Born in Calgary, Alberta, and raised on a farm in Erickson, near Creston, British Columbia, his childhood was somewhat isolated. After working as a farm hand, a bank clerk, and a park ranger, Birney went on to college to study chemical engineering but graduated with a degree in English. He studied at the University of British Columbia, University of Toronto, University of California, Berkeley and University of London.
During his year in Toronto he became a Marxist–Leninist. Through a brief and quickly annulled marriage to Sylvia Johnston, he was introduced to Trotskyism. In the 1930s he was an active Trotskyist in Canada and Britain and was the leading figure in the Socialist Workers League but disagreed with the Trotskyist position on World War II and left the movement.
During the conflict, he served as a personnel officer in the Canadian Army (an experiences that he used in his 1949 novel, Turvey).
In 1946, Birney began teaching at the University of British Columbia, "where he founded and directed the first Canadian creative writing programme." His work led to the establishment of Canada's first Department of Creative Writing at UBC.
In 1995, Birney died of a heart attack.
Birney's World War II experiences inspired the creation of the title character of his comic military novel, Turvey (1949), a saga of one hapless soldier's struggle to get to 'the sharp end' of the fighting in the Netherlands and Germany during 1944-45. The character of Turvey is a fascinating melange of country boy innocent, common sense utilitarian and town fool, and seems to have been fashioned as a foil to the eccentrically pseudo-sophisticated Canadian military life as illustrated in the novel. The book has been described as "uproariously ribald", winning the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Turvey was a hit in Canada, selling 30,000 copies.
"Beginning with David and Other Poems (1942), Birney's poetry consistently explored the resources of language with passionate and playful curiosity." That first volume won Birney a Governor General's Award in 1942. The title work, "a poem about euthanasia, became quite a controversial poem, frequently anthologized and taught in Canadian literature courses." "A generation of Canadian schoolchildren and university students has grown up knowing the story," Al Purdy wrote in 1974. "At one time or another in the last 25 years, "David" has been required reading for high schools and universities in every Canadian province."
His second book of poetry, Now Is Time, won Birney a second Governor General's Award in 1945.
Birney's typography became increasingly more experimental during the 1960s, and in his 1966 Selected Poems he revised many of his older poems, dropping punctuation and sentence structure. He explained his reasoning in the preface to that book:
- Our intricate system of speckles between words evolved comparatively recently and merely to ensure that prose became beautifully unambiguous -- Instant Communication. For a while the poets went along with this, even though what they were shooting at was the art of indefinitely delayed communication -- Indefinite Ambiguity. Belatedly but willingly influenced by contemporary trends, I've come to surround my pauses with space rather than with typographical spatter, and to take advantage of the new printing processes to free my work occasionally from the tyranny of one-direction linotype.
In 1982 Birney recorded Nexus & Earle Birney, a triple-album collaboration with avant-garde percussion group Nexus.
The Canadian Encyclopedia sums up: "In long poems and lyrics, sight poems, sound poems and found poems, whether on the page or in his collection of recorded poems with the percussion ensemble NEXUS (1982), Birney demonstrated his deep commitment to making language have meaning in every possible and eloquent way."
- David and Other Poems. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1942.
- Now Is Time. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1945.
- The Strait of Anian. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1948.
- Trial of a City and Other Verse. Toronto: Ryerson, 1952.
- Ice Cod Bell or Stone. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1962.
- Near False Creek Mouth. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964.
- Two Poems. Halifax, 1964.
- Selected Poems: 1940-1966. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966.
- Memory No Servant, 1968
- The Poems of Earle Birney: a New Canadian Library selection (New Canadian library original N06), Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969.
- pnomes jukollages & other stunzas, 1969
- Rag & Bone Shop. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970.
- The Bear on the Delhi Road: selected poems. London: Chatto & Windus, 1973.
- what's so big about GREEN?. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973.
- The Collected Poems of Earle Birney. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975.
- Alphabeings and Other Seasyours. London, Ont.: Pikadilly Press, 1976.
- The Rugging and the Moving Times: Poems New and Uncollected 1976. Coatsworth, ON: Black Moss Press, 1976.
- Ghost in the Wheels: Selected Poems. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
- Fall by Fury & Other Makings. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978.
- The Mammoth Corridors. Okemos, MI.: Stone Press, 1980.
- Copernican Fix. Toronto: ECW Press, 1985.
- Last Makings: Poems. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991.
- One Muddy Hand: Selected Poems, Sam Solecki (ed.), 2006
- The Essential Earle Birney, Jim Johnstone (ed.), 2014
- Turvey: a military picaresque. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1949.
- Down the Long Table. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955.
- Big Bird in the Bush: Selected stories and sketches. Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1978.
- The Creative Writer, 1966
- The Cow Jumped Over the Moon: The writing and reading of poetry, Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.
- Essays on Chaucerian Irony, 1985
- Spreading Time: Remarks on Canadian Writing and Writers, 1904-1949, 1989.
- The Damnation of Vancouver. New Canadian Library original; N 011. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977.
- Words on Waves: selected radio plays of Earle Birney. Kingston, ON: Quarry Press & CBC Enterprises, 1985.
- Twentieth Century Canadian Poetry, an anthology with introduction and notes. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1953.
- Four parts sand. New Canadian poets. [Ottawa]: Oberon Press, 1972.
Except where noted, bibliographic information courtesy University of Toronto.
- Nexus & Earle Birney (Nexus, 1982)
- Celebration: Famous Canadian Poets on CD (with Irving Layton)(Canadian Poetry Association 2001) ISBN 1-55253-029-9
- Writer (4 titles)
- 1995: Trawna Tuh Belvul
- 1993: David (short) (poem)
- 1983: Aloud (short) (poem)
- 1970: Espolio (short) (poem)
- Actor (1 title)
- 1983: Aloud (short) Reciter
- Self (3 titles)
- 1993: View from the Typewriter; Himself
- 1981: Earle Birney: Portrait of a Poet; Himself
- 1965: Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen (documentary)(uncredited)
Except where noted, film information from Internet Movie Database.
- Alexander, Robert Jackson (1991). International Trotskyism, 1929-1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement. Duke University Press. p. 145. ISBN 082231066X.
- Neil Besner, "Birney, Alfred Earle," Canadian Encyclopedia (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), 231
- R. L. Hale, editor. The Open Road: Stories, Essays and Travel Tales, St. Martin's Classics, Macmillan Company of Canada, Toronto, 1955. p.46.
- Al Purdy, "The Man Who Killed David," Tru.ca. Web, 18 March 2011.
- "Birney, (Alfred) Earle: David," Literature Annotations, Literature, Arts and Medicine Database. Web, 18 March 2011.
- Northrop Frye, "from 'Letters from Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1952," The Bush Garden (Toronto:Anansi, 1971), 10.
- Earle Birney, "Preface," Selected Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966), ix.
- "Earle Birney: Published Works," Canadian Poetry Online, UToronto.ca, Web, 3 May 2011.
- Martin Rose (director). "Trawna Tuh Belvul". Animated short. National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
- Earle Birney, Internet Movie Database, IMDb.com, Web, 24 May 2011.
- Canadian Poetry Online: Earle Birney - Biography and 6 poems ("Vancouver Lights", "From the Hazel Bough", "Sestina for the Ladies of Tehuántepec", "The Bear on the Delhi Road", "El Greco: Espolito", "Plaza de la Inquisición")
- Earle Birney in The Canadian Encyclopedia
- Order of Canada Citation
- University of British Columbia Archives
- Earle Birney at the Internet Movie Database
- Earle Birney Papers at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library