This year the mavens of As It Happens on CBC Radio celebrated National Poetry Day on the 22nd of March (the second day of spring) by reading aloud a “poem about spring” written in 1916 by Bliss Carman, the poetaster whose not nearly-enough-forgotten oeuvre has been the bane of five generations of schoolchildren. I happened to be eating a bowl of chili and reading Earle Birney’s literary memoir, Spreading Time, when the bubbly phrasings of Bliss Carman’s “The Soul of April” tripped or pranced or tinkled through the air of my kitchen:
OVER the wintry threshold
Who comes with joy to-day,
So frail, yet so enduring,
To triumph o’er dismay?
Earle Birney was twenty-one years old, a literature student and poetry editor of the student paper at UBC when Bliss Carman appeared on campus in the fall of 1925, an event noted by Birney in the memoir that I was reading with the radio turned on on National Poetry Day. Birney describes Carman in a trailing overcoat, a very long white scarf, and a battered stetson hat, as he strides theatrically into the bush where he remained lost until rescued (by Birney). Carman was a man of “pompous, condescending manner,” whose poems “sounded slick and verbose,” filled with echos of the Victorians whose influence infected the High Culture of the day (and apparently still does at the CBC). “Was there anyone alive and young and coming up?” wonders the young Earle Birney: “Would there ever be anyone to write the Canadian poetry that waited in the air?” For the next seventy years (forty-five of which are covered in this volume), the young and then the older Earle Birney searched out the new poets, publishing them in magazines for which he worked such as Canadian Poetry, Canadian Forum and Northern Review, fostering them in the creative writing programs that he invented; he worked for a lifetime to provide Canadian alternatives to the ready-made formulas of Bliss Carman and his gang of versifiers. Birney’s life was a fight against vapourizing. Spreading Time (Véhicule Press, 1980) is a eye-witness account of the formative years of Canadian literature from 1904 to 1949. It includes Birney’s review of Sarah Binks by Paul Hiebert, the hilarious burlesque of Canadian poetry, culture and criticism; his title Spreading Time is taken from a Binksean effusion on the joy of manure spreading on the farm. “Sarah Binks should be required reading,” Birney writes in 1948, “for all English professors, reviewers and members of the Canadian Authors Association.” Today he would have included Creative Writing Teachers in that list.
Copies of Spreading Time can be found on the internet at $6.00 and up.