowski, edited by Seamus Cooney. Sutton West, Ontario, Paget Press, 1983.

The Purdy/Woodcock Letters: Selected Correspondence 1964–1984. Toronto, ECW Press, 1988.

Yehl the Raven. Madeira Park, British Columbia, Harbour Publishing, 1991.

Cougar Hunter: A Memoir of Roderick Haig-Brown. Vancouver, Phoenix Press, 1992.

Reaching for the Beaufort Sea: An Autobiography. Madeira Park, British Columbia, Harbour Publishing, 1993.

Starting from Ameliasburgh: The Collected Prose of Al Purdy. Madeira Park, British Columbia, Harbour Publishing, 1995.

The Man Who Outlived Himself: An Appreciation of John Donne: A Dozen of His Best Poems. Madeira Park, British Columbia, Harbour Publishing, 1999.

Editor, The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the United States. Edmonton, Alberta, Hurtig, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1968.

Editor, Fifteen Winds: A Selection of Modern Canadian Poems. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1969.

Editor, I've Tasted My Blood: Poems 1956–1968, by Milton Acorn. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1969.

Editor, Storm Warning: The New Canadian Poets. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1971; Storm Warning 2, 1976.

Editor, Wood Mountain Poems, by Andrew Suknaski Jr. Toronto, Macmillan, 1976.

Editor, Into a Blue Morning: Poems Selected and New 1968–1981, by C.H. Gervais. Toronto, Hounslow Press, 1982.

Editor, with Doug Beardsley, No One Else Is Lawrence!: A Dozen of D.H. Lawrence's Best Poems with Introduction and Commentary. Madeira Park, British Columbia, Harbour Publishing, 1998.


Bibliography: By Marianne Micros, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors 2, edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1980.

Manuscript Collections: University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon; University of British Columbia, Vancouver; Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario; Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

Critical Studies: "In the Raw: The Poetry of A.W. Purdy" by Peter Stevens, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), spring 1966; interview with Gary Geddes, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 1969; Al Purdy by George Bowering, Toronto, Copp Clark, 1970; Harsh and Lovely Land by Tom Marshall, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 1979; "Al Purdy's Contemporary Pastoral" by D.G. Jones, in Canadian Poetry (London, Ontario), 10, spring-summer 1982; "Al Purdy and His Works" by Louis MacKendrick, in Canadian Writers and Their Works, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, Toronto, ECW, 1990; "The Correspondence of Margaret Laurence and Al Purdy" by John Lennox, in Recherches Anglaises et Nord-Americaines (Strasbourg, France), 24, 1991; Loopholes and Catacombs: Elements of Bakhtian Dialogue in the Poetry of Al Purdy (dissertation) by John C. Van Rys, Dalhousie University, 1993; by H.R. Percy, in Queen's Quarterly, 101(4), winter 1994.

Al Purdy comments:

(1970) Themes? Sex and death (which last naturally includes life). Subjects? Anything that appeals to me. Form? Pretty irregular, but generally with rhythm running somewhere, sometimes off-rhymes and assonance. Influences? Very many, including the usual big names (Pound, Eliot, Yeats); also César Vallejo, Neruda, Superveille, Charles Bukowski, Robinson Jeffers, etc., etc. Style? I have some strong prejudices against schools of any kind, including most particularly the Creeley-Olson Black Mountain bunch and their imitators. I do not dismiss these people and believe it is possible to learn much from them, but only if one remains oneself, something most of them apparently find difficult. 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, meter, and (occasionally) standard forms when a poem seems to call for it. Rules tend to be exclusive of anything outside their own strictures. I think most traditional poets would agree with this, but go right on using traditional meter and rhymes; poets like prime ministers are all against war and on the side of truth and justice.

Perhaps I should say that I began to write nearly forty years ago, influenced at that time by people whom I do not appreciate very much now. For instance, I like some of G.K. Chesterton's poems, and his influence no doubt remains with me but is, I think, difficult to discern in what I write today. At one time iambic metrics were so deeply implanted in my mind that it took me years of not trying to break out of iambics to finally break out of iambics. I suppose other people's styles were apparent in my stuff until publication of Poems for All the Annettes in '62, and this book (and The Blur in Between, also published '62 but earlier poems than Annettes) is the transitional period between what I was and am and change into. I have a fixation about change, which can also be regarded as a self-conscious weakness as well as strength. And yet I wrote a poem in Athens, Greece, in January 1969 ("The Time of Your Life") that is probably the best I have ever written, at least I think so now.

*  *  *

With some forty books of verse and several of prose to his credit, not counting anthologies he has edited, Al Purdy is one of the most prolific of Canadian writers. He is also one of the most consistently interesting Canadian poets and one who has steadily grown in stature and in the respect of readers and critics. Although he has been publishing poetry for more than a generation and writing it even longer, his first volume, The Enchanted Echo, appeared only in 1944, and it was not until the mid-1960s, when he was already well into middle age, that he emerged as one of Canada's leading poets. He has been vigorous in statement and energetic in traveling the land to read his poetry and in traveling the world to gather experience. He is a writer "for whom the visible world exists" palpably and directly, and the impressions gathered in travel have always played a recognizable role in shaping both the content and the mood of a great deal of his poetry. But the heart of Purdy's world, the place that gives its name to so many of his poems and appears as the symbolic omphalos of his imaginative world, is Roblin Lake, near Ameliasburgh in the heart of Loyalist Ontario, where he lives and whose traditions, transmitted in the lives of his farmer forebears, have stirred the emotions inspiring much of his best work. An example is "My Grandfather's Country":

But the hill-red has no such violence of endings
the woods are alive
and gentle as well as cruel
unlike sand and sea
and if I must give my heart to anything
it will be here in the red glow
where failed farms sink back into earth
the clearings join and fences no longer divide
where the running animals gather their bodies together
and pour themselves upward
into the tips of falling leaves
with mindless faith that presumes a future.

Purdy's lack of an academic background, unusual in the Canadian literary world, has been an advantage to him in many ways, leading him to wander far and freely, to work at many callings, and to bring to his writing a wide down-to-earth experience. On the technical side it has liberated him from formal disciplines and has enabled him to work at his own pace, apart from the literary fashions that sweep North American campuses, and to take what he wants where he wants, from Williams, from Auden and Thomas, from Pratt and Bimey and Layton. By such means he has progressed from the traditional lyricism of The Enchanted Echo to the open forms and personal voice of midperiod books like The Cariboo Horses and Wild Grape Wine and of later books like The Stone Bird and Piling Blood. What has struck readers about Purdy's verse since the late 1950s is its intense oral impact. It is free verse in the truest form—fluent, untrammeled by conventions, yet possessing rhythmic and grammatical forms that distinguish it from statement in prose.

Purdy's verse is always near to experience; the poem emerges from life and the concept from the poem. Pieces about his wanderings in Canada, like those in The Cariboo Horses, or abroad, like those in Hiroshima Poems, often seem to have served Purdy as a journal, so close is the interval between conception and creation, so immediate the response to experience. This does at times lead to unevenness in tone and quality, which Purdy controls to an extent by weeding out much of a voluminous production.

The Crafte So Longe to Lerne is the volume in which Purdy's special character as a poet first detaches itself from his original derivativeness. This is seen in the opening of forms and in the thematic evolution of a type of poetry that is really a philosophic continuum where the here and now, immediately perceived, becomes the Blakean grain in which, if not the world, at least universal values are reflected. Purdy himself regards a later volume, Poems for All the Annettes, as the point where "other people's styles" ceased to be apparent in his work. Certainly by the time he won the Governor-General's award for The Cariboo Horses, he was writing at the top of his individual form, having developed a long-lined and colloquially free manner as well as an ability to be intellectually direct without sacrificing the suggestive dimensions of poetic imagery. Purdy has drawn freely on the funds of miscellaneous knowledge that a generalizing and autodidactic mind accumulates; yet, though densely allusive, he is never obscure. His poems often show a remarkable ability to bring images drawn from great sweeps of time and space into a meaningful relationship with what he sees before him in the everyday contemporary setting. A fine example is "In the Caves," the concluding poem of Being Alive. Purdy imagines the creative passion of a Paleolithic artist and by implication relates it to the poet's modern agony:

And I do not know why
whether because I cannot hunt with the others
and they laugh
or because the things I have done are useless
as I may be useless
but there is something I must follow
into myself to find
outside myself in the mammoth
beyond the scorn of my people
who are still my people
my own pain and theirs
joining the shriek that does not end
that is inside me now

Such poetry traps with an extraordinary appearance of spontaneity the roving speculations of a highly original mind.

Being Alive includes most of Purdy's best poems to the late 1970s and perhaps shows his work in its greatest variety up to that period. Yet there is a power and a radiance about later volumes like The Stone Bird and Piling Blood and even The Woman on the Shore that place him securely among the major Canadian poets. Indeed, when one reads the four hundred pages of the definitive Collected Poems, together with the even later poems of The Woman on the Shore, one realizes there are not many better poets writing anywhere in English. One of the signs of his ultimate success is that, while his poetic persona was dominant in the work of his middle period, in his later work it is the poet rather than the creator who comes into the reader's vision, the artifact rather than the artificer. In his own way Purdy recognizes this—that the poet and even the poetic persona can die but the poem lives—and so in "Pre-Mortem," the last of the new pieces he includes in the Collected Poems, he grants that "a poem can have a soul / just as a man can / the man's soul of course is unknowable, the poem's soul may be known obliquely …" In the remarkable last verse he envisages the point of death, when the poet is beyond awareness but the poem survives and continues its own life:

For the dying man
the world's marvelous clichés
fade and revivify
flush into pallor
as the cancer feeds
and like little lambs in springtime
his heart skips apace
A name is spoken in the silence
and then only the soul
hears the name which is the poem's
soul and no writer
listens but the poem listens
in a coldness that obtains
at the fire's centre

Purdy's poems are likely to survive and remain among the classics of Canadian writing. Thus, the Collected Poems is not merely a personal document, the commemoration of a life's work, but it is also one of the milestones in the development of a nation's literary traditions.

—George Woodcock

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