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Athabasca University

Earle Birney

Earle Birney was born in 1904 in Calgary. His father was an itinerant prospector, paperhanger and farmer. The Birney family lived on a bush farm the first six years of Earle's life and then spent the next eight in Banff. After that, his father bought a farm in British Columbia. After graduating high school, Birney worked in a bank for two years, and then enrolled at UBC in engineering. He switched to English and was dismayed to find no classes that studied Canadian literature. Birney completed his M.A. at the University of Toronto in 1927, and never finished a Ph.D. from the University of California. When the Depression hit he taught summer school at UBC and the University of Utah. When he restarted his doctoral studies in 1932, he became deeply involved with Marxist politics, and joined a group that followed Trotsky. WWII broke out and Birney worked in Europe in the personnel selection for the Army. When he returned, after spending some time at the CBC, Birney took a position at UBC in 1946. He established Canada’s first creative writing program and after 1965 held various writer-in-residence positions across the country. He died in 1995 in Toronto.

Because of his political activism, the War and his graduate studies, Birney did not publish his first collection of poetry until 1942. He won a Governor-General’s Award for that first collection, David and other poems. The title poem featured the rugged geography of Canada’s west. His next collection, Now Is Time (1945) earned him a second Governor-General’s Award. Birney’s bleak and pessimistic work was heavily influenced by the destruction that took place during the Second World War. The Straight of Anian (1948) features 17 poems that reflect the cities and regions of Canada. Trial of a City and Other Verse (1952) primarily concerns itself with Vancouver defending itself against destruction.

Although best known as a poet, Birney also wrote radio dramas, plays and novels. His first novel, Turvey: A Military Picaresque (1949) won a Leacock Medal for Humour. Based on his experiences in the military, the story features a naive private who tries to maneuver military bureaucracy. Down the Long Table (1955) is semi-autobiographical novel about a young student and his commitment to Communist ideology.

Birney started writing and publishing collections of poetry in the late 50s and early 60s.  He also began experimenting with form and style. After retiring in 1965, he published eight books of poetry as well as a memoir, Spreading Time: Remarks on Canadian Writing and Writers, Book I: 1904-49 (1980). The Collected Poems of Earl Birney was published in 1975, and represents the most complete and up-to-date collection of his poems, which he often revised. Earl Birney remains one of Canada’s most important poet of the mid-Twentieth Century. (Lee Skallerup)

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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