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Introducing Al Purdy

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.

The new darling of the CanLit scene is the unlikeliest of poets. Meet Al Purdy -- high-school dropout, rider of the rails, former farm labourer, demoted RCAF sergeant, taxicab entrepreneur and retired mattress-factory worker. Purdy, who has been writing poetry his whole life, was recently fĂȘted with a Governor General's Award for The Cariboo Horses (1965). In this CBC Radio interview, Purdy describes his creative process, his late bloom as an artist, and his ardent nationalism. 
• Al Purdy was born on Dec. 30, 1918, to Eleanor and Alfred Purdy Sr. in Wooler, Ont. Alfred Purdy Sr. died in 1920; Eleanor and Al Jr. relocated to Trenton, Ont.

• In 1933, Purdy sold his first poem to his high-school magazine, Spotlight, earning $1. Purdy recalled in his autobiography Reaching for the Beaufort Sea (1993), that as a young poet he was something of an anomaly. "There were no writers. All across the streets of my hometown there was silence. Everyone sold groceries, or they sold drygoods and hardware, they sold coal and lumber. Their words were about buying and selling and making money; and sometimes, when they were young, love. But writers? There were none."

• Purdy dropped out of school after completing Grade 10. Seeking adventure, he hid in boxcars and rode the rails west to British Columbia before returning to Ontario.
• In 1941, Purdy married Eurithe Parkhurst. Their son Alfred Alexander Jim Purdy was born in 1945.

A Gathering of Days (1955), was Purdy's first radio play to be accepted by the CBC.
• In 1965 Purdy published The Cariboo Horses; his first unqualified success. For this work he received the Governor General's Award. He recalled in his autobiography, "From 1965 on, life opened up for me. At that time it became entirely feasible for me to go anywhere on earth and to write about it. I was also confident that I would 'write' well: and I hope that doesn't sound overweeningly sure of myself."

• "Al, a man who had the looks and manner of a brawler, wanted to be a poet. And what is great is that he was a bad poet for a long time and that didn't stop him. That's where the heroism comes in." — Michael Ondaatje, Beyond Remembering (2000).
Medium: Radio
Program: Expodition
Broadcast Date: June 11, 1967
Guest(s): Al Purdy
Host: Phyllis Webb
Duration: 11:09
Photo Credit: John Reeves

Last updated: March 22, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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