Gibbons, (William) Reginald (Jr.)

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GIBBONS, (William) Reginald (Jr.)

Nationality: American. Born: Houston, Texas, 7 January 1947. Education: Princeton University, New Jersey, 1965–69, B.A. in Spanish 1969; Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, 1969–74,M.A in English and creative writing 1971, Ph.D. in comparative literature 1974. Family: Married 1) Virginia M. Harris in 1968 (divorced 1983); 2) Cornelia M. Spelman in 1983; one stepdaughter and one stepson. Career: Instructor, Livingston College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1975–76; lecturer, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1976–80, and Columbia University, New York, 1980–81. Since 1981 lecturer, then professor, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. Since 1989 member of the core faculty, M.F.A. Program for Writers, Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, North Carolina. Editor, TriQuarterly magazine, Evanston, Illinois, 1981–97. Co-founder of TriQuarterly Books. Awards: Woodrow Wilson Foundation fellowship, 1969; Guggenheim fellowship, 1984; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1984; John Masefield Memorial award, 1991; Carl Sandburg award, 1992; Jesse Jones award, Texas Institute of Letters, 1995; Anisfield-Wolf Book award, 1995; Balcones poetry prize, 1998. Member: Texas Institute of Letters; Society of Midland Authors; Poetry Society of America; The Guild Complex, 1989. Address: Department of English, 215 University Hall, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 60208, U.S.A.



Roofs Voices Roads. Princeton, New Jersey, Quarterly Review of Literature, 1979.

The Ruined Motel. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Saints. New York, Persea Books, 1986.

Maybe It Was So. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Sparrow: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

Homage to Longshot O'Leary. Duluth, Minnesota, Holy Cow! Press, 1999.


Sweetbitter. Seattle, Broken Moon Press, 1994.

Short Stories

Five Pears or Peaches. Seattle, Broken Moon Press, 1991.


William Goyen: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston, Twayne, 1991.

Editor and translator, Selected Poems of Luis Cernuda. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1977.

Editor, The Poet's Work: 29 Masters of Modern Poetry on the Origins and Practice of Their Art. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Editor and translator, with A.L. Geist, Guillén on Guillén: The Poetry and the Poet. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1979.

Editor, with Gerald Graff, Criticism in the University. Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1985.

Editor, The Writer in Our World. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.

Editor, Writers from South Africa. Evanston, Illinois, TriQuarterly Books, 1988.

Editor, with Terrence Des Pres, Thomas McGrath: Life and the Poem. Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Editor and translator, New Writing from Mexico. Evanston, Illinois, TriQuarterly Books, 1992.

Translator, Bakkhai, by Euripides. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.


Critical Studies: "An Interview with Reginald Gibbons" by Sharon Darrow, in The Writer's Chronicle, 32(2), October/November 1999.

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Through his editorship of the publication Triquarterly from 1981 to 1997, Reginald Gibbons made a significant contribution to the development of contemporary poetry. In an age in which there are far fewer outlets for book publishing than there are poetry manuscripts, Gibbons some years ago converted what was a traditional journal into a publication of new books of poetry. Under his editorship each issue of Triquarterly came to contain three or four complete manuscripts rather than small selections of works by dozens of poets. It was a brilliant innovation in a field in which practices usually are set in stone.

But Gibbons's contributions to the art of poetry do not end with his work at Triquarterly. In fact, a good case can be built to support the assertion that his own writing eclipses his achievements at the journal. Gibbons has written award-winning short stories, edited The Poet's Work, translated the poems of Luis Cernuda, and produced collections of his own verse, including Roofs Voices Roads and The Ruined Motel. Gibbons's thoughtful poems, deceptively quiet in tone, contain a complexity that is absent in the work of a majority of his peers. Unlike many other poets, Gibbons is able to make palpable for readers the connection between personal revelation and experience in the larger world. If it can be said of any contemporary poet that the author's personality is truly invisible in the field of the works themselves, it can be said of Gibbons's poetry. This is no small achievement and is difficult to gauge, but after a time, even on occasions when Gibbons uses the first-person pronoun, the reader is likely to realize that the usual accompanying voice and persona of the poet are completely submerged in the characters and speakers of the poem itself:

   I was thinking, This was where we had brought
   the nation, to neighboring new tries
   either abandoned or shuddering inward with extreme—
   till you said to me, The ghosts in this place
   are unhappy. Then I too could hear them—
   couple revenging the hours they had
   together under ceilings
   that never fell on them, the too-loud talk
   at dinner and the hedging, hopeful
   postcards in the morning.
   We stepped away from them, from the boards
   and slats of their collapsed beds,
   from their fatigue, from musty air and dead wires,
   we went back into the salt wind
   and the noisy swaying pines, out
   of that heap of winter-storm

This deceptively loose passage from "The Ruined Motel" illustrates the point well. Whereas most poets would not expand their efforts beyond the stark autobiographical commentary springing from a discovery of a dilapidated building on a car trip, for Gibbons it marks only a beginning, the point of departure. Thus, the poem opens up to the nation itself, to the troubled people who populate it (and who trouble it, too). As they come into focus, the couple we set off with settle into the crowd. This is appropriate, the height of fictive invention. It is a method—and a talent—all too rare in our poetry.

Winner of the National Poetry Series award for 1985, Gibbons's third collection, Saints, deals mainly with characters, most of whom are in search of sainthood. Whether in moments of tender vulnerability, as in the prose poem "Five Peaches or Pears," or in the middle of extreme violence, as in "The Blue Dress," Gibbons maintains that humanity is born of every kind of character. Sainthood, in fact, is possible everywhere, even in the most unlikely place. Searching for redemption in every corner of life and in every relationship is Gibbons's enduring quest.

The later Maybe It Was So contains only five love poems, but each resonates with the careful investment of a voice that expects to find transformation within its speech. In one of the poems, "Hark," love is the experience that not only transforms but also deepens receptivity and cleanses the soul:

   Stars in the clear night sky more silent than any other silence,
   even a cave's; and yet at each star the noise of fusion
   blasts to beggar rockets massed in the millions, a roaring
   multiplied to futile infinity out there, in the silent sky
   over us, as we lie close listening to each other breathe,
   hearing each other's heartbeats, sensing the smallest
   candle wick of each other's noiseless warming desire.

Sentimental at its heart, Maybe It Was So seems an attempt to validate sentimentality in love poems, even with its complex yearning to account for things so good the poet wishes they would stay forever.

Gibbons's later work stretches out into looser, more expansive forms. Mixing narrative and lyric modes in Sparrow: New and Selected Poems, he writes about a man remembering the dead, a woman's retaliation against a violent lover, a kiss that comes by surprise, trees in winter, and the flight of small birds he wishes he could see with no symbolic strings attached. Whether haunted by loss or striving to make involvement in a subject really matter, Gibbons proves again and again that he is capable of hearing the difficult and bringing it to poems with conviction and honesty.

—Robert McDowell and

Martha Sutro