Read Al Purdy’s “Transient”
“The Country North of Belleville”
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.
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
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
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