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Prism international Prism international 1998

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Sioux Browning and Melanie J. Little
Chad Norman
Sioux Browning
Heather Spears
OK Graphics
Produced in cooperation with PRISM international.
Contents Copyright © 1998 PRISM international for the authors.
Net proceeds from the sale of this book will go towards the annual
PRISM international Earle Birney Prize for Poetry.
PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published four times per year by the Creative Writing Program at the
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1.
bill bissett
life is like a gypsy violin regardless
Al Purdy
Birney: Dean of Canadian Poets
D. G. Jones
For Earle Birney
Phil Thomas
Authors Anonymous
Peter Trower
Toronto the Moist
Janis Rapoport
A Personal Memory
Louis Dudek
from Notebook 1964-1978
When He Died, He Took One Last Poem With Him
Jacob Zilber
A Little Shelter
Robert Sward
The Generous and Humane Voice
Jan de Bruyn
For My Former Friend and Colleague
Hilda Thomas
To A Wild Beard
Earle Birney
A Wild Beard Replies
Peter Trower
Alison Acker
Remembering Earle
Doug Lochhead
An Acquaintance Remembers
Chad Norman
The Blackened Spine
Glen Sorestad
Suitcases of Poetry
A Few Personal Notes
Fred Candelaria
Amazing Labyrinth
Wayson Choy
Nothing Would Be The Same Again
Linda Rogers
The Perfect Consonant Rhyme
Wail an Low
Once High On A Hill
52 Pirn wi**"* ik m   m     a a * i
RISM international
PRISM international will enter its fortieth year in 1999. Over
the years it has had the opportunity to publish work by some
of the world's best writers and to introduce many promising
newcomers to the literary scene.
Earle Birney was instrumental in making PRISM what it is
today. Through his initiative, the magazine, which had been targeted
largely at west coast readers, began to reach an international
audience; likewise, it began to bring international writers to a
Canadian audience, while still maintaining its strong west coast
voice. Birney also affiliated PRISM with the newly formed Creative
Writing department at the University of British Columbia, where it
found a home.
In 1997, to commemorate Birney's involvement with the
magazine, PRISM international launched the Earle Birney Prize for
Poetry. The prize, which is chosen by the editor or editors, is worth
$500 and is awarded annually for the best poem or group of poems in
the volume. The inaugural prize was given to Montreal poet Bruce
Taylor. The second winner will be announced in July, 1998.
PRISM intends the prize to reward those qualities which also
distinguished Birney's poetry: strong voice, a sense of adventure
and newness, and attention to craft. The prize is open to all poets
published in PRISM, regardless of their nationality or chosen poetic
Sioux Browning and Melanie J. Little,
Editors of PRISM international bill bissett
■ s 1    tup * »jp kJ ^o^ *»- l~
earle birney as well as being a great poet a wundrful
prson n a higlee esteemd n deeplee appresiatid fello
traveller comet reelee star burst grappling demons
cumming up with offrings 4 us all 2 mingul with muse
upon n b veree grateful 4 in hi school we studied
david great pome bankok boy his naytur pome abt
vankouvr manee places his politikul poetree he knew
sew much 2 detail 2 elusidate his Chaucerian contemp
oraree premises his veree post modern langwages
vizuals his love poetree his adventurs n teechings
n finalee his inkredibul love poetree 2 wailan editid by
al purdy inkredibul in that th marriage uv form n kon
tent is totalee seemless n offrs 2 th reedr th heart
beet uv all our great loves earle birney also veree kind
beekon n veree encouraging 2 beginning poets a trust
we all want 2 dew with each othr regardless uv anee age
or whatevr its sew hard alredee we try 2 b ther 4 each
othr he was great at that   ovrcumming th perils uv iso
laysun not eezee th time 2 write sew fragile n precar
ious 2 find 2 b in 4 with n earle gave me a leg up whn
othrwise I wud uv bin totalee on th street thru guiding me
2 purchasers arranging th sale uv mss n buying a painting
from me wun uv th first i evr sold at a time whn i was
living on th floor n was wun uv thos generous inkrediblee
kind acts wch made all th diffrens in my life earle birney
did a lot uv thos deeds 4 a great manee peopul thats not
sung abt but its veree trew n its veree well known 2 me
i lovd seeing earle in his last yeers in ths bardo as earle
n it was also profound 4 me n profoundlee sad he was
aftr timez uv uv kourz diffikulteez bcumming mor n mor sereen n b4 he reelee stoppd talking he sd manee in
spiring things 2 me n 2 manee othrs he was a reel prson
no pretens it was sew wundrful 2 b on th same bill with
him eye remembr konvokaysyun hall me n thorn gunn
n earle birney  n earle evoked in a naytur sound pome th
tundra n th candian shield th muskkeg n th sonorous
sun eye askd earle with all th pain n loss heer whats
ths life bizness all abt n he sd no wun knows i askd dew
yu think theyul evr tell us not likely he sd eye miss earle
n hope hes fine i know he is Al Purdv
I've had enough of this inert
Ontario, this eunuch sea
And pastured fenced nonentity
I'm off to where a seafresh sun
Slants golden warmth at dawn across
Dwarfed Jurassic woods of moss
And there I'll get myself a shack
With roof of shakes, and in I'll pack
With beans and fishing hooks and whiskey,
And when I'm getting close to famine
I'll turn to dewberries and salmon
And not until it rains ten weeks
Will I slosh back through racing creeks
And let a train bear back to Pluto,
Campus tea and weekly blizzard,
My pacific heart and gizzard.
Though winter's sure, and war, or lectures
To eastern young who've only books
To tell them how a mountain looks.
Or what is poverty and passion,
I'll steal to Eagle Island first
And slake my salt Columbian thirst.
- Beginning and ending of Birney's "Eagle Island'
The poem races ahead like a swift river; it's akin to doggerel;
its rhyme-sounds bear down on your ears like flapping wings;
it's kinda like Alexander Pope, except that it's good-
humoured and drags the reader inside its drumming heartbeat. An
early poem, Bin didn't include it in some of his collections, only in
the large Collect.     I suspect he didn't have a high opinion of it; but the poem is so closely related to Birney's own character that I find it
Earle Birney. Tall, thin and lanky, red-haired when young; balding and bushy-bearded when old; irascible and touchy as a
tormented pit bull sometimes; generous and attractive and human as
anyone I've ever met at other times. Some would say those traits are
paradoxical, but they are not. Genus homo wraps up everything
inside his two-pound (more or less) brain; and all of us share with
Earle Birney the same things that make us human. They also make
us fallible and infallible, vulnerable and invulnerable, both noble and
ignoble. I have seen all of these things in Earle, these traits and
qualities of self that I possess myself; that sometimes I deny
irritably, but which I acknowledge here without a trace of reticence
or shame.
I've known Earle Birney since the early 1950s, more than forty
years. I scraped acquaintance by sending a rather insulting letter to
him in Vancouver, then met him (and was told by a kind friend that I
"suckholed" to him). Over the years I've probably been as close to
him as anyone of the male gender. He was a friend. Earle had a heart
attack in March, 1987, suffered brain damage and lost all memory of
the past. He was in and out of hospital until he died in September,
Since the publication oiDavid in 1942, Birney has achieved very
large stature in Canada. He won the Governor General's award for
poetry twice, as well as other assorted medals and awards. In the
eyes of the poetry-reading public, Birney and E.J. Pratt came to mind
first when the word "poet" occurred to anyone during post-prandial
brandy. (Irving Layton was a bit after those two.)
And Earle wrote letters. His correspondence was enormous.
Quite literally, he seemed to know everyone. And he had friends all
across the world, both male and female; friendships that were never
allowed to die. And Earle was a lover of women; he liked women for
themselves, for their conversation and company; and he liked them
in bed. One could say, entirely without irony, that he had "a genius for
Earle Birney's character was restless and impatient: he wanted
to be off without delay wherever he was going. An active man, he
climbed mountains and scuba dived everywhere he went. In 1976
when I was standing atop the mountain at Machu Picchu in the
Peruvian Andes (taken there by motorbus) looking at an even higher
mountain a few miles away, I remembered Earle telling me he had
8 climbed that other mountain. I thought migawd! it'd give a goat heart
On the streets of Charlottetown, P.E.I., where Birney's Purvey
made into a musical was billed at the local playhouse, my wife and I
strove desperately to keep up with his seven-league-boots walking
stride. We couldn't. At our Robin Lake house near Ameliasburg, he
chopped down trees, mowed lawns, washed dishes and wanted to
swim the mile-wide lake. And he was in his seventies. At his
apartment in Toronto and earlier in Vancouver, he searched and
searched among his belongings, wanting to make me a present of
something, whatever it might be. Once he gave me a little carved
wooden idol from the South Seas; when you pressed it somewhere, a
large cock with red-painted foreskin sprang towards your face.
Earle was never satisfied with either his reputation or his
poems. The Intro, to his Selected Poems, 1966, describes relations
with critics and reviewers and rehashes the long sad story of "David"
(the poem) being turned down by everyone from the Ladies Home
Journal to the United Church Observer. He was continually dissatisfied with his poems, and kept re-writing them, changing them in
ways not always to their benefit.
I know a little bit about this practice, since occasionally I indulge
in it myself. You look at a poem perhaps months or even years after
writing: you have changed and the poem hasn't. Something comes
into your head, and WOW you think and say! Then work on the poem
and change it, according to the great new line or word that just
occurred to you.
I'm trying to paint the whole man here, mean, curmudgeonly
and irritable; also GENEROUS, FRIENDLY, and GOOD-
HUMOURED. Of course I fail; but so what! There's a hint or two
In 1941 when Earle Birney wrote "Vancouver Lights," he was
already in the Canadian Army, and went overseas as a captain in May,
1943. The poem describes the feelings of a man standing on Grouse
Mountain overlooking Vancouver in wartime, meditating on the
nature and accomplishments of man himself.
"Beauty" is a word so misused that one hesitates to apply it to a
night scene overlooking a great city, but there is no similar term to
describe the panorama of sea and city and mountains. Birney stood on that high place, knowing the lights of Vancouver would soon be
extinguished, with a strong possibility that barbarism would overwhelm the world. Man is a small and weak creature; but the forces he
has unloosed are colossal beyond imagination. Technology, the arts,
the human spirit-these have accomplished marvellous things: but if
our weapons are so powerful they wipe us off the face of the earth, or
just back to the stone age, then we are responsible for our own
extinction. Life and death are the subjects of "Vancouver Lights."
In the fathomless heat of our dwarfdom our dream's
we contrived the power the blast that snuffed us
No one bound Prometheus   Himself he chained
and consumed his own bright liver   0 stranger
Plutonian   descendent or beast in the stretching night-
there was light
Dramatic, even melodramatic if you prefer, exaggerated possibly:
but also emotionally moving, straightforward and sincere in a way
few poems are.
Four years later the atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki and
Hiroshima, Japan. One would think that Birney was somehow privy
to the Manhattan Project, and that at least one of the nuclear boys
wrote him a letter about it. At that time there was no concern with
environmental pollution, with sewage fouling the world's seas and
chemicals despoiling vegetation. But again, it's as if Birney dreamed
a future earth in 1941. The poem anticipates the possible, even
probable, disaster; and standing on the world's edge the writer
mourns-"if murk devour and none weave again in gossamer" we
have no one to blame but ourselves. And there is little comfort in
that, in fact none. But, "there was light."
However much of a future the world may have, I think Earle
Birney's "Vancouver Lights" will always be relevant.
When David & other poems was published at Ryerson Press in
1942, it made a small splash. Critics and readers sat up and paid
attention. Kind words were said and deserved. It received the
Governor General's award. The title poem, "David," is nearly the
opposite to "Vancouver Lights" in its quiet tone and understatement,
which bring the theme into clear focus. Birney's own poetic mentors
are visible in "David," although not intrusive. You can glimpse Joyce,
a touch of E.J. Pratt, and far-distant Old English predecessors.
10 In its simplest terms, "David" is both tragedy and the "rites-of-
passage" from youth to manhood. The young man, David, is a
climber, for sport and recreation, in the BC mountains. He takes his
younger friend, the first-person narrator, along on his climbing
expeditions. A feeling of youthful joy and excitement is felt in the
early part of the poem, which is almost a genealogy lesson for the
reader. Then David falls and injures himself badly, to the extent that
he does not want to continue living as a cripple and burden to other
people. He asks the narrator, his friend, to push him off the ledge on
which they are resting, since he is not capable of movement himself.
And the additional fall would complete the job the mountain had
The intensity deepens at this point: the narrator was himself
responsible for his friend's fall because he did not test his footholds
on the mountain. It is a mark of Birney's expertise with prosody that
"David," which could easily have degenerated into mere melodramatic rhetoric, remains understated. It burns into the heart's
That day, the last of my youth, on the last of our mountains.
Years later I dramatized "David," turned it into a half-hour radio
play. I invented voices and personae for some of the bunkhouse
people Birney referred to in the poem, and tried to bring the two lead
characters into verbal as well as mental life. It felt weird listening to
my invented people on CBC radio in Earle Birney's poem. I've
forgotten what year the play was broadcast, but the ghosts who
inhabit that poem still float through my head.
Birney's most successful poem of the several written in Old
English is "Mappemounde." The title thuds in my mind, and says
things no mere translation to "map of the world" can say. It's like a
spell; it's like a love letter from some old bearded seaman who
dreamed out his death and life five hundred years ago, and now is
speaking to a modern Arab halfseas-over in a waterfront pub:
No not this old whalehall can whelm us
shiptamed gullgraced soft to our glidings
[and ends]
That sea is hight time it hems all heart's landtrace
Men say the redeless reaching its bounds
topple in the maelstrom tread back never
Adread in that mere we drift to map's end
II I used to get into arguments with Earle over a couple of lines in
that poem. I claimed that the original version, "it hems heart's
landtrace," was better than the revision; and so was the original, "we
drift towards map's end." How did I get the nerve to criticize the
"Dean of Can. Poets"? I half expected him to say, "Get ye back to your
toys, mere stripling child that you are." But the grey beard wagged at
me, and the Dean looked extraordinarily kind.
When I first read "Bushed" many years ago, the poem's strangeness attracted me first, rather knocked me over:
He invented a rainbow but lightning struck it
shattered it into the lake-lap of a mountain
so big the mind slowed when he looked at it
Yet he built a shack on the shore
learned to roast porcupine belly and
wore the quills in his hatband
And I don't think the aforementioned strangeness ever really
grows familiar. Something is happening to a man's mind, but we don't
exactly know what it is despite the poem's title. Nature has turned
into an enemy, changed from balmy warm days and pleasant walks in
the woods to something we don't understand, something that is
beyond reason. And yet the things described are not extraordinary in
themselves: mountain goats chasing their tails in the high country,
odd shadows the moon makes, owls hooting, cedars twisting in the
But he found the mountain was clearly alive
sent messages whizzing down every hot morning
boomed proclamations at noon and spread out
a white guard of goat-
Then we remember the title, "Bushed," and realize all that's
happening is entirely in the man's mind. Or is it, really? The word
used is "bushed," but it could easily be "schizophrenia" if the setting
was a Toronto rooming house. Bush madness.
Many years ago, at age 17, I was lost in the Algoma bush of
Northern Ontario for two days. I actually went through some of the
things books and woodmen tell you happen in such situations. I
circled around the same place three times, saw things that weren't
there, and was completely terrified. It was only by an act of will that I
12 was able to start thinking rationally once again. I escaped the wood
by remembering landmarks I had seen when entering the woods.
And my sanity was, well-teetering, before I could gather the scattered parts of my mind together again.
That incident was some time before I read Birney's poem, and
when I did read it my mind flew back immediately to the Algoma
bush and the terror in your mind of not knowing where your body is.
Something unknown and untraceable and deadly about to happen:
And now he could only
bar himself in and wait
for the great filing to come singing into his heart
There are other fine poems as well: "El Espolio," about two
carpenters, a real one and a ghost carpenter. "The Bear on the Delhi
Road," about a dancing bear and the connection with its captors and
"the tranced dancing of men." And there are the love poems to Wailan
that ache with tenderness; and a few others that murmur in the ears
for weeks and months and decades as they did with me. These
poems have entered a country's literature and mythology. And if this
country ever falls apart and dies, their syllables will whisper among
the ruins.
And so I come to Elspeth Cameron's biography, Earle Birney, a
Life, 1994, Viking. A large book, nearly 700 pages, it details Birney's
personality, career, and poems. It lists the love affairs with clinical
exactitude. No argument. The love affairs did happen. Although I do
think the emphasis on the old-goat-as-lover is slightly misplaced.
Sure he was a lover, and aren't we all? Birney liked women as people
to talk with, in bed, damn near anywhere. The biography, apart from a
few factual errors, is pretty well written.
The reviewers are something else. Frank Davey in the Toronto
Globe and Mail, seemed rather coldly amused at the love affairs. (I
can remember one of Davey's books describing his own erotic
adventures in bed. It was hot stuff.) Jocelyn Laurence in the Toronto
Star condemned Birney for bed-hopping and for his treatment of
women, dismissing the poems as negligible. A nameless Someone in
B.C. Bookworld played it sensationally, listing names of Birney's
women, including photographs, and by implication condemning
And I think, migawd, we human, we holier-than-thou sons-
abitches! Slow to praise, quick to condemn and swift to execute.
13 Davey, Laurence, and Nameless. How much fun they must have had
putting down Earle Birney for something they must have indulged in
themselves many times. Or don't tell me all three of those reviewers
are virgins! And that they limited their lovers to only one? Or two?
Or three? Well, how many then? Let's have a figure for that, and
quickly please. How many?
And don't tell me they never caused pain to a member of the
opposite sex? Or damage of any kind. Or that they never liked
women, or men, as the case may be? At times like this I feel like
throwing up in sheer disgust and dislike for my own species.
However, let's leave it at that, and proceed to something more
Earle Birney and Wailan came together for the first time in
1973. They remained together until Earle was hospitalized after his
first heart attack in 1987. The feeling between those two people, for
fourteen years of Birney's old age and Wailan's youth was-in lieu of a
better word-love. Do any of us, writer and possible readers, know
what that four-letter word means? I think not. Most definitions are
pretty silly. But we do know the effects of love, and that such a feeling
does truly and genuinely exist in the twentieth century. It did for
Earle and Wailan, fourteen-years'-worth. The Wailan poems were
one result.
Near the end of this piece I think back to the beginning at Eagle
I've had enough of this inert
Ontario, this eunuch sea
And pastured fenced nonentity
I'm off to where a seafresh sun
Slants golden warmth at dawn across
Dwarfed Jurassic woods of moss-
There is the wanderer's track in time. There is the spoor and
scent and trail of bubbles and the strength of feeling and what it was
like to be Earle. He paid the poem little attention, and perhaps he was
right (although I don't think so). And there are the other poems to
speak for him as well, when he can no longer speak for himself. Who
knows whether Birney will win or lose at Stendhal's Gamble (to be
read after fifty years), but it matters little now-: for both he and I and
likely most readers of this piece will not be here then to say I told you
so. But I say it now: I told you so.
14 #*"**
I « ,   I f 1:! 1I
out of a war: "The Road
to Nijmegen," the better part children
scavenging coal, a girl
on a bicycle, skirting the wind
pedals and shoes, the feet
extending the line
what he saw
gazing out over the Baie de Chaleur
I don't know, I saw
the long-legged jeans, his
running shoes
what he saw
in Cartagena des Indias: los zapatos
the line from Lopez
made concrete in the centre of town
a peer in the Peripatetic School
of Lampman, Lochhead, Purdy and Lane
one of those never tired
of walking up and down on the earth
False Creek Mouth to Tokyo
Banff to Borneo
how many dactyls
measure the globe
the distance from crawling, the time
between hospitals, first steps
and the long caesura-not
to die with your boots on-told to go
barefoot-not in a phalanx, not
in iambic-Indian file-through the silva oscura
the foothills, the mountains of silence
even weird birds fall, even stars
in strange singularity-no trace but an absence
indexing density
15 Pi     • 1    w-n -""ill
nil Thomas
At UBC in the fall of 1946, writers were soon aware that a
noted poet was on the campus. I'd been writing poems during
my years overseas attached to the R.A.F. and was still writing
a few. Getting critical evaluation of poems is not easy and as the year
went on I wondered if Professor Birney would be willing to look at
some of my efforts. I had not met him, and apprehensively asked my
Literary Criticism professor, Thorleif Larson, if Birney was approachable. He assured me he was, and I arranged to show him my
most recent work.
Once in Birney's presence I knew here was an open, kind, yet
serious writer in whom one could confide. He had read the poems,
asked me what poets I'd been reading, and as editor of Canadian
Poetry Magazine, took two of them for publication in the March and
June, 1947 issues. In the fall of 1947, I was lucky enough to join
Birney's creative writing course, English 401. Birney's criticism of
both poetry and prose was both demanding and supportive, yet by
the end of the year I knew that I was at best an "occasional poet."
Birney's class was a serious proving ground for writers, and several
members went on to literary careers.
Birney, taking up a suggestion by members of his 1946/47
creative writing course, started what for a time was known as
"Birney's Writers' Group," where writers of both prose and poetry
would present their work for critical discussion. Eric Nicol playfully
dubbed the gathering "Authors Anonymous" and that name stuck.
The meetings were usually in evenings at Birney's residence, but
we met elsewhere at times, including other members' houses, at
Birney's class was a serious
16 UBC's beach, and at least once at Birney's Dollarton shack. Although
the gatherings were happy socially, they were very useful, the prose
criticism being particularly sharp. There we met interesting
visitors; a few I recall include A.J.M. Smith, Theodore Roethke,
Lister Sinclair, Roderick Haig-Brown, and Malcolm Lowry. During
one period, Earle read us, chapter by chapter as it was being created,
his picaresque Turvey. All who shared in that group know that its
success was owing to Earle's quiet leadership.
Following graduation with a B A and a year of teacher training, I
received an appointment to teach at the high school in Ladner to all
classes from Grade 9 to 13.1 consulted with Earle over the design of
my Senior Matric English. In my high school teaching I also used
readings in both Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, which he specially tape-recorded for me.
Looking back on those years, I value Earle's introducing me to
Dylan Thomas, and making it possible to have some memorable
conversations with Malcolm Lowry. My last literary connection with
Earle was in 1951 when he included one of my poems in the issue of
Poetry Commonwealth that he edited.
My recollections of those few years compel me to express my
gratitude to Earle for the many ways, both direct and indirect, that he
affected my life. Those years, which I shared with Hilda (poet, poetry
editor of the Thunderbird, member of the Letters Club, classmate in
Eng. 401, and member of Birney's AA), were and are of continuing
importance to both of us.
Proving ground for writers
Earle Birney, my love and I
wandering Toronto in the rain
after coffee
in his twenty-second-floor aerie
(entirely appropriate roost
for an old mountain scrambler),
good conversation
of poetry falls from trees Holy Herb Wilson
and the faraway westcoast
where Dylan Thomas and Malcolm Lowry
once collided like two floundering ships
under Earle's aegis.
Bowls of thick goulash soup
in a Hungarian restaurant
(poor Earle wanting to treat
but forgetting his wallet-
later sending a record as recompense)
and now scouring moist streets
for our mislaid station wagon
playing hide-and-seek with us
in a maze of maple trees
in that unknown neighbourhood.
My love and Earle
talking familiarly of South America
riots tear gas poverty Fascism
me, travel-novice, mostly listening
to exotic yarns of Uruguay and Peru
our minds sliding
over the edge of the world
far from windy besquirrelled
unromantic Toronto
our elusive station wagon
and the slow drenching rain.
18 anis Kapoport
Born in Calgary, Earle
Birney graduated from the
University of British Columbia
with First Class Honours in
English Language and Literature
in 1926, subsequently taking his
M.A. and Ph.D. at the University
of Toronto. He has taught at the
Universities of California,
Toronto, and London (where he
was a Royal Society Research
Fellow). He is a former editor of
the Canadian Forum and
Canadian Poetry Masazine and
was for a year (1945-46)
supervisor of foreign language
broadcasts at the CBC. Since
1946 he has been a Professor of
English at the University of
British Columbia. For his sabbatical year, he is writer in
residence at Scarborough College,
University of Toronto.
His experience as both an
officer and in the ranks during the
Second World War furnished him
material for his novel Turvev
(1949), which won the Stephen
Leacock Medal for Humour that
year. His reputation as a poet was
established by David and Other
Poems (1942) and Now is the
Time (1945), both of which
received the Governor General's
Award for Poetry.
Other books include Straits of
Anian; Down the Lons Table (a
novel); Ice Cod Bell or Stone Near
False Creek Mouth (1964).
Forty-nine St. George St.,
one of the older buildings on the
U of T campus, is unique in that
it houses the office of the
university's first writer in
residence, Earle Birney.
Since no college at U of T
has ever known such a faculty
position, Dr. Birney as resident
writer has no defined role. He
plans to give a series of monthly
lectures, beginning with
readings from his own poetry.
Subsequently he will deal with
such controversial topics as
"The Writer and the Canadian
University." He plans to devote
one evening to a discussion of
the life and works of Canadian
author Malcolm Lowry, whose
latest manuscripts he helped
Dr. Birney will hold no
official classes but will be available for tutorial assistance for
those students (graduate or
undergraduate) whom he feels
are talented in the art of writing.
He feels that Canada is not
serving her writers. Across the
19 country there is a general aca- grooves into which he himself
demic failure to teach creative has slipped. The professor must
writing and there is insufficient be tolerant and humble towards
emphasis   on  the   study  of his students with the realization
Canadian literature.   He notes that any or all the members of
with regret that the only creative his  class  may  be  potentially
writing   course   previously better  writers   than  himself,
offered to undergraduates at U of Having recently  returned
T will not be given in the 1965- from the Commonwealth Poetry
66 season. Conference, Dr. Birney seems
According  to   Dr.   Birney inspired by the intriguing poetic
creative  writing  is  a  subject forms presented there. Visual
worthy of the dignity of a univ- poetry read to a background of
ersity course. He stresses the electronic music. Poetry created
fact that a professor of creative as a complement to paintings and
writing should be able to realize sculpture. Birney will devote one
that he can only teach his craft of his  lectures  to  these  fas-
and not force students into the cinating new media.
The Varsity, University of Toronto,
October 29, 1965
It's because of Earle Birney I became a writer. Thirty years ago
Earle was the first Writer in Residence at the University of
Toronto and I was a fledgling teenage reporter of the Varsity (as
well as being a New College student in Philosophy). I had attended a
lecture/poetry reading of Earle's and submitted a report on the
evening "Birney reads Birney" but was anxious to speak to him
further on a one-to-one basis. So I asked my Varsity editor if I could
be switched from the architecture beat (one of my recent
assignments had been to write up the "to cover or not to cover"
controversy concerning the exterior pipes on the engineering
building) to literature; i.e. I wanted to do a feature article on Earle
Thankfully, Earle was easy to talk to. After I'd run out of
questions and was getting ready to leave, he said he had a question
for me...did I by any chance happen to write poetry? Did I write
poetry?! Of course. I had been writing poetry since the age of twelve,
and recently had some acceptances for publication. But I didn't know
whether to make that confession in the presence of a real, much-
admired and accomplished poet.
20 He offered to read a selection of the poetry I hadn't yet admitted
to writing and said if he found merit in the work he would ask me to
come in so that he could give his comments. (Back then, as I recall, a
Writer in Residence gave lectures and a reading or two but did not
have many individual manuscripts on which to comment.) If he didn't
think the work had any potential he wouldn't call but would return
the material by mail.
I did not expect the phone to ring.
When I next saw Earle it was about a week later back in his office
and he had my poems spread all over the top of his desk. I remember
staring at his very bright, very blue eyes. I remember him talking
about the concept of emotion in relation to the concept of the poem.
I'd written something about a dead kitten at the side of an urban
street and I'd been trying too hard to make the reader feel a great deal
of sorrow and pity. He said that these emotions must be evoked, not
laid on with such a heavy hand. I've done my best to follow that advice
and have passed on Earle's "message" to my own students.
Earle asked if I would be staying at the University of Toronto for
another year and if so would I be interested in joining the first official
creative writing class that was to be run by a professor at Trinity
College, Dave Godfrey. Earle said he would get in touch with Dave to
recommend me as a participant.
Then he offered to drive me home. His red MGB electrified the
middle-class part of Toronto where I still lived with my parents. I
don't think the neighbours had ever seen a man with longish white
hair let alone such a man driving a flashy convertible sports car;
accompanied, moreover, by a young woman from their own modern
but conservative community.
We said good-bye and I thanked him, not sufficiently, not then
knowing that at the end of the creative writing course I was about to
take on his recommendation I would co-found a publishing house-
Anansi~and that my own book of poetry-Within the Whirling
Moment-would be among its first titles.
21 oms Duclek
from NOTEBOOK 1964-1978
Earle Birney in Montreal Fri. and Sat. gave a reading at the
McGill Union (which I had arranged). Attendance about 100.
Slides of experimental poems which I had prepared for this,
including some of Pierre Coupey's.
Lunch with Earle and Ron at Beaver Lake Sat. E.B. told us that
he started on poetry very late in life because in the 30s he was
committed to Marxism, and literature he then considered a betrayal
in the face of political reality. As a result, he said, he has always been
classed with poets of the 30s - "Livesay, etc." whereas actually he had
not been on the scene at all at that time. "David" was his first serious
He had been married and divorced early in the 1930s.
He can see the Nietzschean idea, which I have suggested, in
"David." But it is clear that this implication was not in his mind at the
time of writing.
Leonard Cohen, he thinks, is playing around with drugs, and
that's dangerous, but he is not yet hooked. (I had heard various
stories.) Leonard is a prize kibitzer, the sort who never contradicted
his mother directly but drove her up the wall by his non-sequiturs
and little perversities. He had transferred these attitudes to the
world, and to his poetry, as a kind of wobbly insouciance without
point or axis. I find it merely irritating.
(March 18/64)
Had tea with Ron Everson at Les Pres (he had beer, actually, and
I had coffee). He is very beautiful and frail, and sad. Says his eyesight
is not improving after his last operation for cataracts. Wants to go see
another specialist "for a second opinion."
Very touching to hear Ron tell me how he went to hear me lecture before he ever knew me, when I first came to McGill. Wanted to
know "what I would be like" and "what I would say."
Told me about a letter he'd just received from Earle Birney
who's finding the writing "very slow" on his second book of memoirs.
Birney still planning to give a reading.
All very sad. We are all fading fast, the old boys. And the young
are lost to poetry; the criticism today, I said, "mere flummery." We
discussed the word flummery. Flattery, humbug-it fits the case.
And Ralph Gustafson, fast disappearing too. Travelling somewhere to hear music, or to get away. But not the same. Not the same
as we were.
As I wrote on a piece of paper this afternoon: "The approach of
death brings no special wisdom./ One mumbles and dies."
One mumbles and dies.
(October 30/86)
23 LB. Iskov
He lived his life like a leaf
dancing and singing
from a hazel bough
In winter, he'd simply move
the tree indoors
His words etched
a million faces on paper
burned a memory
in metaphor
cities of parchment
exploded like firecrackers
His hands moulded pictures
like a sculptor he'd fashion
shadows in holes
and everyone would gasp
at their exactness
The ritual was a myth
He sleeps with one last poem
as a blanket to cover
the decay of genius
now and forever
24 acob Zilber
He not only gave us valuable technical advice, but what every young
writer needs: hope.
— Eugene O'Neill, regarding Professor George Pierce Baker, in
whose Yale play writing workshop O'Neill had been a member.
I will leave it to others to talk about Earle Birney as an author and
teacher and will confine my remarks to his struggle on behalf of
aspiring young writers. That struggle originated when he
became a student at the University of British Columbia almost 80
years ago.
In those days it was unusual for anyone to attend university, and
Earle Birney was thought to be even more so because he harboured
the passionate hope that some day he might become a writer. Perhaps a poet. But his professors looked on this notion as a young man's
fancy that the realities of life would cure, and that, in any case, a
university should not encourage. (As Karl Shapiro would say many
years later, universities regarded creative writing as a Trojan horse-
once it was brought into the groves of academe, barbarians would
leap out and overrun the campus.)
Young Birney, however, was a tenacious type. Not only did he
determine to become a writer, he vowed that he would try to change
the University's attitude toward future aspiring writers-if he ever
had the chance. By 1946, he had become a professor of English at the
University of Toronto, and since he was not yet cured, he had also
become one of Canada's best and best-known poets. Now came the
chance that he was looking for: UBC's president invited him to teach
at his alma mater. And he accepted on condition, as he put it, that "I
can have one course I can believe in, the first stone in a little shelter
for the creative student naked in academia." The condition was
granted. UBC became the first Canadian university to give a credit
course in creative writing. Three years later, he commented: "That
stipulation was the wisest I, a foolish man in general, ever made. The
25 feeling of companioning and actually helping talented young writers
to survive and mature still sustains me..."
After 11 years of trying, he managed to add two more stones to
the shelter. But these concessions were not made happily. And when
he tried to get the department to hire a controversial writer to teach
one of the new courses, he was stymied by the opposition. In protest,
Birney sent a fiery letter to the Dean of Arts, resigning from the
English Department and saying, "I urge you to make Jake Zilber and
myself the nucleus of an independent department of creative
writing, with the freedom to develop a program according to the best
interests of the students."
A new Dean of Arts appointed a committee to advise him on
what to do about this matter, while creative writing remained in
limbo. The committee, whose ranks included several English
Department members, recommended that creative writing be
granted departmental status. The Dean agreed, and it was not long
before there came into being Canada's first, officially designated
Department of Creative Writing. Earle Birney called this his
proudest achievement at UBC. Second came his saving of PRISM
magazine when it was about to expire by making its publication (as
PRISM international) part of the creative writing program. Now, 35
years later, the program and the magazine are alive and well.
Because of Earle, there are ex-students who, as creative
writing teachers, have been building shelters in high schools,
colleges, and universities. Because of him, there are ex-students
who have won national and international recognition for their
writing or for their work in film, television, radio, and publishing. All
of this is proof and justification of his labours.
If Earle were here today, I would say, "You gave hope to young
writers. You pioneered the building of shelters where talent would
be nurtured and challenged. Workman, you built well. We owe you a
debt of gratitude."
26 Robert Sward
f^X arie Birney's prose, like his varied and vigorous poetry is
remarkable for its sheer open-heartedness, the generous
rand humane voice that shines through everywhere.
Spreading Time is a collection of literary memoirs and reminiscences infused with passion and humour. The book, Birney's
thirtieth, includes reviews, editorials and articles-some previously
unpublished-on such figures as Charles G.D. Roberts, Ralph
Gustafson, P.K. Page, Robert Finch, and Louis Dudek. Interspersed
with the reviews and articles are brief, personal recollections that
give appropriate background information and help set the mood for
the pieces that follow.
For example, in the section entitled "Spring Plowing, 1904-26,"
Birney writes of his own origins (on a remote ranch in the Alberta
bush) and traces his development from elementary school days in
Banff to his time as a bank teller in Vernon, BC, to the University of
British Columbia (in 1922) and the start of his own writing career.
The section ends with Birney's entertaining description of his
encounters at UBC with "the then still un-knighted Charles G.D.
Roberts" and Roberts' cousin, Bliss Carman.
Carman, "...billed by the Canadian Authors' Association as 'one
of Canada's laureate poets,'" came to read at UBC in 1926. Birney
relates how he had already formed the opinion, "from Carman's
anthologized poems, that he was nobody's laureate." Birney goes on
to describe how he was called into professor Garnett Sedgewick's
office an hour before Carman's reading "and told by the great Doc
that the Poet of the Open Road wanted someone to guide him into
'one of our woodland trails,' for a walk before his performance."
However, Carman stubbornly set off on his own into the BC
undergrowth and got lost.
One of the delights of Spreading Time is hearing Birney
speaking informally about his early years in the west and, at one
point, recalling his own excitement at "seeing my first window
27 display just for a book, a book by a real live Canadian about real places
somewhere, at least, in our Rocky Mountains." Teasingly, he adds, "I
had become a regionalist."
Birney's career gives a perspective on the Depression few
other writers have managed. As literary editor of the Canadian
Forum in the 1930s, he was in a unique position to observe and to
influence, in some degree, the direction of Canadian poetry and
social comment as it appeared in the pages of that important
publication. Moreover, as a noted poet, medieval scholar, editor,
award-winning novelist and CBC broadcaster, Birney numbered
among his colleagues and contributing editors poet Leo Kennedy;
Frank Underhill, professor of Canadian history; Frank Scott,
professor of lawatMcGill; painter Peggy Nichol; sociologist Leonard
Marsh; and others.
Elsewhere, in "As I Remember 1941," Birney writes of Alan
Crawley, whose west coast magazine, Contemporary Verse, "did more
perhaps to advance the reputation of Canadian poetry than any other
magazine before or since...Alan, although totally blind, read (by the
voice of Jean, his devoted wife) every word of the constantly growing
volume of mail that came to them from both Canadian and American
poets, and sent replies discussing the submission, whether or not he
accepted them. His judgement was acute, his taste sensitive, his
energy constant."
Earle Birney, perhaps the first
28 One recurring theme in Spreading Time is Birney's concern
with raising Canada's cultural standards. In 1948, he gave a radio
broadcast entitled "How Can We Raise Canada's Cultural Standards?" in which he noted, "...until we who work in the arts find the
way to persuade our representatives to greatly increase the outlays
for cultural development, our arts will continue to be starved and our
cultural standards will not rise but sink." In "Poetry Is An Oral Art:
Poets Should Hire A Hall" (originally printed in 1948 in the Globe and
Mail), Birney writes, "We have only two journals of verse of any
standing; one is a mimeographed quarterly limited to about 1000
lines a year; the other appears fitfully in Toronto and is consequently
hostile to any verse which looks to be heterodox in either form or
content." He goes on to say, "The trouble with Canadian poetry then,
as I see it, is this gulf between the poet and his audience..." These
words are as true today as they were 30 years ago. Yet Earle Birney,
perhaps the first authentic voice in Canadian poetry, has done as
much as any other author to narrow that gulf.
Birney's comments on the poetry of Robert Finch apply equally
well to himself: "He is, in fact, very un-Canadian in his hatred of the
cheap, and his devotion to the world of taste and art. [In his]
assertion of the virtues of hope and endurance, he is part of the best
authentic voice in Cdn. poetry
29 jan de Bruyn
In the late '30s my sister Ida and I, along with my school buddies
Emil Bjarnason and Vic Hopwood, attended a monthly meeting
of a group of people who read and wrote poetry. Among our
number were Dorothy Livesay and her husband. We were all
enthusiasts, though not (except for Dorothy) particularly talented.
Earle Birney arose frequently in our discussions as one who
represented the beginning of a new and zestful surge in Canadian
In 1940, when my sister and I were living in Ottawa, we sent our
poetry to the Canadian Forum, of which Earle was the editor. To our
surprise, he accepted poems by both of us, though clearly he
especially favoured my sister's. Characteristically, he recorded her
name among others who he considered showed promise. This
interest in budding poets (even those who never produced blossoms) and his encouragement of them were major features of all his
active literary life.
Without meaning to disparage those who laid the groundwork of
our literature, I think it is fair to say that before the Second Great
War, Canadian literature was derivative, staid, and passionless. After
the war, it became a vibrant, fast-growing, and rich aspect of our
culture, thanks in very large part to the pioneering boldness of Earle
Not only in his assistance to other writers, but in the quality,
novelty, and feeling of his own work, Earle made his magnificent
contribution to the burgeoning Canadian literature in the formative
years from the 1940s to the 1980s. Much of what he wrote will be
long read and respected; in my opinion some of it, including "David,"
achieved greatness.
30 Hilda Thomas
Phil Thomas and I were both enrolled in Earle Birney's second
creative writing workshop-English 401~in 1947-48. At the
time, Earle was two years out of the army, but still wearing his
uniform on occasion, probably motivated more by thrift than by any
regard for things military. With his uniform, his cane, which hinted at
some romantic war wound (he was actually injured in a training camp
accident), and his red beard, Major Birney was a glamorous and
somewhat intimidating figure.
Although some of the glamour remained-he was, after all, that
rara avis, a published Canadian poet and winner of the Gee Gee
award-in the classroom he was anything but intimidating. He took
our work seriously, and wrote helpful criticisms. He introduced us to
Under the Volcano, and later to its author, the fabulous Malcolm
Lowry. He was the motive force behind Authors Anonymous (so
named by Eric Nicol), where we read and criticized each others'
work, and he read us chapters of his work in progress, Turvey,
including the expletives he later deleted from the first edition, to
much hilarity. He invited us to his home, where we met writers like
A.J.M. Smith and Ethel Wilson, among others, and to his waterfront
shack next door to the Lowrys' at Dollarton. In short, he was an
exceptional teacher and a friend.
In the spring of 1948, when I was about to graduate from UBC
with an Honours degree in English and Philosophy, I went to Earle
with a proposal that I go on to do an MA in English (there was no
Creative Writing Department at that time) with a book of lyric poems
for a thesis. Earle was very enthusiastic about the idea. He and Roy
Daniells, the then-Head of the English Department, had adjoining
offices in the old Arts Building, and Earle went through the connecting door to get Daniells' approval. While I sat in the next room,
Earle and Roy had a very audible shouting match, with Daniells
claiming that it would be impossible to evaluate a creative writing
thesis, and Earle demanding "What the Hell do you think I have been
doing for the past two years in English 401?" Daniells subsequently
suggested that I do an MA on Matthew Arnold, and "the best that has
been known and thought in the world."
Instead of an MA, I went on to have a child, and did not return to
31 UBC until the early sixties. I still saw Earle at the Authors Anonymous meetings, but in 1949 Phil and I moved to Pender Harbour for
two years, and after our return to Vancouver we gradually lost touch
with the writing community.
When I returned to UBC in the early 60s, I decided to write my
MA thesis on Under the Volcano. I went to see Earle, who was by that
time Head of his own Creative Writing Department, to ask him to be
my outside adjudicator. He refused absolutely, and was curt to the
point of rudeness in his response. I was quite hurt at the time, but
looking back I think he was still extremely bitter over his quarrel
with Roy Daniells. Perhaps also he resented my choosing to do my
MA in English, where Daniells was still Head, and to take Lowry's
novel as a subject (his view of Lowry having soured somewhat after
too many disastrous experiences with Malcolm in his self-dramatizing, inebriated state) when I might have chosen Earle's own
work as a subject.
Earle played an important part in our lives. He made us aware of
the discipline that goes into writing, especially the writing of poetry,
and he certainly sharpened our critical faculties. I would also like to
add a tribute to Esther, who was unfailingly warm and generous,
despite her acerbic tongue, and who always welcomed students into
her home in those early years.
I enclose a copy of a rather damp squib which I wrote in Earle's
class, and his reply in lieu of a criticism, which demonstrates both his
superior wit and his skill in versification.
Birney, Birney, bearded bright
Does that forest on your chin
Fright your pen to writing right,
Or keep the cold from getting in?
Tell me, does your wife admire it,
Or would she rather like to fire it?
And confidentially, Earle,
How do you get the thing to curl?
English 401 assignment, Oct. 31, 1947
32 tarle Birney
When the brain threw down the shears,
And the razor and its tears,
An immortal hand and eye
Framed my fearful symmetry.
God alone supplies the art,
Twists each hair, defines the part.
My wife smiles His work to see
For He who made the Lamb, made me.
33 etcr I rower
The old master maker from the faraway hills
that are always there
in his heart      in this high
concrete and steel crag-top
he calls his roost
in the bellies of jets that hurl him
a poetic emissary
along the worldwinds
to Sri Lanka    Madrid     Machu Picchu
sits at his desk in the reckoning room
where dreams coalesce
words rustle like mice
images spring from the folds of his mind
like pigeons
from a magician's cloak
It is a familiar alchemy
he turns his conjuror's touch to
It is also a war
a scrabbling     a wresting of essences
from a sprawling horde of impressions.
He does
what he has always done
down the many years
in the many places
He is the journeyman
the man of journeys
at evening
at his craft.
for Earle Birney
Sorry, but this is not going to be a titillating tidbit about Birney's
love life. As one of Earle's Girls, I would like to forget the
moralizing tone of his recent biography and its reviews, with
their tabloid portrayals of him as a lecher, womanizer, old goat. There
is something so old-fashionedly Canadian about our Puritanism.
There is also a nasty sense of adolescent age-ism, more
apparent to me now that thirty years have passed since we were
together, and I am roughly the same age he was when we met. Okay
for Leonard Cohen to celebrate sex, but not for the aging and
respected Dean of Canadian poetry!
Equally disturbing to me is the note of anti-feminism which
suggests that Birney seduced and trapped his lovers, who were,
according to Elspeth Cameron, "usually gleaned from his creative
writing classes and often vulnerable because of marital or financial
difficulties" (Earle Birney, a Life: Viking, 1994).
So where did I fit in? I can, of course, speak only for myself, but I
suspect my experiences with Earle mirrored those of many others,
that most of us got more than we gave and that we share good
memories and a few regrets.
We met in 1965 at the Beaches Library, Toronto, where he was
doing a reading. I knew a little about Canadian poetry, was a regular
at the viciously critical readings held in the Bohemian Embassy, and
intended to take an MA in English at the University of Toronto once I
had saved enough money from teaching high school. Recently
widowed and with one young son, I'd been a tough journalist, was
intent on a new career, and was not looking for love or protection.
I don't remember anything at all about Earle except that he read
"El Greco: Espolio" and "The Bear on the Delhi Road" and the
endings of both poems kept chiming in my head. When he invited me
out, I went to meet the poet. How an acquaintance deepened into
romance, I can no longer remember, but it was romance.
I enjoyed Earle because he enjoyed life so much, was greedy for
it, conscious he would only have so many years more. There was
something of the country boy in his loping stride, his relish of any
physical activity, his lust for knowledge about insects and plants,
35 his delight in naming things. One birthday I bought him speed skates
and watched him swoop under the coloured lights on a frozen lake in
Scarborough. In the Australian outback, we rode horseback into the
desert. Off the Barrier Reef, we went skin diving. We made love a lot
and we did it with style and a lot of laughter. Cantankerous,
paranoiac, petty, self-absorbed-yes, Earle could be all of those at
times. I could never understand why he had to spend so much energy
on letters to friends and enemies, publishers and academics, though
I probably did not appreciate how hard it was to make money as a poet
or how important contacts were in shoring up a yet-fragile Canadian
writing community. So much of his time was spent encouraging
younger writers in Canada and all over the globe. Sometimes I'd hide
his mail, wanting to shut out the world for him so that he could write,
though I knew poetry doesn't work that way, and nor could he.
There was a lot of his life that I did not share and did not want to.
I wanted no part of the business of Canadian poetry. Earle once asked
me if I would be his literary executor; I can't remember how I got out
of that one.
We were lucky to be together in the Sixties, sharing the
exhilaration of the times. And if love-ins and a daffodil in your lapel
seem laughable emblems today, that is our loss. Earle was as
passionate about political change as he was about food and wine and
the natural world. (When I did two weeks' jail time for trying to
protect the Clayoquot rainforest in 1993, I'm sure the author of
"What's So Big About GREEN?" would have approved. Approved?
He'd have probably been there, blocking the road.)
I suppose I was much less of a romantic than Earle. I was always
conscious I was only the latest, not the last of Earle's Girls; we
parted because I wanted to get married and find a father for my son.
Earle never suggested marriage and neither did I. It took an aborted
pregnancy to bring about an expected conclusion, and I would like to
think that, like the couple in "From the Hazel Bough," we "...never
took time to be broken hearted."
Earle dedicated three poems to me, poems I shall always
cherish not just because they were for me but because they heralded
a new simplicity of style that flowered in his poems to his last, and
best, love, Wailan Low, who gave him the serenity and devotion I
never could have matched.
I last saw Earle in 1979, at the launching party for my first book
Children of the Volcano, about the results of war in Central America.
He brought me flowers. He was always immensely generous of his
36 time and encouragement and his love. He did indeed, as he wrote to
Esther, "spill over with very genuine feelings of tenderness and
affection for more than one woman," and, "brought genuine love to
those women which is still with them and which they draw some
strength from to this day."
Earle, I'm still proud that I knew you, in every sense of the
37 oug Lochhead
I did not know Earle Birney well. I wish I had. However, I feel that
in a tribute to a great poet and novelist it is important to hear
from the majority, from those who were his acquaintances. From
those who knew him as Dr. Birney, as Mr. Birney, even as Earle. He
was most approachable and many poets, students, and others would
have known him by his first name. Such tributes from the fringe
throw minor lights on their subject. Unfortunately, inevitably they
say probably a little too much about the tribute-maker. But here
In the late 1940s I submitted a number of poems to Canadian
Poetry Magazine. The editor was Earle Birney. I could not have done
better. Earle was trying to bring new voices into the magazine and to
move it into the forties, even the fifties. I had heard this. At any rate
he accepted several of my poems and with the ones he turned down
he sent me a kind letter. I have failed to find that letter for this note,
but no matter, I remember what he said. It was about as follows: "I
like your poems. We will take such and such and such (three
acceptances). The remainder I return with this advice. Do not file
them away but send them out immediately to other editors of other
magazines. Keep them in the mails. Don't worry about rejection
slips. I don't. They come in all colours and I paper my study walls
with them." This from a poet of Birney's stature! I felt great.
At about the same time at the University of Toronto in the
Department of English I had heard about Birney and his doctoral
thesis. It was about Chaucer and irony. A poet could be a scholar too.
Good news.
In 1951-52 I was in Victoria College as it was then. Word came
across the waters that Dylan Thomas was to read at the Vancouver
Art Gallery. I had to be there. Armed with the authority to offer
Thomas the sum of $120 ($60 from Victoria College and $60 from
Royal Roads courtesy of Professor Ruper Scheider) if he would come
to Victoria to give a reading, I set out for Vancouver. On the ferry I
remember thinking that this occasion might well be a wonderful
opportunity to meet my editor, Earle Birney of UBC.
38 Surely he would be at the Art Gallery. He might even be able to
help me meet Dylan Thomas.
The Vancouver Art Gallery Theatre was packed. The poet from
Wales was introduced and then took his place behind a lectern.
"Good evening, and I'll have none of your damned questions," said
Thomas in his rich Welsh voice and then proceeded to read sixty
minutes of his poetry. It was electric. But what happened was that he
made a quick exit from the stage and disappeared. Where had he
gone? Was Earle Birney in the audience? I was in a quandary. Must I
return to Victoria on the night ferry without my mission
accomplished? Where was D. Thomas? Where the hell was E.
After some desultory searching around the Gallery I gave up
hope of ever meeting Dylan Thomas and conceded that my meeting
with Earle Birney was delayed for the time being. George
McDonagh, a friend from Toronto, and I decided to seek solace in the
pub of the Hotel Vancouver until the ferry for Victoria departed. We
searched for a table and there was himself, Thomas, the poet, in
company with a member of the English Department of UBC. But it
was not Earle Birney. We were invited to join them. Thomas was
drinking what looked like mile. In the end, I had the poet sign my
book of his selected poems, invited him to come to Victoria to give a
reading, and generally listened to what he had to say. What he did tell
me was that he could not come to Victoria because he was being
driven to the University of Washington, Seattle, the very next day by
Mrs. Earle Birney. But he would come to Victoria the next year,
1953. It was a double disappointment-no reading by D. Thomas and
no face-to-face meeting with E. Birney.
Two fine war novels came out of Vancouver in those days: Ed
Mead's Remember Me and Earle Birney's Turvey: a picaresque novel.
Having spent some time in the army I warmed to the misadventures
of Private Turvey. It is one of this country's finest novels and it is
filled with humour, something that is rare in our fiction. I resolved to
talk to the author if I could ever manage to meet him. This came
about in the 1960s and '70s at early meetings of the League of
Canadian Poets and during Birney's year as writer in residence at the
University of Toronto. His office was at Massey College where I was
located. We saw each other from time to time, but all too briefly.
I am sure that I am like many who wish that they had known
Earle Birney better. His energy was what I envied and admired. Not
only his long-legged ability to go up four steps at a time to the Great
39 Hall for meals at Massey College, but for his prolific writing. What I
particularly admired was his commitment to keep his poems alive,
his revising, for example, of his manuscripts and printed books
housed in the Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. He lived with them and wouldn't let them go. Thank you, Earle.
(Some time ago I contributed by invitation some recollections
for a book in honour of the poet Irving Layton. My words were
described as "apocryphal" by a west coast critic who wasn't around at
the time about which I was writing. These brief moments are put
down as I recall them. God help me if they are anything but as
accurate and true as I can make them.)
40 Chad Norman
In this time, if ever, there is a book to burn,
where a life
is left in the words of a lie:
the compilation
by a woman known for wile.
Earle, hear me,
a copy of this thick execution
pulls my hand to a fire
many hands have made.
In the flames we see you back on Bloor Street,
carrying David,
far from the Finger
you snap to rubble,
crush into the country
now so numb
the provinces convene with clowns
in the first ring
of a circus they call Literature.
In the burning words of each turning page
the uniform
of a soldier fills with your youth;
those Rocky-rapt fingers
ripping out chapters,
adding to this fire
all the fame of Turvey.
In the heat we hear the clink of medals,
you in Kyoto
on a walk with the G.G. & the Leacock;
as you watch the metal meld
on your chest,
we hear
the pursuing scrape of a shoe,
those years, all ten,
when no poems were published,
41 what you turn to embrace,
choose to enter
as if a refuge.
In the changing colours of each plummeting spark
the tenure
of an academic merges with your yen;
those grant-grown sideburns
denoting a new dep't,
those world-swept eyes
blinking out graduates,
adding to this blaze
all the semesters at UBC.
In the crackle we find you back with Capt. Poetree,
raising pnomes,
your gifted,
far from the Mobile
you hang on a critic,
purge among the public
now so neutral
the communities panhandle from poseurs
by the last forgery
of a sketch they stamp Innovation.
In the ember we watch the trial of a city,
you in Toronto
on a stroll with Wailan & the rigmarole;
as you revise the patent past,
on your shoulder,
we follow
the bending finger of a future,
those books, all unfinished,
where last poems are promised,
when you forget to worry,
shred the works
as if a henchman.
In the ensuing smoke of each stiffening ash
the tuxedo
of a statesman appears with your yield;
those whim-whitened hairs
charming a new heart,
42 those age-wrought attacks
blacking out memories,
adding to this debris
all the teeth of Birney.
This in time, as ever, a book is there to burn,
where a stature
is sold as the romps of a seducer;
the advertisement
by a woman known to winnow.
Earle, leave me,
the spine of this blackened tome
seals my deed in the smoulder
few deeds can douse.
43 ilen Sorestad
Here today in Calgary, under a spring blue
I am waiting to arc up and descend into America
into the dry warmth of the New Mexico desert
with a heavy bookbag laden with my poetry...
and suddenly it's easy to remember you
and marvel at all those departures you made
with a satchel full of poetry books,
off on another series of readings:
easy to recall a time you landed in Saskatoon
weighed down with a suitcase of poems
and left town a few days later with it empty,
well into your eighth decade then.
Now, in your ninth, crumpled on a white bed
in a Toronto hospital, do unwritten poems
still flit and dance behind your eyelids
as nubile nurses hover over your thoughts?
And is the sky as blue as a poem in the space
you lie in, somewhere above that hospital bed?
I will arc up and out of Calgary
and my poems will fly with me
through the rarefied air into New Mexico;
and I will have time to ponder all
the reasons we do this, poets like us,
who make our small gifts and bear them
through the sky again and again;
why we do this through one decade to another;
time to think of you, several thousand
miles away, locked in unaccustomed stillness,
where perhaps a thousand poems you
never wrote are dancing even now,
dancing on the brilliant blue that lies
over the eighty years behind your eyes.
44 George Johns
The first time I saw Earle he was coming through a window.
That was in the spring of '36: the window was in an office
occupied by Roy Daniells on the ground floor of Victoria
College Library, University of Toronto. Roy was then a lecturer and I
was a fourth-year undergraduate having a friendly chat with him.
Earle was also a lecturer at a college in the mid-western United
States. He was a skinny redhead, and long-legged; it was no trouble
for him simply to step in from the green sward outside over the wide,
low window-sill.
The next I knew was not himself but of him. He had ridden Roy
Darnell's bicycle in the Rhineland in the summer of 1935 and been
knocked down in Bonn for jeering at a Brown Shirt parade. I was in
Bonn on the same bicycle next summer, hence my knowledge of
Earle's misadventure. He was a Trotskyist then and had served for a
few months as one of Trotsky's bodyguards while he was in Norway.
Then came the war years. Earle was in uniform and out of that
experience came Turvey.
He next swam into my ken personally at a poets' conference
held at Queen's University in the '50s. There were readings of
poetry by the poets and Earle had been left out of these though he
had been editor of Canadian Poetry Magazine and had published
three volumes of poetry. "David," title poem of the first of these, was
a much discussed and admired poem. Earle felt that leaving him out
of the readings had been an affront not simply to himself but to
Canadian poetry in general. He voiced his complaint to me, though I
had had no part in the organizing of the conference. In any case, we
began a correspondence not long afterwards that lasted till the fateful successive heart attacks that did such damage to his mind.
Jeanne and I had many a good visit with Earle and Wailan. The
45 first was in East Leach in Gloucestershire in the spring of '74, when
Jeanne and I were on sabbatical leave there. We all four made an
expedition to Bisley and had lunch with two young English poets,
Michael and Frances Horowitz. Michael was an energetic enthusiast
who had just edited a Penguin anthology of his contemporaries'
poems. Frances was a beautiful, tall, slim young woman and a fine
poet, very different in style from Michael, though they did very
successful readings together. She died, tragically, a few years later of
a brain cancer.
There were more meetings with Earle and Wailan, one in
Ottawa when Earle stayed with us and gave a successful reading at
Carleton University. On one of our Toronto visits he was limping. He
had been cutting a branch from high up in a friend's tree when his
footing gave way and he fell to the ground. For a wonder he was not
killed, but he did damage one leg severely.
"I think the pain away," he told us. "I start at my hip and think it
slowly down my leg and out through the end of my foot." He was stoic
and whole-hearted about it, as he was about everything else he
thought or did.
In March of '87 came the three successive heart attacks and
resuscitations that destroyed his memory and mental powers. We
visited him a few times, first off, and then later in the Queen
Elizabeth Hospital, where he seemed content enough. It was clear
that he recognized us not at all. When he died nine years later, it
seemed a sad departure for such a vigorous, various, and important
Canadian poet.
46 n      n *
a dazzle
an intricate maze of gears inside the watch
like the endless array of russian or Chinese dolls
one inside the other into infinity
knight errant
wit-armed to battle sometimes windmills
but quixote both & sancho in one flesh
the earl took on life
looking its monsters & delights
straight in the eye
from explosive or quiet dawn
until night's apocolypse erupts in silence
recording mortality through good & bad times
the watch you gave us is still running
"a Canadian rhapsody in e-major"
for Esther Birney
47 Wayson Choy
nen I first met Earle Birney as my short story writing
teacher, 1958-59, I had already been influenced by Earle
Birney the ;joet. His "David" had inspired me to write a
story about two teen-aged boys in Belleville, Ontario who challenged a white-water river called the Moira. It was awkwardly
written (to say the least), but it won first prize in a contest sponsored
by the Gladstone High School Yearbook. "I'm a writer," I thought.
In the first of my four writing classes at UBC, I was buoyed in
this belief when I was the only one in the early going whom Earle
chose to meet him in his office. No sooner had I entered than he
boomed, "Has anyone ever pointed out to you that you have subject-
verb agreement problems?" I reeled back, but when he said, "If you
want to write," and paused, I perked up as I waited for the words that
held the key to great writing. Earle leaned on his desk, eyes blazing,
voice vibrating: "—learn how to punctuate!" He handed me the
manuscript and watched me leave.
Three hours later, I looked down at what I had laboured over so
enthusiastically. Every page was covered with ruthless criss-cross
hatchings of penciled, no-holds-barred remarks and corrections. I
felt like ripping the whole thing up and calling my writing career
But I didn't. For it was his slap to my expectations that urged me
on to the tougher realities of learning how to write.
Earle had no time for coddling students who assumed there
must be an easy way to acquire the writer's craft or who lacked a
compelling passion to write: you wrote because you wanted to and
had to. You wrote because you had a story you had to tell. Now learn
the craft and earn the art. Write. Rewrite. Write. Rewrite. And learn
the damn rules of grammar!
The story about the two boys was rewritten half a dozen times-
under Earle's guidance, under Jake Zilber's guidance, under the
48 guidance of Jan de Bruyn. Finally, "The Sound of Waves" was published in PRISM international. A year later it was included in Best
American Short Stories, 1962, along with work by John Updike,
Flannery O'Connor, Arthur Miller, Irwin Shaw. I was listed as "...And
At the end of that term with Earle Birney, he called me into his
office after looking over my last two submissions. "You're getting
better, " the Master said. "Don't give up." Thirty-six years later, I
published my first novel, The Jade Peony. In it, I acknowledged my
debt to him.
And I checked twice to be sure the punctuation was right and
that each verb agreed with its subject.
49 w  *        1        th
Long in the tooth, they say,
because the old poet, omnipotent,
is valued for ivory, pounding the slippery
keys as if they were frozen ponds
made for the long strides of a man
rushing to Armageddon, where he
needs to rehearse the first and final moment,
again and again, bawling, orgasmic,
falling through holes in the ice,
plunging himself into women and poems
who lie down for as long as it takes,
as long as the words march
over breasts and mountain peaks,
anything that will have them
the way people in pain will allow
medicine women to walk on their backs,
and others will listen to music,
even the sound of his piss
freezing in snow,
his white heart breaking
on the thighs of a cold morning
while the planet spins in silence
as white as the sheets in his hospital bed,
nis wniits nnsiwB ■ prciiRiiiii %pmi
50 as the boy on the icy precipice,
waiting for someone to push him off,
because the view from the top-
the cold alpine flowers,
the rigid parts of prehistoric men
aching forever, never
touching the ivory
brides sleeping in avalanches,
the fish spawning in white water,
and the perfect consonant
rhyme of their eggs dropping-
all the way down is beautiful.
for Earle, who taught me to write the truth
when I was a child who had been taught not to
the thighs of a cola morning
51 ailan Lo
In the summer of 1974 Earle decided that I was overschooled and
undereducated and took me east from Toronto. We kept going
east and by February of 1975 landed in Mexico. We were weary of
moving, waking in the night and not quite remembering where we
were. We had seen great beauty and great suffering, had been moved
again and again by the kindness of strangers and discouraged by the
relentless stupidity of the human race, and we needed to take root
somewhere and make a place of stillness.
Earle had spent many months, in the 1950s, in San Miguel del
Allende with Leonard and Reva Brooks.* He had bought a building
lot with the plan of building a house, but the construction had got
only as far as the outer wall, and circumstances had led to
abandonment of the plan and the sale of the lot. Now Earle was 70
and his ambitions no longer ran to ownership of land and houses.
We found a little house to rent at the top of the hill where the
main street turns into the Salida a Queretaro. It was San Miguel's
most dangerous corner, a blind turn, and very steep. Many a truck
had met disaster there, and it seemed fitting that the corner was
occupied by a little church. Our house, however, was a few doors up
the hill in the stony lane, and we felt confidently safe. We presented
to the world a crumbling stuccoed wall and a small unpainted and
battered wooden door, but inside was a tumble of bougainvillea, dark
blue lobelia spilling from clay pots, and an arching jacaranda tree.
The house was built on the vertical, all tile and wrought iron, and
severe in the fashion of 17th century colonial Mexico though the
house was quite new. The sleeping quarters were on the mezzanine,
reachable from an outside door leading to the roof and patio or by an
iron winding stair from the dining room, an arrangement that
encouraged sobriety as the toilet was downstairs. Though the rent
was $125 a month, more than we wanted to pay, we had taken it
*Leonard Brooks, painter, and Reva Brooks, photographer, are Canadian expatriates
who have lived in San Miguel de Allende since 1947. Their friendship with Earle
began in the 1930s in Toronto. San Miguel is a colonial town in Mexico's high central
plateau. It has drawn many writers and artists.
52 Our first household purchase was a three-gallon cauldron and
every morning began with the boiling of the water. I can't remember
how we settled on 30 minutes of boiling but we theorized that that
should kill off whatever was in the water that was likely to hurt us.
February was still cold in San Miguel and the vapour warmed the
kitchen. Once a week a campesino came down the lane bellowing
donkey sounds. He had two burros, loaded with mesquite wood, and
Earle struck up a friendly camaraderie with the man. We bought and
burned a great deal of firewood. Earle had no interest in material
things for himself and after 70 years of frugality, it had become a
habit, but he did not like me to be cold and he enjoyed the ritual of
building and tending the fire at the end of the day.
Most mornings I went to the market alone while Earle went up
to the roof to write. He had a tiny blue portable typewriter purchased
on a whim in Fiji and had started a memoir about his political years.
He had a title, "Conversations with Trotsky," and a collection of
political writing he had done earlier, but it lacked connective tissue
and he wanted to set straight-perhaps for himself-his reasons for
getting into and out of the Marxist movement. He set up on the roof
in the morning and worked till I came back with the day's treasures
from the market. Some days he produced pages of script, some days
nothing, but usually the day began with a letter to a friend. The
letters were a warm-up exercise, getting the prose and fingers
limbered. Earle typed quickly with three fingers only, but with little
accuracy. He found it difficult to get started, though, and had to get
himself and the scene set for writing. He had a favourite writing
costume, a white hat and a blue-and-white-flowered "lava lava," an
ankle-length Samoan wrap-around skirt that stayed up mainly by the
willpower of its wearer. He wore huaraches with rubber tire soles.
On days when he was expecting a visitor he wore shorts, very baggy
and threadbare and defiantly unfashionable.
Some days Earle went to the market with me, steering me away
from the most notoriously rowdy cantinas where cowboys from the
outlying cattle ranches might break out into the street drunk and
aggressive at any hour. The market in San Miguel today is large and
bright and clean and not very different from what one would find in a
small town in Canada. Then, it was cluttered, dark and ripe with the
smells of fruit and flowers and spilling out into the adjoining square
where the Indian women sat on the ground in the midst of their
displays of oranges arranged in perfect pyramids, baskets of tortillas
wrapped in cloths, and mounds of pumice stones. Usually there was a
baby wrapped in the rebozo and two or three dusty children milling
53 about nearby. Earle had few opinions about the quality of the produce
or the soundness of the chickens, and he liked almost everything I
bought and cooked, but he had stories and memories about everything. I think he made a lot of it up. He did not like to ruin a good
story with the truth; his stories grew better and more elaborate with
each telling and I never knew how the story would end as the
endings frequently changed. And so, on these walks about San
Miguel to and from the market, he told me of old scandals, robberies,
murders, and of adventures and scrapes he had had with his friend
Leonard years before. Earle never said, though, that he missed
those days and times. He liked being there in that moment and alive.
Earle enrolled us both in Spanish classes at the Academia and
siesta was followed by hard labour at school. I was in the beginners'
class and Earle was in the advanced. He could read quite fluently and
was digesting Octavio Paz and Lorca and Neruda in the original. I
could not read at all but picked up market and restaurant Spanish
quickly and was soon able to make my way about the town transacting whatever was necessary. Earle felt, I think, a mixed pleasure
in my growing independence from him, but he continued to enjoy
reading poems in Spanish to me and translating as he went along.
In March, San Miguel began to have power black-outs every
afternoon at around five or six and we learned to cook by candlelight.
While I washed and chopped, Earle and I played a game that went on
for fourteen years without keeping score—he read lines of poems to
me until I could name the poem and the author. It was a game that
revealed, to my continuing chagrin, the deficiencies of my degree in
English literature, but I knew even then that those hours in the still
darkness, broken only by the light of a pair of greasy Mexican
candles, were precious and that we were happy.
54 irnev Tribute
MaryaFiamengo Lionel Kearns
Heather Spears Al Purdy
Miriam Waddington Joe Rosenblatt
Phyllis Webb Jacob Zilber
MaryaFiamengo George Bowering
Rona Murray Fred Candelaria
Heather Spears Lionel Kearns
Phyllis Webb Al Purdy
Havana Restaurant and Gallery
1212 Commercial Drive,
Vancouver, BC
55 Til
The Birney Tribute Committee would like to thank
Chad Norman and Catherine Owen
Sioux Browning and Melanie J. Little
Royal City Poetry Centre
PRISM international and George McWhirter
The Canada Council for the Arts
Simon Sherwood at the Havana
Otto and Chontel Koppe at OK Graphics
People's Co-op Bookstore
The University of British Columbia
We are especially grateful to the contributors, panel members
and readers whose involvement made this project possible.
"When He Died, He Took One Last Poem With Him" was previously
published in Museletter, December, 1995, by the League of Canadian
Poets, Toronto, Ontario (Ted Plantos, Editor).
"The Blackened Spine" is taken from And These Are My Elders:
Poems of Tribute & Thanks by Chad Norman, which features thirty
poems celebrating thirty Canadian poets.
"Birney: Dean of Canadian Poets" by Al Purdy was first published as
"Earle Birney" in Quarry, Volume 44: Issue 4, 1996, Kingston,
Ontario (Mary Cameron, Editor).
"The Generous and Humane Voice" originally appeared in Quill &
Quire, February, 1981, as "Earle Birney's recollections of postpartum CanLit." It is a review of Birney's book Spreading Time:
Remarks on Canadian Writingand Writers, Book I(1909-1949).
Exerpts from Notebook: 1964-1978 by Louis Dudek are reprinted
with permission of the author.
"Toronto the Moist" and "Journeyman" by Peter Trower are reprinted
with permission of the author.
A Tribute
Earle Birney
Jan de Bruyn
Wayson Choy
I. B. Iskov
D. G. Jones
Wailan Low
Al Purdy
Linda Rogers
Heather Spears
Hilda Thomas
Peter Trower
Alison Acker
bill bissett
Fred Candelaria
Louis Dudek
George Johnston
Doug Lochhead
Chad Norman
Janis Rapoport
Glen Sorestad
Robert Sward
Phil Thomas
Jacob Zilber
Net proceeds from the sale of this book will go towards the annual
PRISM international Earle Birney Prize for Poetry
ISSN 0032.8790


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