People / Earle Birney

Writer, educator. Earle Birney was born in 1904 in Calgary. He is recognized as one of Canada’s most distinguished and important figures in twentieth century literature. Best known for his poetry, Birney’s writing emphasized the normal, everyday rhythms of speech, blending the lyrical with the visual content of the poem. These innovations led to his sound poems and concrete or shape poetry. He attended the University of British Columbia, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1926. He earned a Master of Arts in 1927 from the University of Toronto, and he also studied at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of London. During the 1930s, he was an active Trotskyite in Canada and Britain, but drifted away from the movement during the Second World War when he served as a personnel officer in the Canadian army. Birney won the Governor General’s Award for Literature for his first published collection of poetry, David and Other Poems (1942).

In addition to his work as an author, Birney had an accomplished career as an educator. He taught at several universities, most notably at the University of British Columbia (1946-1965), where he established and directed the Department of Creative Writing in 1965, Canada’s first creative writing program. In this same year, Birney was appointed as the first writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto. Other accomplishments include twice winner of the Governor General’s Award for Literature (1942, 1945), the Leacock Medal for Humour (1949), and the Lorne Pierce Medal for Literature (1953). Birney was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1970, and continued writing until his death in September 1995.