Before he could date his first girlfriend, Beatrice, he had to prove to her brothers that he could wrestle her to the ground. He played hockey locally and had a summer job after high school on a mosquito control project. He enrolled at the University of British Columbia with the intention of becoming a chemical engineer, but graduated from the English program. He caused controversy while working at the UBC student newspaper, The Ubyssey, as editor-in-chief, and was removed from the position by the university administration. In the early 1930s, he was in England working as Trotskyite. Later, while in Germany, he was arrested for not saluting a Nazi parade. Clearly, Earle Birney was not the average scholarly bookworm. Rather than simply reading and theorizing about the world, Birney took a very active stance, a stance which is reflected in his writing: many of his works call for change on both national and international levels.
Earle Birney was born on Friday, the thirteenth of May 1904, in Calgary when it was still part of the Northwest Territories. He had a rural and somewhat isolated childhood, though his parents were willing to sell their farm and move so that young Earle could be closer to school. The efforts paid off, for he graduated from UBC in 1926 with first-class honours. A year later he received his MA from the University of Toronto, and soon after he began his instructing career with a post at the Mormon-run University of Utah. By this time, Birney had discovered Trotskyism, partially through Sylvia Johnstone, herself an activist for Trotsky. Johnstone and Birney were married briefly in 1933, but she was not happy with the move from Toronto to Utah, and so returned to Toronto almost right away. The marriage was later annulled.
For the last three years of World War II, Birney served as a personnel officer in the Canadian Army, the same position held by the main character in his novel Turvey. After the war, Birney took an extended sabbatical from his university, a sabbatical which lasted until he returned to UBC in 1948, this time as an instructor. While teaching at UBC, Birney lobbied for the first-ever credit course in creative writing. This course later grew into an entire program offered by the first Department of Creative Writing in Canada. Some have speculated that Birney's push to have creative writing formally recognized was motivated by his own struggle as a student when he first enrolled at UBC, in 1922, as a chemical engineer who really wanted to write.
A former student of Birney's, Frank Davey wrote a biography of the poet in 1971 for the Studies in Canadian Literature series. Davey was critical of his past instructor, second-guessing many of Birney's creative and political decisions. Birney and Davey had already exchanged words five years before, when a reviewer called Davey's poetry "watered-down Birney"; Davey considered it a case of Birney being "watered-down Davey"! Davey's biography of Birney fuelled the latent animosity. The exchange, documented in Elspeth Cameron's biography entitled Earle Birney A Life, culminated in Birney calling his former student a "small and malicious little twerp", while Davey responded in brief:
Go to hell.
Birney was a part of many Canadian 'firsts'. He is recognized as one of our country's first writers to write, and indeed emphasize, the normal, everyday rhythms of speech (instead of the forced and artificial cadences of poetry he grew up with). This innovation lead to Birney's sound poems. His doodles also lead to the concrete poetry sometimes referred to as shape poems, like Alaska Passage, which blend the lyrical content with the visual content of the poem. Birney went through five major stages as a poet: his first works show a very strong romantic influence, while the second stage is much more political in content, corresponding to the years Birney spent as a Trotskyite. Birney was always the traveler, especially since Canadian weather was not always conducive to his hobby of skin-diving. This travelling around the globe gave Birney plenty of material for his third stage of poetry, what some refer to as his "tourist abroad" stage; the poetry produced during this period helped to earn him the reputation as an international writer of consequence. Concrete poetry filled the next stage, where Birney experimented with the look as well as sound of the words. From this point, Birney moved into the reflective stage of his career, developing his "old man" persona perhaps best captured in the poem "Fall by Fury"
Birney died early in September 1995 at the age of 91.
To read a remembrance of Birney, select In Memoriam
To read a profile of Birney by Al Purdy, select The Man who killed David.
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Viv & Ger March 30, 1996