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From Nationalist Cell to Postmodern Haven By Patrick McEvoy-Halston August 2003 Mark Silverberg, in “The Can(adi)onization of Al Purdy,” argues that Purdy was used by a “literary-cultural industry” (227) to help establish both a Canadian canon and a quintessential Canadian identity. According to Silverberg, in their quest to create a particular Purdy personae—that being, a backwoods, “native” (228), un-American, working-class man—critics and anthologists in the 1960s and 70s (and beyond) provided a very limited sense of the man to the reading public. He thinks Purdy is actually far more “paradoxical,” problematical, and “sophisticated” (231) than we have been lead to expect. Purdy, apparently, was not only more interesting but more postmodern than we have been lead to expect, as well, and Silverberg offers us textual analyses of select poems, in part, to suggest just how aware Purdy was of the socially constructed nature of gender and of the instability of language. He therefore attempts not only to recover qualities “at the heart of Purdy’s work” (245), but to establish Purdy as someone worthy of sophisticated postmodern attentions. Silverberg agrees with Robert Lecker in thinking that during “the decade from 1965 to 1975” (226), “the national preoccupation with defining a Canadian identity translated into a [. . .] literary-critical industry whose purpose was to find or create images of that identity” (227). Purdy, because of his “rural, historically minded, documentary-like verse [. . .] [,] was deemed the perfect candidate for canonicity” (232). His work was therefore widely critiqued and anthologized, but selectively so: since anthologists/critics wanted him to be understood as primarily interested in crafting “sketches” of “suitably native landscape[s] in “garrison/survival” narratives, and in maintaining the “continuity of the present and the past” (230), only poems which best developed these subjects and themes were widely circulated and commented upon. Silverberg believes that the anthologists’/critics’ desire to “pigeon-hole” Purdy as an “authentic [. . .] Canadian” (230) has meant we have been offered a
very skewed and limited sense of the poet. Because the “anthologized poems are invariably documentary and mimetic,” Silverberg argues that we rarely encounter Purdy’s “fine experimental and more technically self-conscious poems” (230). Because anthologists/critics did not want to complicate his status as a rural Canadian primarily involved with, and interested in, his native habitat, we rarely encounter his poems about “Cuba and Greece” (241), or hear about his travels abroad. Because anthologists/critics wanted to link him to his Canadian poetic predecessors, his poems dedicated “to D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound, [. . .] [etc.,] have consistently been passed over in favour of more parochial subjects” (231). In short, Silverberg believes readers have been left largely unaware of the full extent of Purdy’s sophistication, and that he did have some cosmopolitan aspects. Silverberg’s interest in the effects of nationalist ideology on the circulation of Purdy’s poetry, suggests the influence of New Historicist analysis on his thought. The influence of other critical approaches upon his criticism is apparent in his “recovery” of the complex nature of a commonly anthologized poem, “Song of the Impermanent,” and in his analysis of a largely unanthologized poem, “On Realizing He Has Written Some Bad Poems.” The “Song of the Impermanent,” according to Silverberg, is often badly misread by critics eager to shape Purdy into a “rugged, masculine, working-class Canadian” (233). Silverberg does a feminist analysis of the poem; explores the “speaker’s blatant misogyny” (236); and decides that the poem is best understood as a sophisticated “satire” which “enacts certain social constructions of masculinity” (237). He also does an analysis of “On Realizing” in which he likens Purdy to the still fashionable critic, Fredric Jameson. Silverberg concludes his analysis of this poem by asserting that Purdy, like an alert student of deconstruction, was well aware of how “language will always have its way over us” (246). Anyone hoping Purdy’s poetry will find a larger audience amongst academics would likely be pleased with Silverberg’s efforts. Purdy, formerly the “self-made, backwoods poet” (233)—an entirely disrespectable sort in these days of the hegemonic supremacy, not of nationalist literary critics, but of specialized literary schools—is made to seem as if he shares the concerns and perspectives of contemporary academia. Silverberg believes he realizes a more
“accurate” (239) portrayal of Purdy in his essay, but since this effort so cleanly, so suspiciously, establishes Purdy’s modishness, we leave his essay reminded that our own reading of Purdy’s poetry should predominately inform our critical assessment of the man and his work. Silverberg also leaves us uncertain as to how well he helps us move beyond “the search for a singular Canadian identity” (247), for to some extent his analysis of Purdy’s poetry serves to update rather than loosen the conception of Purdy as a writer of “quintessential Canadian poet[ry]” (243). Silverberg repeatedly castigates critics (such as Dennis Lee) who insist on characterizing Purdy as a writer of “survival” (247) poetry, yet his own characterization of Purdy’s encounter with language amounts to a story of Purdy’s persistence and hardiness in the face of obstacles. Silverberg tells us that Purdy was aware of how “our small intentions will be subsumed in [language’s] [. . .] broader outlines” (246), but insists that instead of being broken by the “‘prison-house of language’ [. . .] [,] [Purdy] realize[d] [. . .] that language’s triumph [was] [. . .] also his own” (246). Furthermore, while Silverberg believes we should “recognize the extreme mutability and flexibility of identity” (246), and while he does draw attention to Denis Lee’s study of Purdy’s “polyphony” (247), he still ends his essay characterizing (and seemingly summarizing) Purdy as a man aware of his own “bumbling [. . .] failures and treacheries” (247). This assessment of Purdy closely echoes that of other critics such as Rosemary Sullivan (who believes that Purdy’s “quintessential gaze” was of “ironicdeflation” ), and anthologists such as Gary Geddes (who believes that Purdy’s “self-mockery”  elevates his best work). Silverberg, then, might make Purdy seem more modish than modern, but he maintains Purdy’s personae as the self-effacing survivor—that is, as the quintessential Canadian. Works Cited Geddes, Gary ed. 15 Canadian Poets × 3. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2001. Print. Silverberg, Mark. “The Can(adi)onization of Al Purdy.” Essays on Canadian Writing 70 (2000): 226-51. Print. Sullivan, Rosemary. “Purdy’s Dark Cowboy.” Essays on Canadian Writing 49 (1993): 142-46. Print.