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.
Birney published his second novel, Down the Long Table, a Marxist novel about the Great Depression, in 1955. It did not match the first novel's success.
"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.
By the time of Birney's Trial of a City and other Verse in 1952, literary critic Northrop Frye was calling him one of "Canada's two leading poets" (the other being E.J. Pratt).
The Royal Society of Canada awarded Birney its Lorne Pierce Medal for literature in 1953.
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 1970 Birney was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
In 1974, Birney was still being called "one of the two best poets in Canada," this time by Al Purdy (the other being Irving Layton).
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."