The People’s Poet: Al Purdy as Organic Intellectual
In recent years, I’ve been looking for a contemporary figure who might qualify as what Antonio Gramsci once hopefully envisioned as an “organic” intellectual: a grassroots leader rising up from the exploited masses to lead a proletariat revolution against the ruling bourgeoisie. But does – and could – such a figure ever really exist?
In the United States, potential candidates include Michael Moore, bell hooks, or Bruce Springsteen, all blue-collar-kids-made-good whose work encapsulates the plight of the working class by either eschewing or critiquing the supposedly stereotypical biases of the uneducated poor, while simultaneously embracing their supposedly fundamental values of honesty, hard work, and decency. But all of these writers also share a central paradox: when they speak for an abstract, perhaps anachronistic notion of “the people,” they don’t speak from the factory floor, but from the perceived exclusivity of high art and relative economic privilege. To what extent can such figures represent those of us with working-class roots?
In the much smaller world of Canadian politics and art, one place to look is Prince Edward County, Ontario, which was home to the figure perhaps most popularly proclaimed as the voice of the little person in Canadian writing: the late Al Purdy. Purdy is, of course, a key figure in Canada’s literary canon, and continues to be praised, by some, as “The greatest Canadian poet of the 20th century” (qtd. in Necropsy of Love, back cover). Always self-identified with physical, male work, his swaggering persona nonetheless belies an arguably “sensitive” poetics, encapsulating a functional tension, in both his writing and reception, between the “high” cultures of poetic production and the “low” cultural values actively espoused in his celebrations of rural vernacular. Might a white, heterosexual, middle-class intellectual figure like Purdy – who remained dedicated to an exclusively male and debatably old-fashioned poetics throughout his career – inspire a social revolution that speaks for “the people” of an increasingly transnational, multi-lingual, culturally-diversified nation?
It’s important to note that Purdy never claimed he could affect such change nor presented himself as simplistically nationalist, unknowingly chauvinist, or superhumanly artistic – all qualities attributed to him since he’s been posthumously proclaimed “the people’s poet.” The title is not only entrenched in our literary imaginary, but also quite literally set in stone by the larger-than-life-sized, Toronto- and Ontario-government-sanctioned “Alfred Purdy Memorial” statue in Queen’s Park, a project co-commissioned by Scott Griffin, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Dennis Lee in 2008 (“Literary Luminaries”). In his 1977 essay, “Bon Jour?,” for example, an erstwhile reflection on Quebec sovereignty, Purdy is less a representative for, than a pleading, outspoken member of “the people”:
Being alive in the twentieth century [he writes], it’s never possible to get far away from such things as unemployment, strikes, economic exploitation, separatism, murder, corruption in high places, and so on. These are the constants of our lives. But there are a few other worthwhile things besides in human existence: like trying to find purpose and meaning in your own day-to-day living, or exploring someone else’s personality in relation to your own. (107-8)
These declarations put the implicit purpose of Purdy’s lyrical, narrative-driven, landscape-infused, vernacular-dependent corpus into the context of a basic human curiosity that’s less misanthropic than socially explorative. Poetry is only meaningful, he hints, if it includes an incisive understanding not only of the poet’s own life, but also the lives of “the people” in his/her geography. Since his audience, in Canada, is national rather than international, Purdy therefore invokes the nation as a productive limit, not necessarily as a limiting product: “[…] a country, any country,” he writes next, “ought to be a cocoon wrapped around each of us that permits such exploration, allows us to discover our own value, our own meaning as it relates to other people” (108). We’re all in the same boat, in other words; we might as well row together.
Realizing naysayers will recognize such a statement of utilitarian unity as naïve, Purdy is quick to qualify his hyperbole, using a wry self-awareness evident in all of his best poems, the great majority of which ironize the Hemingway-esque grumpiness that’s come to dominate his ad hominem critical reception:
That is idealistic [he writes], and we have no time for it, because of our lives’ outer turmoil. Strikes, political quarrels and constitutional squabbles must be settled first, to provide at least a personal clearing in the human jungle. But they are never settled, and there is never time. The sense of well-being when the sun shines is brief, the fixed instant of rapport with another person passes, and it seems we have imagined the memory. (108)
The implication, of course, is that we ought not be distracted by the inevitable misery of living, but should instead bond together as a nationalist family in a limited country club that allows membership not only to the elite, but also to those denizens of taverns and trailer parks that populate Purdy’s stanzas. Because, like Bruce Springsteen, Purdy is simultaneously in touch with both the uneducated, manual-labour, hardscrabble working classes and the upper echelons of “high” art favoured by critics, he positions himself between them, picking and choosing which membership card to show depending on context. These discrete social spheres – high and low, refined and mean – can only be linked, in other words, by individual exploration.
Perhaps this is the reason that Purdy so often examines “the Land” in his work: it links those of us who happen to share his speakers’ accidental geographies. And maybe it’s no surprise, then, that his 1977 essay “The Cartography of Myself” personifies the map: “It is a cartography of feeling and sensibility,” Purdy writes, of Canada, “and I think the man [sic] who is not affected at all by this map of himself that is his country of origin, that man is emotionally crippled” (18). Perhaps the presence of such bald surety throughout Purdy’s career is why his widow, Eurithe Purdy, agreed to have “The Voice of the Land” engraved on his tombstone in Ameliasburgh, a mammoth chunk of rock in the shape of a large, hardback volume that I wonder if old Al might not find a bit overdone. Whatever the reason, Purdy is now known not only as the voice of the people, but also as the mythical embodiment of the very land on which the people live. As both “the people’s poet” and “the Voice of the Land,” the idea of Al Purdy as a flawed, surly human has therefore been replaced by the idea of Al Purdy as a legendary uber-host.
Like John Thompson, another poet whose personal life overwhelms critical conversations about his actual poetry, Purdy’s work is now read through the lens of such mythologizing. While, as Lorraine York might argue, this is partially the result of the ongoing machinations of celebrity, the result is nonetheless disturbingly shallow. Simply reading Purdy as either “the last Canadian poet,” as Sam Solecki does, or naming him essentially “Canadian” or inevitably “masculine” does little to promote a fruitful dialogue about how his poetry – or anyone’s – can actually represent “people” after all and, by extension, how art can ever really speak for or about any disenfranchised group. Still, these complications do little to shift the public perception of Purdy as the quintessential “people’s poet,” and I’ll dedicate the rest of my time to discussing why this might be so by focusing on what’s perhaps Purdy’s most-quoted, best-known poem, “At the Quinte Hotel.” If you happen to have a copy of Necropsy of Love, an audio collection created two years before Purdy’s death in 2000, you’ve got access to the best way to experience what is now Purdy’s hallmark publication: in Purdy’s own voice. If not, print will have to do:
I am drinking
I am drinking yellow flowers
in underground sunlight
and you can see that I am a sensitive man
And I notice that the bartender is a sensitive man
so I tell him about his beer
I tell him the beer he draws
is half fart and half horse piss
and all wonderful yellow flowers
But the bartender is not quite
so sensitive as I supposed he was
the way he looks at me now
and does not appreciate my exquisite analogy
Over in one corner two guys
are quietly making love
in the brief prelude to infinity
Opposite them a peculiar fight
enables the drinkers to lay aside
their comic books and watch with interest
while I watch with interest
A wiry little man slugs another guy
then tracks him bleeding into the toilet
and slugs him to the floor again
with ugly red flowers on the tile
three minutes later he roosters over
to the table where his drunk friend sits
with another friend and slugs both
of em ass-over-electric-kettle
so I have to walk around
on my way for a piss
Now I am a sensitive man
so I say to him mildly as hell
“You shouldn’ta knocked over that good beer
with them beautiful flowers in it”
So he says to me “Come on”
So I Come On
like a rabbit with weak kidneys I guess
like a yellow streak charging
on flower power I suppose
& knock the shit outa him & sit on him
(he is just a little guy)
and say reprovingly
“Violence will get you nowhere this time chum
Now you take me
I am a sensitive man
and would you believe I write poems?”
But I could see the doubt in his upside down face
in fact in all the faces
“What kinda poems?”
“So tell us a poem”
I got off the little guy but reluctantly
for he was comfortable
and told them this poem
They crowded around me with tears
in their eyes and wrung my hands feelingly
for my pockets for
it was a heart-warming moment for Literature
and moved by the demonstrable effect
of great Art and the brotherhood of people I remarked
” – the poem oughta be worth some beer”
It was a mistake of terminology
for silence came
and it was brought home to me in the tavern
that poems will not really buy beer or flowers
or a goddam thing
and I was sad
for I am a sensitive man (Rooms for Rent 15-17)
Written in 1962 before The Cariboo Horses won the Governor General’s Award, effectively establishing Purdy as one of Canada’s foremost literary voices, “At the Quinte Hotel” expresses some of the key aspects of “the people’s poet’s” voice: a simple narrative complicated by insight; a Canadian vernacular with high-artistic musings; exclusively male violence; the constant presence of booze; and imagistic examples taken from the local landscape. Purdy’s mantra throughout the poem of “I am a sensitive man” is at odds with his speaker’s fistfights, just as telling the bartender that “the beer he draws / is half fart and half horse piss / and all wonderful yellow flowers” (15) is a put-on that ultimately allows Purdy to demonstrate both his difference from and unity with both the poem’s barflies, and, implicitly, us, his readers. The fact that his speaker is a buffoon instead of a bastard does similar work. When he tells one of the brawling men that he shouldn’t have “knocked over that good beer / with them beautiful flowers in it” (16), after all, he’s not just tough or preachy, but funny, not just snide, but seemingly moral. And when his speaker knocks “the shit oughta” and sits on the “little guy” (16) Purdy wryly shows his willingness to both attack and represent the working classes.
It’s only when the poem’s self-aware, self-mocking irony begins with a beer-drenched recitation figured as “a heart-warming moment for Literature” (17) that Purdy’s speaker really bridges the theoretical gap between leader and people. But this connection is immediately severed by the speaker’s “mistake in terminology” (17), wherein he says a poem is worth a pint, effectively erasing the bar’s brief, socialist unity, wherein one-of-the-boys arises to enlighten the rest with art. At least two divisions occur, here: it’s not simply the men (and they’re all men) in the poem that now question the speaker’s loyalties, but also Purdy’s readership, who now see his speaker’s supposed artistic vision – and thereby, any similar vision – exiled to the bargain bin. It’s this division between art and commerce, “brought home to me in the tavern” (17), that summarizes the shortcomings of Gramsci’s hopes, I think, when faced with economic reality. When his speaker realizes “that poems will not really buy beer or flowers / or a goddam thing” (17) after all, Purdy cynically implies that the visionary hope of any idealistic literary or political aesthetic is not realistic, and never will be. So when his speaker whimpers to a conclusion by stating that “I was sad / for I am a sensitive man” (17), Purdy not only dismisses the reasonably annoyed men at the bar – and thus “the people” – but also satirizes those who figure artistic practice as socially definitive or revolutionary – a group that includes some of the poem’s readers, who nonetheless continue to actively promote “the people’s poet” myth. As in his best poems, Purdy therefore manages to both love and hate the provincial and the elite, absolving himself from both by acting as a relentless, dumb mediator between them.
What does this say about Purdy as potential “organic” intellectual? Perhaps Lewis Hyde can offer some insight. In his 1979 classic, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Hyde postulates, using as major examples the lives of Whitman, Pound, Neruda, and other male poets, that all art functions in a gift economy that doesn’t need the market to survive. His great lesson in the book, however, is not proof of the permanent separation of these spheres, but the exceptional permeability of their borders, wherein “lies a middle ground” (274) between commercialized destruction and purist artistic or political vision. In his conclusion, he puts this finding plainly: “there is little to be gained by a wholesale attack on the market [he writes]. We can sometimes limit the scope of its influence, but we cannot change its nature” (273). Most artists, he notes, survive the balance between art and economics in one of three ways: by taking second jobs, by getting a patron, or by putting their stuff up for sale. Few of us, including us poets, can survive by doing the latter; most now use the Canada Council as part-time patron, if they can; and all of us probably have day jobs. What binds us together, Hyde concludes, is the manner in which we balance art and commerce by participating in a gift rather than a market economy, within which art is metaphorically “given” to its audience not with an expectation of remuneration, but with the imperative social and moral obligation to keep that gift in motion by properly passing it on to others. The resultant relationship, Hyde says, is intimate and perpetual rather than cold and finite.
Those who champion Purdy as “the people’s poet” enact a similarly circular forwarding of his art – a motion essential to all gift-exchange economies – by mythologizing his private and poetic life. Perhaps that’s the sort of leadership – supported by willing participants inspired by moral obligation – that Gramsci might have been talking about. In “At the Quinte Hotel,” after all, Purdy doesn’t occupy the space between art and money by trying to sell his poetry. Instead, he obligates both high and low class workers – both those reading and those being represented in the poem – to recognize his work as a gift functional beyond market exchange, thus implying artistic prowess as superior to market lust. In the end, then, patrons are welcomed into the poem’s stagey bar as members of a gift-exchange society,  the leadership of which bridges a perceived divide between poetic vision and economic reality, and the followers of which purge their collective gratitude with a gift circulation that, to quote Hyde, “is simultaneously material, social, and spiritual” (37). The final result is dual: at the same time that Purdy is proclaimed “the people’s poet,” those who elevate him similarly become, in his own image, “the poet’s (chosen) people,” more than willing and even grateful to be led, we can only assume, to Gramcsi’s transformative promised land.
Gramsci, Antonio. “The Intellectuals.” Trans. and Ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffery Nowell-Smith. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International, 1971. 5-23. Print.
Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.
“Literary luminaries attend unveiling of statue of ‘people’s poet’ Al Purdy.” CBCNews. 21 May, 2008. 19 September, 2012. Web.
Purdy, Al. “At the Quinte Hotel.” Necropsy of Love: Selected Poems. Signature Editions, 2001. Audio.
—. “At the Quinte Hotel” (1962). Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems 1962-1996. Ed. Al Purdy and Sam Solecki. Madeira Park (BC): Harbour, 1996. 15-17. Print.
—. “Bon Jour?” (1977). Staring from Ameliasburgh: The Collected Prose of Al Purdy. Ed. Sam Solecki. Madeira Park (BC): Harbour, 1995. 100-108. Print
—. The Cariboo Horses. Toronto: M&S, 1965.
—. “The Cartography of Myself” (1977). Staring from Ameliasburgh: The Collected Prose of Al Purdy. Ed. Sam Solecki. Madeira Park (BC): Harbour, 1995.15-18. Print.
Solecki, Sam. The Last Canadian Poet: An Essay on Al Purdy. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1999. Print.
York, Lorraine. Literary Celebrity in Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2007. Print.
 Despite the male bravado that Purdy’s work stages, the patronage I mention here is meant to include women as well as men, a proposition implicitly supported by declarations made by such feminist poets as Bronwen Wallace, who publicly recognized Purdy as a formative influence despite foundational differences in their respective treatments of gender politics. Purdy’s perceived chauvinism, after all, is part of his speaker’s public persona, not necessarily representative of his own, private views; thus, in many respects, any theory of Purdy’s work as a singular, supposedly “masculine” poetics is at least partially reductionist. While his speaker’s frequently male exclusivity admittedly makes the necessary, urgent inclusion of feminist discourse more complex for my analysis, Purdy’s longstanding exhibition of male violence and various gender stereotypes in his poetry remains a useful exemplar of both historical and contemporary heterosexism and male privilege, and ought to be discussed, I think, not as blindly misogynistic, but intentionally demonstrative of the need for continued social activism for women’s rights.
Rob Winger’s first book, Muybridge’s Horse, lost some of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, and his most recent collection is The Chimney Stone. Currently a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University and an instructor at Trent, Rob lives in the hills northeast of Toronto.