Earle Birney's Poetry: A Study

Of all the Canadian poets who appeared during the mid-twentieth century, Earle Birney comes before us as the most central and pivotal literary figure.  He was born in Calgary, Alberta, to Will Birney, an itinerant prospector.  He was an only child and spent what he called a ‘solitary and Wordsworthian childhood’ on a subsistence farm near Ponoka, Alberta.  During his childhood days he read the Holy Bible, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the poems of Robbie Burns.  He was educated at the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, Berkeley and the University of London, where his primary interests were in Old and Middle English, culminating in a dissertation on Chaucer.  Throughout his career he was an experimental poet, publishing over 20 books of verse that vary as widely in form and voice as they do in subject.  His poems reveal his constant concern to render his encyclopedic experience – be it of Canada's geographical or cultural reaches, of nature, of travels or of the trials of love by time – into a language marvellously dexterous and supple, always seriously at play.  Although best known as a poet, he has written radio dramas, plays, novels, and political tracts.  According to Elpseth Cameron,
Birney’s poetry consistently explored the resources of language with passionate and play curiosity.1
Birney won the Governor General's Award for poetry twice (for David, 1942, and for Now Is Time, 1945). His darkly comic WWII novel Turvey won the Stephen Leacock Medal in 1949. He received the Lorne Pierce Medal for Literature in 1953. Later works include Copernican Fix (1985), Words on Waves: Selected Radio Plays (1985) and Essays on Chaucerian Irony (1985). His memoir is titled Spreading Time: Remarks on Canadian Writing and Writers 1904-1949 (1989). His final collection, Last Markings (1991), was published after a disabling heart attack in 1987.
The present paper analyses three poems – David, November Walk, The Bear on the Delhi Road – which are extracted from three of his representative anthologies David and Other Poems (1942),2 Near False Creek Mouth (1964),3 and Fall and Fury (1978).4
“David,” a poem about “euthanasia, became quite a controversial poem, frequently anthologized and taught in Canadian literature courses.”5  David tells the apparently fairly simple story of two young friends feeling their youth, their growing friendship, and their love for the mountainous outdoors of rural Canada. The narrator, unnamed until nearly the end of the poem, falls under the charismatic spell of David, the leader and more experienced climber of the two.
After introducing us to David, the narrator describes a particular climb they had been anticipating for months. During the ascent, the narrator slips. David saves him and then slips and falls himself, landing many feet below on a jagged rock that has broken both his fall and his back, leaving him paralyzed. David asks his friend to push him over the cliff citing paralysis as no way for someone like himself to live, i.e., in a wheelchair. The narrator acquiesces. 
This poem is remarkable for its narrative power and the striking contrast between its lyric diction and the starkly tragic content of the poem, euthanasia by one young man of another at altitude. Clearly the work of a master poet, the poem's mountaineering lore adds verisimilitude and tension. Equally effective are the foreshadowing moments of the two young men finding the carcass of a mountain goat
And that was the first I knew that a goat could slip
and later a spavined robin:
That day returning we found a robin gyrating
In grass, wing-broken. I caught it to tame but David
Took and killed it, and said, "Could you teach it to fly?
Birney adeptly handles the poignant moments of two friends having to part ways in such a dreadful way and recalls the scenario. Thus, it focuses on “a wilderness experience in the Canadian Rockies.”6
Though he has written many anthologies of poetry, Near False Creek Mouth is regarded as one of the best anthology. It contains perhaps the best of all his poems; deeply meditative travel poetry, dramatic monologues, autobiographical reflections, told often in a loping colloquial style that is perhaps more truly characteristic of him than any other of his Chameleon voices. 
            The title poem “November Walk Near False Creek Mouth” is a remarkable example of extending a personal point of reference, a narrow location in space and time, into a series of reflections with universal relevance to man’s condition.  It represents the city of Birney’s long-time residence, Vancouver.  As the last issue of an attenuated civilization, the city was threatened with nuclear destruction and waiting for the end.  Just as Eliot’s poem The Waste Land represents as its unreal city, the London of the post-world war one period, Birney’s work, by contrast, is a pre-war poem which augments Eliot’s nightmare vision with the more recent theme of imminent nuclear annihilation.  
The poet begins with a walk along Vancouver, English Bay.  Then it comes to be a meditation on life, death, evolution etc.  Later he gets despair because of
                  Unreachable nothing
                  Whose winds was down
                  To the human shores
                  And slip showing.
Rather than emulating Eliot’s ironic medley of voices, Birney, as speaker, multiplies the ironic contexts of his utterance; the season of winter’s coming, the waning day, the ebbing tide, and the symbolic meaning of Vancouver’s geographical setting, as the farthest reach of failing western energies.  At the same time, he projects an Eliotic vision of a world rubbled with mythologies, a world whose people pervert or trivialize whatever races of divinity are left to them.  His gallery of maimed moderns – lank-nosed lady, wrinkled tourists, snorkeled maulings – are close counter parts to the grotesques and exiles who populate Eliot’s early work.  And like Eliot, he emphasizes blighted sexuality as the primary symptom of civilization’s sexuality gathering malaise.  The poem re-inscribes Eliot’s pessimism and portentousness in a measure that might cause a na├»ve reader to raise the hoary issue of originality.  It is more apposite to note the poem’s strengths, especially its metaphoric richness and visual intensity, and to observe that it is very much a poem of its own time.
The most curious thing about the poem is its emphasis upon enervated sexuality.  Just as Eliot represents the malaise of post-war London in terms of a corrupt and joyless lust, Birney too stresses the absence of sexual power in his attenuated vancouverities –
                        The barren end of the ancient English
                        Who tippled mead in Alfred’s hall
                        And took tiffin in lost Lahore.
‘Barrenness’ is an important motif in the poem.  The harsh and ugly landscape becomes an ironic modern version of the Romantic vision of a natural world charged with beauty, harmony and significance.
            Thus, Birney’s walk brings him only confirmation of his pessimism, leading finally to a recognition of ‘the unreached unreachable nothing’ on which existing things are founded.  Frank Davey remarks about the structure of November Walk
In form it attempts to be open, but in theme, it is closed from its beginning and this closure tends to paralyze the form.  Nothing can really happen in the poem because, while leaving the form open, he has preconceived what the poem will ‘say.’7 
The opening lines tell us about our atomic doom; the remainder embroiders but do not advance.  It is predominating metaphoric poem which is more characteristic of Romantic and symbolist poetry and of twentieth century modern poets, with their proclivity to system and closure, and their recourse to myth.  The poem is divided into seven sections headed by roman numerals.
November Walk opens with a glum thematic assertion and immediately establishes the speaker’s presence and the ironic metaphors and mythical perspective that give his voice authority.
The time is the last of warmth
                        and the fading of brightness
                        before the final flash and the night …
                        I walk as the earth turns
                        from its burning father
                        here on this lowest edge of mortal city
                        where windows flare on faded flats.                     
The wave like rhythm of the poem simultaneously evokes the False Creek setting and contributes to a sense of aimlessness and futility.  The deployment of regularly paired nouns and modifiers, the recurrence of individual passages, and the less frequent recurrence of italicized stanzas – all reinforce this effect of aimless fluctuation.  In the larger design of the poem, this sense of bafflement is amplified by the vertical imagery that cuts across the speaker’s horizontal path.  His own clambering up and down the uneven shoreline is part of this pattern, as are the movements of setting sun and ebbing tide.  At one point he imagines the cosmic forces (spirally down from nothing) that have shaped the present world, and at another he envisages the evolutionary movement (swirling up … into the sun-blazed living mud) that has shaped this world’s life.  These movements of descent and ascent will ultimately go nowhere. 
            Thus, the complex patterning of detail in the poem is well calculated to produce a sense of thwarted motion.  The stanzaic ordering of the meditation reinforces this effect.
In November Walk, the most interesting case involves the imagery of sunset and twilight.  As Birney’s speaker watches the darkness gathers, his lines thicken with metaphors that evoke the traditional association of sunset with the crucifixation.  This one bespeaks only the absence of redemption, making the more absurd the final judgement of a nuclear cataclysm foreshadowed in the burning sky.  As a topographical metaphor, Birney’s False Creek suggests the dead end he foresees for human enterprise:
                        Oh shit creek without the will to avert catastrophe.
Here the poet was an explorer and an experimenter who created unforgettable Canadian images.
In its vision of impending doom, the poem might well be taken to represent the nadir of a disillusioned humanism.  Thus, in its formal complexity, ironic use of myth, metaphoric and allusive density, and vision of a degenerate metropolis, Birney’s poem conforms to the cannons of high modernism.  Although critics have differed on the poem’s merit, they have agreed that it marks a pivotal stage in the poet’s career.  That is why, A. Kingsley Weatherhead singled out November Walk for “extensive commentary and offered the opinion that Birney had never written better.”8
The Bear on the Delhi Road is a short and mysterious poem of Earle Birney.  It speaks his favourite themes such as nature, society, and the relationship of man to the wilderness, but myth plays a significant role.  It talks about the two Kashmir men who teach dance to a Himalayan bear on the road to Delhi.  It has five uneven verse paragraphs.  The first verse paragraph reads:
                        Unreal       tall as a myth
                        by the road the Himalayan bear
                        is beating the brilliant air
                        with his crooked arms
                        About him two men       bare
                        spindly as locusts       leap
Here we see Birney talking about a Himalayan bear which is very tall and unreal, that is, away from his natural habitat.  Two bare thin Kashmiris accompany him on the road and turn it to dance.  The bear beats the air with his crooked arms when they inflict pain on him.  One pulls on a ring in the great soft nose of the bear and his mate flicks with a stick at the rolling eyes.  They say that they have led him here down from the fabulous Himalayab hills to the bald alien plain and the clamorous world of Delhi only to teach dance, earn their livelihood but not kill.  In their own words,

They had not led him here
down from the fabulous hills
to this bald alien plain … to kill
but simply to teach him to dance …
and the bear alive is their living.
The two men are peaceful and all they want is their living.  They want the bear to stay alive.  They dance around him on the Delhi road in a galvanic way.  They want to wear out from shaggy body the wish to stay forever on four legs amidst berries.  They want him to be like them (on two legs) and dance. 
                        It is no more joyous for them …
                        in the tranced dancing of men.
In the fifth stanza, we are informed that their dosing does not give them much joy.  They are also away from Kashmir’s cool air in the hot-dust of Delhi.  It is difficult, the narrator insists, for the men as for the bear because:
                        It is not easy to free
                        myth from reality
                        or rear this fellow up
                        to lurch      lurch with them
                        in the tranced dancing of men.
Thus, the narrator/Birney reacts to the sight of a bear on a Delhi Road.
A word about his language.  Birney became more experimental in using language during the 1960s, and in his 1966 selected poems he revised many of his older poems, dropping punctuation and sentence structure.  He explained his reasoning in the preface to that book:
Our intricate system of speckles between words evolved comparatively recently and merely to ensure that prose became beautifully unambiguous -- Instant Communication. For a while the poets went along with this, even though what they were shooting at was the art of indefinitely delayed communication -- Indefinite Ambiguity. Belatedly but willingly influenced by contemporary trends, I've come to surround my pauses with space rather than with typographical spatter, and to take advantage of the new printing processes to free my work occasionally from the tyranny of one-direction linotype.9
Thus, Birney in long poems and lyrics, sight poems, sound poems and found poems, whether on the page or in his collection of recorded poems with the percussion ensemble, Birney demonstrated his deep commitment to making language have meaning in every possible and eloquent way.
            To conclude, we may say that Earle Birney’s poetry deals with an encyclopedic range of Canadian subjects and also virtually every part of the globe.  He, with his experimental poetry, authentic originality, owes nothing at all to earlier Canadian writing and directly influenced many writers and became Canada’s finest poet.  In the words of George Woodcock,
A desire to remain in the permanent avant-garde induced Earle Birney to devote excessive energy to the wooing of audiences by a dramatic style of poetry reading and to the kind of typographic trick poetry.10 

1.    Elspeth Cameron. Earle Birney: A Life. Toronto: Viking, 1994.
2.      David and Other Poems. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1942.
3.      Near False Creek Mouth. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964.
4.      Fall by Fury & Other Makings. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978.
5.      "Birney, (Alfred) Earle: David," Literature Annotations, Literature, Arts and Medicine Database. Web, Mar. 18, 2011.
6.      Coral Ann Howells, “Canadian Literature,” Microsoft Encarta 2007 (CD), Microsoft Corporation, 2006.
7.      Frank Davey, Earle Birney, Studies in Canadian Literature 11, Toronto: Copp Clark, 1971, 109.
8.     A.  Kingsley Weatherhead, "Back to Canada," Northwest Review 7.1 (1965): 86-89; rpt. in Nesbitt 136-40.
9.      Earle Birney, "Preface," Selected Poems, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966, ix.
10.    George Woodcock has noted this aspect of "November Walk" in "The Wanderer: Notes on Earle Birney," Essays on Canadian Writing, Earle Birney Issue, 21(1981): 89.