CBC Digital Archives

Al Purdy, the grand old man of Canadian poetry

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.

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At 81, Al Purdy struggles with arthritis, bad circulation and the strain of old age. "I am now probably in the last year of my life," he says without any trace of sentimentality. Friends, followers -- and Purdy himself -- remark that his romantic, brawling, tough-guy persona is fading. Now, with a life's work behind him, he is revered as a master storyteller, a fearless poet and a tender husband and friend, as told in this CBC Radio documentary. 
• Purdy was one of Canada's most celebrated poets. He won the 1966 Governor General's Award for The Cariboo Horses and received the same honours again in 1986 for Collected Poems, 1956-86. He was also appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1982.
• In 1999, Purdy was diagnosed with cancer after doctors discovered a tumour on his lung. He continued to write poetry until three months before his death on April 21, 2000.

• Poet Susan Musgrave penned the poem Thirty-two Uses For Al Purdy's Ashes when Purdy, her friend and neighbour in British Columbia, was diagnosed with cancer. When Musgrave visited Purdy, he would tease her and ask her if she would like to have some of his ashes after he passed away.

• Here is an excerpt of the poem:

Shout "these ashes oughta be worth some beer!"
in the tavern at the Quinte Hotel, and wait
for a bottomless glass with yellow flowers in it
to appear

Mix one part ashes to three parts
homemade beer in a crock under the table,
stir with a broom, and consume
in excessive moderation

Fertilize the dwarf trees at the Arctic Circle
so that one day they might grow to be
as tall as he, always the first
to know when it was raining

• Purdy enjoyed the poem but claimed ownership of it immediately. Musgrave told the Globe and Mail, "He said all the best lines in it were his lines, and that I would have to pay him half of whatever I ended up making out of it." -- April 24, 2000
Medium: Radio
Program: This Morning Sunday
Broadcast Date: Jan. 17, 1999
Guest(s): Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Eurithe Purdy, Al Purdy, Sam Solecki
Host: Michael Enright
Reporter: Sue Gardner
Duration: 21:44

Last updated: August 27, 2013

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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