canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Terry Barker interviews James Deahl about the career of Canada's 'Voice of the Land' poet, Al Purdy, who died in April 2000 after a poetry career that spanned nearly six decades.

TERRY BARKER: The recent death of Canada’s ‘Voice of the Land’ (as the League of Canadian Poets called him), Al Purdy, prompted journalist Valerie Gregory to write that ‘among such contemporaries as Earle Birney, Milton Acorn and Irving Layton, [Purdy] stood out easily.’ (The National Post, April 25, 2000) In light of your association with the People’s Poetry tradition in Canada, I wonder if you agree with that statement?

JAMES DEAHL: Well, the generation that started with Birney, who, by the way, was born in the west in 1904, and ended with Acorn, who was born in the east in 1923, produced several first-rate People’s Poets, or poets who wrote out of the populist tradition. To Birney, Acorn, Layton, and Purdy must be added A.M. Klein, Dorothy Livesay, Miriam Waddington, and Raymond Souster, among others. This was the second truly important generation of Canadian Poets; the first being our Confederation Poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Dennis Lee has called Al Purdy Canada’s greatest poet and Patrick Lane has him as our greatest poet of the twentieth century. High praise, indeed! But in what way is Purdy great? In what way is he Canadian? And, of course, how does he stand out from other members of his generation?

To take them in order: The finest of Al’s poems - such as ‘The Country North of Belleville’ and ‘Wilderness Gothic’ - are as great as any ever written in this country. In terms of poetics, Al is right up there with Milt and Earle. Number two: Al, like the others I’ve mentioned, wrote for the people as a whole, not for the academic/cultural elite. And he wrote first for the Canadian people, and later for his international readership. Al’s poetry is to Ontario what Milt’s work is to the Maritimes. It defines a place and a culture. 

This brings us to his ‘standing out’ from the others. The way I see it, poets like Al are at one end of the spectrum while Milt and Dorothy, for example, can be found at the other. That is, Milt was a poet with a vision, and that vision grew out of his Marxism and his Christianity. Al had no vision. Milt often wrote about the Canadian people as they ought to be or as they might become. Al was much more the realist; he presented people as he found them, flaws, failures, and all. In this respect Al’s poems are like the short stories and novels of James T. Farrell - naturalistic. You see, Milt and Dorothy were always trying to reform their readers; but Al wrote out of no such idealistic agenda. In short, Al was more like a regular Canadian person. And, for writers and artists, that is extremely rare.

TERRY BARKER: You say that Al Purdy was ‘like a regular Canadian person’ who, in contrast to Acorn and Livesay, had no vision for Canadians or of Canada. What does this say for the state of the Canadian nation and why, in your view, did so many Canadian commentators evidently accord Purdy the status of a ‘national icon’ (in the language of The Globe and Mail’s extensive obituary) if he was without some sort of ‘national dream’?

JAMES DEAHL: In view of the fact that at the time Al’s obituary was published, The Globe and Mail was complaining that Québécois nationalism was retarding the economic and cultural integration of Canada into the greater U.S. of A., I can’t imagine how that newspaper could recognize a national icon, be that icon Al Purdy or anyone else. This is not to say the Globe is out of step with those regular Canadians we’re talking about. I’d say most Canadians today see Canada as merely a more pleasant version of America; that is, Canada is the U.S. with less racism, sexism, poverty, and violence. They do not see Canada as being fundamentally different. If Canada is to play the role of the nice American sister, as opposed to the naughty sister (but sisters nonetheless), you don’t want the nationalism of an Acorn or the Québécois. 

So, was Al really a continentalist? Not in my book. Sure, he liked William Carlos Williams, Charles Bukowski and several of the Beat Generation poets, but he also was attracted to the work of the Georgian poets and John Donne. Like most Canadians, he found much to admire in U.S. culture. But at the time of his death, Al wanted to work with younger poets towards a revival of People’s Poetry in this country. If Al wanted Canadian culture integrated with American culture, why revive People’s Poetry? But he was no man of vision. Al felt Canadian, and he wanted to retain that feeling. Many of the people I know want to share in all things American while still feeling, in some vague way, Canadian. Of course, you can’t really do that, but that’s what they think they can achieve. 

Now I may be completely wrong; still, here’s how I see it. Near the end of his life, Al sought to return to something he thought had been left behind during the late 1970s. This was the poetic spirit he possessed (or that possessed him) when he wrote the poems in The Cariboo Horses, North of Summer, and In Search of Owen Roblin. He wanted to again embrace things that had, he discovered, remained close to his heart throughout the years - but he ran out of time.

TERRY BARKER: The 1958 Penguin Book of Canadian Verse, edited and introduced by Ralph Gustafson, includes work by all of the poets you have named as ‘first-rate People’s Poets, or poets who wrote out of the populist tradition’ except Milton Acorn and Al Purdy. Acorn was the youngest member of the group you describe, and did not publish his first chapbook collection until 1956. However, Purdy was somewhat older than Acorn, and published his first book of poetry in 1944, In view of these facts, why do you think Gustafson ignored Purdy in his anthology, especially as just over a decade later (in 1970) prominent Canadian poet and academic George Bowering was hailing Purdy as ‘the world’s most Canadian poet’?

JAMES DEAHL: No real mystery here, Terry. The work in Al’s first few collections was derivative and, to be frank, not particularly good. His poetry did not become anything at all special until The Crafte So Longe To Lerne in 1959, a book that shows the influence of Acorn. The Acorn/Purdy friendship is one of the most important in the history of CanLit. Al helped Milt write better poems - very, very little of his pre-Purdy work is worth reading - and Milt helped Al in just the same way. I mean, how many of Al’s poems that are in the canon date from before he and Milt got together? So if Gustafson looked at Al’s poetry at all, it would have been his pre-Acorn work that was considered and rejected. 

The texture, tone, and content of Canadian poetry written throughout the 1960s and 1970s would have been quite different had Al Purdy and Milton Acorn not met, and become friends, in Montreal during the 1950s. Their friendship was so profound that one cannot speak of Al’s poetry without talking about Acorn, and vice versa. Even more important, one cannot speak of modern Canadian poetry without reference to both Al and Milt. And this friendship also involved such great poets as Ray Souster and Louis Dudek. These men all influenced one another, as well as Canadian poetry as a whole. Then, when you mix in Dorothy Livesay and Anne Marriott, both of whom inspired Acorn, you get a pretty pure taste of People’s Poetry. In a sense, this is when Canadian poetry became Canadian poetry. Oh, to have been in Montreal in the ’50s when all this came together! 

This should be the subject of a book-length study. The number of very major Canadian literary figures - not only poets - who hung out around McGill University at that time was astounding. And they influenced each other as young writers, before their mature voices were fully developed. Yet, I know of no book that deals with these friendships. Do you?

TERRY BARKER: No, I’m not aware of a general study of the putative intellectual and literary influences among members and associates of the McGill Group/Montreal Movement and their associates during and after the 1950s.

JAMES DEAHL: Odd, don’t you think? I mean, there are histories of the Bloomsbury Group as well as of Dorothy Parker’s circle at the Algonquin Hotel. The McGill scene was our Algonquin, was our Bloomsbury. And yet no study!

TERRY BARKER: Yes, it is odd. I do think it is clear (according to Bowering’s 1970 book-length study of Purdy that I referred to) that it was, among other things, Purdy¹s philosophical shift, from the 1940s to the 1950s, from a vague Protestantism to an agnostic existentialism, that contributed to his being considered ‘the world’s most Canadian poet’ by the late 1960s. Does that mean that by the latter decade the dominant spirit of Canadian poetry and poetics (and perhaps, by inference, of Canada itself) had become that best expressed by existentialism?

JAMES DEAHL: Certainly. I’m old enough to have started my life as a poet in the mid-‘60s, some thirty-five years ago, so I remember the era well. Existentialism was in the air. During the ‘60s I used to visit New York frequently; everyone was reading Sartre and Heidegger. Same as when I worked at The Book Stall in Pittsburgh. We sold a lot of existentialism to members of the writing community. And this was no doubt going on in Canada, too. 

Early Modernism had religious roots. Look at Eliot. Look at A.J.M. Smith. Whether the poets were real believers, like Eliot, or attended church as unbelievers, as Robert Lowell has it, they nonetheless came from Christian backgrounds. But late Modernism was very different. Immediately after World War II, existentialism came to the fore, first among writers, and later among the general population. Existentialism developed into a religion for poets who found they could no longer believe in God. That as well as the New Left. Indeed, many writers were attracted to Sartre and the New Left. I also looked both ways before I crossed the street. 

All culture is based on some being, or on some idea, beyond the individual writers and artists. The shift from a religions to a philosophical basis, first seen in Europe, and then here in North America, began at mid century. Al was a man of his time.

TERRY BARKER: The late Canadian philosopher, George Grant, much admired by many New Left and Left Nationalist intellectuals in Canada in the 1960s and ‘70s, pointed out that ‘liberals in the modern world nearly all become existentialists’ because they do not believe there is any centre of value or meaning in the universe external to their own wills. One of Grant’s mentors, German-American political philosopher Eric Voegelin, described existentialism as a ‘side road’ off the actual philosophical ‘ascent toward essence’, which, in fact, since the eighteenth century has served as a convenient ‘escape for the bewildered’. In view of Purdy’s early attraction to the poetry of two liberals who were not existentialists, G.K. Chesterton and D.H. Lawrence, why do you think he became so influenced by the Existentialist Movement during the period of his best-remembered work, the 1960s and 1970s? He was, for example, evidently reading William Barrett’s classical study of existentialism, Irrational Man, during the time he was writing the poems included in North of Summer, published in 1967, Canada’s Centennial Year.

JAMES DEAHL: One of the things that Professor Ezio Cappadocia pointed out to me is that liberalism is not a real philosophy. Cappadocia believes, and I do too, that a ‘real’ system of ideas must trace its roots way back to one of the classic philosophies - the Greeks in Europe or Taoism in China, for example - or to one of the world’s major religions. In either case, the roots will go deep into something that is prior to, and greater than, mankind. That is, to an external source of meaning. 

But liberalism, despite the repeated claims of various liberals, really does not come from the Greeks. It comes out of the Industrial Revolution. Industrial production is the result of the development of certain technologies, technologies that changed forever both agriculture and manufacturing. Things became very large, they were no longer human sized; the cobbler shop was replaced by the shoe factory, the family farm by multinational agribusiness. Over time, this gave rise to an urban, bourgeois culture, and to a middle-class life style. Political and philosophical liberalism, including the much touted American pragmatism, is an outgrowth of this economic process.

The key point is that, unlike most other systems of thought prior to the nineteenth century, liberalism is not rooted in what we might call the philosophical tradition; it’s rooted in human-invented technology and the resultant society. 

It is soft, not hard, and intellectuals become tired of that, they want something more rigorous. I knew both poets, and I know Acorn did not like this softness, nor did Purdy. This is why some modern writers became Marxists and others existentialists. George Grant should have said that modern liberals become existentialists or must surrender their liberalism. That is, of course, not easy. When I went away to college in the autumn of 1964, I was required to read Mark Van Doren’s Liberal Education to prepare me for the education I was about to receive. Liberalism was the American way. Hard to escape that. Hell, I still have the book in my library. 

For a person like Al it was easy to take up existentialism but hard to remain a mere liberal. Harder still to reject liberalism, which he should have done, and which Acorn eventually did. At any rate, I’m sure you’ll agree, Terry, that existentialism is a bit more rigorous than the sort of liberalism that was on offer during the ‘60s. It was, after all, a decayed liberalism, much like we see today.

TERRY BARKER: Purdy’s early mentors, Chesterton and Lawrence, were both part of the Georgian Movement in British poetry of the early decades of the twentieth century, and both wrote from clear spiritual perspectives (Christianity and Vitalism, respectively). In Purdy’s mature work, these (or other) intimations of the life of the spirit seem to me to be absent, to be replaced by a strong sense of existentialist angst and disorientation. As Purdy seems to have been canonized by the Canadian literary establishment as the chief exemplar of the poetry of the Canadian people in the twentieth century, does this mean that that poetry, and thus, perhaps, Canada itself, is devoid of spiritual substance?

JAMES DEAHL: Yes. The process of liberalism is always one of despiritualization. When I came to Canada thirty years ago, there were three principal communities of thought. The dominant one was American-style liberalism; but the other two, although marginalized, were still vital during the 1970s. They were socialism of the old Prairie, or conservative, school, and Sir John A.-conservatism, often of the red, or pink-Tory variety. These were quite important at the provincial level of government, and also to some degree at the federal level, in spite of Trudeau. 

The reason these three existed is that whole segments of society were liberal, socialist, or conservative; the political parties reflected the social reality. But that has all changed; neither the socialist nor the conservative community has really survived the Americanization of our culture. Canadians are now American liberals. And unlike socialist or conservative philosophy, liberalism has no roots in anything real, that is to say, in anything beyond itself. Liberalism has no spiritual basis. So today one sees a materialist society that emulates the Great Empire to the South. Purdy, of course, picked up on this.

TERRY BARKER: In his Milton Acorn Memorial Lecture last year, Dr. Bruce Meyer suggested that a more or less direct link can be traced between Canada’s Confederation Poets (specifically Bliss Carman and his Songs of Vagabondia) via Carman’s colleague, the U.S. poet Richard Hovey, and Robert Frost, to the British Georgian Poets, and from them back to modern Canadian People’s Poetry. If, as you say, Purdy was aware that the contemporary American liberalism that Canadians had adopted had no spiritual basis, why was he apparently not attracted to the Anglican Romanticism and Tory Socialism that Carman espoused, and that was also being practised by Purdy's friend and mentor Milton Acorn in his latter, and more reflective, years?

JAMES DEAHL: Well, it is harder to believe in something than to believe in nothing. Many people these days lack the courage to believe.

TERRY BARKER: In his recently-published literary and intellectual biography of Al Purdy, The Last Canadian Poet, Sam Solecki suggests that the argument he presents points to the conclusion that Purdy ‘may be both the first and last of our (Canadian) poets.’ What is your view of this radical assessment?

JAMES DEAHL: It’s total nonsense. If anything, it displays Solecki’s stunning misunderstanding of our literature and its tradition. I have long said - and I’ll say it again - the greatest block to the development of a truly great culture in Canada has been our almost complete lack of intelligent and insightful criticism. Men like Solecki, I think, more than prove my point. That a professor at what claims to be our finest university can make such remarks is astounding. The first important Canadian poet was Isabella Valancy Crawford. And, although it is true that both Canada and the Canadian people are vanishing, there still are a few Canadian poets around. And some of them, such as John B. Lee, are better writers than Purdy.

TERRY BARKER: Your picture of Canadian poetry, and of People’s Poetry in particular, certainly extends Solecki’s somewhat. However, if ‘Canada and the Canadian people are vanishing’, as you say, are you not only really making the same point, albeit in a less hyperbolic way, that Solecki does in his book (i.e., that just at the time Canadian poetry matured, its material and spiritual bases disappeared)?

JAMES DEAHL: That’s one way to look at it; but, while most citizens of Canada are rapidly becoming Americans, Canada - the geography, that is - still exists. What does this mean? Simply this, there are two aspects to any real place: the geography and the culture of the people who live there. Take the Iberian Peninsula, for example. The Spanish and the Portuguese have shared that southwestern piece of Europe for centuries. Other people have come and gone: Arabs, Jews, and so on; yet Spain is still Spain, Portugal still Portugal. Or in the U.S.; the New England states still have a New England culture, same as Texas has its own culture. 

The writer in Boston and the writer in Dallas are both Americans, but they remain different. Both cultures are sub-divisions of the overarching American culture. Now the writer in Toronto or Winnipeg will also operate within a sub-division of American culture. That does not mean Alistair MacLeod, Alice Munro, and Patrick Lane will write like John Updike, W.S. Merwin, and Adrienne Rich. 

Is this good or bad? I’d say it is not good. I came here because Canada was a sort of anti-republican version of North America. That is no longer the case. Now it is a quasi-republican version, becoming more republican each decade. The Canadian conservative tradition, that I came to respect, is dead everywhere except the Maritimes, where it is surely dying. But we must not forget that many individual Canadians are still anti-republican. How these people will operate within the new North American entity cannot be predicted. It’s really a bit, I suspect, like Wales and England. Some Welsh are pro-English, some couldn’t care less, and others are anti-English; yet all are part of Great Britain. 

What is clear is that Canadian cultural and economic nationalism, so popular as recently as the late 1970s, is finished. And Canada, as a truly independent nation-state, is also finished. It’s clear that the future Canada will be a rather junior partner in this new North America. What remains unclear is how this process will play out. 

TERRY BARKER: Well, it sounds as if you agree with the famous statement of George Grant (in his Lament for a Nation) that ‘the impossibility of conservatism in our era is the impossibility of Canada.’ It’s interesting, though, that Grant ends his meditation with a line from a People’s Poet more august than any that we’ve mentioned so far: ‘Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore.’ (‘They were holding their arms outstretched in love toward the further shore.’ - Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI)

Terry Barker teaches Canadian Studies at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. His collection of essays, After Acorn: Meditations on the Message of Canada's People's Poet was published by UnMon America, Pittsburgh, 2000.

James Deahl was a personal friend of such People's Poets as Al Purdy, Milton Acorn, Dorothy Livesay, and Ted Plantos. Deahl is the author of over a dozen books and chapbooks, most recently Blackbirds: war poems; Under The Watchful Eye; and Tasting The Winter Grapes, which won Hamilton's Award of Excellence.







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