In his introduction to The Essential Earle Birney, Jim Johnstone makes the case that Birney is not only "one of the finest Canadian poets of the 20th century," but maybe one of the most restless.
In The Creative Writer (1966), a collection of lectures that Birney prepared for the CBC, the poet asserted: "Living art, like anything else, stays alive only by changing." His poetry reflects this statement—Birney made significant edits to many of his most canonized pieces throughout his career, despite criticism. Birney’s Selected Poems (1966) can be seen as something of a sea change in this regard: nearly every poem in the book was reformatted to remove punctuation, with the notable exception of "David." The grammatical and typographical changes that began in Selected Poems were refined further in The Collected Poems of Earle Birney (1975), and it’s from this point forward in Birney’s bibliography that the poems in this volume have been chosen. The transformation of Birney’s work in the 1960s and 1970s was accompanied by a reevaluation of his poetics. He addressed this in the preface to Ghost in the Wheels: Selected Poems (1977), when he wrote: "I should say at the start that I don’t any longer like the words ‘'poet,' 'poems,' etc. They’ve developed pretentious connotations. I prefer 'maker' and 'makings.' They mean the same but the texture’s plainer, oatmeal, not manna."