A(lfred) W(ellington) Purdy

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Purdy, A(lfred) W(ellington) (Vol. 6)

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Purdy, A(lfred) W(ellington) 1918–

One of Canada's most prominent poets, Purdy is valued for his vigor, humor, directness, and originality.

Purdy is one of the best poets in the world. And Sex and Death is one of his very fine collections: rambunctious, bawdy, elegiac, funny, tender, nerve-chilling—sometimes all at the same time. It has the lapses and untidiness that come with his prodigality, but finally who cares? (p. 33)

Dennis Lee, in Saturday Night (copyright © 1973 by Dennis Lee), December, 1973.

Purdy's eclecticism, his protean personality, first shows itself markedly in The Crafte So Longe to Lerne (1959), sometimes destroying the particular poem, as in "Whoever You Are", with its metamorphic sentiments, which curdle at the end into "romantic" melancholy. Underlying a number of the poems of this period is a strange fear of disintegration (see "Whoever You Are", "After the Rats", "Vestigia", "At Evergreen Cemetery" and even "On the Decipherment of Linear B", which portrays the work of Michael Ventris as a threat to a cherished perception of history. A half-submerged "romantic" nostalgia is betrayed here both by the theme and the poem's closing cadences.) In contrast, Purdy shows himself as Alfred W. Purdy, somewhat learned but tongue-in-cheek, in "Gilgamesh and Friend", where he uses controlled lightness of tone to interfuse condensed mythology with contemporary details and tone of voice. Equally successful, and more important, is "At Roblin Lake", introducing the locus of so many future poems, which was to give Purdy a central fixed point in the local. Several facets, versions, of Purdy merge—the bookish Alfred W., the self-observer, the punster, the vulnerable:

          … wondering at myself, experiencing           for this bit of green costume jewellery           the beginning of understanding,           the remoteness of alien love—      (p. 9)

An admirer of Purdy has described him as being "very Canadian without being provincial", offering an unconsciously backhanded compliment. Why has Purdy become so significant a poet for Canada today? To an outsider Canada must present a somewhat puzzling international image: innocent yet canny, straightforward yet oblique, open and yet shut in, eclectic and yet groping for a single image of itself. Some or all of these characteristics apply to Purdy, who seems as much as anyone writing today to sense what it is, the Canadian thing, the local thing, and whose work may be seen as a slow unpeeling, a groping towards the core of that thing. (p. 10)

At its worst [his] energy and self-mockery results in a leer, a display of knowingness, but the best work in Poems for all the Annettes, for example, is due to a tension between energy and watchfulness, energy and diffidence, energy and scepticism. An earlier introversion has been superseded by something more positive. Sometimes the new energy is manifest in sweeping declarations, catalogues of whole masses, but in such instances the energy is largely of the surface and largely lost. Where it really counts is in the exploring of a relationship with one other person, a situation at once open and closed, tentative and yet assured. This is why the whole notional framework of Poems for all the Annettes is a happy one. (p. 11)

With recurring amazement and admiration one meets Purdy's sensitivity to "the one important thing among so much meaningless trivia/ the one thing that always eludes you," of which he meanwhile professes, "Nothing is said or can be said." Elusiveness is directly related to life's limitless possibilities, the quality of experience, the process, painful enough and yet open. (p. 12)

"Archaeology of Snow" [is] frequently seen as centrepiece of Poems for all the Annettes , with its...

(This entire section contains 1489 words.)

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complementary statements:

              we encounter the entire race               of men just by being               alive here


               a few more moments                to hang in a private gallery                of permanent imaginings

Here we perceive another element of the tension which gives Purdy's work its vitality. He is public, he is the globetrotting Canadian who makes pronouncements about public events, but one feels in the texture of his work that he is also intensely private and that, in the end, may be the more interesting thing about him. Of course, encountering "the entire" human race is not, of itself, just public. Again, the poet feels himself part of a vast process; but the meat of the poem is a human encounter and its reverberations. (p. 13)

Purdy has proved many things: among them, that a boy from Hicksville with the worst, most platitudinous and tum-ti-tum sense of poetry can become a subtle and sensitive craftsman, and that through the imagination it is possible to see Canada clearly and see it whole (however spreadeagled and sectarian it may seem geographically and politically). To my sense, however, he has one major problem to solve before moving on.

Wallace Stevens put it that the distinctive characteristic of good poems is "the presence of the determining personality". In that sense Purdy is very much present, but often too much and too self-consciously. (pp. 20-1)

Here and there in his work of the past few years are poems in which Purdy the personality and pundit is completely submerged, where the sense of subject is totally [empathic]…. Far deeper than surface coruscations, fluid in movement and of the exact tonal essence, in such poetry participation and self-definition merge in a way which suggests (through vibrations as much as words) that Purdy may yet take us to realms unexplored. Thoreau once said, "I have travelled much in Concord". Purdy may have the means to do likewise around Ameliasburg. A year or two ago he professed to be "running out of places" to travel to. But then he was referring only to places out there. (pp. 22-3)

Mike Doyle, "Proteus at Roblin Lake," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1974, pp. 7-23.

Al Purdy … employs his personality, familiar (familiar as hell, Purdy would say) to his readership, as the main organizing principle of his poetry.

Purdy has not made any formal innovations in his verse since the volume called Cariboo Horses, 1965. He generally makes a poem of one stanza with no regularity of line, no normal punctuation save the upper-case letter at the start of a sentence, and hardly any use of the line for rhythmical meaning—that is, on the page a line that would reach primary juncture at its end looks just like a line that would be enjambed. It can lead to problems for the reader:

          Africa of the rain forests the storybook country           of Rider Haggard and Joseph Conrad           and breast-beating gorillas ignorant of English           lions like yellow cadillacs

That is, there are English lions, but I don't think that Purdy wants them here. When Purdy reads aloud he never stumbles, but the other reader might.

So the reader is that way distanced from the speaker and the speaking of the poem; and distanced further by the usual first-person voice of the narrator, which makes of the reader a receiver rather than a conductor of the words. (Hence personality; and further, in the sense of "a personality.") (p. 95)

One feels that some of the poems [in Sex & Death], such as the anecdotal "'Sizwe Bansi is Dead'", telling of an experience in a theatre in South Africa, should be made into short stories. But Purdy never writes short stories. It is a problem the reader cannot evade: Purdy's poems sound like prose sometimes. Hulme said that prose is a RR train that gets you to your destination, and that poetry is a walking tour with step-by-step observation of the here. Williams said that prose describes the given world and poetry invents a world to be discovered. On these terms, Purdy is not a prose writer. But the stuff doesn't always seem like poetry either.

Or it is loose poetry. It is certainly not artifact, in the Yeatsian sense. It is not compressed language, not redolent with pun and rime and metaphor and ambiguity. One's attention stays in the continuous present, but it is not a stacked present; the past and other and universal are not zipping past one's ears. If they are to be there Purdy will mention that he was led to think of them. No allusion, then, save the overt one. Purdy is telling stories and anecdotes, and he wants to make sure the point is clearly taken. The arresting images are the only non-onward features, and they work best when they are not quite as bizarre as Purdy oft likes to make them…. Poems such as "Athens Apartment" are really diary entries, and I think that that form, a journal, is what Purdy offers, a day-by-day accounting of his life and thoughts; and we ought to read his book that way. It doesn't then have to be described as verse or prose—it is a series of entries, and we too may enter without thought of purpose. The pieces (poems) are not, again, artifacts. Purdy took care of that problem, discarding artifact as principle, in Poems for all the Annettes, 1962. (p. 96)

George Bowering, in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1974.


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