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Al Purdy, Marius Barbeau, and the Northwest Coast: A Bibliographical Note on a Forgotten Manuscript

Nicholas Bradley


The numerous books of the poet Al Purdy (1918–2000) are well known to readers of modern Canadian literature. His extensive archives conceal many unnoticed works, however, and the true extent of his literary career can only be seen when the unpublished writing is brought into view. A manuscript from the early 1960s – “Yehl the Raven and Other Creation Myths of the Haida” – illustrates the importance of the archives to studies of his life and works. The obscure sequence of poems demonstrates Purdy’s ethnographic interests and represents a point of contact between modern Canadian literature and mid-century anthropology. It also shows Purdy to have been engaged, for a time, in a manner of writing that was largely distinct from the autobiographical, anecdotal mode that typifies the poetry on which his reputation rests. He wrote his “Creation Myths” by adapting narratives found in the studies of Marius Barbeau (1883–1969), the Canadian folklorist and ethnographer. He attempted to publish the resultant poems as a short book, but “Yehl the Raven” never appeared in print, and although the manuscript has not been utterly invisible to Purdy’s colleagues and critics, it has been mischaracterized, unappreciated, and essentially overlooked. Nor have its origins and virtual disappearance yet been explained. This brief essay consequently examines the manuscript and suggests why it merits critical attention.


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