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Birney, (Alfred) Earle 1904–
A Canadian poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, and editor, Birney is one of the most important Canadian poets of his generation. Many of his poems have been inspired by extensive foreign travel, and exotic settings share the stage with Canadian in his collected works. Birney's studies in Old and Middle English poetry are reflected in both the form and language of his verse. Many of his poems are sardonic depictions of contemporary life. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
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"Revolution is revolution", Leon Trotsky noted in his autobiography, "only because it reduces all contradictions to the alternative of life or death". And so Gordon Saunders, the haunted "summer-time rebel" of Down the Long Table, emerges as a failed revolutionary, unable to accept the ultimate implications of his evolving commitments…. [The] novel forces each reader to challenge his or her own abilities to understand—and withstand—the social forces wrenching us away from our own places and lovers, dissociating both from our individual minds and wills….
Birney's novel brings together forty years by posing two related questions: what is the cost of emotional integrity, and what is the price of intellectual honesty? In the answers lies one of the particular strengths of Down the Long Table.
Gordon Saunders, the questing, questioning, naive and anguished academic is the centre of it all: a success at the opening and closing of the novel, but essentially a man tortured by his idiosyncratic past…. What sustains him, and our interest, is Birney's dextrous manipulation of Saunders' interior dialogue, the real working out of the novel. (p. 35)
That Gordon Saunders appears to act throughout the novel in response to the confusing melange of minor characters is not fortuitous. As he is a man of his times, so his acquaintances collectively embody the conglomerate spirit which was determined by both the urgency and lethargy of the Depression. (p. 36)
The documentary chapters are an integral part of the plot of the novel, commenting on the necessary trivia and the larger horrors of the Depression, occasionally revealing the fate of the characters, and always expanding the irony which is the dominant mood of the novel. (p. 38)
The patterns of the novel are easily discernible: the trials and debates; the recurring presence of an amoral natural world; frequent literary allusions and quotations, especially from Early and Middle English; and the newspaper reports and headlines…. And all are evident in his poetry, for through them, among others, Birney has explored one of his most consistent preoccupations as a literary artist. Central to his poetry, poetic drama, and Down the Long Table itself is his definition of man's place in a world blind to the ironic consequences of the simultaneity of time. Variations on the nature of that time, then, provide a structural principle; the interplay between time lost and imaginatively recovered, between exorcised ghosts and inescapable memory, is the source of the philosophical irony and Birney's irony of manner. Both, in turn, suggest a further strength of the novel, its verbal irony through Birney's experimentation with varieties of Canadian dialect and speech rhythm, both oral and written. The letters, dramatic dialogues, conversations, internal monologues—these are in a sense the atmosphere of the times…. While Down the Long Table records the failure of a revolutionary, it is also a manifesto for humanism, the "tranced dancing of men," a muted celebration for a cause. (pp. 38-9)
Bruce Nesbitt, "'Down The Long Table': A Retrospective Review," in West Coast Review (copyright © January, 1975, West Coast Review Publishing Society), January, 1975, pp. 35-9.
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[The Collected Poems of Earle Birney is an important publication.] Here we find two or three dozen of our most eloquent poems, plus Birney's summing up of half a century of his development and ours.
Birney is a man who grew up backwards. He appears to get younger and gayer with every year. (The collection ends with a spatter of concrete and several new love poems.) Also, he is a man who has spent the past thirty years getting out of the things many spend their lives getting into: the University of Toronto, the Army, the CBC, the Chairmanship of his own Creative Writing Department….
[He] has preferred to remain simply a poet, which for Canadians, says Birney, means being "their eternally invisible Stranger."
It has been said, in fact, that Birney is very much at home abroad because he has always been a stranger at home. Certainly he is a very peripatetic and critical poet. Since the new collection is arranged in an order that is partly chronological and partly geographical, one may note that nearly half, including some of the most lively, writing was inspired by his experience outside the country. The various satirical squibs beginning with "Canada: Case History: 1945" and ending with "Canada: Case History: 1973" may partly explain why.
A good deal of Birney's best work is satire, and a fair portion of that is aimed at Canada. He may celebrate the land and a few individuals, but the cities are damned…. (p. 51)
Birney is the frustrated nationalist of a Canada that doesn't exist…. He accuses us of hypocrisy, lethargy, meanness, "of failure to become something else-than a dozen separatisms united only by a common war/on our own central government/& by common exploitation/of our poor by our rich," of not creating "the real civilization/there may just be time/to glimpse before our species/crawls off to join the dinosaurs."
Birney's vision of the world is an extended variation on Mathew Arnold's "Dover Beach," except that the ignorant armies that clash in the night have a new technological glitter, and the sense of time and space is more Laurentian, cosmic or primordial. It is often closer to the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon "Wanderer." (p. 52)
Birney's heroes too are often skilled and independent wanderers or loners: mountain climbers, like David, or the real-life Conrad Kain; explorers, like Captain Cook and Vitus Bering; the "gentleman geologist," Hiram Bingham, "a believer in myth," who discovered Macchu Picchu. They may be anonymous like the carpenter in the painting of the crucifixion in "El Greco: Espolio," or the two men from Kashmir training a bear to dance in the Delhi road, or the beldams of Tepoztlan, who bargain in three languages: English, Spanish and Aztec. Despite their readiness, they often get it in the neck. The mountain-man is bushed; David is smashed on the finger; Cook gets a spear in the back; Bering is frozen in some Aleutian island. Still, they demonstrate a mixture of self-reliance and selflessness, of patience and passion, even downright stubbornness, that Birney admires.
What Birney celebrates is the creative spark in an indifferent universe, especially the human spark (when man is not "a snow"). It is above all the moment of recognition, of real communion, when people give themselves freely—which, as Birney suggests in the grave rhetoric and particular perspective of "Pacific Door," is rare…. The various poems written during Birney's travels round the world are often as satirical as any set in Canada (and sometimes funnier), but often enough too, they are accounts of real human meeting…. [Straightforward], concrete, technically precise yet metaphorical language … remains basic to much of Birney's best work. During the forties, Birney amplified that voice in two ways: through the use of old English diction and verse forms and through the cultivation of more deliberate rhetoric…. The result, when the rhetoric does not simply blur, is a certain gravity and elevation of tone characteristic of many poems written during the war years and of some of Birney's most memorable lines. The racy colloquial language characteristic of much of Birney's later work is essentially a development of the late fifties and sixties. Flat "Upper Canadian" talk, lively American speech, a Mexican mixture of English and Spanish, an Australian or New Zealand accent or a Japanese intonation lend a startling immediacy to many poems. These and the language of advertising and guide books are typically used for hilarious and often brilliant satirical effect. It is a short step to a kind of Joycean play with language and the collage and concrete poems of recent years, which lead Birney almost out of the verbal and into a purely visual expression, as in the delightful "loon about to laugh."…
Certainly The Collected Poems mirrors a world of increasing cultural collision and what has been called linguistic or literary extraterritoriality. Though Birney may have found his "voice" quite early, he has given it expression in a great variety of language. (p. 53)
D. G. Jones, "Eternally Invisible Stranger," in Canadian Forum, December-January 1975/76, pp. 51-3.
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[I don't particularly like either of Birney's two novels] yet I find that each has a facet which is of real interest. Down the Long Table, for example, despite certain structural flaws which Birney has acknowledged, is still an interesting novel if only because of the quality of the insight it provides into the politics of the Thirties. My response to Turvey is divided in a similar way. Turvey himself is an almost moronic character. In The Creative Writer Birney describes him as a "dumb backwoods private … with the intellectual and soldierly capacity of a farmyard duck," and overall Turvey's responses to the absurd and predictable situations in which he is placed are about as compelling and, with a few exceptions, as funny as those of an intellectual duck. The novel fails because the central character is not complex enough to engage the reader's interest for almost three hundred pages. Only in the novel's final and more solemn section do I find myself responding to Birney's depiction of the war years, and at that point Turvey himself is essentially a distraction.
But what orginally kept me reading the novel was the fact that Birney was attempting to deal with the lower class characters, life and, above all, language. Turvey is a loosely organized, overly repetitious, and often tedious whole but some of its dialogue is the best record we have in our fiction of what certain Canadian dialects sound like…. Birney's soldiers come alive in and through their speech and the fact that they do so makes the restoration of the "obscene" words even more important: a novel dealing with polite society can be authentic without them, but one depicting lower class life is inevitably marred if the essentials of the speech of that life—slang etc.—are missing. (p. 56)
This facet of Turvey does not make it a successful novel but it does give it a sociological significance. In fact, I suspect that both of Birney's novels will be read eventually less for the aesthetic satisfaction they provide—or rather fail to provide—than for the insights they give us into the Canadian situation at a particular place and time. (pp. 56-7)
Sam Solecki, "Topsy Turvey, Again," in Canadian Forum, June-July, 1976, pp. 56-7.
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There is [a] personal factor that enters into Birney's relations with the west coast Modernists, indeed with the world at large. I [mention] his touchiness, which stems from a deeply experienced supersensitivity, the source doubtless of his art. Generous, democratic, open-handed to other poets he certainly is, traits of the eclectic man. But he is also the isolato, the loner, and for this reason the wanderer. Able to draw on a wide range of influences, he is not inclined to join in, and much of his poetry which takes Canada as its occasion testifies how alien he feels in his own country. It is when Birney is on the road, in Mexico, China, India, where he is an alien, recognized as such, that he seems to relax into his finest delicate-eared, quick-eyed poems. His 'Canadian' poems reveal not only the pain but the writing strain of the alienation he feels. Modernist art, in which the self is subject and the ultimate object to live all you can, calls not simply for approval from the correspondent, the other, whether he be teacher, writer or reader. But for a joining in. Because Birney is not a joiner, few of the poets were able to experience a Birney-in-themselves. Aware as they were of his benevolence, few of them were able to take him in as a source for their poetry. (pp. 193-94)
Warren Tallman, "Wonder Merchants: Modernist Poetry in Vancouver During the 1960's" (1973), in Open Letter (copyright © 1976 by Warren Tallman), Winter, 1976–77, pp. 175-207.
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[Ghost in the Wheels] is obviously Birney's own selection of the poems he likes best—"none I think great and none I hope bad," as he wryly adds. (p. 95)
Birney accompanies these poems with a brief preface, in which—as always—he notes that critics have misunderstood him and have not allowed for the inventive element in poems that—like "David"—sound personal—have not, in other words, reckoned with the difference between the poet in the act of experiencing and the poet in the act of imaginative transformation. It is a valid plea, though one may justly wonder whether—in the guerrilla war that Birney has carried on for so many years with his reviewers—he has not sometimes missed those occasions when a perceptive critic will detect a nuance of true meaning that misses the poet when he becomes his own reader. (pp. 95-6)
Birney's preface also contains the announcement that he no longer wishes to be called a poet, but a maker, and that he prefers his poems themselves should be described as makings. (p. 96)
[In] the description of poems as makings, there is something especially appropriate to Birney's way of working. For he has never regarded a poem, once put into print, as an inviolable art object. In fact he does not seem to regard a poem of his as finally completed while he himself remains active, but rather as a work in the process of becoming which the maker is entitled to change as he himself changes. And so there are some of Birney's poems, appearing first in early collections like The Strait of Anian thirty years ago, which have gone through many changes over the years. The process is indicated in the dates at the end of the poems that appear in the Collected and also in Ghost in the Wheels. In some cases the time span is enormous. "Once High upon a Hill" was begun in San Francisco in 1930, but the version we now have was completed in 1970, forty years later; in the process it has changed from a poem about recent experience to a poem of distant memory, its whole tone and perspective altered and its viewpoint enriched by the depth of time…. Now, in 1977, it seems as though Birney regards the canon of his work as finally set, for none of the poems which received their last revision for inclusion in the Collected of 1975 shows any sign of having been further changed.
What is the significance of this revisionist urge in terms of Birney's achievement? Has it really involved a progression in his art as a poet? I think not. Some of his finest poems remain among his earliest and unchanged works…. And I find it interesting that the poems which I still admire most in rereading them in Ghost in the Wheels were all written over short periods … and were not later changed: poems like … the magnificent meditation, perhaps the best of Birney's poems and one of the best of all Canadian poems, "November Walk near False Creek Mouth." (pp. 96-7)
If one can judge from such a reaction, it would seem that Birney's best poems were those stirred by an inspiration strong enough for them to be quickly completed, and those which allowed themselves to be worked on over the years were and remain the less successful. Perhaps one can go further, and say that the really effective Birney poems seem to be those motivated by a physical or emotional experience that is unrepeatable, and that the less effective are the intellectual ones to which much thought has been given and which involve tricky and deliberate intellectual structures, like "Alaska Passage," "Window Seat," etc., where the visual aspect of the poem on the page becomes more important than the sound or than the visual images it arouses in the inner mind. Birney rarely goes all the way with the concrete poets, but he goes far enough in some poems to negate the wonderful natural lyricism, the melancholic or sometimes joyful irony, and the satiric anger that are his best qualities.
How does Ghost in the Wheels stand as a late selection—which one imagines is meant as a definitive one—of Birney's lifelong poetic output? It seems to me at least as good as anyone else might make. All the very good poems are there (the score or so that are needed to make a major poet), and enough of the rest to represent the experiences that have been imaginatively significant to Birney and also the changes in his craftsmanship that have taken place over the years…. Birney may sustain his ritual antagonism to the critics, but in this selection he shows himself a first-rate self-critic.
Certainly Birney's hope that none of these poems is bad is vindicated; one wishes every Canadian poet had been as sensitively selective in presenting his work. His thought that none of them is "great" may be more open to question. Greatness is in practice a relative term—relative to the temporal and the cultural contexts…. Birney, there is no doubt, has been one of the Canadian poets whose work has been remarkable in its own right and also significant in its sensitivity to the Canadian setting and to Canadian attitudes. I would suggest, then, that his best poems are great by both standards; they are likely to be remembered as long as anything written at this time and place, and they are significant as reflections of the mind of a notable Canadian who has never been insular in his loyalties: who has indeed made the world his pearly and productive oyster. (pp. 97-8)
George Woodcock, "Birney's Makings," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1978 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1978–79, pp. 95-8.