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Alicia Cohen

PURDY, AL (1918-2000) Through his nonconformity and alignment with the working class, Al Purdy went from being an outsider to someone who, through his poetry, has had a great effect on both readers and other writers. His use of everyday language and a lyrical sense of place and history reflect his diverse influences, such as D.H. Lawrence, Bliss Carman, and Walt Whitman. Purdy went from high school dropout, a stint in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and riding the rails to being honored as the grand mentor to a new generation of Canadian poets. Although he was vocal in his opposition to much of U.S. governmental policies, Purdy nonetheless integrated the American poetic vision of Whitman and Robinson jeffers in his work, even as he often dismissed Whitman.

Purdy was born in Wooler, Ontario. Having left school prematurely, Purdy traveled throughout Canada during the depression, working factory jobs. After six years in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he and his wife settled in Ameliasburg, Ontario. It would be Purdy's home until his death. Although he published his first chapbook in 1944, Purdy did not receive critical and popular acclaim until The Cariboo Horses (1965) was awarded the Governor General's Award. Purdy continued to write until 2000, publishing his first novel, A Splinter in the Heart (1990). The Collected Poems of Al Purdy (1986) won Purdy his second Governor General's Award.

Purdy abandoned conventional poetic forms early on and turned to a more conversational and accessible tone. His interests in history, literature, and the environment created a kind of livable poetry in which the reader is placed within a cultural and geographic context. In "For Robert Kennedy" (1973), Purdy's melancholy, straightforward tone turns lyrically from the towering figure of Kennedy to Purdy's grandfather as a man "newspapers never heard of / but loved for no reason or every reason." Purdy's tenor is that of an equalizer, finding the quiet humanity in the world, big and small.

He struggled to validate a Canadian history that seemed always to exist on the margins of world history. He consciously took on the role of being Canada's poet long before his success reaffirmed it. Many critics have noted that Purdy took much from his American influences, such as James wright and Charles bukowski, to formulate his own vision of Canadian poetics. Purdy had complex and contradictory relationships with the poetry of Charles olson, William Carlos WILLIAMS, and Ezra pound. Yet, over time, the connections between Purdy's vast body of well-crafted, open poems seem to share much in common with these American counterparts.

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