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Unit 1 Al Purdy Lecture

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English 2060E

Read Al Purdy’s “Transient” “The Country North of Belleville” “Piling Blood” From the coursepack Al Purdy (1918-2000) Biography and Style We begin this course with Al Purdy because he is one of Canada’s best-known poets and one who has been embraced as the voice of Canada by many critics. His poetry is conversational, colloquial, down to earth and accessible. This earthliness, or earthiness, is often linked with Purdy’s persona as a “good old boy.” Stories about Purdy tend to move from his size to his love for a drink to the amazing quantity of knowledge he accumulated as an autodidact, a self-educated man who never had a university education and was the better for it. Tales from the days of his time as Writer in Residence at UWO abound about “Purdy’s flowers,” the beer bottles that appeared in spring outside his office window once the snow melted. These tales also focus on the larger-than-life poet who grew up in small town Ontario, who left at the age of seventeen to see the country. This mobility enabled Purdy to choose subject from various geographical locales and to be claimed as the voice of Canada and not just Ontario. He hitched a ride on the train during the Depression to see the nation from the average man’s perspective, a blue collar world in contrast to the more upper class perspective previous centuries of poets may have led us to expect. As a working class poet, Purdy appears to have something both new and authentically real to offer his readers, a dismissive attitude for pretension and a talent for narrative. These generalizations and expectations are partially true, but as critics of Canadian literature such as Frank Davey and Stan Dragland have pointed out, they do not give us the full story. The straightforward down-to-earth poetic voice takes skill and effort to produce; it’s just as much a construct of language as the heroic couplets of the eighteenth century. Anecdotes and parallels with Purdy’s life story in his poems do not give us the essence of Canada, but one man’s retrospective perspective as part of an aesthetic endeavour. Purdy traveled the country to visit with other poets – the Tish poets in Vancouver or Irving Layton in Montreal – more than he traveled as an itinerant worker. Purdy began writing poetry at a young age, but he only gained critical attention in the 1960s when he found the colloquial voice for which he is now known. In this he was influenced by his contemporaries, poets such as Milton Acorn and Irving Layton. These poets invented overtly masculine personas, and they maintained considerable public presences in the process. Purdy in turn influenced younger poets who were rising in notoriety at the same time – Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, and George Bowering to name a few. His influence continues to affect poets like Michael Crummy, who write poetry of place and people, as we will see in Unit 12. These are Purdy’s central concerns in his poetry – place, family history, which is the history of Canada, and work. Style Listen to the clips of Purdy reading his poems and the comments of Atwood and others. What do you notice about Purdy’s voice? Many people find that listening to Purdy’s poems is like listening to a storyteller. Purdy uses free verse forms without rhyme and this colloquial style enables him to meander from the everyday to the philosophical without losing his readers. He’ll interject or embark on a meditation on humanity but then come back to the situation at hand, bringing his audience with him. There’s an ironic tone, often, in his mixture of high and low subject matters, offering insights and then returning to the subject of beer, or poetry, or a man suspended in the sky. As you will have noticed in the clips, Atwood finds his poetry elegiac. There is a sense of loss and mourning for a lost world in his poems. We see this especially in his poems that address Native subjects, the Beothuk in “Lament for the Dorsets”or the “princess of the Coast Salish” in “Transient.” In Purdy’s melancholia we see a reminder of a more unified Canadian perception of itself as a nation than is possible after 1970. "The Country North of Belleville" - Interpretation In this poem, the speaker opens and ends the poem with the same list of towns and townships. There’s a beauty to this list of names in addition to a repetitiveness: two important aspects to this poem. The poem abounds with images of circles and repetition which may seem dire to those of us who long for change and excitement, but in our longing for diversity, Purdy’s poem seems to indicate, who may pass by more enduring pleasures. Circles 1. The people of this place are like Sisyphus (defeated?), who according to classical mythology was doomed to roll a rock up a hill each day, only to have it knocked down at the end of it. 2. The seasons come and go, in cyclical regularity. 3. We note the passing of the seasons by the circular spot on the hillside (verse 5) that the man plowing watches for: might stop and stand in a brown valley of the furrows and shade his eyes to watch for the same red patch mixed with gold that appears on the same spot in the hills year after year and grow old plowing and plowing a ten-acre field until the convolutions run parallel with his own brain— One reading of these lines suggests that the regularity of these cycles seem to be mind numbing, if not maddening, as the man's thoughts become convoluted and circular. He is stuck in a rut, going around and around, both inside and outside of his mind. But what’s interesting to me is that the landscape and his mind are parallel. Which is drawn in whose image? Which controls the movement, the land or the man? And while this activity may seem meaningless to the city-dweller, there is fertility and productivity of a different sort in this soil. 4. There is also the suggestion that this moment of human activity in the country north of Belleville is a mere drop in the bucket of the great circular movements of geologic history, suggested by "picnicking glaciers" and the mobility of fences which will inevitably “drift” over time, “like cities under water/and the undulating green waves of time/are laid on them—” (verse 4). Yet, there is something positive in these cycles. It is an illusion of the city and its products that we are immune to such geologic and geographical forces after all. The litany of names with which the poem begins is evocative not only of “scrub land” but of human habitation, evidence of partial success, and an indication that independent minds, those with divergent opinions as to “what beauty/ is” may chose isolation amid there apparent scenes of defeat. They make a living and scratch their marks upon a landscape which predates them and will outlive them, a landscape which is inherently inhospitable to pastoralism and agriculture. Their names are signs of their victory, temporary though it may be. The repetition of these names at the beginning and end of the poem is an assertion of their presence and their achievement. Return and rereading In the poem, Purdy’s speaker valorizes the residents’ self-knowledge, “when realization seeps slow in the mind/without grandeur or self-deception” (verse 2). Moreover, he allies the residents with the landscape itself – realization “seeps” into them just as the rain “seeps” into the little earth left by the “picnicking glaciers”. The difficulty of this geography results in philosophical musings and a lack of pretension more difficult for those in easier climates to find. There is a clarity to the vision here enabled by the familiarity of the landscape and i
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