Al Purdy | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Al Purdy

Alfred Wellington Purdy, OC, OOnt, poet (born 30 December 1918 in Wooler, ON; died 21 April 2000 in Sidney, BC).
Purdy, Al (II)
Poet Al Purdy (photo by Sheldon Grimson).

Alfred Wellington Purdy, OC, OOnt, poet (born 30 December 1918 in Wooler, ON; died 21 April 2000 in Sidney, BC). Al Purdy was one of a group of important Canadian poets — Milton Acorn, Alden Nowlan and Patrick Lane are others — who had little formal education and whose roots were in Canada's working-class culture. An Officer of the Order of Canada and two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award, Al Purdy was in many ways the most distinctively Canadian poet of his generation.

Early Life and Career

Al Purdy was brought up in Trenton, Ontario, and educated at Albert College in Belleville, but did not attend university. During the Depression, he rode the rails to Vancouver and worked there for several years at a number of manual occupations.

During the Second World War he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and after the war — until the late 1950s — he worked as a casual labourer in Ontario. Eventually, he settled in Ameliasburgh, the small Loyalist community celebrated in his poems. By the early 1960s, Purdy was able to support himself by freelance writing, poetry reading and periods as writer-in-residence at various colleges. He was a restless traveller throughout Canada (including the High Arctic) and around the world, and all these journeys were reflected in his writing.

Like other writers who lived by their craft, Purdy worked in a variety of genres: radio and TV plays, book reviewing, travel writing, magazine features. He edited anthologies, particularly of younger poets, and also a collection of essays entitled The New Romans (1968), which revealed his deep Canadian nationalism. But poetrywas Purdy's primary mode..

The Evolution of a Poet

The evolution of Purdy’s verse shows a progression from the conservatively traditional lyrics of his first collection, The Enchanted Echo (1944), to the open, colloquial and contemporary style of his later years, which began to emerge in his fourth collection, The Crafte So Long to Lerne (1959).

Important factors in Purdy's poetic liberation from his early dependence on moribund romantic models were the humour and the anger he began to introduce, a characteristic style and form with relaxed, loping lines and a gruff, garrulous and engaging poetic persona. Purdy was at the heart of the 1960s movements that set Canadian poets wandering the country, reading their poems to large audiences. There is no doubt that this experience helped him to develop a poetry more closely related to oral speech patterns than his 1940s apprentice poems.

A Travel Poet

The influence of readings on his work is one aspect of the close contact between experience and writing in Purdy's work. He was described as a "versifying journalist," and some of his books are in fact poetic accounts of journeys, such as North of Summer (1967), based on a trip to the Arctic, and Hiroshima Poems (1972), on a visit to Japan.

Many of the poems contained in such books were written during Purdy’s journeys, as if entries in a diary. In them the interval between experience and creation is brief, which leads to an unevenness of tone, though the best of Purdy's travel poems are superb examples of their kind.

Purdy travelled in time as well as in space. His poems reveal the generalist erudition that is acquired by a self-taught man with a passion for reading, and he sought especially to bring into poetry a sense of Canada's past, of the rapid pattern of change that has made much of Canada acquire the quality of age in so brief a history. Few Canadian poets have evoked our past as effectively as Purdy in poems such as "The Runner,""The Country North of Belleville,""My Grandfather's Country,""The Battlefield of Batoche" and the long verse cycle for radio that he wrote about the Loyalist heritage, "In Search of Owen Roblin" (1974).


Among the most successful of Purdy's many volumes are Poems for All the Annettes (1962), The Cariboo Horses (1965), which won him the Governor General's Award, Sex & Death (1973), which won him the A.J.M. Smith Award, The Stone Bird (1981) and Piling's Blood (1984). There are two important selections of his verse, Being Alive (1978) and Bursting into Song (1982), which between them contain all his memorable poems except those in The Stone Bird. Collected Poems, 1956–1986 (1986) received a Governor General's Award. A definitive collected book of poems was published in 2000, Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy. Purdy's oral presentation of his poems, essential for a full understanding of his work, is preserved in the CBC recording, Al Purdy's Ontario and in the McClelland & Stewart Audio Encore cassette edition of his collected poetry. In 1993, Purdy published his autobiography, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, and a new collection of poems, Naked With Summer in Your Mouth.

The Legendary A-Frame

The rustic A-frame house Purdy and his wife Eurithe Purdy built in 1957 on the south side of Roblin Lake, near Ameliasburgh in Prince Edward County, Ontario, was visited by a procession of Canadian literary royalty — Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Dennis Lee, Patrick Lane, and many others. By 2009, however, nine years after Purdy’s death, it became clear that his wife would have to sell the house, and it was assumed that most buyers would tear it down and rebuild. Given the importance of the house in the evolution of Canadian literature, Jean Baird and Howard White, Purdy’s long-time publisher, formed the Al Purdy A-Frame Association in an effort to raise sufficient funds to purchase and rebuild the house. Among the many writers to step up was Leonard Cohen, who donated $10,000. As of 2014, Purdy’s beloved A-frame houses a writer-in-residence program designed by poets David Helwig, Steven Heighton, Karen Solie and Rob Budde.

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