Widely regarded as Canada’s finest poet writing in English, Birney has upset many critics and readers with his novels. Turvey was popular, winning the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, relatively large sales, and acclaim in an improbable stag~ version as a musical. It has been in print constantly and remains a major work about Canadian experience during World War II. Down the Long Table (1955) is a more highly political examination of the Depression and the oppressive atmosphere of the 1950’s.
The first edition of Turvey, appropriately enough, raised some controversy about its rich language, which had to be muted until a revised edition appeared in 1976. Direct as the language is, however, contemporary readers might well suspect that Turvey is subversive more because of its implications than because of its diction. The essence of Birney’s wry and occasionally outrageous humor is his view of society. For an earlier socially conscious generation, the distinction might have been expressed as one between Stalinist and Trotskyist attitudes to literature. It is well-known that until 1940, Birney was for several years a committed Trotskyist; thereafter, he began writing some of the most striking poems of his career, leading to numerous honors, including two Governor-General’s Medals. Turvey is an integral part of that complex time during Canada’s political evolution: a tract for the times, an engaging entertainment, and a serious exploration both affirming and indicting Canada and Canadians. The survivors of his satire are the women and men who lasted as Turvey did: battered, lighthearted, and with their dignity whole.