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Literary Criticism Canadian

We Go Far Back in Time

The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947-1984

edited by Nicholas Bradley

text by Al Purdy & Earle Birney

Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd.
Initial publish date
Jun 2014
Canadian, Poetry, Letters
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2014
    List Price

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Tell me, how do I write better poetry? You can't? I'm not surprised. You can write it yourself but damned if you can tell someone else how, your classes to the contrary.
—Al Purdy

The truth is none of us who write poetry should allow ourselves to make public critiques of the others, not in a small country like this where we know each other too well.
—Earle Birney

This collection of letters illustrates the long friendship between two of Canada's most highly regarded poets, Earle Birney and Al Purdy. Beginning with Purdy's lauding of, and jabbing at, a poet he admired but had never met, it captures the changing relationship between the writers, each of whom was fiercely committed to the other's work. The letters are full of mutual praise and stern criticism, as Purdy and Birney, relentless in their pursuit of poetic success, look to each other for advice and share their many dissatisfactions with the literary life. We Go Far Back in Time is an intimate look into the lives of two great poets who found common ground in their writing and in the changing fortunes of their literary careers.

About the authors

Nicholas Bradley is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria. He is the editor of We Go Far Back in Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947–1987 (2014) and An Echo in the Mountains: Al Purdy after a Century (2020), and the author of Rain Shadow (2018). He is also an associate editor of the journal Canadian Literature.


Nicholas Bradley's profile page


Al Purdy’s down-to-earth voice populates thirty-three books, including The Cariboo Horses (1965), North of Summer (1967), Sex & Death (1973), and Piling Blood (1984). The two major collections of his work are The Collected Poems of Al Purdy (1986) and Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy (2000). Purdy died in Sidney, BC, on April 21, 2000.

Robert Budde teaches creative writing and critical theory at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. He has published four books (two poetry—Catch as Catch and traffick, and two novels—Misshapen and, most recently, The Dying Poem). He maintains two online literary journals at and .

Russell Morton Brown is a professor in the department of English at the University of Toronto. An editor for the University of Toronto Quarterly, the editor of The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, and co-editor with Donna Bennett of the New Anthology of Canadian Literature in English, he was also Editorial Director of Poetry at McClelland and Stewart for five years.


Al Purdy's profile page

Earle Birney was a poet, novelist, and playwright whose experimental instincts drove him to create some of Canada's most diverse and recognizable poetry, including the oft-anthologized 'Anglosaxon Street', and 'David', which is often considered the most popular Canadian poem of all time. Born in Calgary, Alberta, Birney was raised on a farm before embarking on an academic career, attending the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of London, where his interest in Old and Middle English led to a reputation as an accomplished scholar of medieval literature. After serving as a personnel officer in WWII, Birney took a professorship at the University of British Columbia, where he spent twenty years travelling, writing, and teaching. In 1965, Birney became the first Writer in Residence at the University of Toronto, mentoring new, up-and-coming poets and branching out into new and experimental forms.

Birney died in Toronto in 1995 after an impressive career spanning several decades, over twenty books of poetry, two Governor General's Awards, and several plays, novels, short stories, and works of non-fiction.

Earle Birney's profile page

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