Earle Birney

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Earle Birney’s poetry reflects and summarizes the ambiguities, inconsistencies, and changes in direction in Canadian writing during the second half of the twentieth century. His central achievement was simple: He brought Canadian poetry from traditional conservatism through modernism and, finally, to postmodernism. As a result, his mere presence on the Canadian literary scene generated everything from respect to contempt. No writer in Canada stirred as much controversy about the nature, direction, and accomplishment of Canadian poetry; Birney will always be remembered and acknowledged. Literary nationalism had been the catchphrase of Canadian writing, but when it arrived in the form of Birney, Canadians discovered a contentious, outspoken gentleman who shocked the literary establishment.

The most distinguishing characteristic of Birney’s poetry is its diversity. Birney cannot be associated with any single place, with any single movement (either political, social, or poetic), or with any single theme—he wrote about everything that interested him at the moment it interested him. The result may be a solitary poem quickly forgotten or an entire book of experiments immediately abandoned after publication. Birney’s chameleon-like nature forced commentators to discuss his work in large, broad generalizations, but Birney’s achievement does have a center, and that center rested in his belief that the future was always open and that nothing was ever quite finished or complete or final.

Permanence, for Birney, was an illusion; only death had finality. The recurring images of death, loss, and failure, suggested particularly in the autumnal imagery of his early and middle poetry, are present to emphasize that only one force defeats, or at least temporarily overcomes, death: the creative power inherent in the individual. In conjunction with his firm belief in the inward potential of the individual’s creative energy, Birney maintained that art, like anything else, must be the expression of creative change. For these reasons, he would revise, alter, and completely transform an earlier poem to accommodate and reflect the changes he sensed in his world.

A volume of Birney’s poems might include forms as diverse as pastiche, allegory, Anglo-Saxon forms, narrative and reflective poems, lyrics, limericks, found poems, and concrete or “shapomes” (poems that rely, almost wholly, on their visual, rather than verbal, effect). No single volume amassing all the various forms Birney used would be satisfactory, for Birney often not only changed and revised poems for later editions but entirely transformed their format and design, as well. A linear poem in one edition may appear in the next as a “shapome.” In his Selected Poems, 1940-1966, Birney added dates after each poem to indicate the impermanence of his own “final” selection. “North of Superior,” for example, is followed by the dates 1926-1945. Which is the “real” version? The poem of 1926 (or was this merely the first draft?) or the poem of 1945? Such questions can hardly be answered when the reader thinks of the poem “Mammorial Stunzas for Aimee Simple McFarcin,” dated “Toronto 1932-San Francisco 1934” but first printed in 1959, then reprinted in a wholly transformed shape in 1966. The only possible complete and satisfactory edition of Birney’s work would include all the versions of the revised and restructured poems, introduced by the following heading: The “final” version of any poem in this edition rests in the invisible creative energy suggested by every visible act of imagination (that is, every altered poem) included here.


Analysis of Birney’s work inevitably begins with his first major poem, “David,” a narrative that records the last day of “youth” in the mountains. Although the poem is entitled “David,” it is centrally about Bobby, the narrator. Bobby possesses a naïve and...

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sentimental view of nature, and David attempts to teach his younger friend the necessity of living in a world where beauty and magnificence have value only when death is recognized as both necessary and inevitable. The lyricism and descriptive detail in the poem move the reader most forcefully at the moments when death and beauty are inextricably entwined in the passages of description.

The climax of the poem is reached when David falls to a ledge far below. Bobby’s error has caused the mishap, although David, now crippled, does not press the blame on his friend. Instead, David asks Bobby to demonstrate that he has grasped the principle of necessary death by pushing him off the ledge so that he will not have to live as an invalid. Bobby finally responds to David’s requests. The conclusion of the poem focuses on Bobby’s need to reorient and reevaluate his own outlook and attitudes, which he cannot do. For Bobby, nature is now frightening, horrific, and repugnant. Ironically, David has died for nothing; Bobby’s idealism has simply turned to blind pessimism. The poem, however, forcefully depicts humans’ need to incorporate not only new values but also values that may initially seem incomprehensible and alien. Bobby may fail, but the reader clearly sees that Birney favored David’s vision of life, for it allows for both beauty and death without fear.

The initial publication of the poem created a shock, and for years Birney was inundated by letters asking him if he had once pushed a friend off a cliff. The confusion between literature and reality may seem humorous to the more experienced reader, but the fact that such letters were written and sent testifies to the impact of the poem. The same narrative, in later years, however, stirred an even greater debate. Birney suddenly modernized it. He stripped the poem of punctuation and inserted spaces for commas, semicolons, and periods. The argument about the purpose and significance of the changes continues even now: Can a traditional poem be “modernized” by simply omitting punctuation? Such a process, for the modern purist, defies any sense of organic form or poetic necessity. For many, Birney’s revision was superficial tinkering.

The attacks on the so-called facile alterations of the poem are valid if one accepts the notion that poems of the past must remain in the past, but Birney would not accept that notion. He boldly challenged his detractors to explain their principles, even if they did not have the patience to listen to his reasoning. For Birney, no poem could be imprisoned in the abstraction called “the past”: Every poem is read in the present; it is experienced in the present, and the sensibility of the present is attuned to verse without punctuation. Neither the sensibility that was at work in the “older” version nor the audience for whom it was intended still exists. The old must be pushed over the cliff to its death; the new must be incorporated.

Birney did not receive acceptance on this point, but, whatever a reader’s attitude, an understanding of the poet’s principles clarifies why Birney so markedly shifted and shifted again, even in experimental forms. In “Anglo-Saxon Street,” for example, he created his best-known satire by using Old English stress and modern “kennings.” In “Billboards Build Freedom of Choice,” he used a variation of Olson’s projective verse but, at the same time, sported with the ambiguities inherent in the slang of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. In “There Are Delicacies,” he created a concrete poem that resembles a timepiece to remind a woman that there is only so much time for love. In a book called What’s So Big About Green?, the poet had the words themselves printed in green ink to accompany his theme in visual form: Everything is capable of greenness, freshness, vitality, and rebirth. Birney’s constant insistence on the dynamics of change was not an idle or frivolous gesture; the philosophy gave direction and unity to all he wrote.

“Trial of a City”

The philosophy of change, or the all too common lack of it, often led Birney to lash out with forceful and even vitriolic satires and parodies. Even in these works, Birney’s central vision is not lost to anger or outrage. The work “Trial of a City: A Public Hearing into the Proposed Damnation of Vancouver” excellently illustrates the point. The work is a madcap fantasy of the future, the setting a kangaroo court wherein the sentence has already been pronounced, although the case is tried afterward. The powers that be can see no reason for halting the annihilation of the city until a common homemaker enters. She stands for the forces of creation and meaning and love. For her, there is neither causality nor inevitable end. Creative response to the moment, her presence insists, allows for life, passion, and continuance. For her, all human “freedom is renewable each moment,” but only if the individual exercises his creative energy to embrace and accept.

The theme of “Trial of a City,” then, despite its harsh attack on the stultified values of society (represented by the traditionalist, Mr. Legion), was typical of Birney’s larger concerns. In form, the work also bore the marks of Birney’s experimentalism, including everything from typographical idiosyncrasies in the manner of E. E. Cummings to the use of diction and thought echoing W. H. Auden.

Through the years, Birney gradually incorporated into his own work all the various developments in poetry since the 1930’s and 1940’s. His rhetoric based on image shifted to a rhetoric of voice, and from there to a rhetoric of visual design. At times, the ability to accommodate such disparate poetic modes resulted in profoundly moving verse dealing with humanity’s place in a hostile world, as in “Mappemounde,” and in delightful typographical humor, as in “Appeal to a Lady with a Diaper.” Often, however, the all too predictable pursuit of novelty wears thin, and Birney’s work becomes tiresome.

The tiresome poems cannot be reread, and therein lies their greatest weakness. On first reading, the timepiece design of the poem “There Are Delicacies” enchants; on the second reading, it bores. The language, the essence of the poetic craft, has been treated too lightly; the reverberations have been too easily lost. One can admire Birney’s effort to be consistent, one can sympathize with his healthy and reinvigorating outlook, one can admire the notion that creative acts are always required and always possible, but one cannot always summon the energy to rejoice at poems that seem flat and stale once the novelty has worn off.

In the poems that can be reread, Birney’s theme, form, language, typography, and verse form (be they traditional or modern) create fulfilling, enriching experiences. Anyone interested in poetry can read them, for the literary devices enhance the texture of the poems rather than point to themselves as being present and active (thereby inadvertently drawing the reader’s eye from the true center of the poem—the content). The most important poems in this category may be loosely called Birney’s “travel poems”; they deserve special attention.

Travel poems

Birney was not a regional poet. This point is significant, for the term “travel poem” is used here to encompass all poems wherein Birney’s speaker is on the road, in a train, or in a new city, be that city in Canada or Japan. The poems have great force because usually, although not always, the reader, by the end of the poem, knows more than the person who did the traveling. Since the reader can measure both the speaker and what he thinks, as well as the atmosphere and history of the place visited, that reader is often in a privileged position to judge and evaluate both the ridiculous and the redeeming in human nature. This striking effect in the travel poems was the consequence of Birney’s masterful control of both his speaker and his setting. Some of the best of the travel poems are “For George Lamming,” “Arrivals,” “The Bear on the Delhi Road,” “Cartagena de Indias,” “El Greco,” “November Walk Near False Creek Mouth,” and “A Walk in Kyoto.” In these and the other travel poems, Birney concentrated on his favorite topic, the moment of needed creative impulse, and the speaker usually discovers his creative force as he reflects on his experience.

“For George Lamming”

“For George Lamming” best illustrates how Birney concentrated on the moment of change. The free-verse poem, lacking punctuation, suggests fluidity and freedom from beginning to end. It deals with the speaker’s sudden insight into an experience he had in Kingston, Jamaica, where, invited to a party, he found himself totally in harmony with all who were there. More than “rum happy,” he did not even recognize his joy until he looked in the mirror; then his face “assaulted” him. He was the only white among five or six black couples, and despite the color barrier, the history of black tensions, and the racial prejudice of the ages, these people had allowed him to share “unchallenged” their friendship and intimacy. The speaker will always feel “grateful” for having been allowed, even temporarily, to escape the prison of his own skin and his own prejudices (although he had not recognized them until that moment).

This summary of the poem slips over the numerous subtleties of the “master” and “slave” imagery used throughout (for language itself requires one to “risk words,” although they are such “dull/ servants”) to make a central point about Birney’s artistry at its best: Creative insight, for Birney, represented the moment of transcendence of the narrow self. Imagination, in its largest sense, was, for Birney, an act or ability that is not confined to poets or to poetry; it was the act of sympathetic insight and understanding available to all people at all times, provided they transcend themselves. If Birney, at times, insisted too loudly, if he pressed his experiments too often, if he revised and altered and again altered too persistently—these were merely the signs of his sincerity and consistency. Every altered and modified poem Birney presented can be, and probably should be, read as his unaltering embrace of constant change through individual creative gestures. As such, the poetry of Birney is a testament of one man’s unshakable conviction that human growth, development, and perfection are possible.


Birney, (Alfred) Earle