Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Day with Earle Birney

In 1977, I was teaching English to grade twelve students in northern Ontario, when a 'gift' dropped in to our school in the form of Canadian poet, Earle Birney.
He addressed some 200 students in the school auditorium, and as I recall, the most memorable moment of the morning came when, in his discussion of the dangers of pollution (yes! way back then!) he paused and said, holding a hand microphone, "We are going to drown in our own shit if we are not careful!"
Only then did the students realize that, the microphone had developed a "short" circuit and his words were silent, except to the front rows and those seated on the stage. He enjoyed the humour of the moment along with the rest of us.
Later in the day, we spent an hour or two in the bar of the Empire Hotel where he recounted his troubles with a lawsuit over his writing of the poem, David. In the poem, two boys are climbing the Canadian Rockies when the guide loses his footing, falls and begs his friend to push him the rest of the way down the mountain.
(For a full copy of the poem, see blog for January 20, 2011 entitled, David, by Earle Birney)
Some person(s) had apparently done a records search in a town in Alberta and found that a young man had in fact, fallen to his death on the mountain, and as a result of this search had either threatened or actually filed a suit, claiming the Birney must be the 'murderer'.
"Why would I write a poem about an event in which I was personally involved?" he asked energetically through both his long white beard and a few drinks from his glass. "If you believe those events in the poem, then, as far as I am concerned, the poem has succeeded. But to think that I would leave myself exposed, as these people claim, is ridiculous!"
There are moments in our lives that are impossible to forget, and their clarity remains decades after the events themselves. This is one of mine and to Mr. Birney, I will always be grateful that I was invited into a small corner of his prolific life.

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