Al Purdy at SGWU, 1970

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Al Purdy reads poems from a wide variety of his books, but most likely from his own manuscripts and Selected Poems (McClelland and Stewart, 1972), Love in a burning building (McClelland and Stewart, 1970), The Cariboo Horses (McClelland and Stewart, 1965), Poems for all the Annettes (Contact Press, 1962), and North of Summer (McClelland and Stewart, 1967).

Introducer - George Bowering


As you know, the reader tonight is Al Purdy, a man who's been described as, by Doug Featherling, as the most Canadian of all possible poets. And who has, as they say, paid his dues, and in that time, won all the prizes, like the President's Medal, and the Governor-General's Award, and countless numbers of Canada Council Grants and all those other things that come to you. [Laughs] Currently, I don't know if whether or not I'm supposed to mention this or not, but currently making an excursion amongst the academics other words, straightening people out at Simon Fraser University. And a very welcome addition to our series. Al Purdy.




Cut/Edit in tape; unknown amount of time elapsed.


Al Purdy


When I started to write poems about sixty-eight years ago, Bliss Carman was the only one writing. So I imitated Bliss Carman, and this first poem is a sort of imitation of Bliss Carman. And there are hardly any new poems in there because it takes me two years to revise them for two years and then conclude them in a reading, and then besides which as George said, I've joined the academics because all the American members of the department at Simon Fraser have guilty consciences so they wanted a Canadian on staff. "About being a member of our armed forces." This is, this is thirty years after I started to write poems. Remember--Oh, I should say, there are two, three phrases in this that would not ordinarily be understood by you people. "Zombies," who were conscripts in the last war, and well, the CWAC's were women members, Canadian Women's Army Corp. And during the early part of the last war, there were no rifles. So they used wooden rifles to drill with.


Al Purdy


Reads "About Being a Member of Our Armed Forces"




Laughter follows the line: "I kept getting demoted and demoted and demoted, to the point that I finally saluted civilians."


Al Purdy


As I said, I've become an academic lately, and one of the students in this class has asked for all my cigar tubes, little metal tubes that, you know, I get cigars in. He wants to put poems in them and float them down the North Saskatchewan River. And for some reason or other, this, that became the title of this particular poem. "Floating Down the North Saskatchewan River."


Al Purdy


Reads "Floating Down the North Saskatchewan River"


Al Purdy


Funny, eh? [Laughter] Something called "Jubilate," and I'm going to leave that out of there. "Flight 17 Eastbound." Ah...I keep revising some of these and I'm reading now from manuscript because I revised a lot of the poems here and I can't remember which ones I revised, so if they're in manuscript I'm sure they're either revised or that there's some reason for them being there.


Al Purdy


Reads "Flight 17 Eastbound"


Al Purdy


I don't know what that means but it must be profound. [Laughter] I'm getting together a collection of love poems, or I have gotten a collection of love poems together. They are, I am told, fairly hard-boiled love poems. Because when Jack McClelland, of McClelland and Stewart, heard about them they thought it was a good idea that Harold Town should do some illustrations. But when they saw the poems, and of course it wasn't because they were bad poems, I'm sure, he didn't want to do the illustrations anymore, they said they were hard-boiled. As I said, they can't be bad poems. This was one of them. It's, I don't think I'll read that anyway. I don't like it. However, here's another one along the same lines [Laughter.] It's called "With Words, Words."


Al Purdy


Reads "With Words, Words"


Al Purdy


I lived in Vancouver for a while, and up till 1955 or 6. The first play I wrote for CBC was accepted, and I thought I was a genius, and moved to Montreal in order to reap the rewards of my genius. For a year in Montreal I think my...I sold a couple of adaptations to CBC. And eventually we moved to Roblin Lake, near Ameliasburg in Ontario, and built a house. And my wife having quit her job, she having decided that if I could get away without working she could too. So we sat down for a couple of years looking at each other, waiting for the other one, to see which one would break first. But this is a poem about that particular time, called "One Rural Winter."


Al Purdy


Reads "One Rural Winter"




Loud audience laughter follows several lines in this poem.


Al Purdy


I was in the Arctic in '65, but this is a poem written long after that about the Arctic. And I suppose...certainly about the Canadian arctic. I called it "Arctic Romance," but I think it should be just "Arctic," or something like that.


Al Purdy


Reads "Arctic Romance"


Al Purdy


Screwed that up, I guess. You get tired of reading your own stuff, after a while. You forget what it sounded like the last time. This is a poem I kind of like but I keep revising it also, or have been several times in the last few years, called "Dark Landscape." It uses a couple of lines from an American poet who died thirty years ago called Vachel Lindsay, whom probably nobody ever heard of. And it starts in a very prosy way, and is meant to sound that way, and then the rhythm quickens. "Dark Landscape."


Al Purdy


Reads "Dark Landscape"


Al Purdy


In case anybody is wondering about the particular Vachel Lindsay line, it was "The spring comes on forever, and the Chinese nightingale." And he also had "Aladdin to the jinn," except that Aladdin to the jinn, his jinn was J-I-N-N and mine was two J-I-N-N's, and one G-I-N. So that, always a little difficult to understand it without seeing it on the page. Kind of a sweet little poem, this was after we moved to Roblin Lake, and as I say, I sold a couple of plays and we bought a pile of used lumber with the proceeds and put the down payment on the lot and build this house.


Al Purdy


Reads "Winter at Roblin Lake"


Al Purdy


Also the same period, about building the house, or rather after the house was built. Trouble is, you can't, you can't smoke a cigar here, can you, something always goes out. Anyway. "Interruption."


Al Purdy


Reads "Interruption"


Al Purdy


When I...when we first moved down to Ameliasburg, or to Roblin Lake, I should say, because Roblin Lake where we are is about a mile or so from Ameliasburg...I, after Montreal, and after the job I'd had in Vancouver, I suddenly had to become my own disciplinary straw boss, and it was quite difficult, and in other words, you know, I'd try to get up at a certain hour of the day and start writing. Which I could always, you know, I can always write prose, whenever I feel like it, but poems, I write them, well, I should say, I write poems whenever I feel like it, but you can, I can regimen my own prose, which I don't do much of these days. Anyway, when we moved to Roblin Lake, I wasn't physically regimented myself, so that I was waking up all hours of the day. And this is a short poem about that, but I also screwed up the poem, because I put lines at the end of, or words at the end of each line so that I don't know where the emphasis should be placed, even though I've read it dozens of times. It's called "Late Rising at Roblin Lake."


Al Purdy


Reads "Late Rising at Roblin Lake"


Al Purdy


Another poem about the same particular period, called "Wilderness Gothic." Uh...don't think there's a thing to say about this particular poem at all.


Al Purdy


Reads "Wilderness Gothic"


Al Purdy


When you read a bunch of poems over several years, I think you pick out the ones that you think will read the best, which is certainly what I do, because there are many of my own poems that I rarely read, or never read at all. In fact I, I never read this one. It's called "Love Poem."


Al Purdy


Reads "Love Poem"


Al Purdy


In...this poem dates, the actual time of the poem dates about fifteen years ago. The poem itself was written about five years ago. At the time, a friend of mine was there also, which, other than his particular presence I might have acted a little bit differently than I did. You'll see what I mean in a, when I read the poem. Because nobody would take this chance in placing themselves in such a vulnerable position with a woman. "Homemade Beer."


Al Purdy


Reads "Homemade Beer"




Laughter follows this poem.




Cut/edit made in tape; unknown amount of time elapsed.


Al Purdy


One called "The Drunk Tank," it's...dates back two or three years ago when, after the time when I was in the Air Force, a friend of mine got out of the Air Force much later, so we celebrated. was after quite a turbulent evening with my friend in Belleville, Ontario, we decided to get a couple of bottles of liquor and go out to the country where we wouldn't be disturbed, and drink it. But the farmer phoned the cops, and we were both thrown in jail. And this particular poem is about the first part of that experience, I mean the early part of being thrown in jail, more or less. But not the end of it, it turned into a sort of fantasy that means something other than I intended.


Al Purdy


Reads "The Drunk Tank"


Al Purdy


This is called "Poem for Rita," and about a couple of years ago in Toronto, there was a couple of girls staying with myself, my wife and myself, and she kept asking me to write a poem. So after a while, I wrote this.


Al Purdy


Reads "Poem for Rita"




Laughter follows this poem.


Al Purdy


That's all. [Laughter] I think it was actually kind of unkind on my part, because I was never sure whether she understood that or not, and I didn't know whether I wanted her to understand it. There...when we first moved to Ameliasburg, as I mentioned, I was broke as hell. And after having lived in Vancouver, I learned how to make wine of one kind or another, and there was no way to, I didn't have enough money to make beer, so there were a lot of wild grapes around there and we made, I made wild grape wine, and one time, one particular season, I had about five hundred bottles. I attribute the effects of this wine to having made me what I am today, if I could figure that out. But the poem eventually came out of it, called "The Winemaker's Beat Etude."


Al Purdy


Reads "The Winemaker's Beat Etude"


Al Purdy


In '65, I went up to Baffin Island on some government money, public money, rode a commercial airline plane from Montreal to Frobisher Bay, hitchhiked a ride on what I thought was a DOT plane, but was a construction plane, a construction company charter, and then at Pangnirtung, which is on the Arctic Circle, the original administrator there arranged that I go along with an Eskimo family in their canoe to some islands in Cumberland Sound. A year and a half after I got back from the Arctic, I got a bill for a hundred and ten dollars from the construction company that I thought I'd, whose plane I thought I'd hitchhiked on. Which I haven't paid. But anyway, all of these poems, except perhaps I think one or two, were written up there, written in the Arctic, except that after I got back from the Arctic I kept revising them. So you can make up your own mind whether they're written there or not. Among the poems here, there's one called "At the Movies."


Al Purdy


Reads "At the Movies"


Al Purdy


The business about the caribou draining in the bilge water was one of the reasons, I suppose, I found it so extraordinary that, perhaps, that Eskimos should enjoy these shoot-em-up movies, was that they had just come a hundred miles or so after shooting caribou, bringing them back to Pang, Pangnirtung on the, on the Sound, on the...jeez, my memory's failing, I can't even remember the fjord it was. But anyway, they had just shot them and come a hundred miles back with them, and yet...and they were draining in their Peterhead boats, and yet they found these movies so exciting--I suppose I shouldn't find that so unusual, but I do. A crappy Hollywood movie. And here's one called "The Sculptors."


Al Purdy


Reads "The Sculptors"


Al Purdy


I think I'm going to have about time for two more, so that I'd better...I could probably go on, oh I'd better make it three more. I'll give ya...this is, the trees in the Arctic are about, are very low, and well, this is treeless country on Baffin Island, where there, where practically nothing grows except moss and that, and the like of that, but I wrote a poem about trees at the Arctic Circle, and this is it.... I see I'm getting, I'm only talking about the physical things about the Arctic, and I have some poems about the people, too, which, which I should read. Anyway, "Trees at the Arctic Circle."


Al Purdy


Reads "Trees at the Arctic Circle"


Al Purdy


I want to read at least one about, about, about people there, because I used to, when I was on these islands, [inaudible] Islands in Cumberland Sound, the Eskimo women used to come over every day and drink tea. They could not speak any English and I could speak no Eskimo, and I would feed them tea and we would sit there, myself feeling about as silly as I could, so eventually I grew a bit desperate and I would read them poems and I would sing songs or I'd do any damn thing. However, eventually there was some kind of, I think, positive liking on my part. But this poem may express it as well as anything. "Wash Day."


Al Purdy


Reads "Wash Day"


Al Purdy


Talking about shit, there's actually a poem that has a little bit to do with it here. The Arctic dogs have some qualities that are more pronounced and magnified in Arctic Dogs than in southern dogs, that is, they like to eat the stuff. So that when you go, as all, everybody must go at some time or other in their lives, possibly once a day or not, one takes an Eskimo kid along to throw stones and keep the dogs off. When I came back from the Arctic I saw an hour-long film about the George River Eskimos, and one scene in it showed about fifty Eskimos trying to get into a tent, and the Eskimos beating them into the tent, and the next thing you showed the same dogs trying to get out of the tent and the Eskimos beating them out of the tent. And the announcer said not one single word. And then I remembered that whenever the Eskimos leave a campsite, they use it for a privy, and then send the dogs in to cleanup. So, actually, this is a poem about that. "When I Sat Down to Play the Piano." [Laughter]


Al Purdy


Reads "When I Sat Down to Play the Piano"


Al Purdy


I've got one more poem if my voice can hold out. When Robert Kennedy was shot...I always think about anything that I'm interested and emotionally moved by, always, at least I have in the past, till I got to Simon Fraser, think about writing a poem about it. So the same thing was happening after Kennedy was shot and died, and I was thinking about writing a poem about it, and then the Star Weekly phoned up and asked me to write a poem about it. So this poem eventually got written. "A Lament for Robert Kennedy."


Al Purdy


Reads "A Lament for Robert Kennedy"




Applause concludes the reading.






Bowering, George. Al Purdy. Studies in Canadian Literature. Hugo McPherson and Gary Geddes (eds). Toronto: Copp Clarke Publishing Company, 1970.

Brown, Russel and George Woodcock. "Purdy, Al". The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Eugene Benson and William Toye (eds). Oxford University Press 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Concordia University Library, Montreal. November 11, 2009. <>.

Geddes, Gary. “Al Purdy”. Fifteen Canadian Poets Times Two. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Purdy, Al. A Splinter in the Heart. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. ---. In Search of Owen Roblin. McClelland and Stewart, 1974. ---. North of Summer. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967. ---. Poems for all the Annettes. Toronto: Contact Press, 1962. ---. Selected Poems. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972. ---. The Cariboo Horses. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1965. ---. The Poems of Al Purdy. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

Steele, James. "Purdy, Al(fred) (Wellington)". The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Ian Hamilton (ed). Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Concordia University Library, Montreal. November 11, 2009. <>.

“Al Purdy, An Uncommon Poet”. CBC Digital Archives. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2008. January 11, 2010. <>.

“Al Purdy- The Voice of the Land”. Save Al Purdy’s Home. Harbour Publishing, 2009. January 11, 2010. <>.

“Poetry Four: Sir George Williams Poetry Series, Ninth Reading, Al Purdy”. Montreal, Quebec: Sir George Williams University, 1970. Found in “The Stephen Morrissey Papers, 1963 - 1998”, McGill McLennan Library, Special Collections and Rare Books, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Transcription and part of Print Catalogue done by: Rachel Kyne Print Catalogue, “Introduction”, Research and Edits by: Celyn Harding-Jones.

Al Purdy at SGWU, 1970

Catalog numberI006-11-037.1
Sound qualityGood
SpeakersAl Purdy, introduced by George Bowering
VenueSir George Williams University, Hall Building, Room H-561
DateFriday, March 13, 1970; 9 p.m.

Supplemental Material


00:00- George Bowering introduces Al Purdy.

00:56- Al Purdy introduces the reading, and “About Being a Member of Our Armed Forces”.

02:09- Reads “About Being a Member of Our Armed Forces”.

03:29- Introduces “Floating Down the North Saskatchewan River”.

04:01- Reads “Floating Down the North Saskatchewan River”.

04:40- Introduces “Flight 17 Eastbound”.

05:13- Reads “Flight 17 Eastbound”.

06:47- Introduces “With Words, Words”.

07:51- Reads “With Words, Words”.

10:49- Introduces “One Rural Winter”.

11:50- Reads “One Rural Winter”.

15:22- Introduces “Arctic Romance”.

15:46- Reads “Arctic Romance”.

17:13- Introduces “Dark Landscape”.

18:07- Reads “Dark Landscape”.

21:45- Explains Vachel Lindsay line, Introduces “Winter at Roblin Lake”.

22:27- Reads “Winter at Roblin Lake”.

22:52- Introduces “Interruption”.

23:13- Reads “Interruption”.

24:49- Introduces “Late Rising at Roblin Lake”.

25:57- Reads “Late Rising at Roblin Lake”.

26:47- Introduces “Wilderness Gothic”.

27:03- Reads “Wilderness Gothic”.

29:33- Introduces “Love Poem”.

29:58- Reads “Love Poem”.

31:40- Introduces “Homemade Beer”.

32:12- Reads “Homemade Beer”.

33:52- Introduces “The Drunk Tank”.

34:43- Reads “The Drunk Tank”.

36:51- Introduces “Poem for Rita”.

37:10- Reads “Poem for Rita”.

37:25- Introduces “The Winemaker’s Beat Etude”, and explains more about “Poem for Rita”.

38:39- Reads “The Winemaker’s Beat Etude”.

41:16- Introduces “At the Movies”.

42:36- Reads “At the Movies”.

44:55- Introduces “The Sculptors”.

45:50- Reads “The Sculptors”.

48:17- Introduces “Trees at the Arctic Circle”.

49:05- Reads “Trees at the Arctic Circle”.

51:07- Introduces “Wash Day”.

51:54- Reads “Wash Day”.

54:03- Introduces “When I Sat Down to Play the Piano”.

55:10- Reads “When I Sat Down to Play the Piano”.

58:23- Introduces unknown poem “A Lament for Robert Kennedy”, perhaps actually “Death of John F. Kennedy”.

59:06- Reads “A Lament for Robert Kennedy”.