Bringhurst, Robert

views updated


Nationality: Canadian. Born: Los Angeles, California, 16 October 1946; grew up in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1963–64, 1970–71; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1964–65; Defense Language Institute, Monterey, California, 1966–67; Indiana University, Bloomington, 1971–73, B.A. in comparative literature 1973; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, M.F.A. 1975. Military Service: U.S. Army, in California, Israel, and Panama Canal Zone, 1967–69. Family: Married Miki Cannon Sheffield in 1974 (divorced 1981); one daughter. Career: Journalist in Beirut, Lebanon, 1965–66, and Boston, 1970–71; visiting lecturer in creative writing, 1975–77, and lecturer in English, 1979–80, University of British Columbia; lecturer in typographical history, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, 1983–84; poet-in-residence, Banff Centre School of Fine Arts, Alberta, 1983, Ojibway and Cree Cultural Centre, Atikokan and Espanola, Ontario, 1985, and Sudbury, Ontario, 1986, and University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1986; writer-in-residence and Canada/Scotland Exchange Fellow, University of Edinburgh, 1989–90; Ashley fellow, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, 1994; writer-inresidence, University of Western Ontario, 1998–99. Since 1998 conjunct professor, Frost Centre for Native Studies and Canadian Studies, Trent University. General editor, Kanchenjunga Poetry Series, 1973–79; guest editor, Contemporary Literature in Translation, Vancouver, 1974, 1976; contributing editor, Fine Print, San Francisco, 1985–90. Awards: Macmillan prize, 1975; Canada Council arts grant, 1975–76, 1980–81, 1984–85, and 1993–94; Ontario Arts Council grant, 1982; CBC prize, 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1987–88; Canada Council Senior Arts grant, 1993–94; Charles Watts award, 1999. Address: Box 357, 1917 West Fourth Avenue, Vancouver, British Columbia V6J 1M7, Canada.



The Shipwright's Log. Bloomington, Indiana, Kanchenjunga Press, 1972.

Cadastre. Bloomington, Indiana, Kanchenjunga Press, 1973.

Deuteronomy. Delta, British Columbia, Sono Nis Press, 1974.

Pythagoras. Vancouver, Kanchenjunga Press, 1974.

Eight Objects. Vancouver, Kanchenjunga Press, 1975.

Bergschrund. Delta, British Columbia, Sono Nis Press, 1975.

Jacob Singing. Vancouver, Kanchenjunga Press, 1977.

Death by Water. Vancouver, University of British Columbia Library, 1977.

The Stonecutter's Horses. Vancouver, Standard Editions, 1979.

The Knife in the Measure. Steelhead, British Columbia, Barbarian Press, 1980.

Song of the Summit. Toronto, Dreadnaught Press, 1982.

The Salute by Tasting. Vancouver, Slug Press, 1982.

Tzuhalem's Mountain. Lantzville, British Columbia, Oolichan Press, 1982.

The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972–82. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1982; Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1985.

Sahara. Lexington, Kentucky, King Library Press, 1984.

An Augury. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University, 1984.

Rubus Ursinus: A Prayer for the Blackberry Harvest. Mission, British Columbia, Barbarian Press, 1985.

Tending the Fire. Vancouver, Alcuin Society, 1985.

The Blue Roofs of Japan: A Score for Interpenetrating Voices. Mission, British Columbia, Barbarian Press, 1986.

Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1986; Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1987.

Conversations with a Toad. Shawinigan, Quebec, Lucie Lambert, 1987.

The Calling: Selected Poems 1970–1995. Toronto, McCelland and Stewart, 1995.

Elements. New York, Kuboaa Press, 1995.


Jacob Singing (produced Victoria, British Columbia, 1984).

The Blue Roofs of Japan (produced 1986).

Screenplay: The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, 1992.

Performance Works:

The Blue Roofs of Japan: A Score for Interpenetrating Voices (produced Missoula, Montana, 1985; radio version produced 1986).

Uddālaka Āruni: A Song for the Weavers (produced Lecce, Apulia, 1990).

New World Suite No. 3 (produced Vancouver, British Columbia, 1990).


The Raven Steals the Light, with Bill Reid. Vancouver, Douglas and McIntyre, and Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1984.

Ocean/Paper/Stone. Vancouver, William Hoffer, 1984.

Shovels, Shoes and the Slow Rotation of Letters: A Feuilleton in Honour of John Dreyfus. Vancouver, Alcuin Society, 1985.

Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians, with Catherine McClellan and others. Vancouver, Douglas and McIntyre, 1987.

The Black Canoe, photographs by Ulli Steltzer. Vancouver, Douglas and Mclntyre, and Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1991.

The Elements of Typographic Style. Vancouver/Port Roberts, Washington, Hartley & Marks, 1992.

Boats Is Saintlier than Captains: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Morality, Language and Design. New York, Edition Rhino, 1997.

Native American Oral Literatures and the Unity of the Humanities: The 1998 Garnett Sedgewick Memorial Lecture. Vancouver, University of British Columbia, 1998.

A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. Vancouver and Toronto, Douglas and McIntyre, 1999.

A Short History of the Printed World, with Warren Chappell. Point Roberts, Washington, and Vancouver, Hartley and Marks, 1999.

Editor, with others, Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada. Vancouver, Douglas and Mclntyre, 1983.


Manuscript Collections: National Library, Ottawa; University of British Columbia Library, Vancouver.

Critical Studies: "The Holes in the Stone" by William Meads, in Kayak (Santa Cruz, California), 44, February 1977; "Bringhurst's Range: Essential Information" by Jane Munro, in CV-II (Winnipeg), 5(2), winter 1980–81; "By Persons Unknown" by Robert Fulford, inSaturday Night (Toronto), March 1984; "Recent Canadian Poetry" by Robin Skelton, in Poetry (Chicago), 144(5), 1984; "Robert Bringhurst" by Gary Geddes, in his Fifteen Canadian Poets Times Two, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1988; "Readings of Nothing: Robert Bringhurst's Hachadura" by John Whatley, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 122/123, 1989; "Poor Man's Art: On the Poetry of Robert Bringhurst" by Peter Sanger, in Antigonish Review (Antigonish, Nova Scotia), 85/86, 1991; "The Stonecutter's Horses" by Francesco M. Casotti, in La Cultura Italiana e le Letterature Straniere Moderne, edited by Vita Fortunati, Ravenna, Longo, 1992; Wisdom of the Mythtellers, Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Press, 1994, and "Polyphonic Myth: A Reply to Robert Bringhurst," in Canadian Literature, 156, 1998, both by Sean Kane; "Bringhurst's Presocratics: Lyric and Ecology," in Poetry and Knowing, edited by Tim Lilburn, Kingston, Ontario, Quarry Press, 1995, and "Being, Polyphony, Lyric: An Open Letter to Robert Bringhurst," in Canadian Literature, 156, 1998, both by Jan Zwicky.

*  *  *

The poems of Robert Bringhurst seem almost to contradict the statement of method and intentions he makes in a prefatory note to The Beauty of the Weapons, a collection that gathers much of his work published by small presses: "Most of the poems are products more of oral composition than of writing, and have survived into this selection only with repeated performance as a test & they exist in the voice, to which the page, though we enshrine it, is in the right order of things a subservient medium." Yet in their formal beauty, resembling that of runes and hieroglyphics, Bringhurst's poems almost seem expressly designed for the page and deserving of thick paper and elegant typography. For all his allegiance to air, breath, and music (one of the book's valuable notes says that the poem "Hachadura" is intended "as music, not as cartography. For listening; not, like a map or a roadsign, for reading"), Bringhurst adores indelible materials. Even air becomes substantial ("the chipped air" and "black blades of the wind" in "Three Deaths"), and he observes "the stricture/of uncut, utterly/uncluttered light" ("Poem about Crystal"). Erudite and hard-edged, Bringhurst is a philosophical materialist, and in a note for the section "The Old in Their Knowing" praises the pre-Socratics, who "knew no distinction between physicist, philosopher, biologist and poet."

For Bringhurst mind becomes visible, as in "Pherekydes":

   There remains of the mind of Pherekydes
   the esker and the glacial milk,
   the high spring runoff in the gorge,
   and the waterfalls hammered out of cloud
   against the mid cliff,
   vanishing in the hungry Himalayan air

Although the poet may sometimes be guilty of imagistic overreaching ("quiet as butterflies' bones" in "Four Glyphs"), he composes work of carved shapeliness, as in "A Quadratic Equation":

   Voice: the breath's tooth.
   Thought: the brain's bone.
   Birdsong: an extension
   of the beak of speech:
   the antler of the mind.

Using a variety of voices (Francesco Petrarca, an old Coast Salish Indian) and locales (the Old Testament wilderness, El Salvador), Bringhurst consistently meditates on the fundamental, primary, elemental, whether it be the Pentateuch or Aztec mythology or love itself, as in "Hic Amor, Haec Patria":

   All knowledge is carnal.
   Knowledge is meat,
   knowledge is muscle.
   Old woman, old woman,
   what is this hunger
   grown hard as a bone?

Bringhurst has always been concerned with the elements of communication, as witnessed by his interest in fine printing and typography. As a poet Bringhurst might be termed, in Gaston Bachelard's system, one whose primary element is earth. His own allegiance remains to the voice. For him, as he says in the foreword to The Calling, "Writing, if it lives, is rooted in speaking, and speaking, if it lives, is rooted in listening for the speech, the calling, of being." To that end Bringhurst has increasingly attempted to make "poems like polyphonic music," including in this collection the separately published The Blue Roofs of Japan and "New World Suite No.3," for two and three voices, respectively. Though marked by the same strengths as his other poems, these "layered" pieces do not make the same impact on the page and tend to project a certain lecturing tone, which on occasion also slightly mars some of his earlier work. In any case, The Calling confirms the fact that Bringhurst is a poet of substance.

—Fraser Sutherland