Earle Birney’s Contribution

By John Harris | May 28, 2008

Earle Birney is still considered to be among Canada’s top 20th-century poets along with E.J. Pratt, Irving Layton, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Michael Ondaatje and Al Purdy. He wrote well, if at increasingly greater intervals, right to the end of his life. The anthologies that best represent his poems are Poetry of Mid-Century (McClelland and Stewart, 1964) and the revised edition of the Canadian Anthology (Gage, 1966). The Bear on the Delhi Road, published in 1973 in England, is Birney’s most readable book of poems. Though its English editors were a touch too appreciative of Birney’s humor and his Canadian content, they otherwise stuck to poems that had proven popular (minus “David”), and favored among these the ones that showed Birney’s gift for rhyme and meter. Birney’s best poems are almost entirely lyrics and dramatic monologues about travel-adventure and romantic love.

According to Gary Geddes in his introduction to the selection of Birney’s poems in 15 Canadian Poets x 3, Birney had a Romantic approach to lyric poetry: “The poet contemplates and is moved to discover some universal significance to his experience.” It’s worth pointing out that the opposite of this would be the Classical approach — where the poet thinks more of impressing an audience, patron or beloved, of producing some fine phrases, rhymes and figures. The Romantic approach involves the presumption that (as Geddes puts it) “the artist has a cure for society’s ills.” Classical poets think of money, prestige and (maybe) sexual favors. Romantics, as Coleridge explained it, think of poetry as its own justification in that the cures for society’s ills are the cures for the ills of individuals like the poet himself, and the ultimate cure is the experience of poetry itself: “I expect neither profit nor general fame by my writings. Poetry has been to me its own exceeding great reward: it has soothed my afflictions; it has multiplied and refined my enjoyments; it has endeared solitude; and it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and the beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me.”

Birney says this, more or less, at the start of one of his “workshop” books for novice writers, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon (1972). Unfortunately for him, actions speak louder than words. Birney’s actions, described in great detail by Elspeth Cameron in her biography (1994) show that in no way did Birney regard poetry as its own justification. He lusted after stardom, worked incessantly to acquire its trappings, and carried on like a spoilt kid when an editor rejected one of his poems (even when he knew the poem was bad), when a critic questioned (even tentatively) one of his books, when a grant or public office (Master of Massey College) did not come his way, when a publisher failed to market him adequately. He drove Roy Daniels (his boss at UBC), Jack McClelland (his publisher) and Esther (his wife) crazy. Esther, who knew him best, said: “He never made the great international success he longed for and couldn’t settle for simpler goals. What a mess most intellectuals make of their lives when their talents are real but small.”

So Geddes is only partly correct about Birney being a “Romantic.” The problem might have been that discovering the good and beautiful, “the cure for society’s ills,” and being an example of that cure, is a heavier responsibility than pleasing one’s mistress, audience or patron. What can happen to the Romantic poet is that poetry — or the responsibility of producing it and living up to it — itself becomes an obstruction to genuine experience and wisdom. The poet is made impotent by his high expectations of himself, which he has sold — or which has been sold on his behalf by colleagues, critics and English teachers — to society in general. When the Romantic poet is blocked he can do what Coleridge did—stop writing; he can write excessively like Wordsworth did, or he can find a middle way — enduring periods of silence while the impulse is building or the experience is anticipated or engineered.

Birney was capable of none of these. He could not abide Coleridge’s silence and was too impatient to test, as Wordsworth did, the same impulse over and over. Nor could he endure the creative sort of silence that Yeats celebrates in “Long-Legged Fly.” He feared missing not just the poetically lucrative experiences that might come his way, but also the chance of achievement in more materialistically rewarding genres like the novel and the play. So he tried the Classical approach, addressing himself to contemporary audiences and trends, trying the popular novel, the philosophical novel, radio drama, beat poetry, concrete poetry, and sound poetry. Because “David” was popular he had to write a second narrative climbing poem even though he was tired of the first. When Creative Writing proved popular, he wrote two handbooks that describe the private “workshops” that resulted in his own poems. When he needed an airplane ticket he wrote a blurb for an airline company. He measured his success not by his own standards (as Coleridge did) but by the currency of public acceptance, which he inflated massively.

He was often aware that he was straying from the genre for which he had real talent — the lyric poem — and not expending his creative energies wisely. He often cursed himself for wasting time. But, since Fame did not rush to embrace him, he rushed to embrace her. He decided he needed time to do even more of he was doing to win her. In his other workshop book, The Creative Writer (1966), he states the problem: “The writer-artist . . .needs time and plenty of it, and the freedom to apportion that time as the dictates of his art determine. And, unless he is born with a silver spoon, he also needs money to buy that time.”

Birney doesn’t say more about what that “freedom” is actually freedom from, but it is obvious from Cameron’s book that it is freedom from family and job obligations. All his life, Birney whined ceaselessly about these obligations — what he often called “the rat-race” — in long letters to his friends and wife Esther.

He also whined about them in The Creative Writer: “The frustrations of failure or non-recognition aren’t really the tough things in a writer’s life. It’s the other lives he has to live, to make a living, or be a responsible citizen or family man, which reduce his creativeness to fitful hours rather than the excitement of self-absorbing months . . . . A lot of beginners hole up in a craft job at nice pay and write nothing anyone would remember the next week. Others will turn out one promising novel or chapbook of poems, or a few short stories, and quit. They quit because they can’t keep physically alive by what they write; they must get into the rat-race; and the rat-race drains both time and energy and leaves them depressed — depressed with their world’s lack of interest in literature as literature, its unwillingness to hire them as artists. They become more dejected than Coleridge . . . .”

Coleridge had much more basic reasons for feeling dejected — opium addiction and unrequited love — and in any case tended to blame himself for his problems. Birney emphatically did not blame himself; his problems were acquired in the name of art. He associated independent travel and extra-marital affairs with creativity and pursued them as frantically as he pursued publication. He ran from and returned to Esther over and over again, and his explanations were always the same. He pleaded his art as sole excuse: “I am a writer. This is a fixture in my temperament. It makes me want to roam, to experience, to be alone often, to be unencumbered by worries so that I can summon the energy for artistic concentration . . . . All my life I have wanted to be an artist, a writer, and I have been frustrated at every turn, and still am, by having to earn a living so arduously that I can’t do the real things I can do . . . .”

In this particular letter to Esther, one of dozens that were all more or less the same, Birney says, “Quite bluntly, I need a wife who has money.” Birney had left Esther to be with Pauline Ivey, who happened to be rich and whom he’d met in a resort town in Mexico. Most of the time his mistresses were not rich — some he had to support them when they were with him, and thus Birney had no “artistic” reason for going to them. Esther of course noted this contradiction and the contradiction between the need “to be alone often” and to have “a wife who has money.”

Esther was a social worker, and often (as their son got older and when Birney let her) worked and paid her own way so she was actually an asset financially. She knew too that Birney wasted much of the time that he could’ve spent writing in scrambling for money, mistresses and attention, and that he traveled to avoid writing, not to generate inspiration.

In neither of his workshop books does Birney deal with wives, houses, lawns and children. He does not, for instance, write about his son Bill, who thoughtlessly took tuba lessons in high school and was obnoxiously loyal to his mother. Perhaps Birney, self-focused as he was, understood how selfish he sounded, and how pompous in attributing his wants to the cause of art. Perhaps he couldn’t quite convince himself that civilization was paying a too-heavy price for Bill’s tuba lessons. Nor does Birney deal with mistresses, not even when they contributed actual lines to poems as Margaret Crossland did to “Mappemounde.” Perhaps he didn’t want to embarrass these women.

Perhaps he didn’t want to encourage novice writers to go this arduous route, believing it would be better for them to concentrate on daffodils. Perhaps he regarded his need for lovers as a strictly personal, even eccentric, one that wouldn’t apply to others. Birney deals only with the job problem: granted a job is necessary, what kind of job best allows the poet to apportion his time “as his art determines?”

Poetry requires at least two things, in Birney’s professional estimate.

One is travel: “Unless he is to end up a regional second-rater or a class snob or fanatic, he needs to spend some of that time and money moving about his country and some of the rest of the world, for his subject is humanity and he must experience humanity to write about it, to fulfill his own destiny.” The other requirement is “a balanced understanding of the world of ideas around him, and of the literary and scientific heritage to which he is heir.”

Obviously both these needs, as Birney seems to mean them, are as eccentric as the need for sexual affairs, two more items on his own personal wish-list. Some great poets travel and some don’t: Shakespeare stayed home, and Johnson went to Scotland and said that no one need go outside London. As for understanding of ideas and the literary heritage, this is no doubt good for you and your society but not as essential to poetry as Romantics like to believe. Birney wasted years being a Trotskyite. As Northrop Frye says in The Educated Imagination, “the poet is not only very seldom the person one would turn to for insight into the state of the world, but often seems even more gullible and simple-minded than the rest of us.”

So how, in Birney’s opinion, does the poet acquire work that pays for maximum freedom to do what art demands? Here too Birney’s advice applies more to himself than others and is sometimes totally contradictory. To beginning poets he recommends university studies, particularly in Creative Writing. Doing a stint at university provides a fair amount of free time and some understanding of ideas. But Birney hedged on this advice. The great Romantics did not associate understanding of the world of ideas with schooling, and Birney acknowledged that university was not for everyone: “the unusual youth, energetic, habitually organized, and disciplined beyond what most writers tend to be,” will not need university. Also, universities in general are “academically hide bound,” the professors “not always very live,” and the writer-professors “too busy or timid” to fight for writing programs.

Still, Birney argues that the university provides, besides time and ideas, a friendly environment and contact with real writers: “Even in our largest academic marketerias, the student still obtains some fleeting contact with the hired help, and some guidance in finding what he is shopping for, provided it’s in stock.”

In those days, as today, writer-professors are something that most university English departments plentifully had in stock. Birney was able to list the best of the Canadian writer-profs, a couple of them at least in each of the major universities.

What wasn’t much in stock in Birney’s time was direct instruction in creative writing: “As for the writer-professors I’ve referred to . . . they have nearly all remained too busy or too timid to offer Creative Writing, even if a Dean of Arts or Head of English could by some accident have been persuaded to admit such an exotic into the hallowed curriculum.” At UBC, at least, this has been achieved, and by Birney himself, for the benefit of beginner poets. Not surprisingly, Birney cheerfully recommended his own program.

For promoting the program, Birney took some flack from his prestigious writer-friends, who well knew that Birney’s private appraisal of the university was more negative than the above comments, lukewarm as they are, would suggest. They could not believe that Birney would seriously recommend Creative Writing to novice writers, and saw him as hypocritical; he was doing what he had to do to make his job more comfortable. In 1960, Robert Bly, an editor for a Minnesota magazine at the time, who had seen Birney’s poetry in US magazines and thought highly of it, read some of Birney’s promotional material for the UBC program and objected: “There is something revolting . . . about the whole idea of courses in ‘creative writing’ . . . which you as a serious poet, must well understand.”

Birney was stung by this, probably because he knew that Bly was right, that his own argument was a rationalization based on his own choices and needs. He countered by pointing out that Bly himself had been at Iowa and that this experience of writers of Bly’s generation showed in contemporary journals like Bly’s: “without the work of ‘serious poets’ in universities during the Forties and Fifties, the level of writing in the journals of the Sixties would, I suspect, be a good deal lower than it is. And this you, as a serious editor, must well understand.”

Bly responded angrily to this counter-accusation of hypocrisy, this obvious mockery, and this misrepresenting of the facts about journal poetry: “Iowa . . . was a grotesque farce . . . . I also took part as an undergraduate in some creative writing courses at Harvard under MacLeish, for one. They were directed by serious men, but they were absurd. The whole atmosphere of a university is the exact opposite of the delicacy of poetry . . . . Most creative writing courses do much more harm than good . . . . The level [of journal writing] is much lower . . . than it has ever been, and for the major part because poetry has become domesticated in the universities.”

Bly might have noted that, in The Creative Writer, Birney absolutely recommends against the novice writer staying in the university to teach after graduation: “Many Canadian authors would have written much more, and consequently developed farther and become more contemporary as writers, if they had not, by going to college, got too deeply involved in colleges, by staying on to teach in them . …I think the young Canadian writer …should not stay around after graduation, however many of his fellow artists are there in academic chains around him.”

Birney really seemed to believe that the university was not a good place for the established writer. In a questionnaire circulated among Canadian poet-profs in 1956, as to whether or not university work was conducive to artistic creativity, Birney was one of only two who recorded an absolute “no:” “Academic obligations have hindered me in writing poetry.” Birney went on to provide a long account of how this happened — of the various duties he had to endure — and listed no positives, not even some that might be connected to teaching creative writing. After he retired, Birney became even more contemptuous of the university — excepting the Creative Writing program for novices — as a seat of artistic creativity. How he expected such a program to exist without teachers, he never said, though he did always argue for the program more as an environment rather than a course of instruction. Presumably Creative Writing departments were to be staffed by artistic losers and self-acknowledged hacks.

It’s significant that Birney never proposed alternate employment for the established writer, never answered the question of what such a writer is to do for a living, beyond suggesting that the state should pay wages to artists. Nor did he explain why the university would be good for the beginner but bad for the writer who stays on to teach. Bly might’ve been correct; Birney could have understood, if only instinctively, that there was something intrinsically bad about mixing teaching literature with writing it — that the teaching involved a method or habit of thinking that worked against the writing. What was obvious is that Birney was a hypocrite, quite likely in his recommending Creative Writing for novices and quite obviously in proscribing serious writers from staying around the university. His equals (like Bly) and any younger writers who regarded him as a model, judged him by his actions, not by what he said: he recommended Creative Writing to beginners, and he stayed around to teach it.

Obviously Birney found, and worked hard to make, his university job the best of all possible jobs for a poet, even if he did hint that it was actually the worst. And why wouldn’t it be the best? What else could compare? Four paid summer months, with funding for travel and conferences; research fellowships, professional development funds, sabbaticals, influence over university publishing houses and periodicals. And, due to the lobbying and advice of Birney and his fellow writer-profs at the time, the federal Canada Council and provincial arts councils were established and funded. Thanks to artists like Birney, society began hiring the artist, as he wished. But it was not to produce art so much as to teach it while producing it.

Birney became an example to the next generation of poets, who largely ignored his recommendation against teaching. Frank Davey, a student in Birney’s program (before it became a separate department), who worked in that program as a teaching assistant while he did his thesis in English, said: “When I enrolled at the University of British Columbia in 1957, Birney seemed to me to be the only ‘writer’ on faculty, and despite campus rumors that he saw his writing as crippled by university demands — he became for me a sign of the compatibility in Canada of a writing career and university teaching.” At other campuses, poets like Louis Dudek, Ralph Gustafson, F. R. Scott, Margaret Avison, George Bowering, and Eli Mandel set similar examples for other student-writers. As the 1957 survey indicates, these writer-profs would’ve been encouraging their “A” students to stay in academe. And more and more these profs and their colleagues followed Birney in working to introduce Creative Writing courses and programs for themselves and their students to teach.

In one sense, Davey was right to ignore Birney’s warnings. For anyone familiar with Birney and his poetry, it will be clear that Birney assessed his own creative needs accurately, and that the trips and lovers were not merely self-indulgence insofar as Birney did write best when he had free (paid) time that he could dedicate to travel and women. (“Study” didn’t really seem to interest him much, though he may have assumed that he had done enough of that in completing his doctorate). A graph showing the public appreciation of Birney’s poetry (measured by repeat publication in anthologies, say) on its vertical axis, and horizontally the years of Birney’s life, would display an oscillation that peaks during his years in the army (1941-1945), during his Nuffield Fellowship (1958-1959), and during his Canada Council Senior Arts Fellowship (1962-1963). These were the times when Birney was liberated from teaching and on the move with various lovers. But what the graph doesn’t show is that it was Birney’s academic job that provided the Nuffield and facilitated the Canada Council grant. It also provided the contacts he used to get both grants and to make arrangements to carry out the required projects, and it allowed him the freedom to take the time off.

Birney’s first poetry was written between 1936-1942, when he was teaching full-time at the University of Toronto. However, the best of his early poems were written when Birney was in the army and on the way out of academic life. Birney volunteered in October 1940. About the years prior to that he says, in The Cow Jumped Over the Moon, that he wrote “scarcely a dozen” poems, “nearly all trivia.” He explains his ensuing situation in Fall By Fury (1978): “In the spring of 1941, I was the Lecturer of the English Department in University College, Toronto, and a private-cadet in the university’s army training corps. I would wind up my last seminar by four, change from customary teaching gown to required khaki, tramp around the quad juggling a rifle for an hour or so, then head for home.” He told a friend, “Now that I’ve burnt my bridges, this last year of academic life is distinctly pleasant.” Birney felt the “summer holiday” exhilaration of someone long in “chains” (the metaphor he always used when referring to the university), who knows that he will soon be released.

He started writing “David” that spring, and finished it by summer. He wrote “Vancouver Lights” when he just started “David,” and “Anglo-Saxon Street ” a few months later. These are his first three good poems. When the academic year was over, life got even better. Unlike fellow poet Irving Layton, a high-school English teacher, Birney loved the army — possibly because his age (36) would definitely keep him out of combat, and because his degree and his years of teaching indicated that he could be put to “management.” He trained as a Personnel Selection Officer, moving around Ontario and Quebec administering tests to conscripts and volunteers, delighting in the information he was collecting, which he saw as material for poetry and the novel he started to plan, which eventually became Turvey (1949). He rose to the rank of Captain, and found that the uniform was easily as effective as the academic gown when it came to acquiring lovers.

In his time overseas (May 1943-July 1945), he wrote “The Road to Nijmegen,” “This Page My Pigeon,” “From the Hazel Bough,” and “Mappemounde.” Purdy thought the latter one of the great and truly original poems of the century. Whatever the truth of that, this batch of poems is definitely superior to the previous one. Birney was now not just out of the university but also traveling, living away from his family, and bedding more women. “This Page” is for Esther, but “The Road to Nijmegen” recalls Gabrielle Baldwin, to whom the poem is dedicated. He’d met her in February 1943 in the officer’s mess at Niagara-on-the-Lake. “Mappemounde” is, as Espeth Cameron puts it, “a reworking of the sonnets he and Margaret [Crossland] had exchanged: …The force of the poem… came from his union with Margaret.” Crossland was Birney’s English lover, who posed as his wife in order to get easier access to him in army camps and hospitals. Cameron quotes lines from Crossland’s sonnets that Birney echoed in his. “From the Hazel Bough” was started in the military hospital in Toronto in 1945 and was for Corinne Hagon, a neighbor on Hazelton Avenue in Toronto with whom Birney had a brief affair while in training.

When he was demobilized, Birney made a serious attempt to avoid returning to university work, following his own instinct and the advice of writer-friends, like Dorothy Livesay, who tried to persuade him “to get away from that neutral limbo, the university.” He took a job with CBC radio, cutting his ties with the U of T, which was expecting him back from his leave. But he found that radio work left him absolutely no time for writing. Birney seems to have concluded that no job could be right for him, and he never tried alternate work again. He fell back on the familiar and hired on at UBC. He was tired of living in the east and, at UBC, the head of English, Garnett Sedgewick, was sympathetic to Birney’s poetic aspirations. Sedgewick promised Birney that he would be allowed to teach creative writing; this would be the first time in Canada that such a course would be taught as part of a professor’s load rather than by a visiting writer like (prominently at that time) Bliss Carman. Birney would also be free of committee work — an easy promise for Sedgewick to make since he decided everything himself, consulted no one.

However, despite the advantages of being at UBC, “dejection” set in by Birney’s second year of teaching, and there were then no sabbaticals at UBC to look forward to. The idea was that for important projects the profs would secure funding and the university would grant unpaid leave. So in the fall of 1952, after five years of full-time work, Birney acquired a Canadian Government Overseas Fellowship to write a novel. He’d written two famous poems — the only good poems he wrote while “in chains” — in that five years: “Bushed” and “Ellesmereland.” Ralph Gustafson and E. J. Pratt supported his grant application — Birney had been writing letters for Gustafson and Pratt had been a colleague at U of T. Birney had already published Turvey to some acclaim, but not enough to satisfy him, especially when he failed to find British and American publishers for the book. Also, some important reviewers were unhappy with it. They thought that Turvey, the central character, was too stupid to be interesting; Birney gave him no inner life, no interesting monologue nor relationships, no crises. They thought the scenes of horseplay were too many, and because Turvey never makes it to the battlefront the book makes no comment on war itself except that it can be a lot of fun. Birney partly agreed with these judgments, thought he could profit from them, and noted that Turvey sold — 5,000 copies in the first three weeks. He wanted to try again, and received from the government the equivalent of a year’s salary for all of 1953. He didn’t want to go overseas, but he’d been turned down for Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships.

He went straight to France — thinking of Hemingway and the Left Bank — and succeeded in getting half of Down the Long Table done, and in making some progress on his poetry book that was overdue at Ryerson. He also edited a war memorial book for UBC and the anthology Twentieth-Century Canadian Poetry for Ryerson. He had acquired a number of magazine assignments for travel articles, as a way of supplementing his income, but couldn’t complete them, and he wrote no poetry. Cameron says, “he detested the life of an expatriate writer.” When overseas, he wanted to have fun. Fun was not to be had in France; the Left Bank was dead. Also writing a second novel was a mistake. Birney realized that fiction was not his genre. Finally, he had Esther close by at the time, mostly at his own insistence. Apparently he didn’t factor in his need for other women.

He eventually learned to avoid these sorts of mistakes, as often as he could. Birney’s second explosion of poetry happened in 1958-9, while he was on a Nuffield Scholarship to write some articles about Chaucer. Once again he’d reached a state of panic about his writing: “The academic chains are almost crushing, and I have written nothing of a creative nature for nearly four years since I finished Down the Long Table.”

Once again he was forced to devise a project that was not really what he wanted; he needed publications in his specialty to hang onto his small classes of grad students. He was no longer interested in “chipping at the granite face of Chaucer scholarship,” but knew that he could write a few Chaucer articles quickly. He planned carefully, sending letters ahead for readings and places to stay. He sent Esther and Bill east across Canada and to England, and traveled the other way around the world himself, by plane, spending time in Honolulu (where he wrote “Twenty-third Flight”), Japan (“A Walk in Kyoto”), and India. He started many other poems.

After a couple of months in the British Museum with Chaucer, Birney fled south into France, without Esther, hooking up with Liz Cowley, who back in 1946 had taken to sending him her poetry and had then become a “mascot” to Birney’s Creative Writing class of 1948. She’d become a top BBC television producer in the meantime, and Birney looked her up in London.

From Paris, he took her to A. J. M. Smith’s place in Nice, then hooked up with her again on his way home on Ile de Porquerolles off Toulon. Cameron points out that there was “a connection between his conquest of new experiences or new women and his creativity . . . . The best poem that took shape in the spate of verses Birney began formulating that year of Asia and Liz was ‘Bear on the Delhi Road.’ It was the only poem he wrote on holiday with Liz.” “El Greco: Espolia” was written shortly after he got home, and about it Cameron adds, “his affair with Liz Cowley had brought to life the emotions that found expression in “Bear” and “El Greco: Espolia.” Other popular poems written at that time and published a couple of years later in Ice, Cod, Bell and Stone (1962) were “Wake Island,” “Bangkok Boy,” “Flying Fish,” and “Wind-Chimes in a Temple Ruin.”

Three years after the Nuffield, in 1962-3, Birney won a Canada Council Senior Arts Fellowship to travel, write and lecture on Canadian poetry for a year. His application, supported by U of T president Claude Bissell and ambassador to Greece Bruce Macdonald — a friend from undergraduate days at UBC — argued that Canada needed “cultural ambassadors to supplement their diplomats and economic emissaries.” The itinerary was extensive– San Miguel (a favored writing/partying spot) in Mexico, Mexico City, New Orleans, Miami, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Lima, Machu Picchu, Cartagena in Colombia, Curacao in Trinidad, Caracas, Spain, London, and Florence. Some spots like Caracas and Buenos Aires were for sightseeing, but for most stops Birney had arranged ahead of time for readings and lectures, a total of 37 by the end of November 1962.

In San Miguel, once Esther and Bill had left, Birney was joined by his student Judith Bechtold (“that rarity: a good-looking girl who can make firsts in Chaucer and also in a writing class”). In London he hooked up with “a delicious and almost-young” Sussex Florence. There, after Crossland returned to London, he met Crowley (the arrangements had been made from Trinidad) and they traveled together, by car and car ferry, to Greece and then through Yugoslavia, Venice, northern Italy, France and Andorra to northern Spain. In Madrid, “the girl went back to London and my wife arrived by plane from Vancouver.” Esther and Birney toured the rest of Spain. In Majorca, in December, with Esther, he began to write, producing the long poem “November Walk Near False Creek Mouth”, an inspired meditation on death and one of Birney’s better poems. Near False Creek Mouth (1964) contained the poems from this trip and is an early example of a new sub-genre — the sequence of travel-poems written on sabbatical, a grant, or both. Other often-anthologized poems written at this time were “Meeting of Strangers,” “Cartagena Les Indias,” and “Billboards Build Freedom of Choice,” but overall these poems were a falling off from those written while on the Nuffield.

When Birney retired, at 61 years of age, in 1965, he covertly arranged with Bissell for a two-year, half-salary writer in residence at the U of T and a place to stay so he could live with Ikuko Atsumi, a student in English and Creative Writing (poetry) and an art-school model. Birney left Esther and drove with Ikuko across Canada. The secrecy was to avoid scenes with Esther and Ikuko’s husband who was threatening to beat Birney up. He also invoked old friendships to arrange for Ikuko to be admitted to grad school at U of T, even though she was short some requirements. Once she was set up, Birney threw himself into writing and literary activities, sitting on the Council’s Advisory Arts Panel and doing most of the work of setting up the League of Canadian Poets (1966).

He resigned from the Royal Society and, as Cameron says, “Made it clear that he despised the universities,” though in reality he was, of course, working in one. When Ikuku returned to her husband, Birney replaced her with Alison Hunt, a high-school teacher who had turned up at one of his readings. He took her with him when he taught summer creative writing in Charlottetown. He sold his papers to the Toronto Public Library for the equivalent of a professor’s full yearly salary. When his gig at U of T was over, he became Writer-in-Residence at Waterloo University, 1967-1968. From there he went to UCLA at Irvine. It was a soft touch, a half-dozen lectures and some office hours so creative writing students could talk to him.

But now it wasn’t working. By 1970, Birney realized that the writer-in-residency was just another job, almost as time-consuming and worrying, and in the same stultifying environment, as full-time teaching. He had to make complicated arrangements and find a new home every year or two. Esther would be with him. Tom Wayman, a creative writing student of Birney’s during his last years at UBC, who had gone to Irvine and worked towards getting Birney hired there, was disappointed in Birney, finding him impatient with the students, “as if he had a chip of resentment on his shoulder that after so much effort he was not as famous, or honored, or rewarded as he felt he deserved.” Wayman also noted that Birney had come to Irvine with Esther and that Bill was nearby working, and the proximity to family seemed to be weighing heavily on Birney. Finally, Wayman believed that Birney was writing the wrong kind of poetry. Birney had taken sides, back in 1965, for the Canadian modernists (Scott, Layton, Purdy etc) and against the Americans (Olson, Creeley, Ginsberg, Duncan etc) who had been brought to UBC by Warren Tallman. But by the time he arrived at Irvine it was as if he were trying to catch up with newer trends: “He declared that concrete or shaped poems were the forefront of poetic endeavor, and was rather dismissive towards other approaches.”

Birney designed an escape from writer-in-residence gigs and family pressures by arranging arduous reading tours, one tour after another with little time between. He knew that it would take a mountain of honoraria to make up for the regular university salary that he needed to travel and (much of the time) maintain two residences in Canada. He started with Australia and New Zealand. He used contacts in Canada to make contacts among Australian writers, and did his research. His last couple of lectures at Irvine were, Wayman noted, about poetry “down under.” Birney now had pension money and some savings, and he got a special Canada Council Medal and Award of $2,500 (May 1968) to supplement the honoraria. Alison Hunt went with him.

Alison perceived the nature of the new game that Birney was playing — and the pressures that it put on him: “One thing I found very strange. Wherever he went he had like 500 people to woo who’d written to him and he’d written to. And the Big Link to Earle was American Express. He’d go in there three times a day whenever we were in the big places. And there’d be this great pile of mail. I had this idea that a poet sat around and looked at things and read books all the time. But he was always writing what I thought were long, sort of business letters. He’d be bitching and signing all these lovely things for people to get their Canada Council grants, and all this support for about a hundred thousand poets. And a lot of it seemed to me an awful lot of busy work . . . . Sometimes he’d pull the curtains, put on dark glasses and spend all day writing letters to the editor, to the publisher, saying things like ‘You pisspot McClelland’ or ‘You piss me off, Jack.’ It was like an intravenous transfusion for him, I think.”

It was pretty much like teaching too — talking to unknowns about their poems, lecturing on Canadian Literature, planning itinerary, and reading. But there was no break from it.

In the end, Birney was not happy with “down under,” calling it “a dismal human landscape.” He planned retirement in Vancouver, with Esther.

Esther rented a “writing” cottage on Galiano Island. But Birney couldn’t settle down and soon set off on a Canadian-U.S. reading tour, mid-February – June 1969. He was unhappy with that, too. He earned only $900, got small audiences, and the reviews were not good. Still, he was off again at the beginning of 1971, reading at universities across the country, a tour that was aborted when he was involved in a traffic accident on 25 January. He soon recovered, and was reading in England and France in April through June 1971. Home, he planned an Asia-Africa tour for the winter and spring of 1972, funded by honoraria and “Cancow” ($2,940). He did 43 readings, average stop 3 days, in Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Ceylon, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Hawaii. In the Spring of 1973 he did a busy reading tour of the east, 18 readings in seven weeks, returning to Vancouver in April.

But still, inspiration lagged. The books he published in his time of writer-in-residencies and reading tours, 1965-1973, were not well received. Wayman had been right. Cameron comments that Birney’s concrete poems, featured in Pnomes, Jukollages and Other Stunzas, produced by bpNichol in his grOnk series (1969), Rag and Bone Shop (1971), and What’s So Big about Green (1973), “had sprung not from the heart, but from the head. They were cerebral and glib, cynical and cold.” And they were so despite the attentions of admiring and on the whole happy lovers and despite the fact that Birney was traveling intensively.

Two days after returning from his Spring 73 Canadian reading tour, Birney had a heart attack. He was 68 years old. Esther was in Hawaii. His rescuer was Lily Low, who later revived her Chinese name Wailan. Low was a 23-year-old grad student of Birney’s UBC colleague Tony Kilgallen, who had engineered their meeting. She moved in with Birney and then, before Esther came home, went east with him. She soon became his second wife. They settled in Toronto, where she ultimately went to law school and began a practice. This tied Birney down somewhat, but in 1974-5 they did a world tour, with Birney’s airfare paid by “Cancow” for doing a few readings. Birney’s pace was further slowed by an accident after they got home. He was planning a 3-week reading trip to the USSR for the autumn when he fell out of a tree he was pruning. In January 1976, on crutches, he read at some nearby universities.

He entered into a final, though minor, phase of successful writing — his fourth after the Army, the Nuffield, and the Canada Council grant of 1962-3. He wrote love poems for Wailan Low. Purdy wrote in surprise in July 1976: “The six [poems] for Lan are the best love poems I’ve ever seen of yours . . . lovely and delicate . . . with an overlooking sort of love.” In 1978, some of these poems, including the beautiful “My Love is Young” that matches “Hazel Bough” for conventional lyric grace, were published in Fall by Fury.

Birney now had time for writing. He did continue his readings, writer-in-residencies and grant-funded travels: in 1978 he received a three-year Canada Council Senior Arts Grant, in 1981 he was writer in residence at Western, and in 1983 (at 79 years old) did 25 readings across Canada. However, as Cameron puts it, “anxious ambition no longer spurred Birney on . . . . No longer was he scrambling desperately as if he had to scale impossible heights.” The fact was that Birney’s life now revolved around Low’s. She was going to university and then working, so his trips were done during summer or over Christmas, when Wailan was free to go with him. Otherwise, Birney watched TV, wrote, and waited for her to come home. This ended in 1987 when another heart attack damaged Birney’s brain and put him permanently in chronic care. He died there in 1995 at 91 years of age.

Birney set the pattern for the literary life of the writer-prof both before and after retirement, and for the famous writer who wants university work. He helped set up the Canada Council and the League of Canadian poets, he participated in the work of these organizations, and he benefited from that work. He ran a university periodical — Prism International — and published in it and the periodicals of his colleagues and students. He worked to bring Creative Writing to Canada, to make it possible for students and professors to submit literary as well as scholarly writing for credit and in satisfaction of “publish or perish” professional development, sabbatical and tenure rules. As well he encouraged donors to set up writing fellowships and awards, and promoted the teaching of Canadian literature. From all of this he also, deservedly, benefited. Once he retired, his influence and connections remained intact, and he used them energetically to get what he felt he needed.

But what did it mean to his writing? Writing can thrive under the most adverse of circumstances, and can even blossom because of those circumstances. In the absolute sense, money and time are not needed to produce writing if the creative urge is intense enough, or the sense of mission. On the other hand, it would be too easy to argue that Birney would have benefited from some slave labor or a long-term dependence on a 9 – 5 job. It is excessively Protestant to argue that this would have focused him and given him more serious material to work with than travel-adventure and romantic love, replacing these with suffering or politics, or that it would have eliminated his detached ruminative moralizing and his satirical and experimental urges, by replacing them with the urgency of tragic or prophetic insight. It’s easy to show, too, that Birney’s rationales for what he wanted, as well as his after-the-fact explanations of the genesis of each of his great poems, are self-serving and contradictory. All that can be said fairly is that the system he built worked for him.

But did it work better than some randomly acquired form of wage-slavery would have? By 1965, when he retired, Birney had written almost all but one or two of his major poems. Maybe he needed his job in order to continually be liberated from it, and maybe once he was liberated permanently that “rush” disappeared. He seemed to have needed the interstices between slave labor and freedom, the “rush.” The writer-in-residencies and reading tours proved infinite — there was no release from them because Birney was his own manager and there was no one like Daniels, Esther or Bill to blame for lack of creativity. The picture of Birney painted by Alison Hunt is haunting: a poet spending his days not so much with her, Australia and poetry but caught inside the system he’d helped to create, writing business letters, angrily fighting with critics and publishers, dutifully returning favors and humbly requesting them, eternally designing grant applications and proposals.

The new possibilities that Birney set up for the poet to earn money to buy time may not have amounted to what Bly thought — a domestication of poetry in the university. But they have amounted to the domestication of a lot of poets — including Birney. These poets trained at university, and later their main venues became the textbook anthology and the classroom reading, their main audience was made up of teachers and students, and their main patron was the government and its arts/education bureaucracy. Birney helped create another job of work for the poet, one that has the benefit and maybe the danger of providing, in addition to time and the power to apportion it, all the trappings of fame: audiences, ready publication, good money and endless distraction. For Birney, more and more, as he got what he said he wanted, it was mostly the distractions that proved real.


Prince George, B.C., May 28, 2008.


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