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Poetry Canadian

The Essential Earle Birney

by (author) Earle Birney

selected by Jim Johnstone

Porcupine's Quill
Initial publish date
May 2014
Canadian, General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2014
    List Price

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The Essential Earle Birney presents a wide-ranging selection of the celebrated Canadian poet's most memorable verse.

About the authors

Earle Birney was a poet, novelist, and playwright whose experimental instincts drove him to create some of Canada's most diverse and recognizable poetry, including the oft-anthologized 'Anglosaxon Street', and 'David', which is often considered the most popular Canadian poem of all time. Born in Calgary, Alberta, Birney was raised on a farm before embarking on an academic career, attending the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of London, where his interest in Old and Middle English led to a reputation as an accomplished scholar of medieval literature. After serving as a personnel officer in WWII, Birney took a professorship at the University of British Columbia, where he spent twenty years travelling, writing, and teaching. In 1965, Birney became the first Writer in Residence at the University of Toronto, mentoring new, up-and-coming poets and branching out into new and experimental forms.

Birney died in Toronto in 1995 after an impressive career spanning several decades, over twenty books of poetry, two Governor General's Awards, and several plays, novels, short stories, and works of non-fiction.

Earle Birney's profile page

Jim Johnstone is a Canadian writer, editor, and physiologist. He is the author of four books of poetry: Dog Ear (Véhicule Press, 2014), Sunday, the Locusts (Tightrope Books, 2011), Patternicity (Nightwood Editions, 2010) and The Velocity of Escape (Guernica Editions, 2008), as well as the subject of the critical monograph Proofs & Equational Love: The Poetry of Jim Johnstone by Shane Neilson and Jason Guriel. He has won several awards including a CBC Literary Award, Matrix Magazine?s LitPop Award, The Fiddlehead?s Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize and This Magazine?s Great Canadian Literary Hunt. Currently, Johnstone is the Poetry Editor at Palimpsest Press, and an Associate Editor at Representative Poetry Online.

Jim Johnstone's profile page

Editorial Reviews

The tropes that appear in Birney's poetry are both quietly political and overtly sincere, experimental and traditionally sound.

The poems in The Essential Earle Birney represent the spirited work of a poet's career stretching from 1940 to 1987. Birney is a well-known and respected Canadian writer and medieval literary scholar, and his poetry is, according to Jim Johnstone's foreword to this edition, "striking for both its prescience and its range." After the publication of his poem "David"?Johnstone calls it "the quintessential Canadian poem of the 20th Century"?Birney's work began attracting broader attention.

"David" is the poem that opens this collection; it is broken up into nine sections and operates in a way that stands out amid his other work. Notably, a harrowing narrative drives it forward, yet in its language and allusions, the poem can very much be read as an elegy to a lost companion. In the final stanza, a sort of marriage between the narrative and the speaker's internal voice emerges: "I will not remember how or why I could twist / Up the wind-devilled peak, and down through the chimney's empty / Horror."

There is something astonishing about Birney's ability to bring the natural world into direct confrontation with an equally vulnerable internal voice. The juxtapositions in "David" between the upward force of the mountain peak and the downward horror of a chimney can be seen as aiding the biblical undertones that run under the poem, yet these sources and allusions are never directly addressed, and they don't need to be. Birney's eye is spare and genuine enough to lead a reader slowly into a poem's thematic implications.

Most of the pieces in this collection are ordered chronologically as they were written, resulting in a kind of panoramic vision of the poetry's evolution over time. Poems written during the sixties and seventies seem to return to a kind of minimalistic sincerity in their lack of punctuation and capitalization; line breaks and spaces are given more significance compared to some of Birney's earlier work, and love poems begin to emerge in a language that is refreshingly colloquial.

The natural world in these later poems, however, is one that becomes increasingly unfamiliar, at combat with the advancements and speed of a modern society. "Twenty-third flight" starts this way: "Lo as I pause in the alien vale of the airport / fearing ahead the official ambush / a voice languorous and strange as these winds of Oahu / calleth my name." In this poem in particular, there is an obvious tone of satire, but there's also an unmistakable sadness of sorts, something uncalled for that speaks under the surface of the speaker's awareness.

The tropes that appear in Birney's poetry are both quietly political and overtly sincere, experimental and traditionally sound. It isn't an easy feat for a poet to develop and change as he did, and if his work is to survive and be collected, it should be acknowledged as living, for as Birney stated, "Living art, like anything else, stays alive only by changing."

Foreword Reviews

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Other titles by Jim Johnstone

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