- Sam Solecki (Author)
The Last Canadian Poet: An Essay on Al Purdy. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Neil Querengesser
By the time Alfred Wellington Purdy finally settled into his distinctive voice—and the name Al Purdy—in the 1960s, he was already established as a powerful presence in Canadian poetry. By bringing into his verse not only his beloved Ameliasburg but virtually every part of the country from sea to sea to sea, Purdy created a body of lyric work unmatched for its perceptive and often free-wheeling depiction of Canada. Sam Solecki rightly points out that in recent years little critical attention has been paid to the achievement of this important Canadian poet, and this comprehensive study of Purdy’s artistic redresses much past neglect by showing in detail just how remarkable and significant that achievement was.
The Last Canadian Poet: An Essay on Al Purdy is a two-part study. In the first part, "Poetry, Nation, and the Last Canadian Poet," Solecki contends that the concept of a Canadian nation has suffered a paradigmatic shift in the last few decades, with significant consequences for Canadian literature, particularly that produced by writers like Roberts, Pratt, and Purdy who saw themselves engaged in the creation of a "master narrative of Canadian nationalism in literature, criticism, and politics." This sense of nationalism, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, has been all but obliterated, Solecki argues, by a variety of social and political events, including the establishment of official multiculturalism, the ongoing debate over Quebec separatism, the creation of NAFTA, and the hegemony of post-structuralist theories and methodologies in most academic disciplines. Purdy’s ethos is centred in a nationalistic identity that reached its apex at mid-century and, despite the virtual dismantling of that identity, his poetry has remained consistently grounded in it, reminding Canadians of a valuable tradition that, Solecki asserts, we neglect to our detriment. His central thesis is that Al Purdy "is the major or central poet of our experience, the one who has given the strongest, most comprehensive, and most original voice to the country’s cultural, historical, and political experiences and aspirations that have been at the heart of our various nationalist discourses since Confederation."
The second part, "The Poetry of Al Purdy," is intended to demonstrate just how Purdy comes to be denned as our "first and last" truly national poet. Solecki applies a formalist approach in his close reading of several representative poems, beginning by showing Purdy’s early and extensive debt to the poetry of Bliss Carman and later to the work of D. H. Lawrence and other modernists. He demonstrates that Purdy’s work builds upon significant aspects of both traditional verse and modernist transformations of lyrical form, but that in his increasing poetic confidence he discovers an authentic voice that is freed from the imitation of such influences, drawing its power from an intimate engagement with the raw materials of this country and its peoples. In subsequent chapters, with titles such as "The Limits of Lyric," "Starting from Ameliasburg," and "History and Nation," Solecki builds the case for Purdy’s national significance by analyzing many of his famous poems like "Lament for the Dorsets," "The Country North of Belleville," and "A Handful of Earth"; in the final chapter, "Origins and Being," he illuminates some subtly understated ontologi-cal concerns of this self-defined atheistic poet and deftly ties this analysis to Purdy’s nationalistic significance.
The work concludes with elegiac ambivalence. Solecki argues that we can see in earlier Canadian culture the definite development of a literary tradition, a tradition that leads necessarily to the poetic voice of someone like Purdy who stands at the apex of the national moment. But even as it reaches that moment, the tradition begins to suffer its own dismantling. Purdy is both the culmination of that tradition and the emblem of what we have left behind.
This is a well-researched and meticulously documented work. Solecki makes a convincing argument, within the limits of his critical methodology, for Purdy’s significance both as an excellent poet and as an important, but unfortunately overlooked, national presence. Those readers who feel that post-structuralist criticism and the excesses of multiculturalism have taken us too far in unproductive directions will find plenty to appreciate in this study. However, Solecki’s strongly formalist approach to Purdy’s work closes off a number of openings that many other readers may well be wishing for. For example, he rightly notes that many of Purdy’s poems are characterized by endings that resist "poetic and narrative closure," yet the overall aim of Solecki’s work seems to be a form of canonical closure in his analysis of Purdy’s oeuvre, to establish him as the "first and last" Canadian poet. It is yet too early to offer a definitive assessment of Purdy’s place in Canadian literature, if indeed such an assessment has any relevance to most contemporary critics. A deconstructive reading of Purdy’s work might serve as a useful counterpoint to Solecki’s arguments. But, given the current critical lay of the land in Canadian letters, such a reading seems to be still beyond the Roblin Lake horizon. Nevertheless, Solecki’s book is a valuable and long overdue study of an essential presence in Canadian poetry.
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- Wary of Angels by Marilyn Iwama
Books reviewed: Imprints and Casualties: Poets on Women and Language, Reinventing Memory by Anne Burke, The Elders' Place: Iniqnirit Qalgiat by Margo Button and Natasha Thorpe, and Jacob's Dream by Elizabeth Brewster
- Lilies and Realism by Alexis Foo
Books reviewed: A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove by John Newlove, The Essential Don Coles by Don Coles, and Coal and Roses by P. K. Page
- Écrits franco-ontariens by Elizabeth Lasserre
Books reviewed: L'homme invisible/The Invisible Man suivi de Les cascadeurs de l'amour by Patrice Desbiens, La fissure de la fiction by Patrice Desbiens, and Poèmes pour l'univers by Christine Dumitriu van Saanen
- A Truly Public Discourse by Margo Gouley
Books reviewed: An English Canadian Poetics: Vol. 1: The Confederation Period by Robert Hogg
MLA: Querengesser, Neil. Ivory Thoughts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 189 - 190)
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