Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10042
Birney, (Alfred) Earle 1904–
Birney is a Canadian poet, short story writer, novelist, and critic. He has taken a vigorous part in the literary activity of Canada as a lecturer, editor, and supervisor of broadcasts. The winner of many awards and one of his country's best known and highly regarded literary figures, Birney has been called "the chronicler of Canada." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Down the Long Table by Earle Birney … has a somewhat creaky framework. Although the novel is concerned with the activities of a young Trotskyite in the depression years, it is brought up to date, as it were, by these activities being under investigation by a Congressional Committee. It is down the long table towards the congressional investigator that the central character, Gordon Saunders, looks.
In a way this topicality is unfortunate, since the atmosphere of persecution in American universities has cleared up a great deal since the vote of censure against Senator McCarthy….
Not only the framework, but the technique of the novel is a little old-fashioned, too, despite the publisher's blurb, which claims that Mr. Birney "has delineated the character and career of Gordon Saunders with a series of highly varied structural techniques—techniques which are not only intriguing but a landmark in the art of fiction."
These techniques are nothing of the kind. The first device is that of prefacing the chapters with supposed headlines and news stories from newspapers, a device used by John Dos Passos years ago. The second one is to put occasional chapters into dramatic dialogue, and has been used in any number of novels since James Joyce's Ulysses was first published. The third one, also a device from Ulysses, is the trick of repeating literary quotations as a sort of leit motif of each major character or situation.
Having said this, though, we have by no means demolished Earle Birney's novel but merely the unlettered enthusiasm of his publisher's blurb writer. As anyone who remembers Turvey well knows, Mr. Birney's great gift is the invention of peculiarly distinctive dialogue. In fact, his characters are created almost entirely by their speech, and are sufficiently differentiated by their choice of words and by their distinctive pronunciation.
Mr. Birney here collects together a group of individuals which it would be hard to match…. There are varying degrees of Toronto dialect brought on by environment and education. All these we richly enjoy, and these do, in fact, add a new technique to novel writing in this country.
The picture of conditions during the thirties is clear-cut, but there seems to be too little real connection between the Congressional inquiry into the present status of George Saunders, and his performance as a Trotskyite organizer in his post-graduate days. Mr. Birney does not seem to have decided whether he is writing about the thirties or whether he is writing about the fifties.
Nevertheless, this book needs to be read for its ideas and its dialogue. Despite the tricks of the American realist novel, the general impression is of a book in the tradition of Aldous Huxley. Like Huxley, Mr. Birney is an extremely intelligent man, and his gift for satire is highly developed. It is a pity that he didn't allow this gift more scope.
Arnold Edinborough, in Whig-Standard (reprinted by permission of Whig-Standard), December 17, 1955.
In 1955 Birney published Down the Long Table, a novel sharing almost nothing with Turvey except satiric impulse. The rather inept title refers to the table used by a Congressional investigating committee; the hero is prodded into reviewing his past by an unnamed but identifiable Senator…. Gordon Saunders was at one time, "before the deadweight lid of the Thirties lifted at last and revealed the bubbling stew of a war brewing", a member of a Communist organization. Now he is shown as upholding personal integrity against the intellectual and moral conformity which the committee attempts to enforce. His past actions are not so much defended as excused; emphasis is placed on his ludicrous failure as an organizer for a moribund Trotskyist group, and on his naïveté his youthful romanticism, his quixotism. But it is hard to accept Gordon as a Quixote. He tilts at windmills out of perversity rather than idealism…. [We] come to suspect that the author is trying to gloss over his hero's moral failures, and that he is depending on his reader's antipathy to McCarthyism to secure sympathy for a character who does not deserve it.
Nevertheless, the book presents a vivid and accurate picture of some aspect of Canadian life in the Thirties, and for this it deserves more praise than most reviewers have given it…. And there is irony in Gordon's story throughout, in his misinterpretations of situations and events, his feeble efforts to help, and his eventual rejection by all his revolutionary friends as a "summer-time" rebel….
It seems to me that Turvey is too undisciplined to be a firstrate novel, and too bookish to be a popular account of military experiences.
Birney describes it as a military picaresque. The picaresque takes a character through a number of situations which usually offer opportunities for comic or satiric exposure, and in so doing builds up a picture of the society the character lives in. Birney restricts himself to one half of the military world—the base details. His novel deals with holding units and army hospitals; the combatant part of the army does not come in, since Turvey never really reaches it. In a sense, Turvey is an exposure of this behind-the-lines part of the military system. Turvey wants to get to the Sharp End of the salient held by the Canadian Army; the reinforcement system is so self-defeating that it keeps him at the Blunt End. But this satiric pattern is not followed consistently throughout the book. For one thing, Turvey is greatly to blame for his own misfortunes. Also, he is not always the little man buffetted about by the system; at times, he is the lucky fellow who lands on his feet, the man who finds a friend just when he needs help most. The book does not hold together as a satire of the military system or as a dramatic conflict between the little man and the impersonal system; instead it remains a collection of broad army stories….
In all these episodes, however, the author seems to put comic effect ahead of satire. In many of them, no one is being attacked; the interest lies in the comic involvements of Private Turvey….
[In addition,] inconsistency is to be found in the style…. Since the book contains a prefatory apology for its down-to-earth language, the reader does not expect imagistic description…. [When it appears] he begins to watch for variations in style. He finds that they are considerable; in fact, an occasional passage sounds as if it had come from another book….
[There] is probably as much in the book derived from the author's reading as from his own experience. His Mac talks very much like Dickens' Jingle…. Some other parts of the book follow less worthy models [including] … Victorian sentimental fiction…. Evidently the author has not decided what kind of book he is writing, and he changes his mind from page to page. Turvey, therefore, is not a thorough-going satire, it suffers from the Canadian novelist's usual difficulties with plot, and it shows the usual interference of things read with things imagined or seen.
D. J. Dooley, in Queen's Quarterly (reprinted by permission of D. J. Dooley and Queen's Quarterly), 64, 1958.
Birney has always been ready to wear the mask and motley of the clown, in prose and in verse, but he has generally avoided the easy and empty facetiousness of the professional literary funny man; his comedy, whether one encounters it in the sardonic setting of Trial of a City, or in a brief hilarious poem like "Mammorial Stunzas for Aimee Simple McFarcin," or in Turvey …, is rather of the type—full of verbal quippery and social implication—that we once associated with the Marx Brothers. It is stringent, intelligent, irreverent, and a little irascible.
Turvey in fact carries us in many ways far outside the province of "Canadian humour" and equally far outside the Canadian literary situation in its more narrowly local sense. It is a novel about Canada and Canadians, written in a variety of Canadian dictions and exposing with a telling modicum of exaggeration what happens when a still youthful democracy finds itself rather bewilderingly caught in the mêlée of total war, which at times approximates to total chaos. But it expands into a world both geographically wider and historically deeper than the Canada of the Second World War….
The episodes are what really make the novel, as they do all picaresques…. Clearly here is no realistic portrait of the artist in uniform; on the other hand, some of Turvey's experiences certainly parallel very closely some of Birney's….
Turvey is not intended as a novel of psychological development; the environment changes, the episodes pile up, but Turvey and his companions pass through them fundamentally unchanged…. [The] whole point of the novel is that it ends showing Turvey as the natural man triumphant, having survived all the numbering and testing and regimenting and bullying and discipline and short-arm inspecting to emerge in the end as irrepressibly his own self as Sancho Panza at the end of the trials of governorship….
As in all good comedies, the right side wins; Turvey triumphant is Man victorious. In terms of orthodox novelwriting, the whole idea is dense with didactic perils; if one treats it as that literary maverick, a poet's novel, it comes off—a gay but angry tract for the times.
George Woodcock, "Introduction to 'Turvey'" (reprinted by permission of George Woodcock and Queen's Quarterly), in Queen's Quarterly, 64, 1958.
Birney's poems fall into five categories: descriptions of nature, satires, those dealing with war—either imminent or actual—love poems, and those built on narrative or dramatic situations involving one or more of the other four. Thematically, however, they overlap without clear lines of distinction; always they are autobiographical and extremely personal.
The central theme in almost all of Birney's poetry is Love, and the most dominant symbol, as well as the controlling image, War. Reiterated throughout the major portion of his poetry, these dichotomous extremes of human impulse mirror the ironic and ambiguous role of man in a universe over which he is never quite master, even in his greatest moments of triumph, and of which, even in his most miserable failures, he is never quite pawn. Caught up in the Puritanical dilemma of sin and responsibility, mankind has at its disposal only Universal Love to combat the atavism inherent both in nature and in humanity itself. Birney's message, following consistently a recurring pattern of idealized optimism and hope, fear, and idealized disillusionment and pessimism, might be succinctly phrased in Auden's similar admonition: "We must love one another or die."… The simplicity of Birney's dominant and persistent theme is intensified and made doubly poignant by the present forces which threaten mankind. War having become nearly obsolete, self-preservation must give way to the higher course of universal love, for man is faced not only with the destruction of his individual self but with the possible annihilation of his species as well.
Birney's poetry is obviously didactic, but rarely in the pejorative sense, for it seldom preaches. A personal involvement in mankind's dilemma, and in the inevitable seeking for solution, prevents the poet's offering patented panaceas for mankind's (and therefore his own) ills; rather, he extends a prophetic hope that tomorrow—if, remembering yesterday, we, living today, are willing to prepare for the future—may be better…. It is the breadth of the solution offered by the poet—a broad humanism positing individual involvement and responsibility combined with an insistence on the absolute autonomy of the human will, expressed with masculine forcefulness in both imagery and diction—that protects Birney from the snare of sentimental didacticism…. Desmond Pacey is undoubtedly right when he says [in Ten Canadian Poets] that Birney's greatest strength as a poet lies in his "capacity movingly and convincingly to express a persistent faith in man's power to make or unmake his own destiny"….
"David" is regarded by most critics as Birney's finest poem, by many as a masterpiece in its own right. In "David" the close caps perfectly a series of near climaxes, and in the final line—"That day, the last of my youth, on the last of our mountains"—there is truly magic…. So often in Birney's poetry the greatness of an individual line or lines completely overshadows the poem as a whole. In "David" this is not true; the climactic close reinforces and enriches all that precedes it….
[Birney] is first of all a verse experimentalist who almost always stimulates opposite reactions in different critics. Birney's chief poetic flaw lies in a strong academic tendency which leads, on the one hand, to the experimental transfer of archaic meter and diction to such poems as "Anglosaxon Street" and "Mappemounde" and the introduction of Long Will of Langland to "Trial of a City", and on the other, to a complexity of diction and an elliptical succinctness that makes his poetry, superficially at least, obscure. The principal quality of Birney's poetry is undoubtedly its sharp pictorial imagery, abetted by a sensitive and acute feeling for both the sound and the meaning of words.
W. E. Fredeman, "Earle Birney: Poet" (reprinted by permission of W. E. Fredeman), in British Columbia Library Quarterly, 23, 1960.
The poet in this poet-professor has always delightedly fastened upon the unfamiliar: not to show off with, not because the Pacific Coast bores him or because he finds the ordinary too difficult, but because he has always been something of an animist. For him the temperate Canadian pastoral kept leaping into pageantry, bestiary and something close to the heraldic. We could liken him to his favourite Chaucer: voracious for the detail of contemporary life and yet, while musing on and exposing foible, lunging after ghosts, the miraculous or the shimmering timeless…. And the key to Birney's power, as to the disciplines and rigours he has imposed on himself, is his urge towards myth. This is why his Canadian pastorals never quite succeed. Because he is a lover of myth, he tends naturally to the dislocated reality of mountaineering and the lost reality of the Indians; for instance, the title-poem of his first book of poems, David and Other Poems (1942), is peculiarly diffuse yet crammed with exact data. The data is placed exactly nowhere…. One might call it the inevitable Canadian metaphor, this siting of particulars in the vast blank. And whatever one calls it—whatever it tells us specially of Canada—it keeps falling short….
Ice Cod Bell or Stone is a conspectus of the poet's honesty while he strives to be more than a tourist in a world of gaudy surfaces and fraying skins. No-one anywhere is treated more impersonally than the tourist, and this book is a record of being a geographical and spiritual tourist. Observe the names, weird and unfriendly, which populate the Mexican reservation in this volume: Najarít, Ajijíc, Irapuato, Pachucan, Tepoztlán, Tehauntepec. This poet responds acutely to the out-of-the-way; apart from the twelve poems about Mexico, which must almost all of them rank among his best, there are many novel themes or points of departure: a bear on the Delhi road, Captain Cook, El Greco, a tavern by the Hellespont, Ellesmereland, Kyoto, a Bangkok boy, two poems by Mao Tsetung, Wake Island, Honolulu, Yellowstone, and (that telling mutilation) Aimee Simple McFarcin. By contrast the few Canadian poems seem less mature: quiet demonstrations of fidelity tucked in between bouts with seductive haunts where life is more intense….
"It is not easy to free", one poem says, "myth from reality"; we might have expected that from Birney. It is no surprise either that he appears with just a few poems on a country whose main reality is the Great Outdoors, and then seeks ballast in more storied countries. And yet, even allowing that he has a distinct point to make about being at home abroad and yet never belonging there, I feel some-what uneasy about Ice Cod Bell or Stone. I feel prompted to ask: Has he done as ingeniously, as vividly, as boldly, by Canada as he might have done?… Surely when a poet has so brilliant a technique as Birney has, it is a pity that he doesn't focus on the homely palpable, the squalid next-door.
I can't help thinking Ice Cod Bell or Stone a bit of a poet's holiday; I might even say an excursion into idyll—not idyll in the absolute sense but, comparatively speaking, idyll in the sense that the exotic (as Byron proved) makes more impact for less work. In other words, Birney has got a start from the exotic and redeemed himself by displaying so magnificent a technique that we know he never needs the exotic anyway. The over-familiar will serve him just as well; and it is surely the over-familiar that the poet has to teach us to see as if we have never encountered it before. Here is a man who has gone abroad and shot scores of zebras, impala and elephant because, it seems, his guns cannot touch moose….
With less documentary purpose and more panache [Down the Long Table] might have been a disturbing and savage book. Birney separates his chapters with excerpts from newspapers, and this Dos Passos technique surely belongs in his poetry too. It proves he has some feeling for life's miscellaneous and kaleidoscopic quality and therefore too for such techniques as we find in poets as different as Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Pound. (Obviously Birney has enjoyed and learned from his Joyce; Aimee Simple McFarcin comes to us by that route.) Down the Long Table also reveals a flair, as I suggested earlier apropos of "Anglosaxon Street", for the motion and feel of life: a wilder Chaucer. And this flair, combined with the by no means idealizing or evasive eye intently turned on Mexico in Ice Cod Bell or Stone, is just what most Canadian poets lack….
Ice, cod, bell and stone belie the book, are more pastoral than the symbols Birney manages best, and more Canadian-sounding than the book's contents. They remind us that the most characteristically Canadian thing is the Canadian landscape; cities, on the other hand, merge together. One would like to see Birney at the automat or the supermarket; if he can tackle a diaper, as he does in the present collection, then the rest is easy. Our civilization is unlikely to restore itself to a life based exclusively on groundroots and the pasturing of animals.
Paul West, "Earle Birney and the Compound Ghost" (reprinted by permission of Paul West and Canadian Literature), in Canadian Literature, 13, 1962.
[Birney's] older poems dealt with the particular, universalizing it, allowing us to glimpse the desperation behind much of human existence. Only now and again could one see the poet himself, moving behind and among his poems.
Earle Birney believes there was more rhetoric in those early pieces than in later poems. If so, it was a rock-hard rhetoric. Little of the personal; concepts particularized; an unsentimental bite to words; many times a deployment of language to permit unstinting attack.
The poems of Near False Creek Mouth are very different. The situation and feeling have become personal. What Birney calls 'rhetoric' in early books has disappeared. He is 'inside' these poems, tho the abstract and conceptual mind retains its full and active force.
I've always felt Birney could write a poem about a doorknob if he felt like it. But earlier it might have been a doorknob signifying the door between adolescence and maturity, say; or between one age and another, perhaps in the person of Isaac Newton opening a heavy portal. Now, however, it is Birney's own hand on the doorknob, and it signifies transition between the two Birneys.
I know quite well that the batter or reviewer should keep his eye on the ball, i.e., current poems. But I can't, and must keep looking at all the poems, a little fascinated by change itself. And I resist strongly the temptation to say earlier or later poems were/are better.
However, in reviewers' jargon, Birney's 'technical' powers are increased. He is more fluid and sharply observant than ever. Okay. The doorknob parallel holds; these are poems of Birney's maturity. And I don't mean senescence.
Most of the earlier tragic qualities are gone. Immediate impact is somewhat lessened. For instance, a leisurely philosophic walk around False Creek suffers dramatically by comparison with the same man waiting for the forces of war to overwhelm his 'winking outpost' on the edge of night. Yet both are real. And let's not get into inane semantics of real, realer and realest—or is it realist?
The impression I want to leave in this review is that here's another chapter in the continuing wonder of being Earle Birney. It would be a good thing to read the other chapters too, for only part of the man is visible now unless you also look at the past. (pp. 132-33)
A. W. Purdy, "'Near False Creek Mouth' (1964)" (originally published as "A Pair of 10-Foot Concrete Shoes," in Fiddlehead, 65, 1965), in Earle Birney, edited by Bruce Nesbitt (copyright © McGraw-Hill-Ryerson Ltd., 1974), McGraw-Hill-Ryerson, 1974, pp. 132-33.
Birney has always liked to be both a very local and a very global poet. The two-part division of The Strait of Anian (1948) made that clear long ago. In Near False Creek Mouth the identity of home and world is unmistakably built into the patterns of each….
I'm also remembering Birney's war poetry of the forties with its sense of involvement from the western edge of things, its Canadian scapegoats for a war they never made and yet were somehow responsible for: in short, its equivocal relations between (and even identity of) guilt and innocence. In Near False Creek Mouth Birney plays the role of innocent surrogate for the sins of the wide world with charm and comic timing, no less than high seriousness. "Meeting of Strangers," in which, with a ballet leap and a taxi ex machina, he escapes being skewered by "somebody big/redshirted young dark unsmiling" in the Port of Spain dockyard at dead of night, is a masterpiece of tone and staging. The book ends with "Arrivals," a powerful poem about a level-crossing death on the Wolfville-Halifax run in a blinding snowstorm. The dead man's legal papers scattered in the snow (he was driving to the Wolfville assizes), the bland, innocent diesel-face of the train, the passengers' defensive comments and obscure sense of implication, the irrationality of the death and of the sudden blizzard itself, and finally the corpse's long-fingered, legalistic hand, which the blanket is unable to cover, add up to one of Birney's best treatments of an obsessive theme.
Milton Wilson, in University of Toronto Quarterly (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Quarterly), 34, 1965.
[The] poems on Mexico, Peru, and the Caribbean islands … are not only among the finest of Birney's poems; they are just simply and plainly, man, the finest. The new style that some of our West Coast poets learned from Olson, Creeley, and the Black Mountain writers (and from Birney himself, I suspect) has here been put to uses that transcend the personal and the purely emotional….
When these poems are compared with even the best of the poems of the early forties that make up the next part of [his Selected Poems] ("War Winters") we see how great and how sure has been Birney's development as a craftsman in poetry, a development which depends upon and expresses a development in intellectual and emotional maturity. Perhaps this growth in maturity is the achievement of originality, the setting free of a unique poetic personality that after years of work has at last found itself and its true voice. This is not to be taken to mean that such well-known early poems as "Hands", "Vancouver Lights", and "Dusk on the Bay" are not sincere and accurate expressions of what a Canadian felt in the dark days of 1939 and 1940. But it is easier to see now than it was then that they speak with the voices of Auden, Rex Warner, or Stephen Spender, as we feel they might have recalled Rupert Brooke had they been written in 1915. They are true to their time rather than to a unique person, and they are not, therefore, without their own kind of historical significance….
In the next section, "Canada: Case History", Birney has grouped those poems, some of them satirical but most of them serious and, indeed, "devout", in which he has come to grips with the problem of what it means to be Canadian and what it is to be a Canadian poet. Viewed as a problem this theme has become something of a nervous obsession, and Birney, like Scott and some others, is at his best when he approaches it obliquely and allows his hawk's eye and his adder's tongue to do the work for him. Everything that is really important is conveyed in the imagery and the diction….
"November Walk" is a rich meditative ode-like poem that gathers up the themes of the long series of descriptive, narrative, and reflective poems set in or near Vancouver … and finally and on a much larger scale achieves what the poet had been groping for from the start of his career—an orientation of himself and his place and his time in terms that are both emotionally and rationally satisfying. This poem stands with the poems on Mexico and Peru as the high water mark of Birney's achievement up to now. Most encouraging of all, it gives promise of fine things still to come, for it shows the poet has found a style commensurate with the theme he has approached in many different ways in many different poems—man's effort as microcosm to come to terms with society, nature, and the macrocosm in the brief moment of allotted time….
The fifth section of Selected Poems, headed rather journalistically "Letter to a Conceivable Great-Grandson", is the least successful part of the book. It is a somewhat haphazard collection of pieces on the threat of atomic extinction and the ironies and confusions inherent in the world of cold-war distrust and science-fiction posturing. The point of view is liberal and humane, and the sentiments are those which all decent men must share…. Perhaps its most successful accomplishment is to demonstrate the futility of poetry as propaganda and drive home the corollary that action alone is adequate….
"Damnation of Vancouver"… forms the final section of this book. Originally published as Trial of a City in 1952, it was recognized as one of the most original and technically accomplished of Birney's poems, a tour de force of linguistic virtuosity and a satire as biting as anything in Canadian literature. It marked a distinct advance on the simple and unified narrative "David", mingling as it did the colloquial and the grand styles and the satirical and the affirmative modes. It thus anticipates the South and Central American poems of the sixties and fuses perfectly for the first time in Birney's work the two themes that Northrop Frye has named as central to Canadian poetry, "one a primarily comic theme of satire and exuberance, the other a primarily tragic theme of loneliness and terror."…
Earle Birney is one of our major poets, perhaps since the death of E. J. Pratt our leading poet. Certainly he is the only rival of Pratt as the creator of heroic narrative on a bold scale and, unlike Pratt, he has been consistently experimental. He has not always been successful, and he has sometimes aped styles and fashions that are unworthy of his real talents; but without a somewhat boyish spirit of adventure his successes would have been impossible too. The real triumph of Selected Poems is that it demonstrates so clearly and forcibly—as does indeed the whole of Birney's career—a unified personality of great charm, wit, strength, and generosity. I recall Louis MacNeice's description of the modern poet. I have quoted it before, but it fits the poet I have been discussing so well that I can think of no better words to end with. "I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions …". This is the man I know, and the poet who rises out of this book.
A.J.M. Smith, "A Unified Personality: Birney's Poems" (reprinted by permission of A.J.M. Smith and Canadian Literature), in Canadian Literature, 30, 1966.
The more Birney you read, the less he looks like anybody else. His asymmetrical, bulky, unpredictable accumulation of poems gathers individuality as it grows. In context even the least distinguished members start to seem unlikely and even independent. For a poet so unmistakably of his own time and place, he is a surprisingly free agent. Certainly no influential contemporary has ever taught him how to iron out any local idiosyncrasies and unfashionable commonplaces that he preferred to keep. He has learned only what he wanted and at his own speed. Any inescapable influence of his generation that he found irrelevant (T. S. Eliot, for example), he has managed to escape completely. What gives his work distinctiveness, I suppose, is not so much its originality as its mixture of openness and stubbornness, of cleverness and provinciality, even the way it sometimes stumbles over its own reality, like that half-teachable bear [of "The Bear on the Delhi Road"]….
Birney's vocal virtuosity hasn't seemed out of place in the more recent worlds of "articulate energy" and "projective verse", or on the p.a. circuit. But he can't be confused with the new virtuosos of breath and syntax, and his academic context certainly predates structural linguistics. There's also something a bit old-fashioned about his taste for "phonetic" spelling; it doesn't help much for Birney to write "damnear" or "billyuns," when nobody says "damn near" or "billions" anyway. I suppose that it all justifies itself, in that without it the "Billboards" and "Diaper" poems couldn't have been written at all, but they remind me a bit of the easy old days when all a writer had to do to present his readers with a recognizable substandard dialect was to spell their own standard dialect as they really pronounced it. Birney's phonetic technique works best with an exotic like the speaker in that delightful monologue "Sinaloa". The people who strike my ear most successfully, however, receive no such phonetic help, like the two-tongued Colombian bookseller in "Cartagena de Indias", which (if I had to make a choice) I would call his finest poem.
Birney's other notational idiosyncrasies interest me far more than his spelling. Except for a few poems (notably "David", "The Damnation of Vancouver" and the translations) and a few special places within poems (mainly conversations), instead of using the conventional comma, semicolon, colon and period as rhetorical and syntactic signposts, he now relies mainly on spacing and lineation, and has revised his old poems accordingly.
He is not (so the Preface [of Selected Poems 1940–1966] tells us) trying to facilitate immediate and accurate reading or comprehension by these changes; on the contrary, his aim is "the art of indefinitely delayed communication—Infinite Ambiguity." I don't know how seriously to take these last phrases; I do know that the new ambiguity is real enough, and in a few cases results in a new awkwardness….
Birney is in some respects a very Chaucerian kind of poet. That cliché deserves its wider application too. To begin with, there is his basic impersonality. You can learn practically nothing about him as a private person from his published poems. Self-revelation or self-analysis is not his business. And yet, like Chaucer, and increasingly with age, he enjoys offering us a kind of persona in the foreground: the innocent scapegoat of "Meeting of Strangers", the aging and garlanded ram of "Twenty-third Flight", the absurdly grateful initiate of "Cartagena de Indias".
Milton Wilson, "Poet Without a Muse" (reprinted by permission of Canadian Literature), in Canadian Literature, 30, 1966.
As Birney tells us, all but eight of the ninety-nine pieces [in Selected Poems] "are altered from their first printing"; altered, indeed, several times in some cases, as anyone who looks through the past volumes and sees some of these poems appearing time and again, will have realised. This sense that the future is always open, that nothing written is ever quite finished while its author is still alive, is one of Birney's special characteristics as a writer….
This attitude towards his work can tell us a great deal about Birney as a poet, and particularly it helps to explain the feel as much as the content of his writing—and he is too sharply intellectual a poet for us ever to be lulled into under-estimating the latter. It helps also to explain the image of Birney that has arisen in the minds of so many of his readers, the image of the late but speedy starter…. But, as anyone who studies the dates which are honestly appended to the pieces in Selected Poems will realise, Birney was not in fact a late starter. Some of the poems, though revised later, were first written forty-five years ago, and quite a number, including—one is surprised to be reminded—"Mammorial Stunzas for Aimée Simple McFarcin," during the 1930's. Indeed, what does impress me about Birney's career is not a sense of late blossoming, of chrysanthemums precariously daring the first frosts, but rather an almost unique combination of tenacity and freshness….
Birney has always been a humanising landscapist, and for me, an incurable moralising traveller, the most congenial of his poems are those in which he combines his topographical flair with his sense of history and his power of conveying the immediacy of present experience. This he does magnificently in "Machu Picchu", where the precipitous heights of the Peruvian mountains and the vaulting darknesses of the past form the incongruous setting for a meeting of four assorted tourists….
George Woodcock, "Turning New Leaves" (reprinted by permission of Canadian Forum), in Canadian Forum, 46, 1966.
Turning to the substance of the Selected Poems, we find that the main alteration Mr Birney has made in his work is perfectly evident to us without any reference to the earlier texts. He has removed all the punctuation. Or rather, he has substituted one method of punctuation for another; or, more precisely still, he has substituted a method of punctuation which he very deficiently understands for a method which he probably understood rather well…. No one can justly object to any poet using any convention of punctuation he chooses, provided he understands it and uses it well. Here we are faced with something entirely different…. Mr Birney is insensitive to the actual value of space in the typographical re-presentation of a poem. For what do his spaces accomplish? Exactly what his commas, semi-colons, and period accomplished, except that the spaces are harder to read and distractive…. Mr Birney says that he has learned his method of space-punctuation "willingly" from younger poets, but I wonder who they are. If there are young Canadian poets who use spaces the way Mr Birney does, they must be remarkably obscure. George Bowering, André Major, and Paul Chamberland, among others, have used spaces within lines, but sparingly and never, I think, in lieu of other punctuation; while in the U.S. various poets, notably Gary Snyder and Robert Duncan, have used space to indicate a pause within the line which cannot be indicated by conventional punctuation. But Mr Birney did not need to turn to his juniors. William Carlos Williams began experimenting with the uses of space in the late Thirties, I believe, and Ezra Pound even before that. The point is that space can be used to do something which cannot be done otherwise, and this is its appropriate use; Mr Birney seems unaware of it.
What Mr Birney has done, on the other hand, has no reasonable explanation whatever. It is prosodic fiddle-faddle.
Even so, we could take it if the poems were good enough: the authority of a good poem drives everything before it, putting us, while we search out the goodness, to glad offence and joyful exasperation; as we have seen in our time often enough. Unfortunately Mr Birney's poems lack this authority. I judge from his datelines that he has travelled a good deal, and his poems have the traveller's superficiality. Most of them spring from a particular occasion; something arrests Mr Birney's eye—women in a marketplace, dandelions beside a brook, old ladies on a summer verandah—it can be almost anything. He describes it for us, usually in a forced, artful diction, and then at the end tacks on his own feeling about what he has described, usually sociological in nature. Of the hundred poems in his book, I would guess that eighty conform to this pattern. In short, they are sermons-from-stones poems. The pattern is an exceedingly common one, of course, that has plagued poets for hundreds of years, so that it is almost second nature for people who wish to contrive a poem to let their thoughts fall into three parts. In the first the poet shows us the stone as he has first seen it; in the middle part he walks around the stone and gives us the varying views; and at the end he gives us the sermon. Now no one would be foolish enough to deny that a few splendid poems have been written in this pattern, especially by the English Romantics. But how few!… When Eliot invented the 'objective correlative', he placed as much emphasis on the second term as on the first; an object less than completely correlated with the poet's feeling would be no object at all, poetically speaking. But the correlation of object and feeling, of language and intention, in most of Mr Birney's poems is uncertain, to say the least. Many of his poems have the air of having been 'worked up' from meagre beginnings: worked up, worked over, and—too often—worked out.
Mr Birney's best poem—and I think this is significant—is the long poem called 'David', which is an uncharacteristic poem for him because it is a narrative, the only out-and-out narrative in his book. Here the correlation I speak of is unavoidable; the 'story' demands it. The language is mostly apt and restrained, the rhythmic pattern works well, the substance is simple and original…. Two or three of Mr Birney's conventional lyrics, which no amount of space-punctuation can de-conventionalize, are charming and workable; such poems as 'From the Hazel Bough' and 'Wind Chimes in a Temple Ruin'. Among his satires I find two especially that are taut and sharp and bright, 'Billboards Build Freedom of Choice' and 'Canada: Case History', but others, like 'Ballad of Mr Chubb', are simply banal. The long poem called 'November Walk near False Creek Mouth' is too long and a good deal too imitative to be ultimately interesting, though it contains some engaging passages. (pp. 159-62)
Hayden Carruth, "Up, Over, and Out: The Poetry of Distraction" (originally published in The Tamarack Review, 42, 1967), in Earle Birney, edited by Bruce Nesbitt (copyright © McGraw-Hill-Ryerson Ltd., 1974), McGraw-Hill-Ryerson, 1974, pp. 157-63.
"concrete" or "experimental" poetry concerns itself with a return to the simpler elements of language. for birney this has meant a return to the ear, and a search for some way to orchestrate for it. (p. 171)
okay so how does he go about it. early things like "shetland grandaunt" show an awareness of dialectic, of accent, and accent is the key here. enhancement, he wants to show the rise and fall of the human voice so he lets the line rise and fall, regrettably (as always) his critics go confused. (i remember reading a review once in which the reviewer chastised him for wasting his time with "foolish typewriter experiments"). but it moves on from there. "alaska passage" gives us the actual flow of his mind, words working their way thru the riots of impression left by the trip, sprayed on the page, their million voices talking to you at once leaving you gasping for cool air "to slide its bones in a green tide". a double-layered poem. linear to describe a linear voyage. simultaneous to describe the mind's working, to put you in the poet's mind, into the living process of poetry. and there it is. the visual used to accent the linear massage, the senses brought into use by the poet's fingers providing alternative routes into and out of the act of poetry. visual & semantic content.
these are acts of giving. the poet allowing you into the flow of his mind, into the creation of poetry. accept them in the spirit they are given and so much could be learned. birney is one hell of an artist and he's trying to describe some roots your mind could try, directions to explore. for your own sake listen!! (pp. 171-72)
bp nichol, "Introduction to Pnomes, Jukollages & Other Stunzas" (originally published in grOnk, Series 4, no. 3, 1969), in Earle Birney, edited by Bruce Nesbitt (copyright © McGraw-Hill-Ryerson Ltd., 1974), McGraw-Hill-Ryerson, 1974, pp. 171-72.
Earle Birney is … a poet who would single out courage as a chief virtue…. It tends to be a stoic or a pagan variety….
From "David" to "ARRIVALS Wolfville," Birney is preoccupied with the problem posed by death, with the meaning or justice of a world that moves with such power and such magnificence towards obscure destinations, indifferent in its progress to the carnage left behind in its wake. In both the above poems, the hand of the dead or dying, whether the victim has been smashed on the mountain's rock or on a locomotive's steel, hooks into Birney's conscience like the hand of Job….
When Birney looks at nature he is struck by "the cobra sea and the mongoose wind," and by the great flint of the mountain which come singing into the heart. The human situation is imaged in "Mappemounde" as that of a man voyaging in a frail ark through a hostile sea, a sea hardly distinguishable from the devouring Leviathan who swims there. At best, life is an exploration and adventure. But, like Captain Cook, each man sinks to explore his last reef with the spear in his back. The awareness of final annihilation permeates Birney's poetry.
"November Walk Near False Creek Mouth" is one of the longest of the meditations on the human condition, and it is focussed precisely on the nothingness that lies behind the whole vast process and that appears to await all things. [The] moment is poised between winter and summer, day and night; it is a period of inactivity and relaxation. During the lull in the perpetual struggle to defend and create, the speaker pauses to contemplate, in a larger perspective than usual, the process in which he and the city, here between the mountains and the sea, are inevitably caught. What strikes him most is that even in this moment of quiet there is no security; no final victory over the forces of time can be hoped for….
Before this final oblivion, Birney here adopts a tone of quiet acceptance, and upon his fellow man, who wittingly or unwittingly must share this fate, he appears to look with an ironic or wry compassion. But Birney's attitude towards a destructive or hostile universe, as expressed throughout much of his work, is neither the withdrawal of Roberts nor the affirmation of Pratt; it is rather a vigorous defiance….
Still, distrustful of man and distrustful of nature, Birney tends to walk with vigilance through a world of strangers, where courage and ingenuity are primarily defensive….
Real communion is rare in Birney's poetry. In the poem "For George Lamming," he is surprised, for example, to discover that he has temporarily lost his identity as a white man, and with it his isolation; he has become one with a dark circle of friends whose goodwill or acceptance has allowed him for a time to forget himself. It is only later, when he looks in the mirror, that he remembers his difference and realizes their generosity, their charity or love.
As often as not, the courage displayed in Birney's poems is a stoic courage which defies death rather than a Christian courage which accepts it. It is not, except in a few poems, the courage of Gethsemane. "El Greco: Espolio" is instructive. It is not accidental that in looking at this crucifixion scene, Birney found his eye drawn to the carpenter preparing the cross, rather than to the carpenter's son who is to hang there.
D. G. Jones, "The Courage to Be" (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press), in Butterfly on Rock, University of Toronto Press, 1970.
One of Birney's current interests is spacialism, or as he calls … poems [in Rag & Bone Shop], "visuals"—works which exploit the various possibilities of the page. Sometimes his visuals take their formal contours arbitrarily from the object of focus: a building, trees along a shoreline, a flight of stairs, or the map of Upper Canada, the initial effect being to disrupt the usual linear sequence of linguistic units. That is, the habitual patterns of the letters, syllables, morphemes and words are broken up, allowing the freed elements to participate in newly constellated relationships that form in the eye of the reader, with references and images building up simultaneously or cyclically to generate the cumulative experience of the poem….
For those whose poetic taste does not extend to visual iconography there is a variety of other material in this collection. In respect to much of this material, Birney's title seems particularly well chosen, especially if one keeps in mind the original Yeats context, which went something like this—"Now that my ladder's gone/I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul Rag and Bone Shop of my heart". Yeats was referring to the primal deposit of sensation and memory that was the lyric core of his creative being. And so, in keeping with this image, Birney's collection is predominantly lyrical, with many of the poems treating the subject of love or personal relationships. (pp. 180-81)
Lionel Kearns, "'Rag & Bone Shop' (1971)" (originally published in Georgia Straight, March, 1971), in Earle Birney, edited by Bruce Nesbitt (copyright © McGraw-Hill-Ryerson Ltd., 1974), McGraw-Hill-Ryerson, 1974, pp. 179-82.
In [the] longer poems that describe places he has been, Birney is an acute observer and, subsequently, a relator of what he sees. But moments of experience happen to Birney—he is a passive observer walking through his chosen landscapes: he becomes active only as an interpreter of these points in time and space. And if the territory is not entirely alien, at least it is refreshing. He treats his world as animistic—San Francisco, Ameliasburg, the New Zealand dialect all come alive because they are alive, and it is to his credit that he sees them as such. It is when he stops describing and tries to manipulate the animism, to compact his experience into a less verbose poetry, that he misses his chance at the "miracle."
In poems about buildings written in the shape of buildings, poems written in circles to suggest eddies, and those like "up her can nada" (a map of Ontario with simple political comments attached) there is very little depth for the reader to draw on—these concrete poems contain the assumption that the linear aspect of poetry is not alive and to make it so one must make pictures with words. But they defeat their own purpose for, in giving his close attention to the word antics, the reader remains firmly rooted to the printed page. He remembers, perhaps, what he saw (shapes, etc.) but because there is more effort than imagination involved, the memory has little meaning. Concrete poetry, in Birney's case, is a placing of style before content, and the content suffers as a result. To wrench a word out of the usual straight line format might well be an "act of insurrection," but unless there is a deeper meaning than change of style it parallels the static act of revolution for revolution's sake.
Andy Wainwright, in Saturday Night (reprinted by permission of Saturday Night), in Saturday Night, 86, May, 1971.
In Earle Birney's … Rag & Bone Shop, there is, as the title suggests, something to suit the taste of most readers of poetry. It includes a considerable variety of forms and tones: the limerick, pastiche, allegory, narrative and reflective poems, found poems, concrete or "shapomes". The latter category has majority status in this volume and a first glance through the book serves to inform the reader that the emphasis is on visual effects and ideas which the poet attributes to the influence of bp nichol and his generation who turned him on, presumably to the importance of experimentation with the combination of linguistic and graphic art. Perhaps Birney would have been fairer to himself to note that what bp nichol and his generation have done is to stimulate certain tendencies which are deeply rooted in Birney's career. Poems such as "Anglosaxon Street", "Mappemounde", and the verse play, Trial of a City (1952), give ample testimony to his interest in verbal juggling, and Ice Cod Bell and Stone (1962) [provides] examples of extensive experimentation with visual effects….
[The poems that demonstrate the interplay of linguistics and design] seem to emphasize the fun of experimenting with words and shapes and of breaking through semantic barriers, but they do not represent the best of this volume, nor do they reflect the strengths of Earle Birney as a poet. His strengths are still reflected in the narrative and meditative modes in which his ability as keen observer and listener and his lively sense of the ironic and ridiculous in human behaviour are well revealed. Such strengths are manifested in several poems in this volume, particularly in "the mammoth corridors", "in purdy's ameliasburg", "four feet between" and "kiwis".
While the concrete poems in this collection represent an elaboration of Birney's long-standing interest in visual effects and word play, the meditative and narrative poems serve to reinforce other facets of his work, both in terms of technique and theme….
It is in such poems as … "Cartagena De Indias" and "A Walk in Kyoto" that we discover Birney's foreign travels to be opportunities for walks into brotherhood.
One hopes for more such poems from Birney. They excel in ironic and humorous tone and detail, and skillful rendition of setting and colloquial flavour. Birney's flare for encountering the ridiculous and the redeeming in human nature makes such work always fresh and enlightening.
Carl Ballstadt, "'Rag & Bone Shop' (1971)" (reprinted by permission of Canadian Forum), in Canadian Forum, 51, July-August, 1971.
Earle Birney is not to be judged as a Canadian poet. In his best work Canada often provides the landscape for his fable or the referents of his argument, but never the limits of his language and imagination….
Birney may be the single important living poet strongly influenced by Chaucer. Although he distrusts the American juggernaut, he has obviously learnt some of his habits from Whitman, Frost and Cummings; and if he read much Hardy and Auden when he was young, he also read Dickinson, MacLeish and Jeffers.
Birney's willingness to experiment with too many verse forms, and his passion for mimicking other men's speeches, might imply that the poet hesitates to devote himself steadily and perhaps narrowly to the contemplation of his own insights—hesitates to speak, as he would say, "out of the depth of himself".
Yet no poet draws upon a richer vocabulary—literary and colloquial, archaic and ephemeral, scientific and common. Few poets can handle so wide a range of rhythmic patterns so expressively. Even fewer have Birney's skill in dramatizing an action or anecdote. His ability to capture every level or variety of English speech is at least as rare. Only his ironic humour belongs to many modern poets; but in the others it does not always support that immense sympathy with the suffering and the voiceless which gives Birney his authority….
Falling rhythms particularly animate the poet's energy; and one associates this skill with his closeness to Old and Middle English verse.
"Poems for the Poor," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 26, 1973, p. 1306.
[Birney] is, like his own country, and in spite of the oppressive presence of the giant to the south, distinctively individual in tone and ethos and, yet, in keeping with Canada's mixed origins and manifold connections with the world, remarkably open and international in sympathy….
Even in his earliest verse we can see his essential poetic qualifications, a gift for cut and graven detail, a flowing empathy and a natural rhythm in which the breathing meets the sense to produce an evolving, living line. Impressive miniatures of these powers are "Slug in Woods" and "Aluroid". (p. 27)
Landscape is a traditional theme in Canadian poetry, a fact which is hardly surprising in a country so physically over-whelming and so variously beautiful as Canada, where even today life is intimately harnessed to the rhythms of the climate and the seasons…. [Birney's] successful poems in this kind compose a poetic geography of Canada defining its bone, frame, moods and treacheries…. He evokes in each of these poems the natural world in process: the verbs are continuous, there is a sense of a stirring molecular activity implicit in the stoniest, harshest landscape, the mountains are weathering, the rooms lighting, the dampness steams. At the same time something enduring in the country matches something stubborn in the poet. Birney's sensibility has, indeed, a hard and cobbled quality, a strength which does not forbid sensitivity and delicate registration but which sustains and toughens them. (pp. 27-8)
What is clear … is that it is a central fact of human existence for Birney that man exists in a state of stoic detachment from the supporting earth, from his neighbours, from everything. In the candid and occasionally tetchy preface to his Selected Poems, 1940–1966, he explains that the poems are not so much efforts to bridge the gap as recognitions of the fact. (p. 28)
What, I wonder, makes Birney's humour, graven-faced and gravelled-voiced as it is, so buoyant and balanced? I believe it has to do with its having nothing abstractly or specifically comic about it. These are not comic poems, and the comic is simply a constituent of the vision and the poetry. It is because he evokes the actual with such presence and authenticity that what is comic in it—and the alert eye can always discern it—strikes one as just and irresistible. He appreciates very well his own disadvantages. He is simply the looker-in, the man with the tongue half locked in the cell of his own language, as he remarks in "Cartagena de Indias"….
Buoyant and balanced: the phrase I applied to Birney's humour more aptly describes his work at large. About its buoyancy one can say that the poet's natural sense of rhythm, itself the development of a profound human instinct, has been educated over fifty years of severe professional practice to such a pitch of intuitive taste, as to be utterly responsive to the needs of the poetry, and completely clean of any involuntarily deposited sludge or accidental silt. The medium has become an instrument. The same is true of the self. By unremitting application, by the most disinterested discipline, Birney's nature has been scraped and scrubbed free of affectation, presupposition, prejudice, so that it appears in the poetry of these last years in its authentically individual, true, worn state. "Men improve with the years", and poets with time, at least if they are as patient, undistracted, alive and tough as Birney.
Buoyancy, not bounce, the product of discipline and a certain ease and confidence of character, itself the hard-won consequence of a life spent in the service of poetry and the mind, enables Birney in his poems of travel to see a situation squarely with no distorting squint of preconception, without the patronage of self-indulgent pity or defensive guiltiness. He deals with it solely out of his own resources and purely on its own merits. There is, then, a balance or proportion between subject and object, a wholeness and unity in the former recognising the fullness and complexity of the latter. A Birney poem is never—although it is that too—just the evocation of a scene. It always has an intellectual and moral structure. In all his poems of place, place itself aspires to support or even to be an event. A splendid example is "The Bear on the Delhi Road". (p. 29)
His poetry, in appearance at least, relaxed, casual and spontaneous, but, in fact, very cunningly organised, rises only on occasion to a more passionate intensity. He uses the technique of the long poem in the composition of the short one. The audience to which his poems are addressed is not remote or unreal, not very grand or large, something more like a circle of friends or even a crony or two. Like a good conversationalist he possesses a large but easy scope of reference, a deep confidence in himself, in his subject, in his listeners, and in his relations to it and to them, as well as a capacity to see the ordinary in the exotic, and the odd in the commonplace. The delivery is unemphatic, the passage from point to point managed with an eye on the reader as participant, on his interests, the span of his attention, and his ability to follow. Birney's poetry, making a constant silent reference to the reader, is without affectation, graced with good manners and with respect for the audience. It is in fact a poetry of tact, although I would want to banish from the word as I use it here any hint of tinkling or teacup refinement. Tact, a sense of touch, implies a nice discrimination of the amount of pressure needed to respond to a stimulus or to provoke a response. It is a quality exhibited vividly in good conversation, and poetry of this kind is a species of conversation. It is a reciprocal activity in which the poet gives the appearance of being continually subject to the play of his reader's mind. The poet, like the good conversationalist, leads, opens up, contrives with subtlety the shift from point to point. He practises an art which includes the imagination to recognise, and the energy to follow up, the latent possibilities of the subject, and however strange they may be, the sympathy and skill to link them with the reader's common human nature. (p. 30)
William Walsh, "A Stubborn Master: The Poetry of Earle Birney," in Lugano Review, 1975/1, pp. 27-30.
In [The Cow Jumped Over the Moon] the poet Birney has turned critic, or at least has abandoned the poet's usual Delphic remoteness enough to acknowledge the existence of those who presume to come between the poem and the reader, to criticize the critics. [The book] varies in tone from gentle self-mockery to the avuncular voice of an old tribesman who would like to tell the younger generation how things are done, without letting them know he is doing it. (p. 113)
In talking about writing "David" and about poetic composition in general, though always interesting and instructive, Birney can be as prosaic as anyone else, but often he approaches a quality of lyricism—the prose of a poet, perhaps. Such passages are one reason why The Cow Jumped Over the Moon is successful: it is a delight to read. (pp. 114-15)
One senses Birney's abiding love of poetry as he voices his misgivings about what has been done with it in the schools. He is speaking out of decades of personal experience, looking back in anguish at what has been done to his own poetry as well as to poetry in general. (p. 115)
Alex MacKinnon, "Back in Anguish," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1975, pp. 113-15.
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