by Susan Olding
Issue Three: April 1, 2020
The Voice of the Land
In the early 1990s, as a recent transplant from downtown Toronto to Eastern Ontario—more or less due north of Syracuse, New York—I taught at a rural high school thirty minutes out of Kingston. Peering through a frosty windshield on my morning commutes, I saw stunted and scraggly trees and patches of chalky limestone. Fields splayed, mucky or barren, as hawks circled a leaden sky. Buses and tractors reared up through fog or drifting snow like lumbering beasts. For me, this was an alien place, but for my students, it was home. Tasked with teaching them Canadian history—a subject they universally detested —I was the one who needed lessons. What would bring me closer to this country? What could I offer as proof of good intent?
The poetry of Al Purdy offered a partial answer.
First, I read it to myself. In its shambling rhythms and razor insights I heard and saw the outlines of the place and began to find my footing.
Soon I brought the books to school. Every day, I read a poem aloud.
The students rolled their eyes. Miss! Stop! This isn’t English class.
Wait, I said. He’s talking about this landscape, these lakes and rocks and fences and barns. How they got here. How they endure. Listen.
The clock ticked its electric talk. The radiators hissed and hummed. Slouching in their too-small desks, these gangly teenagers stared unseeing at their own enormous feet, their thoughts unlocked now by Purdy’s words, alert and wandering like the white-tailed deer picking their way across the fields two floors below.
Alfred Wellington Purdy was born in United Empire Loyalist country, near Belleville, Ontario, in 1918. As a teenager in the 1930s, he rode the rails, criss-crossing the country from coast to coast, a journey he would later reprise multiple times in search of poetic material. After serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II, Purdy worked at a series of mostly manual jobs until, in the 1960s—thanks largely to the recently formed Canada Council for the Arts—he was able to support himself as a poet and editor. In a career that spanned more than 50 years, he wrote almost as many books, won two Governor General’s Awards (Canada’s highest award for poetry at the time) and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. A lifelong smoker, he eventually contracted lung cancer and died, an assisted suicide, in the year 2000. A few years later, a bronze statue of him was unveiled near the grounds of the Ontario Legislature. It is called “The Voice of the Land.”
Today, Purdy’s enthronement as the country’s favourite poet may seem foreordained and inevitable. But for decades he lived in poverty and obscurity, subsisting sometimes on roadkill and writing letters on the backs of junk mail flyers to save paper. Ironically, when fame came, it came in part because of his hardscrabble past. Lacking formal education, Purdy read widely and independently, and in time developed a low-key, colloquial, yet historically conscious voice that seemed poles apart from British formality or American bombast. He wrote about hockey players and barroom brawls and homemade beer as well as arctic seals, “sunfierce plains,” the “hip-roofed houses of New France,” and soft winds teasing the tall firs of Vancouver Island. Down-to-earth, unashamedly working-class, and fiercely proud, Purdy seemed to embody a new ideal of cultural creator as cartographer, explaining a land of almost four million square miles, two million lakes, and a panoply of geo-climactic regions to itself. “I don’t know of any good living poets,” Charles Bukowski is supposed to have said. “But there’s this tough son of a bitch up in Canada that walks the line.”
Purdy disavowed any role in the creation of that tough guy image. In a televised interview with Daniel Richler in 1987, he said, “I don’t cultivate images which I think are a lot of shit anyway.” But the language he adopts to repudiate the persona does at least as much to maintain it. The language and imagery of his poetry goes further. A tone of macho posturing permeates some of his work— a thread of misogyny and racism that is too consistent to be considered incidental. Even in the 1990s, when I introduced his poetry to high school history students, I was uncomfortably aware of this fact, and in the decades since, as I’ve re-read the poems and studied his correspondence in the archives, my discomfort has only grown deeper. Purdy was a person of his time, of course, and shouldn’t be damned by the critical standards of today. At least he visited Canada’s north and witnessed the colonial depredations of Inuit culture for himself. At least he acknowledged what was then called “the Indian problem,” which is more than you can say for many of his contemporaries. But he also gained professionally from that problem, and gained, as well, from his dismissive attitude toward many women writers. Maybe this wouldn’t matter if his own reputation had faded as quickly as some of his peers’. But Purdy remains one of the most widely lauded literary figures in the land, the only poet in our country, apart from Robbie Burns, to be commemorated with a monument. What is a contemporary Canadian writer to make of it? I, for one, feel angry, disappointed, and implicated, for I have absorbed and been shaped by the values at the bedrock of Purdy’s CanLit. Unsettling his thorny heritage may be the work of many years.
A good portion of Purdy’s macho image—and his celebrity—rested not on his poetry, but on his attitude towards the United States. Purdy rose to prominence in the 1960s, during the period of Canada’s centenary celebrations, and among the publications released that decade was a Purdy-edited anthology called The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the U.S. The book was widely described as “anti-American,” which in 1968 in Canada was mostly considered a good thing. Purdy’s contributors were free to say whatever they liked, but he admitted that his own opinions aligned most closely with those of Farley Mowat—a writer who in the 1980s was refused entry to the U.S. on suspicion of being a Communist sympathizer. Mowat was not a Communist, but he did not want Canada to remain a cultural or economic “satellite” of the U.S. and said so in blunt terms. Controversial arguments like Mowat’s in The New Romans made the book excellent fodder for sound-bites and turned its gruff, outspoken editor into a Canadian Broadcasting Company personality. The book sold around 25,000 copies—roughly 25 times the sales of a typical book of poetry—making it a true bestseller in Canadian terms. Of course, its success looks trivial put next to Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur—our country’s most recent poet-celebrity. But Instagram didn’t exist in the 1960s, and the notoriety Purdy gained through his editorial role with The New Romans kept food on his table and beer in his fridge even as it put him in the ranks of those whose persona spoke more loudly to some people than his poems. No wonder he expressed some ambivalence about cultivating the tough-guy image.
Do I regret introducing my students to Purdy’s work? Sometimes, yes. But as often, no. They may have complained about those classroom readings, but later, they recalled his lines. At home they asked questions, pressing their parents and grandparents for their memories of the past, bringing back souvenirs and stories. Beginning, some of them, to pay attention. To know and consciously love a place they had always known and loved. Beginning to love history itself, and even poetry. (One of those students grew up to be a writer; one of them became an historian.)
They came to love the country because Purdy loved the country. In its crudest, most simplistic form, his love emerged in an unfocused and passionate anti-Americanism. In its clarified and less polemical form, it manifested in his comic, sensitive, profound, and elegiac verse. His was a poetry that could not have sprung from any other place. And as much as I have come to question some of Purdy’s assumptions and attitudes, the honesty of his voice and the specificity of his vision taught me something precious and irreplaceable—that grit and patience and acute attention can coax art from the coldest and unlikeliest of places. Even from a country built on crumbling stone. Even from scrub.
On Finding an Al Purdy in the Archive
Fifty years of dust. Who else has fingered these yellow sheets, disturbed
this unquiet bed? Cursive cowboy all
swagger and cigars and shades and cunning under
cut, you come out swinging. Duke of dark corners. Doctor of Dialectic. Native speaker.
founder. They say your writing fits our country like a glove.
Am I the only one who doesn’t love
you? Poet prospector Canada Council cartographer
the treads of your size thirteens made pemmican
of this place and we ate it up. Saying the names. Re-
claiming what was never ours. Backwoods Barfly, Rugged Rebel, your lines run on like
purple loosestrife, brown and red and saffron all spell other in your lexicon, you
transform women into symbols and you run us down, you flatten us, for you
a frog or fish has more humanity than a wife or whore. Belligerent
bore. You, yes you, with the PM in your pocket.
Playing pariah but ever on the side
Thing is, the pride that wears a cloak of irony is still itself.
The pen’s a piss-poor compass.
And that country you mapped?
It died the decade it was born.
Susan Olding is the author of Pathologies: A Life in Essays. A second book of essays is forthcoming from Freehand Books in 2021. Her writing has won a National Magazine Award, and has appeared in The Bellingham Review, TheL.A. Review of Books, Maisonneuve, River Teeth, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, the Utne Reader, and in many anthologies, including Best Canadian Essays, 2016 and In Fine Form, 2nd Edition. She is currently a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University.