Purdy Poetry

From an essay by Frank Davey:

[Sam] Solecki, however, disagreed with [Patrick] Lane that Purdy and his poetry are “most enduring,” or even “enduring.” He suggested that Purdy is already unjustly ignored by critics, and is losing his place in the teaching canon—along with Layton—to “new multicultural” poets who “write on the [currently] preferred topics (gender, homosexuality, language, postcolonialism, race, the native, etc.)” (xi). For Solecki, Purdy was, as he was for Bringhurst, Lee, Musgrave, and Lane, the major Canadian poet not only of the 1960s but also of the 1970s and 80s; however, his non-enduring choice of topics was limiting his relevance to more recent readers. The major problem with this argument is that Purdy indeed wrote about many of these topics— although not necessarily in the manner of Solecki’s “new multicultural” poets. He wrote about gender in the “Song of the Impermanent Husband” and “Home-made Beer”; he wrote about “the native” in “The Cariboo Horses” and “The Last of the Dorsets.” His fading from memory may have less to do with his topics than with his poetics and with the ideologies implicit in those poetics. For although Purdy’s poetics were a part of the 1960s, they were arguably a rear-guard element—both part of the 1940s poets’ revisiting of romanticism and part of the 1960s’ confused romantic mixing of the occult, individual liberty, heroic masculine resistance to authority, and pure presence with various quite different interests in collaboration, the discursive construction of experience, textuality (as, for example, in found and concrete poetries), otherness, and performance. [Page 49]

In The Montreal Forties: Modernist Poetry in Transition, Brian Trehearne has suggested that the dominant problem in poetics for Canadian poets of the 1940s was to find a way out of the modernism’s apparent proscription, through its doctrine of impersonality, of subjective ideological engagement. He argues that one of the more effective responses to this problem was Irving Layton’s strategy of transforming his subjectivity into a consistent persona which became part of the displayed materiality of the poem—”[t]he motions of the poet’s mind constitute the field of the poem” (224). The result is a “collapsing” of the poet’s “subject and object worlds” (225), a collapsing understandable as a kind of imagist presentation of a poet’s performance of subjectivity. “Such a fusion of subject and object worlds in the media of the poem and of the poet’s mind permits a spectacular freedom of imagistic movement and a fine interpenetration of conscious thought and delicate sense,” Trehearne writes (227). Layton’s strategy in effect merges Wordsworth’s autobiographical speaking subject of The Prelude with the modernist persona of Eliot’s Prufrock, constructing a poetic self that is at the same time both ‘objective’ in being on display as a dramatic image and ‘subjective’ in its active interpretation of the world.

This performed self is extremely similar to what Solecki finds in Purdy when, citing Richard Poirier, he describes Purdy’s first-person speaker as “‘a performing self’ discovering himself, as well as the limits of the self, in the complex, dramatic act of discovery that is the poem” (98). “[T]he representative Purdy lyric is held together primarily by its speaking subject—ostensibly the poet—and his narrative, which describes or enacts in an often characteristic voice an event encountered by the speaker” (97). However, while Solecki acknowledges thematic relationships between Layton and Purdy, he is willing to grant only minimal similarities in their poetics, attributing these mostly to their common interest in D.H. Lawrence and arguing that it is in Lawrence that Purdy discovered the possibility of a lyric persona.

For Purdy, Lawrence’s example, like Layton’s, sanctioned the use of a literary version of his own voice and allowed the shape of the sentence and stanza to be identical with the shape of the feeling-thought, whether in poems of reflection, description, dramatization, or statement. From the perspective of history, the ultimate debt may be to Coleridge’s conversation poems, but Purdy learned it from Lawrence.                                     (87)

Trehearne’s research and readings of Layton would suggest not only that Solecki is overemphasizing this debt to Lawrence but also that he may be [Page 50] exaggerating the originality of Purdy’s contribution to poetics in Canada— and thus locating the poetics of the performed lyric persona in the wrong decade.

The contrast that Solecki develops between Purdy and the “new multicultural” poets, and the claim he makes that Purdy is now being unjustly neglected, depends in part on the above exaggeration and on whether Purdy’s poetics were already somewhat anachronistic in the 1960s or whether they were mostly a new development. Were his “grand” poetry and self-identification with the Canadian nation characteristic of that decade or were they only a part of a decade that was already moving toward the poetries that Solecki sees now ascendant?

In the closing pages of his essay, Solecki argues that Purdy “stretched the boundaries of the Canadian lyric” in order to enable it to express “his particular Canadian way of being in the world” (217). He laments that Purdy’s “‘you’” with which he invokes a community and a nation, as well as the inclusive ‘we’ that performs the same function, have been replaced in the work of younger poets by pronouns referring almost always only to a lover, a family member, or a personal relationship. This reduction in scope and ambition is particularly noticeable in the poetry of women, where politics and history have become gender specific. . . .                                                           (216)

Women poets and their readers, with their reduced ambition, Solecki hints, subscribe to an understanding of poetics that is both outside of that of Purdy and narrower than it. He also laments that the emergence of Canadian multiculturalism have reduced “the grand nationalist ambitions of Roberts, Pratt, and Purdy” to a “particular historical phase” (4). “We [currently] have diminished expectations of our poets, just as they have diminished expectations about their possible role in society.” Solecki’s frequent use of words such as “reduction” and “diminished” indexes a recurrent masculinist fixation on size in his study, and inversely echoes the expansive phrases he deploys in praise of Purdy—”grand and ambitious” (178), “sheer variety” (97), “stretched the boundaries” (216) “nearly countless” (217)—which in turn evoke the expansive terms—”greatest,” “like a god,” “most enduring”—of the funerary words of Lee, Musgrave, and Lane.

The presumptuous “we,” moreover, for which Solecki praises Purdy, was under question, and a potential embarrassment for many poets, by the early 1960s. Earle Birney had already shifted from the “we” of his political poems of the 1940s to the contextualized “I” of “November Walk Near False Creek Mouth.” The Tish poets had struggled publicly with the [Page 51] “stance” of a poet—a poet’s relationship to other subjects—adopting the ecological “field” theory of subjectivity outlined by Olson and his goal of “getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the ‘subject’ and his soul, that peculiar presumption . . .” (59). bpNichol by 1965 had turned away from lyric self-expression, perceiving it to be an impediment to poetry, and to concrete poetry and comic-strip poems founded partly on linguistic theory. With bill bissett and David UU he was routinely attempting to subvert the implicitly asserted authority of the capitalized proper name and the capitalized first-person-singular pronoun. Daphne Marlatt’s two 1960s books, Frames: of a Story and Leaf/leafs, attempted phenomenological discourses in which the perceiving consciousness appeared much less authoritative than its perceptions. Margaret Atwood in this period was containing the first person-pronoun within various persona and within a collage stanzaic structure that prevented sustained lyricism. The 1960s were also a time of intense attention to the long poem or book-length poem as an alternative to lyric. That is, Purdy’s “stretching” of the lyric occurred at a moment when many other poets were perceiving it as an impasse—as a set of conventions that had lost opacity and credulity and that depend on a sharing of ideology between writer and reader. Solecki’s ‘reduced’ first-person pronouns are hardly a recent product of writing by usurping women.

The masculinism implicit in the terms of Solecki’s praise of Purdy has a long history in Western poetry that it is unnecessary to outline here. The general assumptions of the lyric at the beginning of the 1960s were still those of the courtly love tradition—men wrote or recited, as in Bowering’s “Inside the Tulip” (The Man in the Yellow Boots, 1965:16), women read or listened. The lyric was at once an instrument of courtship—and it was men who did the courting—and one of reflection. Purdy’s “Song of the Impermanent Husband” is a poem which both parodies heroic masculinity and reifies it through its extravagant performance of that parody. With its speculative list of fantasy women to whom the poet might make exotic love, it both reduces women to stereotypes, and also functions performatively as a courtship dance—the male poet strutting his peacock measures. The relatively few women in Purdy’s reflective lyrics are often similarly dehumanized, such as the native women, “Beaver or Carrier women maybe / or Blackfoot squaws” he ‘celebrates’ in “The Cariboo Horses” for having had “whiskey-coloured eyes” and having been sexually ridden like “equine rebels”— [Page 52]

such women as once fell dead with their lovers
     with fire in their heads and slippery froth on thighs

Here the collocation of native women with animals, whiskey, and reckless passion is as extreme and lamentable as any in our literature. This is the title poem of the collection for which Purdy was given his first Governor-General’s Award. [emphasis mine]

However, in general, masculinism in Purdy is presented both by his lyric performing of the itinerant semi-Odyssean male self, usually in male contexts such as the drivers seat of a car or beer parlour (“My 1948 Pontiac,” “At the Quinte Hotel”) and by his poems’ focussing on male subjects. Most of the people of Purdy’s poetry are male—from Kudluk of “The Last of the Dorsets,” to the mill-building Owen Roblin, to the epiphany-experiencing farmer of “The Country North of Belleville.” Often the effect of such poems is to locate art production, whether of an ivory swan or of a poetic moment, inside the gender that is also producing the admirable verbal performance that the reader or listener is experiencing. Perhaps there is a connection here to the care, noted by Solecki, of contemporary women poets to portray “politics and history” as “gender specific.”


 See “Purdy, Solecki, and the Poetics of the 1960s” by Frank Davey


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