Al Purdy

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George Victor
Al Purdy


George Victor

Just began reading Al Purdy's Beyond Remembering: The collected poems (from 1950s to the 1990s).

Is anyone interested in comparing thoughts on this fellow?

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

[url= Woodcock on Al Purdy[/url]

[url=]Oh, and here's the man himself.[/url]

It's very important to listen to Al Purdy read his own work for a fuller understanding. He was that kind of poet.

George Victor

Thank you very much for the Woodcock piece.

Yes, a friend has described Purdy's voice as "rumpled suit", and I'm not sure that "At the Quinte Hotel", the only one I've heard him narrate, would put him in a suit!

It is the degree to which he travelled the Canadian north country - and the farm country North of Belleville, the territory of my youth - that are most appealing to me.

Hope he's available in softcover.

I want to explore how a Purdy can stay under the radar of a Canuck for so long - besides the complex explanation from life itself, which the poet mocks by saying (in Quinte) things like:..."and you can see that I am a sensitive man...And I notice that the bartender is a sensitive man too I tell him about his beer.."

The CBC program which brought him to life for me a week ago featured Purdy because of his statue appearing on the lawn at Queen's Park.

Whereas other countries statues to their poets are a dime a dozen, Purdy's is apparently a Canadian first.

It doesn't help to grow up in a culture where poetry and pubs could not be forced any more than he found, " the tavern that poems will not really buy beer or flowers...or a goddam thing...and I was sad...for I am a sensitive man"

Hope "Steve" is not successful in his ideological project of burying CBC among the ad-dependent stations of North America.

Would like to compare notes down the road a bit when I have sipped some more of Purdy's work.

Thanks again for George Woodcock. The old B.C.anarchist disappeared quite sometime before Purdy, didn't he?

I'm limited by a dialup service, but hope the horse comes through soon to change that. [img]smile.gif" border="0[/img]

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture


George Victor: Whereas other countries statues to their poets are a dime a dozen, Purdy's is apparently a Canadian first.

There are statues of Robbie Burns in Toronto and Fredericton I understand, and the statue of Taras Shevchenko in Winnipeg [on the grounds of the Legislature BTW] was visited by the President of the Ukraine yesterday, but the Purdy statue is close to a first for a [b]Canadian poet.[/b] A video of the statue, complete with comments by Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee (great Canadian poets in their own right) and Purdy's widow, Eurithe, can be seen
[url= here (at the present).[/url]

Correction: [url= story [/url]claims that the Purdy statue is "only the second full-length statue of a Canadian poet in Toronto." So, now I'm intrigued. What was the first? And other cities?

Francois Xavier Garneau was honoured by a statue in Quebec City. [url= a look. [/url] Garneau was a French-speaking Canadian poet. So Purdy is not the first in Canada.

[ 28 May 2008: Message edited by: N.Beltov ]

George Victor

More revelations!
THE nationalist historian of Quebec was also a poet.
Wonder if I can find a bit of his poetry (preferably in translation)? A bit would probably go a long way.

I worked in Quebec-Labrador as survey-instrument guy on QNS&L railway , 1959-61, when Duplessis bit the dust up in Schefferville (before Mulroney shut the town down) and change began. The young Montrealers were ecstatic about possibilities for cultural change, and the young south shore guys couldn't wait to bring math and science to their kids' schools. The taxpayer could no longer depend on inflated tax receipts from their priest.

Engineering work was conducted in English then. Should imagine that has changed. [img]smile.gif" border="0[/img]

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

[b]F[/b] = m [b]a[/b] is the same in English or French. [img]biggrin.gif" border="0[/img]


[url=]en Franзais[/url]

[url='s_laws_of_motion]In English[/url]

[ 28 May 2008: Message edited by: N.Beltov ]

Makwa Makwa's picture

Al Purdy actually came and read and lead a class on poetry at the lame little 'free' alternative school I dropped out to join for a bit in the, um 70s. I remember him as not particularly approachable, but I did love his writing. I guess he was doing a favour for a teacher or something. Nice guy, good writer. One could do worse, I imagine.


My most pertinent post-high school Purdy memory is watching this short film, featuring the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downey, which is based on the Purdy poem.

George Victor

The 1970s take up 140 pages of Beyond Remembering's 600 pages.
Margaret Atwood wasn't so intimidated by him then, she tells us in a foreword. And Purdy was writing things like

The Time of Your Life :
Childhood - when toads and frogs rain down the sky,
and night is velvety as under the skirts
of a goddess, where it's always summer -
In winter water pours from gardenhose,
and turns to ice in town backyards;

There's the barest hint, there, of where Margaret might have had her doubts in that earlier decade?

As for math as an international language...if only that first summer of directing axemen, chainmen and rodmen could have been limited to a universal language.
They were invariably patient with this young guy from that other province, where, after all, the women were
They could be condescendingly (and jokingly) superior on this point, while asking very seriously,in the next breath, how much money went to the monarch from the sale of those stamps with the queen's head on them.

God, the tolerance of French Canada in those days.

By the way, just in case my own discussion raises some doubts, I proudly claim feminist wife is honourably mentioned in The Taking of Twenty-Eight.
And you'll pardon me if all this qualification is unnecessary, or even discomfiting. Still finding my way around here, and I pre-date some postmodernist (there's that word again) niceties, like the reign of relativism, and can only aspire to approximate Al's "sensitive" man.


There is also a statue of Йmile Nelligan (francophone poet of French and Irish descent) in Carrй St-Louis in Montrйal. And the Crйmazie mйtro station has a huge fresque of Octave Crйmazie and two other Quйbec poets of the day.

If you count poetic songwriters ("chansonniers") there is a huge statue of Fйlix Leclerc in Parc Lafontaine.

jeff house

I claim that the Walter Scott Monument in Edinborough is the largest writer memorial in the world.

If you look at this photo, you can BARELY see his life-size statue in the middle of the tower surrounding him.


N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

We've got a long way to go. Mind you, even Walter Scott doesn't have a planet named after him, eh?

[url=]2208 Pushkin - a minor planet named after the famous Russian poet[/url]

George Victor

But there is Lampman, Sask., named after the late Archibald, who seems to have moved country folk, at least, to some kind of commemorative effort a hundred years back.

Certainly, Toronto the Good could not have been moved to erect anything so offensive as a tribute to a dead poet in its earlier, church-going phase. Even a gentle one writing in Wordsworthian vein. His aversion to industrial growth would have offended the board of trade.

Archibald's "tourist plaque" looks quite unvisited in the churchyard near his Lake Erie birthplace.

And how do we display veneration of today's poets? Is Al to be the anomaly? Or will Atwood, for instance, stand for something? Or will anyone else?

And is "veneration" a bit rich for the vocabulary today? Another "postmodern" levelling trait on display where nothing may be taken from history for comparison?

[img]smile.gif" border="0[/img]

[ 29 May 2008: Message edited by: George Victor ]

George Victor

Not seeing an uptake (or even an upchuck, as Al might say) on the questions in that last missive a week back, and this being the time of spring planting, I offer up a bit more of him:

Prince Edward County

Words do have smell and tase
these have the taste of apples
brown earth and red tomatoes
as if a juggler had juggled
too many balls of fire
and dropped some of them
a smell and taste and bell sound
in the ear of waves
- not princes

Conservative since the Romans
-altho it's only animals
that are true conservatives
using the same land and water
and air for countless generations
themselves their own ancestors
each their own child
rabbits and groundhog tenants
porcupine leaseholders
and the wide estates of foxes


And we see that Al did not take a nationalist stand, even though he's become a national icon:

A Handful of Earth
(to Rene Levesque)
let us join Quebec
if Quebec won't join us
I don't mind in the least
being governed from Quebec City
by Canadiens instead of Canadians
in fct the fleur-de-lis
and maple leaf
are only symbols
and our true language
speaks from inside
the land itself

you can hear soft wind blowing
among tall fir trees on Vancouver Island
it is the same wind we knew
whispering along Cote des Neiges
on the island of Montreal
when we were lovers and had no money
Once flying in a little Cessna 180
above that great spine of mountains
where a continent attempts the sky
I wondered who owns this land
and knew that no one does
for we are tenants only


sorry about all the editing, but something called Flash Player was trying to install itself, uninvited....

[ 06 June 2008: Message edited by: George Victor ]

[ 06 June 2008: Message edited by: George Victor ]

[ 06 June 2008: Message edited by: George Victor ]

George Victor

Just suffered another "Flash" attack , so went offline for a bit to elude the venemous vendors.

Don't know if it would be useful to submit someday...I only have a dialup service so assume it would not be.

Anyway, just wanted to say that the above are samples of Al Purdy's work that attract me to him. I'm afraid it's that old "unsullied wilderness" thing again, identifying with the earth and its smaller, uninhibited inhabitants.

Al, of course, can get pretty uninhibited himself, eh?


Didn't Purdy cover the Halifax Explosion of 1917?

I have this book but I am not sure about it's message. I think it was more about the forgotten spectacle that dramatized the evils of war and the folly of the arms trade. I think it also illustrated how human beings do not learn about these follies and keep repeating the same stupid errors.


Al Purdy’s only novel, A Splinter in the Heart , is an unforgettable coming-of-age story that unfolds against the real-life tragedy of what came to be known as the Trenton Disaster. Set in 1918, it tells the story of sixteen-year-old Patrick Cameron and the events that will change him – and the Ontario town in which he lives – forever. Over the course of one summer and fall, Patrick finds love with a girl whose betrayal he cannot foresee, confronts the death of his beloved grandfather, and com. . .

But I guess I missed the entire point of the novel.

George Victor

Purdy was born two months after the munitions plant explosion just north of Trenton, Ont. in October , 1918. His parents lived nearby, and Purdy begins his autobiography: "The unborn child of Mrs. Eleanor Louisa Purdy rested comfortably inside his mother, in timeless calm and measureless peace - then all hell broke loose."..."The explosions no doubt accounting for any oddity and eccentricity in my character.

Just began reading his memoirs, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, the other day. Had to wait for interlibrary to bring it in from Oxford County.

It seems some of the best works survive the occasional purgings of library shelves only out there in the "boonies".

Had to wait until they found Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station squirreled away in Orillia. Have since bought a copy.

It's my theory that the small book purchasing budgets of the little rural systems account for preservation. But that's only a theory, leaving aside other reasons, like ideologically inspired suppression. Can't imagine a much-vaunted history of collectivist thought being objected to by your average librarian however, eh? [img]smile.gif" border="0[/img]

More about the novel, please.

[ 13 June 2008: Message edited by: George Victor ]


I think I will have to reread it as I read it about 20 years ago.

I find this (Can Lit) a bit of a challenge because we are told that there is good stuff to read. Margaret Atwood and Margaret Lawrence often being cited for example. Atwood's sci-fi I enjoy because it is sci-fi. Her novels and poems I just don't get. Margaret Lawrence and Jane Urqhart are more accessible.

Purdy and Milton Acorn's work seem to defy the "big genius" label that floats in the toilet bowl of pop lit. And Milton Acorn just seemed like a colossal phony when I met back in the 70's.

I get the sense that these guys and much of the Canadian literature scene has the "Bob Dylan Syndrome" - people writing in the 50's and 60's as if it were the 1930's.

I guess it is a nostalgia for that imagined world were people lived unbound by social conventions. Yet in reality there were many more back then, Perhaps our modern era conforms us by having no conventions that are explicit;y stated.

Yet could we wear long sideburns and hair to work?

CBC had Purdy poem about the "sensitive artist getting into a barroom brawl. It was deliciously ironic but somewhat Hemingwayish to my mind...

I apologize I will l read some more of his work prior to making any more uninformed comments... [img]frown.gif" border="0[/img]

George Victor

Everyone says that Purdy's poems weren't up to much in the early days - and there did seem to be a lot of reference to Greek myths then - but he came to speak of Canadian places and events (and often, Margaret Atwood, who seems to have taken him under her wing)and in a totally honest way.
Hemingway fought, but he would not have admitted to poetic impulses and sensitivity to flowers. He did not even admit - anywhere - to being thumped by Morley Callaghan in a private sparring match.

Purdy was a working stiff before the 1960s, and came to us as self-made, which makes his later stuff the real McCoy when he stops trying to tart up his images with Grecian urns.

Leaving his job of five years with Vancouver Bedding :"So there I was, pretending to be a writer, on my way to Europe in 1955. I wasn't at all sure what a writer was, or if I might be one."

He visited Cuba in 1964, and found himself in a touring group with Pierre Trudeau, who said "Don't be naive, Al", when he asked a Cuban official if decision-making was carried out by majority vote.

That's the honesty that makes his stuff notable, and I guess, worthy of a statue.

I have not read his novel, but from your description, expect it would look a lot like Cabbagetown, or the Tin Flute, or others coming out of the 1930s experience. Will have to give it a boo.

I don't read much of Atwood or Laurence either, preferring, say, Rudy Weibe, and Syd Marty (whose Switchbacks is a must). Adventure stuff.

But then, the librarians will tell you, as a huge generalization, women read fiction and the guys read non-fiction. Does our sex further pre-determine our taste?

I read any of it with an eye to trying, first, to understand what makes it distinctively a Canadian truth, and only then what universal truths it holds. And any Canadian artform still seems to depend heavily on experience in nature.

What Canadian work do you think rises above Can Lit, and why?

George Victor

Lemme reply to my own question: Obviously, Rawi Hage's De Niro's Game impressed the heck out of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award panel, and takes that Canadian writer out the Can Lit pejorative spectrum.

And since that has been happening so often in the last couple of decades, is our template for Can Lit a bit rusty? History? Must we not bow to world opinion about the worth of Margaret Atwood, and be concerned about the depth and breadth of our own reading and analysis?

I remember enjoying the first (and only other) Canadian IMPAC award, No Great Mischief. But with it's focus on Canada's Scotish heritage, it seemed to fit the Canadian literature label.

I've ordered up (at the library) one of four copies of Hage's work, which comes out of life in wartime Beirut, I believe, and just by luck was picked out of a "slush pile(of manuscripts) "(G & M, June 13)
at Anansi Press. Published in 2006, it sold 25,000 copies, won the McAusland First Book Prize and the Prix des libraires du Quebec, and will now go over the top.

Again from the Globe: He described himself as someone who evolved into "a creature who loathed borders" but that "being a Canadian writer and being a writer of the world need not be mutually exclusive". His father "surrounded me and my brothers with books and stories of travel and wonder..."

And since he is sensitive to the Canadian sensitivity on this score, I guess we are really discussing something real, if edging toward datedness.

IMPAC nominees are now put forward by 137 public libraries around the world, and Hage's nomination came came from the Winnipeg Public Library.

Now to find out how Cambridge Libraries and Galleries can get involved for next year.

Do Hage's comments (and there is much more from the June 13 reportage) add some insight, make discussion easier, or simply, now, a concern for historians?

George Victor

I hope Al's novel, Splinter in the Heart, was more entertaining,DBG, than his memoirs, for which I can't give a heartfelt recommendation.

His "beloved grandfather" wasn't, really, and seemed more of an intimidating, somewhat frightening figure whose size and probable pugilistic prowess in the lumber camps a century back was emulated on a small scale by Al. If "Splinter" shows up as a bargain on some used books shelf I would peruse it, perhaps, before purchasing.

Had to satisfy curiosity and nationalist's conscience. Your musings on his place in literature (and those of people who experienced him in a school setting) fit just fine.

[ 25 June 2008: Message edited by: George Victor ]


"Splinter in the Heart"


Al Purdy’s only novel, A Splinter in the Heart , is an unforgettable coming-of-age story that unfolds against the real-life tragedy of what came to be known as the Trenton Disaster. Set in 1918, it tells the story of sixteen-year-old Patrick Cameron and the events that will change him – and the Ontario town in which he lives – forever. Over the course of one summer and fall, Patrick finds love with a girl whose betrayal he cannot foresee, confronts the death of his beloved grandfather, and com. . .

Googling up this event was not too helpful except that there were a number of explosions in BCC facilities in 1918...

George Victor

Lots of explosions in munitions plants in 1918?

Apparently working with nitrates in those places turned white skin to a shade of yellow. Don't know how long it persisted after leaving that employment.

An aunt of mine worked in a munitions plant in Ajax during the Second World War.

And you have probably seen that Al's widow has put up their old country house in Prince Edward County for sale. Some people want to preserve it for posterity.

Wonder what Al would think of that, as
a "sensitive" man? He certainly described the antics of a lot of wild bird life from his windows there. And there was, no doubt, a lot of wild life inside, from time to time. And it was a retreat for some of his better known friends, apparently.

We all need a temporary retreat, without actually retreating.

[ 16 July 2008: Message edited by: George Victor ]

George Victor

Al's A-frame house is to become a monument to English Canada's  first fundamentally Canadian poet - as described by his former editor (Anansi?) the other day on CBC radio. Money is now being raised to buy the place where he came to poetic maturity in rural Prince Edward County.  More will be needed to brace up the foundation (probably rotting logs). And, finally, it is to be maintained as a writing retreat for Canadian writers/poets as impecunious as his starving self when he began building it, a half-century back.


I wrote an article on the A-Frame a few months back, which prompted me to revisit some of Purdy's work, most of which I hadn't read since high school. It seems that the A-Frame was quite the hub for Canadian artists in its day.

George Victor

The local library finally got a copy of And Left a Place To Stand On: Poems and Essays on Al Purdy.  Obviously, the A-frame will not be preserved by sales of that book alone, jrose.  But reviews like your own must be helping.


I thought R.D.Roy's "Landscape" captured Canada's national poet as well as any :


Born in '54, I missed you in Montreal

-hitting the scene when even Cohen

had moved on

from the Yellow Door Café

And besides,

my high school then was busy

killing off its poets


I got to Belleville in '82

too late to buy you a beer at the Quinte Hotel

though I drank there

with the bikers

every one of us

a sensitive man


In the new millennium

I was starting to meet

Kingston's university poets

but my Greek and Latin references

were lacking

and my calling card was fingerprinted

with soot and engine oil


So I took a good rifle

and a bologna sandwich lunch

to hunt the long lip

of the Pre-Cambrian shield

north of Trenton

looking for deer in the orchards

of abandoned farms


There I too saw

the crisscross rabbit runs

in the day's perfect snow

discovering how a man

can lose and find himself

in these moments and places


Your comrades invited me in '08

to finally meet your beautiful bronzed self

in Toronto

-I was pleased to find

that they'd rolled up your sleeves

bicep high like a worker's -

then off to Grossman's Tavern

to share the pint I'd missed




When I was doing some research in grad school I had access to Al Purdy's original manuscripts, many of which were written on the backs of shopping lists, flyers, brochures, etc.

I saw no evidence that he ever blotted a line.