Birney, Earle


Birney, Earle
▪ 1996

      Canadian poet and writer (b. May 13, 1904, Calgary, Alta.—d. Sept. 3, 1995, Toronto, Ont.), was one of the most highly esteemed poets in Canada. He was especially well-known for his controversial poem "David" (1941), about the mercy killing of a young mountain climber badly injured in a fall. It was included in most Canadian high-school literature studies and was featured in David, and Other Poems (1942), which earned (1943) Birney the first of two Governor-General's awards. The second, in 1946, was for Now Is Time (1945). Birney earned a B.A. (1926) from the University of British Columbia and an M.A. (1927) and a Ph.D. (1936) from the University of Toronto. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley (1927-30), the University of Utah (1930-34), and the University of Toronto (1936-42), and from 1936 to 1940 he was literary editor of Canadian Forum, which showcased works of newly discovered young poets. His experiences while serving in the army during World War II provided material for one of his novels, Turvey (1949), for which he won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. After the war Birney worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a short time before returning (1946) to academe, at the University of British Columbia. From 1965 to 1984 he taught at a number of campuses in Canada and the U.S. In the late 1950s he began giving lectures and readings all over the world. His travels influenced his poetry, in which he adopted the viewpoint of a stranger in the observation of cultures. His poems were published in at least 15 languages. Birney also wrote verse plays, radio plays, short stories, and essays on literary criticism. His poetry collections include Selected Poems, 1940-1966 (1966), The Collected Poems of Earle Birney (1975), Ghost in the Wheels (1977), Copernican Fix (1985), and Last Makings (1991).

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▪ Canadian writer and educator
in full  Alfred Earl Birney  
born May 13, 1904, Calgary, Alta., Northwest Territories [Can.]
died Sept. 3, 1995, Toronto, Ont.

      Canadian writer and educator whose contributions to Canadian letters—especially to poetry—reveal a deep and abiding love of language.

      Birney received a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto (1936). His first collection of poetry, David and Other Poems (1942), was published during his tenure at the University of Toronto (1936–42). He enlisted for active duty in the Canadian army and served from 1942 to 1945. He taught English at the University of British Columbia (1946–62) and held a number of teaching and editorial positions thereafter.

      Birney's other verse collections include Now Is Time (1945), The Strait of Anian (1948), and Near False Creek Mouth (1964). Most of his later poems are experimental. His verse drama, Trial of a City (1952; later revised as a stage play, The Damnation of Vancouver, 1977), is an indictment of modern Vancouver by heroes from Vancouver's past. Birney also wrote two novels: Turvey (1949), a picaresque novel of World War II, and Down the Long Table (1955), which is semiautobiographical. Also an essayist and critic, he edited Twentieth-Century Canadian Poetry (1953). His Collected Poems appeared in 1975. Birney's later works include the poetry collections Ghost in the Wheels (1977), The Mammoth Corridors (1980), Copernican Fix (1985), and Last Makings (1991), as well as several radio plays.

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