Clash of the literary titans: Al Purdy vs Margaret Atwood in 1995

On this day in 1995 the late Al Purdy delivered a literary diss track to Margaret Atwood

Literary titans' clash eventually gave way to a mutual admiration

"Canada's poet laurete" Al Purdy (The Canadian Press)

The story goes that when rising literary star Margaret Atwood first encountered celebrated poet Al Purdy in 1964, it ended with her spraying beer in his face. Apparently, she didn't take to him calling her "an academic." In a letter to Purdy, Atwood explained, "I don't attach much value-judgement to the word; you and most others give it a negative one."

An unimpressed Purdy got the ultimate revenge with his 1994 poem entitled "Concerning Ms. Atwood," in which he mocks the status of the emerging writer. On Jan. 30, 1995 he recited his witty verse on CBC's Morningside. He was in top form, delivering facetious lines like:

There's Margaret Atwood

She is accepting the Nobel Prize

Reporters are crowding around with tears in their eyes

Asking why she is so marvelous

She replies

Simply and modestly

I am Margaret Atwood

That sort of jab — witty as it is — would usually signal the end of a relationship. Instead, the pair would go on to form a loving friendship. When Purdy received his cancer diagnosis in 1999, it was Atwood he reached out to, professing "I've had a lot of respect for you over a long period of time" and that her confronting fellow Canadian poet John Newlove "had much influence on me."

Finally, Al Purdy Was Here, the documentary chronicling his epic life released in 2015 — five years after his death in 2000 of lung cancer — contained tributes from prominent Canadians ranging from former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson to The Tragically Hip's Gord Downie and, yes, Margaret Atwood herself.

For more throwbacks like this one, visit the CBC Digital Archives.


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