A(lfred) W(ellington) Purdy Essay - Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Purdy, A(lfred) W(ellington) (Vol. 3)

Purdy, A(lfred) W(ellington) 1918–

A leading Canadian poet, Purdy writes poems which are frequently episodic and conversational in form.

In a brief review of The Crafte So Longe To Lerne Eli Mandel recognized that "Purdy is clearly another beginning for Canadian poetry". Purdy himself has rejected almost all of his poetry written before the volume Mandel was reviewing, and indeed this Selected [Poems] is chosen almost wholly from his poetry of the 1960s, the period in which he made a new beginning for himself.

In what sense is this poetry a base for new things, a foundation for a new kind of Canadian poetry? The first line of the first poem gives an indication: talking of driving his Ford through Newfoundland, Purdy writes, "My foot has pushed a fire ahead of me." George Woodcock in his personal reminiscence that serves as Introduction to this volume points out that although this appears a far-fetched metaphor, it is basic to the development of the poem. For me the phrasing of this image is a basic ingredient of Purdy's metaphoric method throughout his poetry. His poems are full of poetic compounds of this nature—"mind-light", "God's belly-scratcher", "bone rooms", a lake as "monocle eye" or "glass house" for fish—all these and more remind me of Anglo-Saxon kennings, and indeed Purdy's poetry at several levels is the equivalent within the new Canadian poetry of that first attempt to weld disparate elements into a genuine expression of the emerging Anglo-Saxon nation. So this volume creates a kind of Beowulf poet living in Ameliasburgh, poet of an emerging nation….

Purdy's poetry has this primitive quality, but this is not to deny its real technical sophistication and control. Like Anglo-Saxon poetry, it welds together sharply contrasting states of mind and emotional moods: all the memories of the past from the variety of races, all the alien strains grafting themselves onto the poetry. Purdy's is a haunted poetry—the word "ghost" and its variants keep cropping up. The memories contained in a poem can come from within Canada and from without….

[The] sense of involvement with the country is robustly manifest in the Arctic poems, not expressed in terms of simple glorification and awestruck wonder (though that tone is sometimes there) but rather in an ambivalent attitude towards his experience of the country in his travels through it, and this again is reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon poetry. There is the attraction of travel, the glowing description of scenes…. But there is also the fear of travel, never knowing where he is going, simply growing older travelling through time as well as space….

[The] elegiac note (again like Anglo-Saxon poetry) resounds through this volume and the central polarity of the poetry is the transience yet persistence of man, the vitality of life in the face of inevitable death…. Yet his elegies do in fact show a triumph, that common human persistence, the persistence of those small Arctic trees whose roots touch permafrost. Their smallness he mocks but he turns on himself because their doggedness is to be admired: "to make sure the species does not die … they use death to remain alive".

That kind of courage is the heroism Purdy celebrates, not the epic exploits of the Anglo-Saxon poets. Purdy is conscious that man is his own worst enemy, but he sees man trying to live by ideals and usually failing, yet at least he can admire men like Castro, Che and Kennedy for having those overwhelming beliefs. But he also admires the smaller men: the farmers like Sisyphus, who are continually defeated but who also continually return to the struggle….

This focus on men and on himself is something outside the Anglo-Saxon aura of his poetry. Self-consciousness is a much more modern trait. Purdy is very much a character in his own poetry and often he shows the modern poet's concern with poetry itself. The subject-matter of his poetry at times is simply the process of the poem itself….

Here is the poet who by defining himself in relation to this country and the world has told us something about all of us. If Purdy didn't exist, it would have been necessary for Canadians to invent him. But fortunately he does exist and this Selected is the best proof we have so far of his existence as Canadian and as poet.

Peter Stevens, "The Beowulf Poet," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1973, pp. 99-102.

Purdy's characteristic open poetic structure should be a fine vehicle for [an] intense, unguarded reaction, but in fact his response is uneven. At his worst, he can be unbearably prosy, and some of the [Hiroshima Poems], like "One Thousand Cranes", are just that, lyrics in which the verse labours on and on at a subject almost unutterable, searching for poetry and finding only sentiment. But the topic, "children and death and love gathered in an awkward bundle of words", haunts one with the obligation to master it. At his best, Purdy can command real sonority, and he rises to the challenge in the last and most accomplished of the Hiroshima Poems, "Remembering Hiroshima", where the poet's attempt to write about the unspeakable subject becomes one with the human being's assumption of the obligation to judge.

Germaine Warkentin, in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1973, p. 122.