Bending the Knee: Woodcock on Birney
August 07th, 2012
It is said that someone asked Beethoven what he thought – what he really thought – of Handel. He looked rather owlishly at the questioner, cheap and then he said, “Before majesty, one bends the knee.” And Beethoven’s reaction to the great Handel is mine to what we know, sadly, is the last of Earle Birney’s collections that he himself put together, Last Makings (M&S). This represents with an extraordinary sureness of voice and feeling the essence of Birney’s genius, though none of his great past masterpieces is included.
Apart from the fact that I have always admired Birney as a poet, I speak out of a great and deep friendship. I first knew of Birney almost fifty years ago, when I was still working in London and living hand to mouth by freelance writing. I would make regular visits every week to the literary editors who liked my work in the hope of getting something to review. Muriel Spark, young-looking and pink-and-white-cheeked in those days, was editing the Poetry Review, and one morning when I walked into her office to enjoy the excellent coffee she provided. She said to me, “You’re Canadian, aren’t you?” and she thrust at me a copy of Birney’s The Strait of Anian. It was the first book of Canadian poetry later than Charles G.D. Roberts that I had seen, and I read it with the interest one accords oddities and reviewed it accordingly.
A year later my wife and I travelled far over Canada and through some strange idyllic folly settled at Sooke on Vancouver Island, where we tried vainly to live by growing vegetables on worked out land and doing very occasional talks for the CBC $25 a time. I heard that Birney was teaching at UBC, and wrote to him, and in June 1949 he came over on a special trip to visit me in the wretched trailer on even more wretched land that we then inhabited. Earle was always interested in new writers arriving (in this respect he was a very tribal man) but he showed another reason for interest in me when he pulled out of his pocket the copy of my book of poems, The Centre Cannot Hold, which a woman we both knew had given him in England.
From this time on Earle and Esther, his first wife, gave us hospitality when we went to Vancouver, and Earle eventually managed, though I had no degree, to get me taken on to the faculty of UBC. There, I am afraid, I was a great disappointment to him. With much enthusiasm, he was setting up a creative writing program, and he invited me to teach a course within it. But I have never believed that one can teach anyone the actual art of writing. Despite his palpable charm on most occasions, Earle could be very curmudgeonly when he was crossed, (as Al Purdy remembers in his introduction to Last Makings), and for a while my nervous refusal seemed to have spoilt our friendship. However, it recovered by the time we both escaped from academia in the mid-1960s, the time when we were crossing each other’s paths travelling over Europe and Asian and the Americas.
I liked Earle all the more as he grew older and gentler, the latter perhaps under the influence of Wailan Low, the friend of all his friends who became his companion in this era. Tall and possessed of a great deal of unasserted stamina, he nevertheless looked so fragile that one felt a good breeze on the waterfront might blow him down, and when I looked at him with his white hair and bear streaming in the wind and his blue eyes like the distant-looking eyes of a seaman, I felt I was looking at one of John Bunyan’s Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains.
It was that late Birney who himself compiled Last Makings a little while before the severe illness that disarmed him as a poet. What strikes one now is its extraordinary sufficiency. None of his major poems, like “David” or “Bear on the Delhi Road” or “November Walk near False Creek Mouth” is there. At the same time not entirely a collections of new poems, for I recognize some in the section devoted to Wailan, and some items have been deliberately changed to suit changing times, so that there are three very different versions each of “Ellesmere Land” and “Canada: A Case History.” Yet though the books is slight and unambitious one experiences extraordinary satisfaction reading it and silently muttering, “Good to the end!”, which can’t be said of all that many poets.
Largely, I think it is the sufficiency of Birney’s craftsmanship, which, as Purdy remarks, allows him to take the most ordinary subject-thing and make it into a verse of nearly passionate interest.
All the moods and modes and all kinds of content that Birney explored in his earlier collections are here in this final book; he says farewell in all his voices. The old man remembers boyhood; he talks of remembered places and episodes during the long travels of manhood. He offers us concrete poems with strange configurations of type, but he also offers lyrics that sound as if they echoed out of some late medieval tapestry of unicorns prancing on millefiori carpets of flowers. Sometimes the poems are sharp with satire (old curmudgeon Earle) and sometimes bright with tenderness (ageless lover Earle); I like to end and to acknowledge this great parting gift of his by quoting the last moving lines of “My Love is Young”, whose final version was written not long before the stroke that silenced Birney’s muse.
good moon good sun
that we do love
I pray the world believe me
& never tell me when it’s time
that I’m to die
or she’s to leave me
There are other familiar names as well as Birney’s among the poetry or near-poetry appearing this spring, though none so striking as Last Makings. In Popular Narratives (Talonbooks) Frank Davey offers a series of prose poems – association patterns that have something of the glitter of white water in the shallows. One of the blurb writers for Gerry Gilbert’s Azure Blues (Talonbooks) describes the poems as “determinedly, hilariously shifty”, and so I think they might be if one saw and heard Gilbert performing them, but he is essentially a speech and gesture poet and the shiftiness and the hilarity both dissolve in print. Robert Zend’s Daymarks (Cacanadadada) is very much in the borderlands between poetry and prose; poetic fictions would in fact be the best description. Zend, a Hungarian poet who fled to Canada when the Russians invaded his country in 1956, was very much the poet’s poet. I have never met anyone who read him and was not a poet in at least some degree. But within his chosen limits he was excellent, and this collection – again a final one – should be welcomed by the happy few of his admirers.
Essay Date: 1991