Purdy, Alfred Wellington

Alfred Wellington Purdy, (b at Wooler, Ont 30 Dec 1918; d at Sidney, BC 21 Apr 2000). 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. He was brought up in Trenton, Ont, educated at Albert Coll, Belleville, but did not attend university. During the Depression, he rode the rods to Vancouver and worked there for several years at a number of manual occupations.

In WWII he served in the RCAF, 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 free-lance 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 journeyings have been 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 it is poetry, written and read, that was Purdy's essential mode. He wrote it since he was 13, and by 1982 had published 25 volumes. The evolution of his verse shows an interesting 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 Longe 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.

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 have in fact been 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 such books contain were written during the 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 like "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 2 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 Gov Gen's Award. 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.