CBC Digital Archives

Al Purdy: 'Concerning Ms. Atwood'

During the first forty-odd years of his life, Al Purdy wrote a lot of bad poetry. Where others would have quit, Purdy persevered until he found his own distinctive voice. And what he said startled people. His unconventional works poeticized barroom brawls, hockey players and homemade beer. Al Purdy's work forced Canadians to re-evaluate their understanding of poetry and themselves. CBC Archives looks back on the long career of one of Canada's most beloved poets.

media clip
They had the most explosive of introductions. When Al Purdy first met Margaret Atwood in 1964, he dismissively called the young CanLit star "an academic." Stung by the jab, Atwood responded by spraying her beer in Purdy's surprised face. Purdy then turned his bottle on Atwood. In Purdy's autobiography he recalled, "surprise and outrage mingled on that lovely un-mouselike countenance -- then battle was joined."

The two chased each other into the lake and fell into what Purdy deemed "an unloving embrace." Purdy described, "Peggy stared at me with blazing academic eyes." The two writers would later find themselves kindred spirits and maintained a tenderly mocking friendship. In this CBC Radio reading, Purdy reads from mock ode Concerning Ms. Atwood. 
There is Margaret Atwood
-she is accepting the Nobel Prize
and reporters are crowding around
with tears in their eyes
asking why she is so marvellous
she replies simply and modestly
"I am Margaret Atwood"
- excerpted from Concerning Ms. Atwood

• In a letter dated Oct. 4, 1964, Margaret Atwood extended the long-running "academic" debate with Purdy. She wrote that the term connoted:
"a) being esoteric, obscure, pedantic
b) belonging to some kind of established in-group or "academy"
c) in writing (as well as the above), writing according to a rather set or prescribed form & ideas etc, or excluding all other forms.  (I don't attach much value-judgement to the word; you and most others give it a negative one.)  So next time you call me academic, please indicate which connotation so I'll know exactly which nasty name I'm being called." - Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy. (2004)

• In 1999 Purdy fell ill with cancer and wrote a tender farewell to Atwood. He wrote, "I've had a lot of respect for you over a long period of time. That line of yours many years ago was part of it. Do you remember? 'That isn't true, John. You know that isn't true.' That one line made a large part of your character in my mind, and I think had much influence on me. So if I don't come out of this surgery session as 'expected,' your own eventual arrival will be attended with drums & flutes, welcoming signs."

• Sam Solecki, editor of Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy. (2004), wrote that Atwood's comment mentioned in the letter was made in response to a remark made by John Newlove before a group of people.

• "Listen to the voice, and watch the hands at work: just hands, a bit grubby too, not doing anything remarkable, and you can't see how it's done, but suddenly, where a second ago there was only a broken vase, there's a fistful of brilliant flowers." - Margaret Atwood describing Purdy in Beyond Remembering (2000).
Medium: Radio
Program: Morningside
Broadcast Date: Jan. 30, 1995
Guest(s): Al Purdy
Host: Peter Gzowski
Duration: 2:22

Last updated: August 27, 2013

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

Mordecai Richer Was Here part 2

When Mordecai Richler left Canada for Paris, he was a brooding young intellectual with lots to...

Antonine Maillet, Acadian Avenger

"I have avenged my ancestors," said author Antonine Maillet in 1979 with the publication of he...

Leonard Cohen: Canada's Melancholy Bard

Poet, musician, novelist, ladies' man, monk, actor... Leonard Norman Cohen, one of Canada's mo...

Al Purdy, An Uncommon Poet

During the first forty-odd years of his life, Al Purdy wrote a lot of bad poetry. Where others...

Mordecai Richler Was Here

When Mordecai Richler left Canada for Paris, he was a brooding young intellectual with lots to...

Author Lawrence Hill meets the Queen

Writer Lawrence Hill meets Queen Elizabeth when The Book of Negroes wins the 2008 Commonwealth...