Alfred Earle Birney was born on May 13, 1904, in Calgary, Alberta, which was then a part of the Northwest Territories. He spent his youth in Calgary, Banff, and Creston, British Columbia; graduated from Creston High School in 1920; and then worked at a variety of jobs to earn money for university study. By 1926, he had graduated from the University of British Columbia with first-class honors in English literature, and that autumn he entered the University of Toronto as a Leonard Graduate Fellow. During the next year, he concentrated on Old and Middle English, and his studies led to his later imitations of the Anglo-Saxon line in “Anglo-Saxon Street” and “Mappemounde.” He graduated with an M.A. in 1927 and was married the same year.
From 1927 to 1934, he studied at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as in Toronto. Two years later, he completed his Ph.D. thesis, “Chaucer’s Irony,” and received his degree from the University of Toronto. From 1936 to 1940, Birney acted as the literary editor of The Canadian Forum, writing numerous articles for this journal. When World War II began, Birney served overseas in the Canadian armed forces as a personnel officer. He would later use this experience as the basis for his comic war novel Turvey.
In 1945, at the end of the war, he was appointed professor of English at the University of British Columbia (UBC). While at UBC, he was instrumental in establishing the first department of creative writing at a Canadian university. Once the program was set up, he invited American poets such as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan to teach there. To some extent, these writers would greatly affect Birney’s view of poetics; in particular, they expounded theories about spacing, breath, and projective verse that led Birney to revise many of his own ideas about these matters. Birney followed their direction, although he did not become a disciple of the Black Mountain movement. By 1963, Birney had become the chair of the Department of Creative Writing and also editor of Prism International. In 1964, Birney left UBC to become writer-in-residence at such institutions across Canada as the universities of Toronto, Waterloo, and Western Ontario. In 1968, as a Canada Council Fellow, he traveled to Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the world; some of his best poetry deals with these experiences.
After 1969, Birney devoted his time primarily to his writing, leaving his career as an educator behind him. In the middle and late 1970’s, he concentrated most of his energy on recording the developments in Canadian writing that he witnessed during his lifetime. In March of 1987, he suffered a serious heart attack and had an almost fatal stroke two months later. He decreased his writing considerably, although he continued to serve as a contributor of plays, talks, and readings to CBC Trans-Canada radio programs—which he had been doing since 1945—until his death in 1995 and made frequent appearances on CBC television panels during this span of time as well.
Alfred Earle Birney (BUR-nee) was among the most important Canadian poets of his generation. He was born on May 13, 1904, in Calgary, Northwest Territories (now Alberta), Canada, a rugged region of cattle ranches and wheat farms bordered on the south and west by the Rocky Mountains. His father, Will Birney, was a farmer and later a sign-painter and decorator; his mother, Martha Robertson Birney, was Scottish, with strong musical and religious interests. Both were self-educated. Earle worked as a bank clerk, mosquito controller, paper hanger, and mountain guide before entering the University of British Columbia in 1922. He took an honors B.A. in English in 1926 and, from the University of Toronto, an M.A. in 1927. With an academic specialty in Old and Middle English, he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the University of Utah before taking his Ph.D. (with a thesis on Geoffrey Chaucer’s irony) in 1936...
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