Earle Birney Essay - Birney, (Alfred) Earle

Birney, (Alfred) Earle


(Alfred) Earle Birney 1904-1995

Canadian poet, novelist, dramatist, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism from 1942 to 1996 on Birney's life and works.

Birney was a prominent Canadian literary figure throughout much of the twentieth century. Best recognized for his pioneering work in contemporary and concrete poetry, Birney was also one of the first Canadian poets to embrace the everyday rhythms of language. As his poetic styles and interests changed throughout his five-decade career, he experimented with unconventional forms and structures, and unapologetically revised earlier works to reflect his evolving aesthetic sensibilities.

Biographical Information

Birney was born on May 13, 1904, in Calgary, where the surrounding region was still known as the Northwest Territories. He grew up close to the land and planned to make a living as a guide for hikers in the Rocky Mountains of Canada but instead was given the opportunity to attend the University of British Columbia. He graduated with a degree in English, and in 1926 he headed to Toronto for graduate school. The next year, armed with a master's degree and a new, leftist political identity, Birney traveled to Berkeley, California, where he began doctoral studies; these were interrupted by economic conditions of the Great Depression. He found a position at the University of Utah as an instructor in English, and he remained there for several years. Following a period of overseas travel and study, he returned to Canada and finished his doctoral work at the University of Toronto in 1936, then stayed for several years to teach English.

Throughout the 1930s, Birney's writing pursuits focused on the production of scholarly papers, political tracts, and news articles. After his marriage and the birth of a son in 1941, Birney began publishing verse in periodicals such as the Canadian Forum. His first book of poetry, David and Other Poems (1942), won the prestigious Governor General's medal for poetry. The same year he was assigned to an overseas post with the Canadian Army. He subsequently spent three years in England, Belgium, and the Netherlands and produced there some of his most critically acclaimed works. His war-time poetry, published in 1945 as Now Is Time, garnered a second Governor General's award.

With the war's end, Birney returned to Canada and began working for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, before accepting an invitation from the University of British Columbia to take up a professorship. During his affiliation with the university, which lasted from 1946 to 1965, Birney initiated a creative writing workshop that was the first of its kind in Canada. He also continued to travel and write, producing three more books of poetry, two novels, and a verse play, and editing several anthologies and collections of poetry, including Twentieth Century Canadian Poetry (1953). He also wrote travel features for popular magazines and began to take Canadian poetry to readers and audiences worldwide, living part-time in England, France, and Mexico, and traveling throughout South America, Asia, and Australia. His works began to embrace a global consciousness that preceded environmental social justice movements by a decade or more.

From the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, Birney traveled throughout Canada and the United States as writer-in-residence for numerous universities. He also began to experiment with diverse forms of literary expression that would lead him to embrace concrete poetry, sound poems, and other contemporary forms of poetic art. His literary output in these years included new collections of poetry, a collection of short stories and sketches, essays on the reading and writing of poetry, another verse play, and a volume of autobiography covering the years 1926 to 1979. His final book, Last Makings, was published in 1991; he had been revising it in 1987 when he suffered a stroke that left him disabled. He died in 1995 in Toronto.

Major Works

Although Birney wrote widely in several genres, he is best remembered as a poet. In the early works, David and Other Poems and Now Is Time he employed conventional structure and punctuation. As Birney's poetic style evolved, he began to experiment with the visual effects of using nontraditional spacing instead of punctuation, and he revised many of his early poems accordingly, substituting spaces and new line arrangements for conventional marks such as commas, semi-colons, and periods. This drew sharp disapproval from some critics, such as Hayden Carruth, who, in a review of Selected Poems: 1940-1966 (1966), termed Birney's experimentation “prosodic fiddle-faddle.” Further experimentation led to concrete poems and “shape” poems, which rely heavily on the use of drawings or the unconventional arrangement of text for a graphic effect; Alphabeings and Other Seasyours (1976) is a collection of these visual poems, many of which evolved from what Birney termed his “doodling.” Birney also experimented with the cadence of Canadian speech to create sound poems, and he collaborated with musicians in recordings and live performances of his sound poems.

The themes of love, war, nature, and satire appear consistently throughout Birney's poetry, although their treatment varies considerably from decade to decade. Approximately five chronological categories can be identified that span his career. The earliest poems have been characterized as romantic in content and style. These were followed by the works inspired by political activism and the war years. By the early to mid-1960s, Birney, a lifelong traveler, began publishing what have been called the “tourist abroad” poems; these were the works for which he gained an international reputation as a literary figure of consequence. The poems of Near False Creek Mouth (1964), described by critic John Robert Colombo as “not still pictures but motion pictures, in sound and colour,” exemplify this stage. Birney's fourth stage of poetic development resulted in his experimentation with concrete poetry and sound poems. Finally, Birney entered a reflective stage, during which he published more introspective works such as Fall by Fury (1978). Birney's final collection, Last Makings, brought together love poems he wrote during the last decade of his career, as well as never-published verse that had been written as early as 1930.

Critical Reception

Birney was not only considered Canada's leading poet during his lifetime, but also a valued cultural ambassador for his country. He received critical acclaim for his work as a poet, as well as for his encouragement of creativity in other poets and artists. While some critics disapproved of Birney's decision to revise some of his more traditional early works to conform to his evolving sense of poetic structure and form, others lauded the curiosity that led him to test the limits and definitions of poetry. Birney's visual and concrete poetry and other experimental forms were generally not well received by critics, but their overall assessment of his career forgave his forays into “styles and fashions that are unworthy of his real talents,” as wrote A. J. M. Smith. Writing in Canadian Literature, Fred Cogswell praised Birney's “ability to use forms derived from the whole tradition of poetry to express [ideas] brilliantly and freshly.” In Essays on Canadian Writing, critic George Woodcock acknowledged that while he found “the overtly experimental poems the least interesting of Birney's works,” he also believed that “it is his openness to the new and the unorthodox that has given Birney the freedom to find … the special voice and form appropriate to each situation.”

Principal Works

David and Other Poems 1942

Now Is Time 1945

Strait of Anian 1948

Trial of a City and Other Verse (verse play and poems) 1952

Ice Cod Bell or Stone 1962

Near False Creek Mouth 1964

Selected Poems: 1940-1966 1966

Memory No Servant 1968

Pnomes, Jukollages and Other Stunzas 1969

Poems 1969

Rag & Bone Shop 1971

The Bear on the Delhi Road 1973

What's So Big about Green? 1973

Collected Poems (two volumes) 1975

Alphabeings and Other Seasyours (visual poems) 1976

Ghost in the Wheels 1977

Fall by Fury 1978

Copernican Fix 1985

Last Makings 1991

Turvey (novel) 1949, unexpurgated edition, 1976

Twentieth Century Canadian Poetry (anthology) 1953

Down the Long Table (novel) 1955

The Creative Writer (essays) 1966

The Cow Jumped over the Moon: The Writing and Reading of Poetry (literary criticism) 1972

The Damnation of Vancouver (verse play) 1977

Big Bird in the Bush (short stories and sketches) 1978

Spreading Time: Remarks on Canadian Writing, 1926-1979 (autobiography) 1980

Essays on Chaucerian Irony [with Beryl Rowland] (literary criticism) 1985


Northrop Frye (review date December 1942)

SOURCE: Frye, Northrop. Review of David and Other Poems. The Canadian Forum 22, no. 263 (December 1942): 278.

[In the following review, Frye offers a positive review of Birney's first published collection of poetry.]

This is a book [David and Other Poems] for those interested in Canadian poetry to buy and for those interested in complaining that we haven't got any to ignore. Anyone who follows Canadian verse at all closely will be very pleased to see Mr. Birney's fugitive pieces gathered into one volume, and anyone who read the title poem when it first appeared in the Forum will be keenly interested in finding it again in a published book as part of a...

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A. G. Bailey (review date 1950)

SOURCE: Bailey, A. G. “New Books.” The Dalhousie Review 30 (1950): 205-08.

[In the following review, Bailey discusses Strait of Anian, which was published in 1948.]

Of the forty-six poems in this book, twenty-seven are republished from Mr. Birney's earlier collections, David and Other Poems, and Now Is Time, for both of which he was awarded the coveted Governor-General's Medal for poetry, in the first instance in 1942, and in the second in 1945. The present volume is thus one of selected poems and provides the means for assessing the author's character, depth, and range of experience as a poet, as well as the direction his art has taken since...

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W. E. Fredeman (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Fredeman, W. E. “Earle Birney: Poet.” In Critical Views on Canadian Writers: Earle Birney, Bruce Nesbitt, pp. 107-14. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1974.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in the British Columbia Library Quarterly in 1960, Fredeman offers a critical overview of the first decades of Birney's literary career.]

The eve of publication of the Selected Poems of Earle Birney1 offers a convenient opportunity for re-evaluating the poetic output of one of British Columbia's—indeed, one of Canada's—best known and most highly praised literary figures. Coming rather late to a...

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Paul West (essay date summer 1962)

SOURCE: West, Paul. “Earle Birney and the Compound Ghost.” Canadian Literature, no. 13 (summer 1962): 5-14.

[In the following essay, West discusses Ice Cod Bell or Stone, placing it within the context of the poet's previous works of verse and fiction.]

No pomp or poet's pose: just a tall, self-contained self-analyst dominating the lectern and mixing shrewd points with occasional smiling mutiny, as if to suggest a terrible soul beneath: not professional or vatic, but a gently wild man born in Calgary in 1904. That is how he must have appeared, as lecturer and reciter, during a multitude of performances in North America, Japan, Mexico, India and London. It is...

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John Robert Colombo (essay date spring 1965)

SOURCE: Colombo, John Robert. “Poetic Ambassador.” Canadian Literature, no. 24 (spring 1965): 55-9.

[In the following essay, Colombo offers a positive assessment of Birney's sixth volume of poetry, Near False Creek Mouth.]

Let me start with a few sentences from the Revised Edition of Desmond Pacey's Creative Writing in Canada. Concerning the poetry of Earle Birney, Professor Pacey has this to say: “Next to Pratt, he is the most original poet of Canada. … Unlike most contemporary Canadian poets, Birney is not given to echoing Eliot, Auden or Dylan Thomas. He is not always successful as a poet, but he is always himself. … Birney's tendency to root his...

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A. K. Weatherhead (review date spring/summer 1965)

SOURCE: Weatherhead, A. K. “Back to Canada.” Northwest Review 7, no. 1 (spring/summer 1965): 86-9.

[In the following review, Weatherhead writes about Near False Creek Mouth.]

About twenty-five years ago, just before the last war, Louis MacNeice wrote:

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
You cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold. …
Our freedom as free lances
Advances toward its end …
And soon, my friend
We shall have no time for dances. …

MacNeice is not a widely read poet, but for the English at least, the poem now perfectly recreates the general mood of the time of Munich, at the end of the...

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David Helwig (review date winter 1966)

SOURCE: Helwig, David. Review of The Creative Writer. Queen's Quarterly 73, no. 4 (winter 1966): 612-13.

[In the following review, Helwig discusses a collection of Birney's essays about poetry and creative writing that were originally conceived as programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.]

In the seven essays (originally seven broadcasts) in this book [The Creative Writer], one of Canada's best poets tries to express for a wide public, the importance of the creative writer, with an accent on both words. His answers to the theoretical questions that come up are usually those of common sense or tradition but are informed with the passion of a man...

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Milton Wilson (review date autumn 1966)

SOURCE: Wilson, Milton. “Poet without a Muse.” Canadian Literature, no. 30 (autumn 1966): 14-20.

[In the following review of Selected Poems 1940-1966, Wilson focuses attention on the punctuation and spelling revisions Birney made to previously published works before including them in this collection.]

You might suppose that Earle Birney was too busy creating new poems to worry about collecting old ones. But for a writer whose old poems never stop pestering him to be transformed into new ones, the first task is hard to separate from the second. These Selected Poems 1940-1966 aren't really a retrospective show; they challenge us to see Birney not so...

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Hayden Carruth (review date winter 1967)

SOURCE: Carruth, Hayden. “Up, Over, and Out: The Poetry of Distraction.” The Tamarack Review (winter 1967): 61-9.

[In the following review of Birney's Selected Poems, Carruth criticizes the poet's notational revisions to previously published poems, in which he replaced traditional marks of punctuation with unconventional spacing.]

Normally when a reviewer is confronted by a book he does not like, but whose author is nevertheless a distinguished elder of the tribe, he is inclined to say nothing about it—in one thousand nice, ripe nothing-words. After all, what is the point of belabouring work that is done: it offers so little likelihood of significant...

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Earle Birney with Caroline Bayard and Jack David (interview date 1976)

SOURCE: Birney, Earle with Caroline Bayard and Jack David. “An Interview with Earle Birney.” In Out-Posts, Caroline Bayard and Jack David, pp. 108-21. Don Mills, Ontario, Canada: Press Porcépic Ltd., 1978.

[In the following interview from 1976, Birney talks with Bayard and David about the development of his experimental and visual approach to the writing of poetry.]

Earle Birney was born in Calgary in 1904 and grew up on farms in the Rockies. For two years after high school, he worked at a variety of jobs before enrolling at the University of British Columbia in 1922. Encouraged by Garnett Sedgewick to pursue literary studies, Birney paid his academic dues with an...

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Peter Aichinger (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Aichinger, Peter. “Conclusion: People and Politics.” In Earle Birney, pp. 142-63. Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

[In the following essay, Aichinger addresses the influence of Birney's extensive travels, political allegiances, and global perspectives on his development as a Canadian poet.]


In the 1940s Birney and some of his contemporaries—F. R. Scott, A. M. Klein, and P. K. Page—had begun to define a new attitude in Canadian poetry; where Canadian poets in the nineteenth century had tended to settle for a glorification of nature's beauties and the morally invigorating challenge of the...

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Zailig Pollock (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Pollock, Zailig. “Earle Birney.” In Profiles in Canadian Literature, Jeffrey M. Heath, pp. 89-93. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Dundurn Press Ltd., 1980.

[In the following essay, Pollock offers a biographical and critical overview of the first four decades of Birney's literary career.]

For the last forty years, Earle Birney has been widely recognized as one of the most important of Canadian poets. One reason for his importance to Canadian readers is that he provides us with an extremely wide-ranging picture of the Canadian experience in the middle years of the twentieth century. When Birney records his personal responses to war and peace, to the city and the...

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Laurence Steven (essay date fall/winter 1981)

SOURCE: Steven, Laurence. “Purging the Fearful Ghosts of Separateness: A Study of Earle Birney's Revisions.” Canadian Poetry, no. 9 (fall/winter 1981): 1-15.

[In the following essay, Steven compares revisions of Birney's poems “Transcontinental” and “Man Is a Snow.”]

Certain poets display an intense concern for craft through the revisions they make to their work. W. B. Yeats, to take the obvious example, had no belief in the inviolability of the published text. His revisions are a manifestation, at the textual level, of Yeats's remarkable ability for self-rejuvenation. In Canada, Earle Birney's poetic career has a similar vitality. As with Yeats, Birney's...

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George Woodcock (essay date spring 1981)

SOURCE: Woodcock, George. “The Wanderer: Notes on Earle Birney.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 21 (spring 1981): 85-103.

[In the following essay, Woodcock examines parallels between Birney's travel-themed poetry and the journey themes found in the Old English poems “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.”]

There is a sense in which the Old English poets set a pattern for the use of the journey in English literature. In poems like The Wanderer and The Seafarer, they established not merely the sense of earthly journeying as a metaphor for the inner journey “down to Gehenna or up to the throne,” as Kipling put it, but also what we now tend to see...

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Les McLeod (essay date spring 1981)

SOURCE: McLeod, Les. “Irony and Affirmation in the Poetry of Earle Birney.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 21 (spring 1981): 130-57.

[In the following essay, McLeod traces Birney's literary treatment of the conflicting themes of irony and affirmation, starting with an examination of the poet's doctoral dissertation, “Chaucer's Irony.”]


It is the problem of affirmation within the ironic mode which has concerned Earle Birney the poet, as the problem of humanity in an apocalyptic age has concerned Birney the man. Both problems, literary and social, were approached in Birney's doctoral dissertation, “Chaucer's Irony.” Completed in...

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J. B. Zenchuk (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Zenchuk, J. B. “Earle Birney's Concrete Poetry.” In Perspectives on Earle Birney, pp. 104-29. Downsview, Ontario, Canada: ECW Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Zenchuk traces the introduction and development of Birney's concrete poetry, which combined text and visual elements in ways that were unconventional at the time Birney began experimenting with them.]


If Earle Birney admits non-linguistic features into his poetry it is not out of any desire to eliminate the word altogether. Birney was and remains a poet rather than a graphic artist. The page is the medium, but language is both the tool and the material of his art, and...

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Lionel Kearns (essay date summer 1983)

SOURCE: Kearns, Lionel. “Birney's Bear.” Canadian Literature, no. 97 (summer 1983): 172-75.

[In the following essay, Kearns offers an analysis of Birney's poem, “Bear on the Delhi Road.”]

Earle Birney's “Bear on the Delhi Road”1 has long been a favourite poem of mine. It has also been a source of some anxiety and frustration, because I have never been able to understand it completely. I know it as a series of words; I know it as a structure of images and statement; I carry it in my head and use it to relate to that world out there that surrounds this consciousness in here that I call me. The poem says something to me that is very profound and...

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David Latham (essay date fall/winter 1987)

SOURCE: Latham, David. “From the Hazel Bough of Yeats: Birney's Masterpiece.” Canadian Poetry, no. 21 (fall/winter 1987): 52-8.

[In the following essay, Latham discusses “From the Hazel Bough,” a poem once described by Birney as the work of his own that he thought most closely approached the level of a masterpiece.]

“Have you ever written a masterpiece?” I first heard this question asked when I attended a poetry reading during my first year at university fifteen years ago. The two readers that evening were Earle Birney and Ralph Gustafson, and after they had finished their readings, the student beside me asked Gustafson the question I thought was so naive....

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Larry McDonald (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: McDonald, Larry. “‘Cortés and All Dat Crap’: Earle Birney's Travel Poetry.” Wascana Review of Contemporary Poetry and Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (spring 1995): 33-48.

[In the following essay, McDonald examines theme, structure, and perspective in Birney's travel poetry, noting that he was among the first literary figures to champion cultural diversity and the disadvantages of social and economic inequity worldwide.]

Between 1955 and 1962, at a time when few poets were interested in different cultures or marginalized voices, Earle Birney wrote almost exclusively about their oppression by the North American culture to which he himself belonged. He wrote to...

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Gerald Noonan (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Noonan, Gerald. “Earle Birney (1904-1995).” Malcolm Lowry Review, no. 40 (spring 1997): 28-33.

[In the following essay, which first appeared in The Literary Review of Canada in 1996, Noonan reflects on the half-century career of Earle Birney as a literary figure and cultural ambassador for Canada.]

Over the past fifty years, Earle Birney (13 May 1904 - 3 September 1995), in his creation of some of Canada's most admired poetry, has so pervasively nurtured human progress that his death inspires not so much a look back at his efforts to better our world as a look forward to the nature of our continuing survival.

The loss of the poet,...

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Further Reading


David, Jack. “Visual Poetry in Canada: Birney, Bissett, and bp.” Studies in Canadian Literature, no. 2 (1977): 252-66.

An overview of concrete poetry in Canada that includes attention to Earle Birney's role as a pioneer in the use of visual techniques in poetry.

Jones, D. G. “The Courage to Be.” In Butterfly on Rock, D. G. Jones, pp. 111-38. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1970.

A consideration of the treatment of the Leviathan theme in the works of E. J. Pratt, A. J. M. Smith, Irving Layton, and Earle Birney.

Smith, A. J. M. “A Unified Personality:...

(The entire section is 183 words.)