Birney (And His Age) in Focus

Earle Birney. Spreading Time. Remarks on Canadian Writing and Writers, Book I: 1904-1949. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1980. 163 pp.

A responsible reviewer should begin by giving a clear description of the book he is reviewing, and in the case of Spreading Time this is no easy task. Despite the six pages of fascinating illustrations (all but one of the nine photographs are centred upon the poet himself from baby to soldier-father), it is no autobiography in the ordinary sense. The blurb's description, "Birney's literary memoirs," is accurate enough so long as the emphasis falls on "literary." He includes nothing that does not, in his view, relate to his writing life. The effect is sometimes odd, when at one point he remarks casually, "I had now both a wife and a smaller salary than before I gained the Ph.D.," we realize with a shock that this is the first mention of his marriage. Similarly, although we learn a good deal about his childhood there is little or nothing about certain aspects of his life that, if not directly relevant to his own writing (and therefore to literature in Canada), would be an important part of the biography of the whole man. I refer not only to domestic matters (of which we get only the briefest of glimpses) but to such topics as his reasons for specializing in Early English and the extent of his wartime service. The subtitle, of course, focuses on a rather different aspect of the book: its useful gathering of a number of Birney's reviews, articles and broadcasts. Spreading Time oscillates in form between recently-written accounts of his literary experiences, designated "As I Remember," and interspersed documents from the period in question. Finally the title is derived from Sarah Binks, and represents the playful, punning, ebullient side of Birney's nature.

    This last aspect needs to be emphasized because, although the book is a gold-mine of information about the poet and his interests, it should, I think, be taken with the occasional grain of salt by our oh-so-solemn literary historians. I am not, needless to say, impugning Birney's sincerity — merely observing that several of the anecdotes sound as if they had been told many times and had evolved (and improved) in the process. Birney is a great raconteur in prose as well as in verse. Doubtless such poems as "Billboards Build Freedom of Choice" or "Sinaloa" are based upon actual encounters, but Birney has clearly subjected his experience to a process of alchemical concentration, and I suspect that the same may have happened from time to time here. Thus the story of Carman, the poet of Vagabondia, getting lost in B.C. undergrowth just before a poetry reading is splendid — so perfect, in fact, that the allegorical application fuses totally with the literal narrative. Birney is a master of this kind of creative effect.

     The Birney we find here both corroborates and supplements the Birney we recognize in the poems. His is essentially a poetry of process, of the responses of the moment that do not necessarily blend with the responses of the past and may well be supplanted or contradicted in the future. A legitimate fascination of Spreading Time consists in seeing one of our best writers working out his beliefs and attitudes in the course of day-to-day, month-by-month grapplings with whatever opportunity and chance offer. His nationalist and internationalist principles wax and wane as the mood takes him. The opening paragraph finds him reciting the Lord's Prayer and Psalm 23 at Sunday School and he comments puckishly: "I can't recall anyone objecting to the absence of Canadian content." And on the last page he insists: "I think of myself as an internationalist still." In between, there are numerous lunges at the Maple Leaf school and, at the same time, what are by now standard, even tired protests against "colonial" neglect of the native literature. On the one hand he berates the university English departments of his early manhood because they taught a remote literature, but on the other he scathingly condemns the native product; when the university does recognize living Canadian writers he is embarrassed by the blatant self-promotion of Wilson Macdonald and the posturing of Carman and Roberts. And later, after bemoaning the neglect of Canadian literature on the part of university teachers and librarians, the publishing industry, reviewers and the media, he abruptly changes course and complains because "very few critics are trying to tell us what are the best books of other countries" and continues:

Hundreds and hundreds of people with literary talent in this country never write a thing worth printing because they scarcely ever read anything of their own time that is worth reading . . . . I am not suggesting that the Canadian need be an imitator of foreign writers, of Hemingway or Kafka, Auden or Dylan Thomas. But I am suggesting that if he has no acquaintance with them he is making it a lot harder for himself to speak in the accents of a modern man.

     These are wise words, but in being pulled both ways Birney is important not so much for what he says as for his embodiment of a central Canadian dilemma.

     His political dabblings invite much the same response. The extreme political disasters of the 1930's led to numerous extreme actions on the part of individuals. Lesser men than Birney have lived to regret their allegiances at that time and have drawn a veil of silence over them. But Birney openly recounts actions and attitudes, gestures and changings of mind, in a way that impresses even when it provokes some unease. So he frankly tells us how in January 1933 he "launched a crash program of 'leftwing' reading, starting with the Communist Manifesto and moving further into Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Stalin, with side glances into the literature of the new (Canadian) League of Social Reconstruction." An internationalist indeed, and one can safely assume that, when he goes on to explain his continuing in quest of a university teaching post, Birney is poking ironic fun at himself through capitalist metaphor: "I'd invested too much of my life in academic training to make it anything but foolish to drop out now." The following year, without any academic prospects, he "was well enough known in American Trotskyite circles to be invited to New York to work on the party's theoretical organ, the New International." To the Finland Station? Not a bit of it. The pay was minimal, and in the nick of time Pelham Edgar got him a scholarship to complete his doctorate in London. Birney offers no cant about a crisis of social conscience but observes with sublime honesty, "I accepted joyfully."

    This account, I would argue, is very much to Birney's credit. These reminiscences are not designed to uphold the sanctities of the 1980's, and we can applaud the frankness with which he records decisions and responses that could be interpreted against him. His reaction to the outbreak of the Second World War, for instance, reads as a curious compound of practical sense and theoretical ingenuousness. "It was all as the Trotskyites had predicted," he asserts, and reprints a biting but, to a post-Dachau generation, somewhat disturbing article, "To Arms with Canadian Poetry!" (Canadian Forum, January 1940), in which he employs what he calls "the savage smile of irony" to ridicule patriotic poetasters and jingoists of all kinds. It is both amusing and clear-headed, but in emphasizing the absurdities of the militant, it tends to suggest a lack of understanding of the larger issues involved. In this lookingglass-land Mackenzie King is twitted for his "lamentable slowness in declaring Canada herself at war." After such sarcasm we are hardly prepared for the volte-face a few pages later: "By mid-1940, however, I decided that this war of capitalist powers had become also a necessary struggle to prevent the world becoming totally fascist. . . . I had a stake in Hitler's defeat. . . . I dropped from the Marxist-Leninists and prepared to join the 'war effort' in whatever way I could." Mackenzie King, it seems, was a year ahead of him. Birney lays himself open to this kind of retort, but a moment's reflection makes us pause. Which of us, one wonders, could swear that he would cut a better figure? Moreover, which of us would have resisted the temptation to cover his tracks?

     I discuss these decidedly human inconsistencies at some length because they seem to me characteristic of both man and poet. At first sight, they appear to be weaknesses. We tend, to cite a final literary-critical example, to be exasperated when he complains that "the typical Canadian reviewer of poetry. . . is inclined to. . . condemn as bad any poem which would not be immediately intelligible to a ten-year-old" and then, in the same essay and in words that might have been echoed in a CAA publication, observes that "one of the things most wrong about recent Canadian poetry is the deliberate unintelligibility of some of our most gifted poets. . . . Obscurantism is also a sign of intellectual snobbery." Certainly, if we are to judge by the highest possible standards, Birney is prevented from qualifying as a first-rate thinker by his failure to recognize (or reconcile) some of his attitudes, to exalt them to a level where contradictions may be resolved or transcended. On the other hand, is this capacity to hold opposites in tension not something at least comparable with Keats's famous "negative capability"? Do not some of his best poems — "David," "A Walk in Kyoto," "El Greco: Espolio" — derive their strength from a creative balancing of contradictory principles or incompatible responses or conflicting life-views? This book is valuable, I suggest, not merely because it brings us closer to Birney the man but because it clarifies our understanding and enhances our appreciation of essential qualities in his poetry.

     So much for the more personal side of this book. Equally valuable is the light it sheds on other writers. Birney is skilled in what might be called, with no sense of parody or criticism involved, the verbal cartoon. Here, for instance, is a thumbnail sketch of the late A.J.M. Smith: "I still remember Art as the shy tousled fellow who kept running his hands abruptly with great sighs through his black hair — a man as complex as his poetry, baggy pants under neatly tailored coat, cigarette-holder rakish in his mouth, coldly glittering glasses concealing bright and passionate eyes." Birney can pack more into a sentence than most of us can express in a pamphlet. The reprinted reviews and articles reveal him as a firm and often brilliant literary critic, especially impressive as a scourge of bad books. There is much here, of both document and reminiscence, concerning Birney's extended feud with the Canadian Authors' Association and his unhappy two-year stint as what he calls with wry understatement "CPM's improbable editor." Not the least interesting are his remarks on the sinister connection between the CAA and the early Governor General's Awards, and although one wonders about Birney's possible highlighting of his version (can A.H. O'Brien, the business manager, have been quite the unmitigated villain that Birney paints?) his acount of the most tempestuous years in the life of Canadian Poetry Magazine forms an indispensible chapter in any further reconsideration of "The making of modern poetry in Canada."

     But Birney is at his best, I think, with commentaries on specific writers. The articles included here range from what would have been, if published at the time of writing, a refreshingly original essay, "The Half-Canadian Poet, Charles G.D. Roberts" (1926), plainly recording the split between pre- and post-World War poetic attitudes, to sensitive and intelligent critiques of Gustafson, Pratt, Klein, Page, Dudek, Anderson and Finch. The last is of particular interest. Birney's more recent experiments with the typographically unorthodox, the oral and the concrete, have tended to associate him with the determinedly avant-garde, but his warm welcome of Robert Finch's 1946 volume, as well as a number of approving references to Roy Daniells' poetry, remind us of the breadth of his tastes and his admiration for skill and wit in traditional verse. Indeed, Birney's review in the Canadian Forum of March, 1947 ("No other poet in Canada can rival Finch as a formal duellist in words," "it is a poetry of the suavest subtlety, the expression of a mind nimble but mature . . . ," "he is part of the best of us") is an essential counterbalance to John Sutherland's notorious attack on the same volume in Northern Review. That two such astute critics should differ so fundamentally suggests that the poetry at issue constitutes a key text crucial to the understanding of the state of Canadian poetry in the mid-1940's. This matter deserves full-scale investigation, and I can think of few projects that would more usefully grace the pages of Canadian Poetry than a detailed study of the book itself and the responses that it provoked.

     If a review should begin with clear description, it should often close with larger thoughts arising from the volume in question. On coming to the end of this first part of Birney's literary memoirs, I am particularly struck by the following overriding impression: one of the curious by-products of the current spate of retrospective Canadian writing and collection of fugitive pieces from the mid-years of the century is the realization that A.J.M. Smith's call for a more disciplined and rigorous Canadian criticism (Canadian Forum, April, 1928) was indeed answered — if only (or at least primarily) by the poets. We are now beginning to see more clearly that in Birney, Dudek, Sutherland, Smith himself, a cogent critical voice began to be raised, despite the absence of adequate outlets. I look around at the contemporary scene, and although an increase in poetic activity is immediately evident I see little if any proportionate improvement in a literary criticism of permanent interest. The Canadian Forum continues, but the national press clearly prefers TV gossip to serious book-reviewing and unless the poet is, or can be made into, a newsworthy personality (Layton, Atwood) response ranges from condescension to total neglect. Maclean's has descended to the level of Time, and I am bound to say that I do not consider the genteel absurdities of the CAA in the 1940's any less damaging to serious Canadian literary standards than the journalistic vulgarities of Books in Canada in the 1980's. There are, of course, the university-based journals like Canadian Literature, Essays on Canadian Writing, Studies in Canadian Literature (not to mention Canadian Poetry), but these are for the most part dominated by "Can. Lit." professors churning out commentary and criticism — with at least one eye focused on a curriculum vitae quantitatively impressive for tenure or merit pay; too often the result has little of the clarity and firmness of judgment that we find in the work of the earlier, embattled generation. All the more reason, then, to welcome a book like this that offers not only a taste of the struggle but a lively and responsible example of what can be achieved. So (if I may toast Birney in his own irrepressible idiom): Spread on, you old Canada Goose, and let's have Book II!

W.J. Keith