Earle Birney Essay - Birney, (Alfred) Earle (Vol. 4)

Birney, (Alfred) Earle (Vol. 4)

Birney, (Alfred) Earle 1904–

Birney is one of Canada's foremost writers. A poet, short story writer, novelist, and critic, Birney is most frequently concerned with contemporary Canadian life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Mr. Birney has a nose for the picaresque situation, and his poems frequently partake of the nature of travellers' observations. He also has the nicest of ears for national accent (his Australian and New Zealand pieces are a hoot).

Behind the satirical equipment, there lies the basic lyrical impulse which he is careful not to overwork but whose existence presents his credentials as that more recognised species of poet. Sometimes this is found in verse like the snatches of some melody:

                  I met a lady
                    on a lazy street
                  hazel eyes
                    and little plush feet

or in his imagistic love-poem There are delicacies. At other times, it reveals itself in a descriptive line: 'the sky's blue is hard as bakelite.' But whether addressed to the senses or the intelligence, these poems—for all their chosen limitations—are seldom other than bang on centre. Such marksmanship is a joy to witness.

Derek Stanford, in Books and Bookmen, November, 1973, pp. 108-09.

In the making of What's so Big About Green?, Birney must once again have driven Jack McClelland and his printers batty. This new collection continues in the anti-book tradition of Rag and Bone Shop, featuring such vagaries as a see-through poem, boxes of print, differing type sizes, unusual spacings, and especially noteworthy here, two-tone print, in this case black and green.

Looking back at earlier books, one notices that Birney has always been interested in visual effects on the page, and in the carrying over into the poem of found objects such as tourist brochures, wall-signs, etc. But in the last decade he has moved bodily into the area called the interface, between poem and visual art.

One wants to remark that his moves through the interface are often academic, somehow at the spectator's vantage point; but then there are his "Alphabeings", the creatures, animals and others, crudely drawn with the letters that make up their names. Now that is something that every ten-year-old kid has done, and there Birney plunges, into the risk, the dare. Aw, my kid could do that. So why is that a criticism? Indeed.

But I still feel that all this is not really the avantgarde. Birney is usually, in these japes, doing something exciting and playful for his own amusement, and that is okay. But the reader is not similarly energized. The reader is having a story without a storyteller, and he and Birney might wave at one another, as the boy in the swimming hole and the driver of the passing locomotive might wave at one another. If you remember that, you'll know it's a nice experience.

So one looks through the book, enjoying some parts more than other, the way you did with your Christmas stocking. Personally, I don't like a certain mixing of visual and sound, the making a poem about a mountain appear mountain-shaped. Is one supposed to contemplate it? I think that once that has been done, with for instance Herbert's altar, it's done. What more can further shaped poems offer but more shapes? And we already have those shapes anyway.

More interesting is a concrete poem that makes one pay attention to the design of the print, or the design the print makes anew. Rather than copying a design already more interestingly made by a skyline or a mountain or a falling airplane. Even with concrete poetry one does better to imitate than to copy nature.

That is why Birney does magically (?) with his black and green. A curious thing happens—sometimes when you tilt the page the black type seems to turn green, especially if you've been looking at green, the alternative. I mean this is right now happening even with the black ink (I think) I am using to make these notes. Often in a poem that is nearly all black, the line you are presently reading seems to turn green before your eyes, while the others in the periphery remain black.

There's the thematic contention of the book taking place. The book takes place. The green of life and nature versus the black of industrial (industrious) greed and death. The dialectic or rather struggle is of green vs. greed, both energetic but not to be confused. But in the shifting light they are….

[Birney] has very clear line notation, not for a syncopated or moment-oriented rhythm, but the sure sense that comes when clause and line find their junctures equal….

But finally Birney's great concern is the dying earth. He does not offer any hope or method of salvation. He has been here long enough to see the changes wrought on the earth, sea and sky of Vancouver. He is Canadian enough to take the geology as theme and its aeons as scope (as did Pratt and Scott), but he is far enough into the century Laurier promised us to see how "puny" men could not only subdue but obliterate the wild. It is as if the Group of Seven paintings could include an oil slick or some sawed-off hillsides.

George Bowering, "Suitcase Poets," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1974, pp. 97-100.