Earle Birney

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Earle Birney (BUR-nee), like many contemporary Canadian poets, both created and explicated the tradition of his country’s writings. He wrote or edited more than two dozen volumes, including poetry, fiction, drama, criticism, and anthologies, as well as nearly a hundred short stories, pamphlets, essays, reviews, and articles. The novels Turvey (1949), which won the Stephen Leacock medal for humor, and Down the Long Table (1955) are well worth reading for an appreciation of Birney’s sense of style. Of his critical articles and books, The Creative Writer (1966), The Cow Jumped over the Moon: The Writing and Reading of Poetry (1972), and Spreading Time (1980) are the most notable collections, for they offer invaluable insights into Birney’s poetry.


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Earle Birney’s career has been laced with numerous honors. He won the Governor-General’s Medal for poetry in 1942 for David, and Other Poems and in 1945 for Now Is Time, the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1949 for Turvey, the Borestone Mountain prize in 1951, a Canadian government fellowship to France in 1953, the Lorne Pierce Gold Medal from the Royal Society of Canada in 1953, and the President’s Medal for Poetry from the University of Western Ontario in 1954. He was given a Nuffield Fellowship in 1958-1959 and Canada Council traveling fellowships throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s to most of the world regions, including Latin America, Australia, West and East Africa, Europe, and South Asia. Additionally, he won the Canada Council Medal for services to arts in 1968 and a Canada Council Senior Arts Fellowship from 1978 to 1980. He was named officer of the Order of Canada in 1981 and received an honorary degree from University of British Columbia in 1987.


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Adams, Ian. “Marginality and Tradition: Earle Birney and Wilson Harris.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 24, no. 1 (1989): 88. Several works from Birney and Guyanese poet Wilson Harris are discussed. Both writers are generally credited with a major role in the establishment of a modern literature authentic of their region, and both view themselves as doing so out of a position of cultural marginality.

Aichinger, Peter. Earle Birney. Boston: Twayne, 1979. This introductory study looks at Birney’s criticisms of capitalism, modern culture, and militarism. Divided thematically with chapters on biographical background, satire, love and death, myth, nature, poetic technique, and politics, the book concentrates on Birney’s poetry over his criticism and prose fiction. The cynicism, raunchiness, and invective in Birney’s later work are considered in a negative light.

_______. “Earle Birney.” In Canadian Writers and Their Works: Poetry Series, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Vol. 5. Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1985. Contains a short introduction to Birney’s life, his traditions and worldview, and a critical overview. Looks specifically at the alliterative verse, lyric poetry, experimental verse, and the narrative poems.

Cameron, Elspeth. Earle Birney: A Life. Toronto, Ont.: Viking, 1996. Shows Birney as a poet, novelist, soldier, journalist, academic, and world traveler. Cameron also covers his romantic life. In so doing, she calls on the copious materials (including hundreds of letters) archived at the University of Toronto.

Fink, Howard, et al. Perspectives on Earle Birney. Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1981. A reassessment of Birney by eminent critics and authors, this collection was originally published as a special issue on Birney in Essays on Canadian Writing 21 (Spring, 1981). Pieces of Birney’s poetry are interspersed with observations on his radio drama, Chaucerian scholarship, and political prose.

Latham, David. “From the Hazel Bough of Yeats: Birney’s Masterpiece.” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 21 (Fall/Winter, 1987): 52-58. Latham traces the influence of William Butler Yeats’s “Song of the Wandering Aengus” on Birney’s “From the Hazel...

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Bough,” a poem Birney considered his masterpiece.

Nesbitt, Bruce, ed. Earle Birney: Critical Views on Canadian Writers. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. Contains both positive and negative reviews and critical essays on Birney’s craft and creativity mixed with a number of his prose pieces. The useful introduction gives an overview and appreciation, while in an epilogue, Birney himself reflects on his career and responds to some of the critical appraisals.

Noel-Bentley, Peter. “Earle Birney: An Annotated Bibliography.” In The Annotated Bibliography of Canada’s Major Authors, edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David. Vol. 4. Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1983. The standard bibliography of Birney’s works.

St. Pierre, Paul Matthew. “Earle Birney.” In Canadian Writers, 1920-1959, Second Series, edited by W. H. New. Vol. 88 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. A helpful overview of Birney’s life and career.


Critical Essays