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Реферат на тему David By Earle Birney Essay Research Paper

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David By Earle Birney Essay, Research Paper

A generation of Canadian schoolchildren and university students has grown up

knowing the story of a mountain climber who fell 50 feet to a narrow ledge, was

badly injured, then pushed off the ledge to his death by his friend in an act of

mercy. The climber’s name was David, also the title of the story. Its author was

Earle Birney. At one time or another in the last 25 years, David has been

required reading for high schools and universities in every Canadian province.

Mountains that are actually on the map near the Banff-Lake Louise area -

Inglismaldie, Assiniboine and the Sawback Range – form part of the setting.

Reaction on the part of teachers and students has been swift and marvelous: many

fancied themselves literary detectives, deciding that Earle Birney had pushed

his friend David off a high ledge to death in a remote Rocky Mountain valley.

Which is murder, by some definitions. Birney was exasperated and frustrated by

these interpretations of his fictional story. Carried to a most fantastic

length, it didn’t seem entirely improbable that he might be hauled into court

and charged with homicide. And sentenced to real death for committing a

fictional murder? In fact, a number of schoolteachers in Ontario protested

against having to teach a poem that "advocated mercy killing". One

Alberta university professor said in a 1971 essay: "… there is proof that

this was no fictional story. Birney’s companion on that fatal mountain climb was

a real David. His death was reported as being due to a rockslide." In a

1963 Canadian Alpine Journal there’s an article about Birney’s imaginary Finger

Mountain, entitled "How Many Routes on the Finger?" It begins:

"Modern legend, based on a poem written by Dr. Earle Birney, has led at

least 10 climbing parties in the last few years to an intriguing rock climb near

Banff. It is not known whether the hero in David actually climbed the

spire…" Of course that article assumes David to be a real person .

Another odd thing: when Birney wrote his poem, the Finger was imaginary and did

not exist. But since that time (1942) a mountain near Banff has actually been

given the name. Chills must run up and down a writer’s back as the people in a

fictional landscape gather round him with accusing glances. It’s little wonder

that Birney doesn’t want to include the poem in his university readings. Or that

he displays impatient irritation if some fledgling sleuth says to him: "Why

did you kill David?" Especially since the poem’s genesis actually derives

from a newspaper story in the twenties, about a student mountain climber. This

man had broken his spine while ascending a mountain. His fellow climber, unable

to move him, had guided rescuers back to the accident within a few hours. But

the real-life David was dead from his injuries and exposure. Birney appropriated

his name for the poem. Birney is sick of the subject of David, and since I’ve

known him for some 20 years, I have some idea of his feelings. It must be like

being taken over by a Doppelganger or the ventriloquist’s puppet into which

you’ve thrown your own voice. Still, I’m fascinated by the idea of part of your

personality getting away on you, having an existence of its own. And that is the

ultimate tribute to the writer’s art, and to Birney himself. The

poet-novelist-man-Birney is six feet tall, thin and built like a whiplash. Blue

eyes and sandy-grey beard, with an energy that drives him pacing round the

living room from typewriter to balcony to boxes storing hundreds of books, then

back for more talking. His energy is something I’ve always envied. Birney is 15

years older than I am, and he’s leaving the country for London, Paris, Cairo,

Bangkok, Singapore and Australia – with a zest for all the onrushing strangeness

of other countries and the friends there he will see again. He thinks of it as

his "last hurrah". Earle Birney is one of the two best poets in Canada

(the other is Irving Layton). Honors have poured on him throughout a long life

of writing and teaching: the Governor-General’s Award twice, a first Borestone

Mountain poetry award, the Lorne Pierce Medal for Literature, several Canada

Council awards. Beginning in 1942 with David, he has published some 20 books,

including the two-volume Collected Poems published this fall. Projected works

include one volume each of plays, short stories, political writings, Chaucer

essays (he’s an authority on Geoffrey Chaucer), travel, literary essays and

reviews. I suspect there are several more books gestating, although he says,

"I know too much about poetry!" Meaning that mass accumulation of

knowledge can overwhelm and stifle creativity. It doesn’t seem to have worked

that way in his case. Earle Birney was born in a log cabin on the banks of the

Bow River in Calgary in 1904. Until the age of seven he lived on a remote farm

in northern Alberta. When the family moved to Banff he played hockey in the days

of the seven-man team. Because of his speed and agility he was the rover, the

man expected to go everywhere on the ice. "But I was so light and skinny, I

kept getting injured. Where other kids got bruised, I came out of a scrimmage

with broken bones. We were playing miners’ sons from Canmore in high school

hockey; big hard kids, some of them 200-pounders. I learned to skate fast just

to escape being killed." And the young Birney wanted desperately to be part

of school athletics. "As a boy, I felt superior in some ways, in others

inferior. But never equal. I always wanted integration with other people – on my

own terms." But that time of racing the wind on Bow River ice ended in

1917. The family moved again, this time to Erikson, British Columbia, near

Creston in the Kootenay Mountains, where, tragically, there was no ice. They

lived, Birney and his parents, on a 10-acre farm only partly cleared of bush. He

was an only child, wanted to be average, but "I was always getting into

quarrels and being beaten up." There were compensations. His mother was

religious, but a "complete mom", and his father a restless man who

kept moving from place to place, prototype of the compulsive wanderer Birney

himself became. He rode a horse or sleigh in summer and winter to high school in

Creston, and at the age of 14 "romance reared its lovely head". The

girl was Beatrice, a year older than Earle, and it was a "wrestling

romance". Not in the way that description sounds, but because Beatrice’s

twin younger brothers told Earle, "We don’t let any guy go out with our

sister, not unless he can wrestle her down!" Birney’s first thought was

that the twins themselves intended to beat him up. But no, they had decided he

must prove himself a better man than Beatrice by wrestling her to a standstill.

The great Olympic gladiatorial contest took place in a barn loft. Earle went

into battle expecting at least minimal co-operation from Beatrice. She had other

ideas, and struggled against him like fury. The idea of her brothers standing

watching made her fight all the harder, but at last her shoulders were pinned to

the hay-covered floor." Great," said the twins in unison, "now

kiss her." But Beatrice wouldn’t co-operate in that either, and renewed the

battle with even greater fury. Thus ended the first romance. The first job was

at the Bank of Commerce in Creston when Birney was 16, wages $15 a week. He was

a "promising young man" when the bank transferred him to Vernon in the

Okanagan Valley. Vernon was a three-day boat trip, and passing a waterfall on

the Kootenay River he wrote his first poem – a very bad one, he says. Later he

worked at some of the same jobs as the picaresque army private, Turvey, the hero

of his first novel: swamper, rock-driller and ditch-digger around the Vermilion

Lakes, axeman and rodman to surveyors on the Continental Divide. In some modern

sense he was a mountain man, having fished the Kootenay canyons; pack-horsed

into lakes in Banff National Park; guided tourists into the high ranges; hunted

fossils on cliffs for museums and strung meteorological cable on Sulphur

Mountain. Birney got back on the academic track expected of a poet when he

entered the University of Toronto at 18. On graduation in 1934, loaded down with

degrees, he became an instructor at the Mormon-administered University of Utah,

by that time a confirmed Marxist. He was fired from the school for Communist

activities, but then rehired as the result of a student general strike. He

interviewed Leon Trotsky in Norway; was jailed for failing to salute a Nazi

parade in Germany. And, ever since that first doggerel verse written on the

Kootenay River, imitating all the conventional rhyming poets who were the only

ones he knew at the time, Birney has been writing poems, poems and more poems.

Poems, for him, are a sort of exorcism. He experiences something or witnesses an

event, and even without knowing it at the time, a poetic nag may begin to work

in his mind. Something wants to come to life, desires its own being. Visiting

northern India in 1958, he caught a glimpse of two Kashmiri men from his passing

car. They were driving a bear south on a nose chain, and likely it would be

trained to dance – and make money for its owners in Delhi. A huge beast from the

Himalayan Mountains. Very likely they had come hundreds of miles through

mountain passes, down to the hot fevered plains of tropic India, themselves

driven by necessity for money to live. All three in a sense prisoners.

After-images of the men and the bear pursued Birney for 14 months, along with

guilt feelings of being a comparatively wealthy Western tourist in a country

where poverty is the norm and people live in hovels. At last he exorcised those

ghosts on a Mediterranean island. In about two hours and a dozen tinkering

sessions afterwards, he captured men and bear along with himself, and caged them

in the relative freedom of a poem. Its final passage, referring to the bear,

runs like this: It is not easy to free myth from reality or rear this fellow up

to lurch, lurch with them in the tranced dancing of men. All through the years

of teaching Chaucer, English literature, running creative writing classes at the

University of British Columbia, Birney has wanted to make enough money to stop

teaching and do nothing but freelance writing. After the war, during which he

was a personnel officer and gathered the amalgam of experience that became his

novel Turvey, he worked toward that end. The novel sold 30,000 copies in Canada,

but little in the US. "And I knew I’d never write anything as popular

again." But it wasn’t enough money to stop teaching, not with a family to

support. Down the Long Table, a 1955 Marxist novel about the depression, didn’t

flop but made little money. Not that university life is an unrewarding

existence. It has enabled Earle Birney to travel around the world, pursue his

skin-diving hobby in the shark-infested waters of Fiji, off Majorca and on

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Birney quit teaching 10 years ago, to accept

successive posts as poet-in-residence at Canadian and American universities. And

to write, above all to write. The furies that drove him in earlier years are

lessened; a heart attack two years ago slowed him down still further. But you

wouldn’t know that to watch him while we’re talking. The blue eyes are just as

flashing, the opinions just as vehement and uncompromising. Some of them strike

fire on current live issues. Our American good neighbors: "The US is an

imperial power, which is difficult to like. They are sloughing off whatever

democracy they have left with succeeding waves of reaction, neo-fascism and

imperialism. Nothing short of a major catastrophe will stop that drift. They may

even be breaking up right now, almost while we are watching. We in Canada must

have courage and willingness to sacrifice and wait for the time when the US will

no longer be able to bully." Mankind: "We are a lethal species, like a

huge skin cancer around the surface of the earth, reducing all else to

extinction. I’m profoundly cynical about the average human being, including

myself. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember there are still good people left in

the world…" Religion: "I view the world as something in transit,

which does not know where it is going….God? I have no faith in the existence

of a god." Birney does not, as they say, suffer fools gladly. He’s been

involved in controversy a good part of his life, fighting for the right to

remain a creative human being, despite the strictures of academicism. John

Robert Colombo once remarked that Birney should be given the post of Canadian

cultural ambassador, travelling round the world to every country. But he is,

unmistakably, a citizen of none but his own. Over the years Birney has changed

his work, revisions continuing even after poems have been published.

Punctuation, for instance, has been dropped in many of his best poems. Nothing

is fixed and certain, there are few absolutes on this unstable planet. In which

connection I think of the French painter, Pierre Bonnard, in his old age

sneaking into the Louvre with paint brushes under his coat, avoiding the glance

of uniformed guards – to retouch and alter his own paintings hung on the sacred

walls. Birney has been a creative human being over the 70 years of his life. A

man who strips himself in his writing – that naked man is the poet, travelling

light and streaking into his own past and future.


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