by Christian Riegel
In mid March, 2007, I answered the phone and mistook Denis Sproxton’s voice for that of his father, Birk. For a brief moment, I thought I was to have another of the many conversations that Birk and I regularly had about reading, writing, and the critical and creative projects we each were currently working on. This practice began in 1998 when I took a teaching position at Red Deer College, where Birk spent the greater part of his teaching and scholarly life after stints in Regina and Winnipeg. Sadly, Denis had called with the news that Birk had unexpectedly passed away. For his family, friends, colleagues, students and readers the loss was tremendous, and it continues to be felt strongly. From the perspective of Canadian literary culture, and especially western Canadian culture, his death cut short a writing career that had, over a several-decade period, made a significant impact. As author and editor of eight books closely linked with the Canadian west, Birk had literally and imaginatively traversed the geography of the prairies and the north for the better part of his adult life, ranging from the Crowsnest to Hudson Bay. His work reflects the deep interest he had in the history, culture and geography of the vast terrain that he covered, as attested by the frequent references to roadside cairns, historical markers, small museums and archives, and other signs of the long history of exploration and settlement in the west.
While much of his writing is justifiably recognized as focusing on the north, particularly Flin Flon, the north is set within a much greater world, and in many ways its history is also the history of colonization, settlement and industrial development in the three western provinces. Readers of the literary oeuvre recognize that Birk mixed genres, combining poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction, to create works that articulated a broad vision of the west and its history, and one of the pleasures of his work is to attempt to untangle the various pieces, to play with the text and to revel in the multiplicity he created. Birk was also a prolific scholar of the west, focusing particularly on writers and writing that had connections to the city of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba. Alongside numerous essays and reviews, his 1986 Trace: Prairie Writers on Writing was a ground-breaking volume that chronicled the writing of the west, and his guest-edited special issue of Prairie Fire, Winnipeg in Fiction: 125 Years of English-Language Writing, and his follow-up book, The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century, will endure as significant contributions to Manitoba and Canadian literary history. He also edited the best-selling 2000 anthology Great Stories from the Prairies, which featured the most important writers of its time. The body of work he left behind, as critic and editor, stands as a significant corpus devoted to the city and province, and if he had produced nothing else we would remember him as a prodigious editor and anthologist as well as scholar.
Literary legacies exist as a factor of time, waxing and waning as the years come and go. Upon the news of Birk’s death, the immediate response was to consider the immensity of the loss on a personal level. Memorial and tribute events were held in Red Deer and Winnipeg—and have continued to occur annually—serving as occasions for family, friends, writers and critics to offer homage through creative and critical readings, performances and remembrances in a tradition of memorial practice that reaches back in the English literary tradition to Ancient Greece. The bucolic poet Moschus wrote a moving elegiac tribute to his mentor, friend and teacher, Bion, who was himself a noted poet. The example of Moschus served as a model for many writers in the English tradition. Amongst the most prominent—John Milton’s elegy “Lycidas,” for his friend Edward King; Percy Bysshe Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, “Adonais,” which conveys through allusion its debt to the Greeks; Matthew Arnold’s poem “Thyrsis,” which was written to honour his poet friend Arthur Hugh Clough; and W.H. Auden’s “For W.B. Yeats,” in memory of the Irish poet of the title—signal the importance of the practice over the centuries.
The selection of essays and creative works, and the writing by Birk that appears in print for the first time in this issue of Prairie Fire, fits into this tradition of addressing the need to respond to the death of a writer one greatly admires as a means to recognize the literary achievements of the legacy and to provide critical context for it. Milton recognized the immediate and necessary need for an appropriate response to death, as he writes in the opening lines of “Lycidas”:
Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I come to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
Milton recognizes what everyone who deals with death understands: the time is never right and yet, faced with the loss of a loved one, we must do something. For Milton, the response was to pluck the berries of poetic inspiration before they were ripened. The poem had to emerge to fulfill its elegiac purpose. And there is something of the elegiac purpose in this cluster of work; it is our way of coming together to remember Birk and his legacy as writer and scholar and, it is expected, to catalyze further interest in his life and writing from readers and critics.