Once a month we’re swapping articles and interviews with western Canada’s oldest literary magazine, PRISM international, to share our writers with a wider audience.

In celebration of the publication of We Go Far Back in Time (a new book collecting forty years of letters between Canadian poets Earle Birney and Al Purdy), and in preparation for The Al Purdy Show: Vancouver Edition, PRISM international and Harbour Publishing are publishing four excerpts from the Birney/Purdy letters throughout October (you can read all the posts in the same place here). Today we present you a letter from Birney to Purdy involving (among other things) the rejection of a poem Purdy had submitted to PRISM.

A note from Nicholas Bradley, editor of We Go Far Back in Time, on the next two excerpts: In this selection of letters from 1964, Earle Birney and Al Purdy write about several matters of concern: Birney’s letter in support of Purdy’s application to the Canada Council; the state of Purdy’s submission to PRISM, the journal of which Birney was the editor; and the influence on Canadian poets of Bliss Carman. As the letters show, Birney and Purdy took literary history very seriously.


To Al Purdy (Ameliasburgh, Ontario) from Earle Birney (Vancouver, British Columbia)
October 15, 1964

Dear Al,

Haven’t had a chance to answer yours of Sep 24 till now. However, I did send a chit to the Canada Council. I hope it helps. I thought you might like to see what I wrote, and attach a copy.

The Poetry Ed. liked “Mr. Greenhalgh’s Love Poem” which you sent on Sep 15 but wasn’t too happy about the way in which the associations get so loose at the end; most of the way, he says, they’re exciting and free; at the end, for him, just free. Well, it’s a criticism, though I suspect if the poem had been shorter it would have passed more easily through his needle’s eye. There wasn’t time for it or the other one, for this Prism anyway, so I am returning them both so that you can feel free to get them in somewhere else earlier than we could now plan for. You asked me whether I think “On a Park Bench” is a poem. Of course I do, though for me an incomplete one, one that leaves the essence unexplored, the mysterious moment of communication between poet and mother-on-bench: what happens to it? How did it start, finish, or didn’t it happen at all, didn’t her nerves quiver at all in the poet’s? I want to know more, and a poem for me isn’t just a titillation, it’s a satisfaction, an orgasm not a belly rub.

earle birney

Canadian Poet Earle Birney (1995)

You have a review in the September Canadian Forum containing, in the opening of its 2nd para., one of the more remarkable misstatements of the year. “Twenty years ago young poets,” you tell us, “imitated Bliss Carman (in Canada anyway), Eliot, Auden and the 19th century romantics.” Jesus! What “young poets”? Name ONE in Canada (you certainly couldn’t outside of Canada) who was imitating Bliss Carman in 1944 or indeed in 1934 or 1924, anyone who was, is, a poet by any honest definition, and who was young, or even not really young, say under forty. NAME ONE! Do you know who was writing poetry in 1944 in Canada? I’ll tell you, and I’ll tell you who I think they were imitating, insofar as they were imitating anybody:

Anderson at age 29: Dylan Thomas
Bailey at age 39: Eliot, Pratt
Avison at age 26: Marianne Moore? Yeats
Daniells at age 44: Eliot
Dudek at age 26: Pound, Auden
Finch at age 44: French symbolistes
Gustafson at age 35: Hopkins
Klein at age 35: Eliot
LePan at age 30: Lewis
Livesay at age 35: Auden, Sitwell, Symbolistes
Lowry at age 36: Aiken, Melville, Elizabethans
MacKay at age 43: MacNeice, the Greek poets
Page at age 28: Anderson, Thomas, Barker
Wreford at age 29: Auden, Lewis
Whalley at age 30?: Lewis
M. Waddington at age 27: E. Sitwell
Souster at age 21: Whitman
Wilkinson at age 34: Dickinson
Smith at age 42: Yeats, Eliot

There isn’t one damn poet, old or young, worthy at all of the name, none writing & appearing in the mags and anthologies, who was being influenced 20 yrs ago by one damn nineteenth century romantic or by Bliss Carman. No nor 25 or 30 yrs ago. Forty years ago, yes. Man, don’t think everybody a little bit older than you is CGD Roberts vintage. You’re half right about Eliot & Auden, if you have to make superficial generalizations, but the real truth is more like this column — all over the place. I left myself out because I KNOW how scattered & unconcentrated my influences were. Sure, they included Audenspenderlewis, & Eliot whom I always despised, but these influences were no more important than those of Cynewulf, Chaucer, John Skelton, Herrick, Homer, Hardy, Robinson Jeffers and Wilfred Owen. And of all these only Chaucer seems to have been abiding within me, and yet led to little I could claim by kinship with him.



To Earle Birney (Vancouver, British Columbia) from Al Purdy (Ameliasburgh, Ontario)
October 19, 1964

Dear Earle:

That’s a blockbuster of a letter. Before I get nasty want to thank you for Canada Council missive. You hit what’s nearly the crux of the whole thing in your comments about the travel allowance. On accounta I don’t suppose very much “lateral” travel is possible in the north, and I’d likely have to go back south in order to go east or west. By plane anyway. Tho of course I’ll take whatever transport is available. Anyway, it’s a good letter, with, I think, very accurate judgments and estimates throughout.

I wish the rest of the letter was as close to the mark.

Naturally, I disagree about the “Love Poem.” However, you either get and like such a poem or you don’t. No amount of explaining makes it better if you (or whoever) don’t get it themselves in the first place. And you certainly know what I mean here. I could talk about this one all night, and hope to do so on some later date with you. In the meantime I think your Poetry Ed. is full of shit.

Anyway, you challenge me to name a poet who was influenced by Carman. That’s easy. ME. He was the first reason for my writing poetry, and no snide comments please. I got over him eventually as you know, but “Arnoldus Villanova, 600 years ago (not 20) / said peonies have magic and I believe it so.”

Your list is damn impressive, and gives me info I didn’t have before. I could have guessed some of it, but not nearly all. However, one of the things it demonstrates very strongly to me is that the poets with good models improved, and those who imitated (or were influenced by) Carman didn’t. Moral: Imitate the best. I may say (modestly) that Birney too at one time was one of my influences. Still, despite this severe handicap, I survived. No kiddin tho, there is a point here. And don’t you remember Carman’s vogue at that time, and earlier?

You say none worthy of the name was influenced. Of course you’re right. Except me. And I wasn’t worthy the name at the time. But there were also the Canadian Authors Association type (generalization) of poets who go nowhere. You know damn well they were influenced. Carman was worshipped among some of those people, just as Williams is now, he and the Black Mountain boys.

Still, I’ll give you best somewhat, since it isn’t a precisely accurate generalization. If I’d written 40 pages tho would have done better. But I will not agree when you say that Carman had no influence. 20 years ago and farther back.

I went thru most of the influences you name in that table, except Eliot. But I went from Carman to Chesterton, W. J. Turner, Hardy to Yeats. Then Dylan Thomas. The Americans I didn’t even know about a few years back.

Among your particular influences, Auden and Jeffers have been strong. Hardy a little less so. The others not at all. Donne and Marvell to some extent. Even Kipling at one time. Yourself and Layton tho, in Canada. Eliot, beyond admiring somewhat “La something or other” and “Prufrock,” not at all. I can’t even understand The Waste Land, nor very sure there’s much to understand.

So — you busy bastard, I expect you to either disagree with this and not write, or disagree and write a year from now. However, I’m pleased to see some of the awe that seems to permeate the atmosphere these days (no kiddin) is not breathed in by you. Tho you’ve probably noted some of it. Eh? And are about to kick me in the egotistic balls. We could probably have a good argument under the “right” circumstances?

Next day — and where the hell was I?

Anyway, I find your graph damn interesting. For instance, whatever happened to Wreford? Or did he ever happen in the first place?

I see you have left out Pratt, perhaps thinkin he didn’t imitate anyone.

What a nasty question. Do I know who was writing poetry in Canada in 44? I’ve written the stuff myself since I was 13 years old, and I’ve heard of or known most of them, including many who never got anywhere. Who weren’t, as you say, “poets” — depending on the level of merit you have to achieve to deserve the epithet. But why worry about nomenclature, let the old ladies have their magic occupation. “Honest definition”? I’ve never seen a valid definition yet, one that would hold up, either of poetry or poets. Lots of stop-gap ones tho. And nearly everyone I know (who writes poems) just loves to make such definitions.

Anyway, before I stop, thanks again for your letter. Really, I should think anyone who was so sharp and perceptive in such a letter wouldn’t be the opposite in the accompanying letter. I’ll give you about 50% of your points tho. Will you be that generous/dishonest??? No. Anyway, if I get this thing I hope to see you in Vancouver, for I’ll be out there before leaving for the north.


Excerpts from We Go Far Back in Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947–1987, edited by Nicholas Bradley, appear with the permission of Harbour Publishing. © 2014 Nicholas Bradley, Eurithe Purdy, and Wailan Low. The excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.

Read the original posts at PRISM here.

Photo of Al Purdy from purdyhouse.ca