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 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....
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