As always, [in Love in a burning building] one has to swallow Purdy whole, take the horsing around and the hyperbole along with the painfully-arrived-at honesties and the moments of transcendently good poetry. Purdy writes like a cross between Shakespeare and a vaudeville comedian (so did Shakespeare) and that's not such a flip remark as it may seem: note those Shakespearean double "and"-linked adjectives ("my faint and yapping cry," "the sad and much emancipated world," "the unctuous and uneasy self I glimpse"), the way iambic pentameter keeps creeping in; and on the vaudeville end the patter acts, sad clown laughing at us laughing at him, telling awful jokes while knowing full well how awful they are. Purdy too is inherently dramatic; assumed by all his poems are a human speaking voice or voices and a responding audience, and his sense of timing is often superb. But these poems have been chosen according to subject—"sexual love and its mental counterpart," says Purdy—and it's matter rather than manner that deserves attention here. (p. 72)
[Purdy is] a semi-Romantic. He can hardly write Love without writing Death on the same page; his brand of immortality (see his introduction and "Archeology of Snow") is reminiscent of Shelley's; Byronic swashbuckle and Don Juanesque undercutting of one's own heroics, both are there. He's filled with yearnings for the ideal, the absolute, the eternal, with no unshakeable conviction they exist and with a consequent awareness of loss, transience and imperfection. What may have been meant is that Purdy's poems aren't pretty or foggy-eyed: the women in them are often, to Purdy's credit, solid flesh and blood, with a good deal of the latter. They do things the Blessed Damozel wouldn't: they sweat under the arms, menstruate, argue, sulk, have miscarriages, V.D., operations and orgasms (though not babies, oddly enough). They move in accurately observed surroundings full of what in a woman writer would be classed as typically female domestic imagery: Purdy is not above having insights in kitchens…. But Purdy has little trouble recognizing both his realism and his romanticism for what they are: "I can be two men if I have to," he says, and is.
Purdy's love poems demonstrate the self divided against itself to perhaps an even greater extent than do his poems on other subjects. Here the freedom-loving adventurer pulls against the husband, that "greyish drunkish largeish anguished man", and the female landscape (Purdy's metaphor) separates itself into corresponding territories of Others and Wife....
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[There] is no doubt of [Purdy's] deep intuitive grasp of the nature of the land, of the character of its history, though to claim him as purely a Canadian poet would be to do him an immense injustice. But Canada—and Loyalist Ontario in particular—is indeed the heart of his world…. (p. 8)
[The east-west] extremities of the land are the poles between which he suspends his vision of Canada, a vision that interprets geography and history as interpenetrating versions of each other. To further narrow his vision, it is essentially a rural one, which hardly recognizes a city except Vancouver (deurbanized by the penetrating sea), and it is based on the knowledge, which most Canadians are curiously anxious to avoid, that this is, even in human terms, an ancient and not a new land, a land already beginning to decay into maturity. (p. 9)
[What makes Purdy] a real rural poet, as distinct from a country sentimentalist, is his concreteness of view, an awareness of the brilliant surface of the earth as clear as that of an imagist, and yet at the same time a sense of depths and heights, of superreal dimensions, so that common things can suddenly become irradiated and the world swing into ecstasy.
But not too much into ecstasy for the existential relations to continue, and the vision of place to be poised between tradition and change, as in "Wilderness Gothic", one of his most completely successful poems, where he is watching a man across Roblin Lake repairing a church spire, working his way up towards its vanishing point, as if his faith pushed him beyond it. It is one of the poems in which Purdy deftly juxtaposes the different elements of his world, for as the man works at patching the edifice of a dying religion, the life of nature goes on in its old merciless way. (p. 10)
North, like West, is a cardinal direction for Purdy (as South over the border most certainly is not), and it is in some of his Arctic poems that he becomes most purely the poet of place, though even here it is often still the kind of dialogue between the man and his environment with its finned and feathered and flowered...
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[In Search of Owen Roblin emerges] at a significant point in [Purdy's career and is] an epitome, a summing-up, of [his] thematic and rhetorical concerns…. Purdy's "country north of Belleville" is a country of the mind, Purdy's home as distinct from his environment, an emotionally and psychologically secure point in space and time from which to articulate and to attempt to define one's unique and generic being…. Purdy's persona is … in search of links with his ancestors in order to realize his place in the continuity of human life…. Purdy the poet's implicit search for an adequate language in the poem is a manifestation of the search for a psychic place that will yield meaning. Purdy long ago lapsed into what he calls the "original / sin of discursiveness," which was in my view actually a felix culpa, but In Search of Owen Roblin is unequivocally his most discursive poem, revealing his incessant need to talk, to articulate his feelings and attitudes in an effort to come to terms with them and to forestall the disappearance of the moment.
In Search of Owen Roblin is essentially a work about itself, and it crystallizes a theme that permeates all Purdy's work: man's motive for fiction in the root sense of the word (fingere—to make or shape), his need to structure his experiences in order to make sense of them, his need to mythologize the past and to "invent" memories. In a very significant way, we are all poets like Purdy, continuously creating and recreating our experiences, because our ordinary experiences—what we usually call life—in which everything fades immediately into the past, cannot provide a genuine sense of meaning. Fiction, in this fundamental sense, is really our only method of making life fully available, of preserving it as a present reality, and Purdy suggests in this poem and elsewhere that it is the only way in which the past and those who lived in the past continue to exist in the present. This motive for fiction accounts for the sense that a Purdy poem is only a fragment of some larger, incomplete poem that he is always writing and for his preoccupation with the artifacts of lost or disappearing civilizations …, for such artifacts are the result of man's attempt to preserve his experience and to give it human meaning. (p. 47)
This motive for fiction also accounts for the strong sense in Purdy's poems of...
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Al Purdy as poet is person and persona; there is no escaping the earthy cynical unselfconfident egotistical balding paunching middleaged man, deliberately common and secular. He is also by turns sensitive, boisterous, ironical, whimsical, sentimental, and sententious…. Despite the vivacity, the bluster, and the ironic mask, Purdy's essential stance is sentimental and conservative.
Purdy is a personal poet, and his style depends for its effectiveness on an apt use of the speaking voice. He who is speaking is often one of Purdy's three main personae—the common man, the boisterous man, or the sensitive man. The common-man persona is the base persona, the one on which his style stands…. The subjects of Purdy's poetry are common and ostensibly unpretentious—personal experiences, people he has known, domestic scenes. His poetic "place" is not a tower or a grove but a hand-built house out in nowhere. He has debarred himself from the role of "Poet", and we find him on his back under his old Pontiac (horny), grubbing around a ruined house (chased off), defecating near the Pole (savaged by dogs). His poetry when bad is just broken-lined prose, and the faults of his poetry otherwise—triviality, pretention, discursiveness, bathos, bad metaphors—similarly reflect the image of the common man. (p. 242)
The boisterous persona, lecherous, rowdy, drunken, accounts for some of his liveliest poetry (and most of his worst), and provides much of his humour. This persona is a blusterer and a great debunker, given to an amused deprecation of sensitive poets…. Through [the persona of the sensitive man] Purdy reaches some of the finest moments in his poetry; he reaches too "the still centre, / an involvement in silences" ("Winter Walking"), the religious centre of his world…. It is obvious that the boisterous persona does not hold the day, that regret, wistfulness, sensitivity creep back in. The opposition between these two roles represents a conflict basic to Purdy's poetry. The sensitive rather than the tough voice is the one that predominates. (pp. 242-43)
[His sentimentality, evident in poems like "Sculptors,"] this care for the hurt and the flawed, for "the inconsolable / walkers in the storm / cursing at the locked gates of fact" ("Nine Bean-Rows on the Moon"), is the ground of Purdy's stance.
Given the world, a stance such as this is open to defeat, and Purdy, in trying to deal with the world as "that sort of place", reacts against his own idealism and sentimentality…. Purdy cannot escape cynicism and doubt…. The reaction against sentimentality yields some fine and energetic poetry; but it remains a reaction. Whether by cynicism, retreat, or irony, it recognizes the pain of understanding that the world is a cruel place and that man is a flawed and a...
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In the Purdy poem we are seldom aware of form, or even of verbal texture; we read for information, and once we have it, we feel disinclined to return to the verbal construct that delivered it to us…. The message or point of a Purdy poem is never very intimately related to its surface. The meaning of a line of Purdy's, for instance, hardly ever depends on our interpretation of a figure of speech; we never find any cross-qualification or refinement of meaning by the aural and visual qualities of the words themselves…. Purdy seems always to be less concerned with how he means than with what he means; he is quite willing to use the approximate word or image in an approximate way—indeed, he is forced to, in order to...
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There's an elemental lesson about Al Purdy's poetry to be learned by paging through the files of certain literary magazines of the past twenty-five years or so. In the earliest days of his career, Purdy gave his name, in all its Loyalist splendour, as Alfred Wellington Purdy. But he quickly condensed this to Alfred W. Purdy. Then came a long period of uncertainty and experiment when, with equal ease, he answered in print to both Alfred W. and A. W. Purdy. It's only been in the 1970s that his by-line has become completely stable in its least formal incarnation, just plain Al.
But that's not all. Concurrent with what otherwise would seem this simple exercise in marketing, another and more important...
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He is 60 years old and though he had started writing poetry in his early '20s it wasn't until he was over 40 that Al Purdy dented the Canadian poetry scene. From that point on he dented, good-naturedly, the ribs of a number of Canadian poets as well. A freight train rider in the Depression and a factory worker later on, at six-feet three-inches and still growing, Purdy seemed never to realize his own physical strength…. The same physical energy animates Purdy's poetry. If anyone, it is he who is Canada's working man's voice, enjoying our land with his fingertips as well as his mind. (pp. 49-50)
Sometimes he is accused of sentimentality in his outspoken love affair with Canada's sheer physical...
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