This essay will discuss two poets, Al Purdy and Earle Birney, and their poems, The Country North of Belleville and Vancouver Lights. The purpose of this essay is to show the great impact that the concept of home has on the way these poet's write and express themselves in these select poems. To begin, a description of the idea of 'home' will be given along with the intended definition used in this essay which is taken from the Oxford English Dictionary. Secondly, a brief description of each poet will be presented, in order to better understand the connection of the writer's work to the writer's themselves. With this important information in place, this essay will then present an examination of both works and compare the influence of 'home' that is evident within them.
The concept of 'home' can be described in different ways. In this essay when referencing 'home' it is not the idea of where one lays there head (or resides) but it is more the origin of the person and the feeling of calm and stillness that occupy that place. The Oxford English Dictionary defines home in this sense as, "A place, region, or state to which one properly belongs, in which one's affections centre, or where one finds refuge, rest, or satisfaction" (Oxford 2010). This concept of 'home' fits very well into both Birney and Purdy's poems as they both discuss a place in which they grew up in and know and understand; a place where they are able to call home, regardless of where they may reside later in life. This is of the utmost importance when dealing with these poets as their poem's have a much greater impact on the reader due to the more exertion of emotion and detail put into the piece by these hometown writers. Now that the idea of home has been explained, a description of each poet can be presented, starting with Earle Birney.
The poet, Earl Birney, was born and raised in Alberta in 1904, as well as growing up in British Columbia (Bennett & Brown, 378). Having grown up in British Columbia is a key factor in how Birney is able to genuinely express his ideals and views of his homeland. Having lived through the Second World War is also a major influence in his poem, Vancouver Lights, as those feelings of comfort, rest and satisfaction are then ruptured by a country, then, at war which is also very evident within his poem, "through Africa flowing and Asia drowning the lonely lumes on the oceans tiding up over Halifax now to this winking outpost comes flooding the primal ink" (Birney, 12-15). Birney was a believer of the link between man and history through their geological location (Bennett & Brown, 378). This link to this history of the home is very important in how a poem is put together because the better the understanding mixed with the personal experience of a homeland allows the poet to dive much deeper into the work. By allowing this the poem can be presented in much clearer and richer detail that can truly relate to all those that not only call Vancouver, British Columbia home, but also to those that know of the history behind it. The next poet to be discussed is Al Purdy.
Al Purdy grew up and spent a fair amount of his childhood in Belleville, while being born close by in Wooler, Ontario (Bennett & Brown, 546). As a high-school dropout, Purdy left Belleville at the age of eighteen to travel across Canada (Bennett & Brown, 546). The decision to leave home at such an early age as well as the multiple jobs held before his departure (Bennett & Brown, 546) assists in Purdy's portrayed attitude towards his homeland further on through the poem such as, "Old fences drift vaguely among the trees a pile of moss-covered stones gathered for some ghost purpose has lost meaning under the meaningless sky" (Purdy, 39-42). This quotation from The Country North of Belleville, is a prime example of all the negative and passive attitudes towards Purdy's homeland which may point to more underlying factors of his younger life, but that is of course just and observation of the mood in the poem and not substantiated by any factual historical evidence. Now that both authors have been examined and discussed both of their respective poems can be put under the spot light.
In Purdy's poem, The Country North of Belleville, many aspects of Purdy's home-life present themselves (as discussed earlier) primarily because Belleville is his hometown (Bennett & Brown, 546). Purdy begins his poem with an already vivid image of how he thinks of 'home', "Bush land scrub land" (Purdy, 1) and how remote the land is, "none deny him for miles" (Purdy, 7-8). This bushy and ghost-like landscape that Purdy had to grow up in, presents Belleville as a very dark, bland and lonesome place that truly effects hovering emotion of the poem. Purdy continues to make reference to the country as, "the country of defeat" (Purdy, 9,46,68) as if to say that all those that dwell there are forced to slave away in hard labor with their heads metaphorically bowing in defeat. This land is of course farming land where residents must actually exert harsh amounts of energy to grow crops and such other things, but it's the idea of viewing the land as defeated which really darkens the poem to a more depressed idealization of home instead of a more bright and wondrous perception of a home that the definition describes. This poem takes on a more anti-home idea then the opposite as home was defined as "a place where one finds rest [and] satisfaction" (Oxford 2010). In this poem, Purdy doesn't appear to feel this way at all about his home; rather it seems that Purdy finds this 'country' as a place where one finds defeat, woe and slavery and the only true escape from this is to just leave it behind completely as Purdy points out in the poem, "And this is a country where the young leave quickly unwilling to know what their fathers know or think the words their mothers do not say" (Purdy, 58-61). There really is no bright light at the end of this poem's, metaphorical, dark tunnel where even at the end of the poem, Purdy concludes by saying that, "we must enquire the way of strangers" (Purdy, 74-75). This means that the homeliness of this 'country', however vague it may be portrayed in this poem (whether positive or negative), over time has completely dissipated and no longer exists within the returning resident and must therefore reassert himself back into the social and cultural functions as a stranger (or outsider) and try to once again re-establish that homeliness. The next poem under examination is Birney's, Vancouver Lights.
The idea of home in Earle Birney's poem, Vancouver Lights, is looked upon with a less negative outlook, as in Al Purdy's poem, but still manages to create a very dark and frightening environment under what would appear to be a very bright and joyous title. Birney focuses his poem primarily on the lights that shine "throbbing[ly]" (Birney, 3) below in the city of Vancouver, Birney seems to think of his hometown in more of a polluting environment being that the moon and stars are invisible due to the amount light present, "About me the night moonless wimples the mountains wraps ocean land air and mountains sucks at the stars" (Birney, 1-3). Through this somewhat estranged outlook on such a "throbbing" (Birney, 3) city, Birney manages to make this homeland look even worse by pointing out heavy details such as "the gulf's erased horizon" (Birney, 8) and the "lambent spokes of the lighthouse" (Birney, 9) which is to say that the city is so bright that neither the horizon or the light fixtures on the lighthouse are visible in the least bit which really makes Vancouver out to be an almost unbearable place to reside. As bad as the lights are, Birney seems to posses a certain fear of change (i.e. loss of light) which shows that no matter how much one dislikes their homeland, it is theirs and to change it is to change the entire social and cultural aspects of the home which is a fearful and unwanted thing. This can be seen in the poem as Birney begins to discuss the possibility of the lights going out, "now to this winking outpost comes flooding the primal ink" (Birney, 14-15), and so the mood and tone of the poem transfers from being frustrated to a more fearful and somewhat hopeful tone (still with lingering frustration present). Therefore with the tone and mood also goes the idea of 'home' as it is never static but a continuous fluctuation throughout life where at one point a persons idea of 'home' maybe be sweet and melancholy and the next minute be completely different due to the certain circumstances, as in this case with the countess lights then the possibility of losing them. To conclude, Birney mentions Prometheus who, "Himself he chained and consumed his own bright liver" (Birney, 37-38) due to giving the power of light to mankind (Bennett & Brown, 380) which truly represents the idea behind 'home'. It is the person themselves that create this idea of 'home' in their minds and they must live with the consequences that follow. For example Birney's Vancouver as a 'home' and the consequences are the vast amount of light pollution that comes with the province. The following section deals with the comparison between the two poems.
Both Purdy's and Birney's poems are quite similar in that, not only are they both influenced by the idea of 'home' but they both seem to share this somewhat dark and, to some extent, negative outlook on their homes whether they be remote and ghost-like in The Country North of Belleville or bright and life-source-sucking as in, Vancouver Lights. Another similarity which is quite interesting is the fact that they both used a Greek mythological reference within their works. In Birney's poem he refers to Prometheus who must live for eternity with the continual punishment of having his liver eaten because he stole fire from the Gods and gave it to mortals (Bennett & Brown, 380) which (as previously pointed out) in reference to 'home' signifies the psychological choice that one makes to create that 'home' environment and live with the future consequences. In Purdy's poem he makes reference to Sisyphus who was also punished but the Gods and forced to continuously push a boulder up a hill (Bennett & Brown, 548). This reference in terms of 'home' is similar to the point made in Birney's poem where the resident's have made their choice to call this place home both psychologically and physically. By doing so the residents must pay for this deed by having to push this metaphorical boulder up a hill everyday, symbolizing the ongoing hard labor that the people must endure to survive in their created homeland. With similarities of 'home' within these poems there are some differences that present themselves as well. In Purdy's poem he completely obliterates the intended idea of 'home' and creates what was described as the anti-home, to the point where Purdy had detached himself so much from his homeland that when he decided to return that once idealized 'home' was no more and had been replaced by another 'home' entirely. Not to say that, from Purdy's explanation of the 'country', he didn't have the 'loss' coming to him. The difference then lies with Birney's poem where even though the idea of home is not completely positively looked upon, there are still fluctuations which give hope to the idea of, a possibly hidden, respect and recognition of Vancouver as his homeland. As well, there was never a true renunciation of 'home' as there was in Purdy's poem.
The idea of 'home' has been shown throughout this essay to be a major influence in both Al Purdy's and Earle Birney's poems, The Country North of Belleville and Vancouver Lights, respectively. Although the poems did not completely follow suit with the provided definition of 'home', but rather a more backward and warped version of it, the idea itself is still quite evident within the works. This essay has provided sufficient evidence to show that 'home' whether positive or negative still affects the poet's work in multiple ways such as the tone, detail and mood. This leaves a lingering question for future analysis. If the idea of 'home' has such as grand impact on these poet's works then is that grasp on self-identity and 'home' a mandatory requirement in order to write efficient and decent poetry? With the two examined poems this seems quite evident.
Word Count: 2,070