Segments in this Video

Earle Birney Gives Address (01:51)


Earle Birney likens himself to a John the Baptist for the poets in Canada that have come after. He recites "sound" poetry.

Canadian Poet (01:10)

Birney has lived the last seven years in Toronto with companion Wailan Low as the grand old man of Canadian poetry. He says he had an easier time becoming famous in Canada than he would in the U.S.

Birney's Influence (02:28)

When Birney's career began, Canadian writing was a pale reflection of nineteenth century British. Today, it thrives with a distinctive voice. In a class, Birney talks about the poet as creator and the role of the subconscious in poetry.

Birney and Purdy on Writing (01:58)

Birney talks with fellow Canadian poet Al Purdy. Purdy says writers use their own experiences, sometimes seeking out these experiences for poetry. Birney emphasizes the role of the subconscious.

Process of Writing (02:44)

Birney shows us notes and numerous attempts to begin a poem on his thoughts at a young age when taken to a pow-wow with his father.

Birney's Early Life (03:02)

Birney was born in 1904 in the Canadian wilderness. He visits the site of the farmhouse where he grew up. He says he was a nature boy, and landscape dominated his first attempts at poetry.

High School Years (01:37)

Birney's high school girlfriend talks to Birney about meeting him, and what he was like at that age.

Reason for Writing "David" (01:48)

In his mid-thirties at a time when writers could not make a living in Canada, Birney had not had a book published. Triggered by war and loss of Marxist faith, he wrote "David," about his experiences in his teens in the mountains and valleys.

Birney's "David" (02:33)

Birney's long-time friend, a musician and outdoorsman, talks about the poem David. We hear a recitation of part of it, and see mountain scenery.

Killing David (03:34)

In "David," David is crippled and trapped on a mountain ledge, and Birney, at his request, pushes him off. Birney and his climbing companion who was the model for David discuss the poem and laugh at speculation that such an event happened.

Birney, Nature and Canadian Literature (01:23)

Influential Canadian critic Margaret Atwood puts her ideas into Birney's poetry, he says, but there is no one Canadian outlook. Atwood reads "David" as conveying nature's hostility, but he sees it as conveying indifference.

Birney's Trotskyism (02:09)

By 1931, Birney was an English teacher with an uncertain future amid Depression. He became a Trotskyist and met Trotsky himself, spending a week with him.

Break With Trotskyites (01:38)

Birney became disenchanted with Trotskyites over their support for Stalin during WWII. He broke with them over Stalin's invasion of Finland. He nevertheless delivered a eulogy for Trotsky.

Turvey (01:37)

In 1940, Birney married Esther Bull. His WWII experience made him decide to write a Canadian war novel, which became "Turvey." He saw humor in the foibles of army life.

Birney's Profanity (01:37)

After receiving Birney's profanity-laced correspondence, his publisher wrote back pretending to be the publisher's shocked secretary.

"My Love is Young" (01:58)

Birney's partner talks about his strong social responsibility and conscience. Birney recites "My Love is Young."

"From the Hazel Bough" (02:16)

Birney tells a class "From the Hazel Bough" was one of the few poems that thoroughly satisfied him; he recites and explains the poem.

Creative Writing Discipline (01:24)

After the War, Birney returned to the University of British Columbia and pursued a crusade to launch creative writing as a legitimate discipline. He recounts debates he had with skeptical professors.

Neilsons and Bowen Island (02:02)

Birney spent summers writing from a private home on Bowen Island, off Vancouver. Einar Neilson built the house as a retreat for artists; his wife, Muriel, talks about meeting Einar, and Earle Birney.

Isolated Retreat (02:26)

Birney visits the location of his Bowen Island retreat. Once he was on the roof writing, nude, and people on a boat saw him; he waved his hat.

Poem Recitation (01:08)

Birney recites from a poem on lost love.

Visual and Musical Adaptations (02:58)

Since moving back East in the 70s, Birney has collaborated with music group Nexus for adaptations of his poetry. We watch them rehearse Alaska Passage. He has also turned it into a visual poem, he explains.

Recreating Poem for Recitation (03:14)

Birney reads a specially-created version of Alaska Passage, in an eerie tone, accompanied by eerie music.

Current Projects (01:39)

Birney shows us a formidable set of projects he is currently working on, in his file cabinet.

Dismissing Literary Immortality (01:25)

Birney chops wood and walks in the wilderness. He is unconcerned with literary immortality, thinking entry into the canon is a matter of luck. All in any case fade away, because language changes. Homer is dead.

Earle Birney reads sound poetry to a class. Credits. (01:13)

Earle Birney reads sound poetry to a class. Credits.

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Earle Birney: Portrait of a Poet

3-Year Streaming Price: $169.95



The late Earle Birney served as a personnel officer in the Canadian Army during World War II and is the two-time recipient of the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s top literary honor, for his poetry. This writer, scholar, and activist is revered as the grand old man of Canadian poetry. In this intimate profile, Birney speaks lovingly of his craft and explains the process of translating poetic inspiration into a successful work of art. Highlighting this classic documentary are excerpts from his moving epic David, the lyric poem “From the Hazel Bough,” and Alaska Passage, which Birney performs with the percussion group NEXUS. (53 minutes)

Length: 54 minutes

Item#: BVL52003

Copyright date: ©1981

Closed Captioned

Performance Rights

Prices include public performance rights.

Not available to Home Video customers.

Only available in USA.