"He is without a doubt a major poet, not only in the context of Canadian letters, but in that of all writing of our time." - Robin Skelton.

"Drop a word in the ocean of meaning and concentric ripples form. To define a single word means to try to catch those ripples. No one's hands are fast enough." -- Robert Bringhurst, 2004

Having worked with Ojibwa and Cree writers in northern Ontario, Robert Bringhurst later became one of the foremost contemporary non-Aboriginal experts on the literature of the Haida, reworking the enthnological fieldwork of John Swanton and translating works from important Haida storytellers and poets such as Skaay (c.1827-c.1905) and Ghandl (c.1851-c.1920), not without some controversy. Although there has been some opposition to having another white editor/translator representing and interpreting and possibly benefiting from Haida culture, Bringhurst's work has been mostly well-received beyond the Queen Charlottes, despite some severe criticisms from a more senior translator who dismissed Bringhurst as an opportunist and plagiarist. Nine Visits to the Mythworld: Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas (2000) was shortlisted for the inaugural Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001. He also edited and re-translated A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World (1999) and Being in Being: The Collected Works of a Master Haida Mythteller, Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay (2001).

Born in Los Angeles on October 16, 1946, Bringhurst immigrated to Canada with his parents in 1952. He spent much of his childhood in western Alberta. In the Sixties he wandered the globe, "as a dragoman in Palestine, law clerk in Panama," etc. He received a BA from Indiana University in 1973 and an MFA in creative writing from UBC in 1975, the year he received the Macmillan Prize for Poetry. He is a typography expert, editor and poet who updated Warren Chappell's A Short History of the Printed Word (Hartley & Marks, 1990) after it was originally produced by the New York Times in 1970. Bringhurst collaborated with photographer Ulli Steltzer on The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwai, which received the Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award in 1992. The images, taken over five years, depict the genesis of the six-metre-long black bronze canoe commissioned for the courtyard of the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. Previously he collaborated with Haida artist Bill Reid on The Raven Steals the Light, a cycle of Haida myths. Bringhurst's relationship with Reid was integral to his growth as an artist on the West Coast. "Bill Reid was my close friend," he wrote in Candian Literature #183. "He was my teacher. He was also, for a time, a kind of stand-in for the father I disowned quite early in my life."

Bringhurst's lecture series in conjunction with Simon Fraser University called The Book and Its Form concerned the history of the book and the study of writing as a visual art. With Doris Shadbolt, Geoffrey James and Russell Keziere he co-edited Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada, a major study on Canadian visual art since the second World War. He also collaborated with anthropologist Catharine McClellan on Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians. He wrote a history of fine art publishing in B.C. called Ocean/Paper/Stone, published in 1984 by antiquarian bookseller William Hoffer, and released a major poetry collection, Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, in 1986. His guide to typographic etiquette, grammar and style is The Elements of Typographic Style, reissued in 1996. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and lectured on North American arts and oral literature around the world. He has been general editor of Kanchenjunga Press and the Canada/Scotland exchange program writer for 1989-90, living in Edinburgh. His collection Ursa Major explores the myth of the great bear constellations in English, Cree, Greek and Latin. The Solid Form of Language arose from his initiative to identify and count all the ways in which language is written, including scripts of music and mathematics.

The Tree of Meaning (2006) is a collection of thirteen essays about storytelling, mythology, comparative literature, humanity and the breadth of oral culture. It was followed by Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (2007), a collection of writing that explores philosophy in poetry, the relationship between poetry and music, and the concept of polyphonics. Bringhurst's thinking involves the work of poets, musicians and philosophers as varied as Ezra Pound, Don McKay, Empedokles, Parmenides, Aristotle, Skaay, Plato, George Clutesi, Elizabeth Nyman, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Dennis Lee and Glenn Gould. This book received the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in 2008.

Bringhurst has long been a highly opinionated philosopher of typography, disdainful of those who do not share his enthusiasms and prejudices. In his essay The Typographic Mind (Gaspereau, 2006), he writes, "How do you expect to be able to cook good food or make good love when you write with prefabricated letters? How do you expect to have good music if you live on a typographic diet of bad Helvetica and even worse Times Roman -- never mind the parodies of letters that flash across your cellphone screens and the parodies of numbers displayed on pocket calculators and cash-dispensing machines? Using computers has led many people to take an interest in typography who were quite unaware of it before -- but where can this interest go when the root experience of creating letters by hand is entirely missing? Typography has become, like baseball and hockey, music and literature, and like architecture too, a spectator sport for many and a celebrity profession for a few. But typography isn't something to watch; it's something to do, like writing and reading and cooking and music and literature. It's an intrinsically rewarding, honest craft. And the nature of craft is that mental and physical stay in touch; they hold each other by the hand."

Robert Bringhurst has lived on Bowen Island and Quadra Island, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Fiji, Austria, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Nanaimo. In 2005, when he was residing near Heriot Bay on Quadra Island, he became the second recipient of the Lieutenant Governor's Award for literary excellence in British Columbia as selected by judges P.K. Page (the preceding recipient), Celia Duthie and Daniel Francis. In 2006 he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University College of the Fraser Valley. According to Trevor Carolan in a nominating letter, "Robert speaks Haida, Spanish, Arabic, French, German, and has taught himself to read Old English, Greek, and Chinese." A UCFV press release noted Bringhurst was friendly with Hugh Brody, UCFV's Canada Research Scholar in Aboriginal Studies, and they shared an interest in ecological linguistics. [Also see Swanton, SKAAY, Ghandl entries]

Bringhurst's other recent books of poetry include Ursa Major (2nd ed. 2009), a "polyphonic masque" for speakers and dancers, written in English, Latin, Greek and Cree, and Stopping By, a long poem published in 2012 in a letterpress edition by Hirundo Press in Hamburg. Recent prose works include The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada (2008) and two volumes of selected talks and essays: The Tree of Meaning (2006) and Everywhere Being Is Dancing (2007), published in Canada by Gaspereau and in the USA by Counterpoint.

The Ridge by Robert Bringhurst (Harbour Publishing)

Review by Trevor Carolan

master of recursive lines that double back or meld dissimilar ideas like Lao-tzu’s maxim, “The Tao that can be known is not the eternal Tao,” Robert Bringhurst is a serious poet, not for triflers. Read him patiently though, and his ideas evolve.
The old Celtic bards—an order of shamanic Druids themselves—worked much the same way, employing craft as the deeper gears from which poetry and a metaphysics arose capable of expressing what rocks in the rain, or ancient trees have to tell us. As Bringhurst attests in “Language Poem”—an opening series of ten meditations sharing one title—languages live “in the forest of meanings,” and “Atoms, molecules / cells, even subatomic particles / dance in their own language.”

Bringhurst’s first line here addresses stillness: “The heron has practiced his silence longer / than time has been time.” As expected, there’s ambiguity: “together with meaning there has to be / pointing at meaning.” We are given pointers—mathematic, arts, music and grammar—and the requirements of a shared language are noted; what speaker and auditor must bring; the necessary bedrock, the roots and branches of sounds that, “reach around corners and work in the dark.” Like Taoist nature wisdom, “Everything speaks for itself in this world / and everything rests in what is unspoken.”

Eco-linguistics has been an ongoing concern of Bringhurst’s. “Just suppose the roots of language are prehuman / premammalian, prevertebrate—or preorganic, maybe,” he suggests, although the terms of the conversation aren’t rigid. “Go down the well of words until there are no words / Go down until there are no sounds or signs.” This is a poet who engages with the deep aquifers of consciousness—what Indigenous Australians call “the beginning of the world”—pointing us toward the mystic, to “the one-armed man / who hears within his heart / the sound of clapping.” There’s a familiar Zen koan in there, tingling among the snarled quarks, morphemes, chromosomes; the jags of a dreamtime he invokes where language, like Gaia, can arise as a form of sentience.

Does it matter? Indeed. Confucius, when asked what he’d do first if he were given the reigns of State, replied, “to correct language.” For millennia, Chinese civilization—currently angling for renewed global leadership—has revered this “Rectification of Names.” The Master, as he’s known in China, taught: “If language is not correct / Then what is said is not what is meant / Then what ought to be done remains undone.…Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said / This matters above everything.”

Robert Bringhurst’s work always has philosophical groundings—European, East Asian, Turtle Island eco-inflected. The result here is a phenomenology of meaning where one line can sound like Saraha, the cryptic 8th century Bengali poet; then in another like bluesman Ray Charles, crying, “every meaning / needs a place to go … a place / without a name.” It’s a long soliloquy, all this talk on mind and meaning, that’s rich in the observation of local flora and fauna as well. When he says, “That, I saw the flicker, then the sharp-shin [hawk], say, is roughly how it is” it makes sense. And wrapping up, when he echoes John Lennon, declaiming, “There is nothing to do that is not being done / nothing to say that is not being said / and so much, so much, that is neither,” that’s alright too.

Music, I think, is integral to Bringhurst’s sense of pace. William Blake intended everything he wrote to be sung. Roy Rogers, the sweetest cowboy singer there ever was, believed no performance is complete without a hymn. In 2014, Bringhurst collaborated with partner Jan Zwicky in replacing seven lost sermon texts by a Spanish Jesuit for a work commissioned from Joseph Haydn in 1785, on the seven last words of Christ: “for they know not what they do.” Taking as their theme “the crucifixion of the earth, not of the redeemer,” each poet wrote “three and a half of the seven interludes required.” Bringhurst’s half proposes, “when you die you go to earth / You go to earth. And when the earth dies, heaven dies / It dies. Hell is the absence of heaven and earth.” Here’s that obligatory hymn, a call to mindfulness for grown-ups, Haydn’s score, Opus 51, included.

There’s a lovely memorial to P.K. Page, and “The Well,” part of which feels like a Rumpelstiltskin nursery rhyme, and “Stopping By,” a profound reflection on ownership, love, and an older religion that listened to “Douglas-firs / the northern toads and black-tailed deer.”

“The Ridge,” a 65-page poem, shapes the book’s backbone. Bringhurst lives on an island, and he traces its natural history with scientific éclat, vaulting us back to beginnings with a disquisition on its chapels of remaining old-growth conifers, geology, trails and the community-manufactured road in contrast. Despite recurrent fires and human incompetence, the giant trees still work here with unpatterned awareness, growing and collapsing in a fashion that Hopi shamans understood as a cyclical need for disintegration and regeneration. A darkening vision grows, however; we “embezzle whole mountains,” introduce foreign species and destructive pathogens like white pine blister rust; there’s open-net pen salmon farming nearby; and the destructive burning of billions of cords of wood and oil—“Playing with fire / is what humanity does,” he writes. “We are … inching the blue / planet out of the green lap of heaven.”

If there’s poetry in this estranged, impending ecocide, consider: “There is nothing you can do with it —except / what you can always do with knowledge / and with beauty: you can cradle them / like water in your body and your mind / and let them hold you also—” We’ll need that tough love “aboard the deathboat on its rough / and brief last ride,” he intimates. Still, our beloved sun, “the only one / there is that is the sun,” will play its role. Cue the shamans. Cue Haydn’s Opus 51. 9781990776250

Poet, author, watershed conservation activist, Trevor Carolan is professor emeritus of English at University of the Fraser Valley.

[BCBW 2023]

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers
Ocean/Paper/Stone: The Catalogue of an exhibition of printed objects which chronicle more than a century of literary publishing in British Columbia
Solitary Raven: The Essential Writings of Bill Reid
Solitary Raven: The Selected Writings of Bill Reid
A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World


Deuteronomy (Delta, B.C.: Sono Nis Press, 1974).

Pythagoras (San Francisco and Vancouver: Kanchenjunga Press, 1974).

Bergschrund (Delta, B.C.: Sono Nis Press, 1975).

Eight Objects. Kanchenjunga Chapbook 4 (San Francisco and Vancouver: Kanchenjunga Press, 1975).

Death by Water: Poem (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Library, 1977).

Jacob Singing (Kanchenjunga Chapbook 8. San Francisco and Vancouver: Kanchenjunga Press, 1977).

The Knife in the Measure: Variation on a Theme from Li Shang-yin (Mission, B.C.: Barbarian Press, 1980).

The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems, 1972-82 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982).

Tzuhalem's Mountain: A Sonata in Three Movements (Lantzville, B.C.: Oolichan Books, 1982).

Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada (Douglas & McIntyre, 1983). Co-editor.

Bringhurst Robert & Bill Reid. Raven Steals The Light (Douglas & McIntyre, 1984, 1996).

Ocean/Paper/Stone (Vancouver: William Hoffer, 1984).

Tending the Fire: an Unparable of the Relations of Rabbits & Dogs & Old Women, & c. Alcuin Chapbook 6 (Vancouver: Alcuin Society, 1985).

The Blue Roofs of Japan: A Score for Interpreting Voices (Mission, B.C.: Barbarian Press, 1986).

Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music (McClelland and Stewart, 1986).

Shovels, Shoes and the Slow Rotation of Letters: a Feuilleton in Honour of John Dreyfus. Alcuin Society Keepsake (Alcuin Society, 1986).

Conversations with a Toad (Vancouver: éditions Lucie Lambert, 1987).

Bringhurst, Robert & Catharine McClellan. Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians (Douglas & McIntyre, 1987).

Pebble Pond Errata Slip: A Codicil to Ocean Paper Stone (Vancouver: Benwell-Atkins, 1987).

A Short History of the Printed Word (Hartley & Marks, 1990) by William Chappell. Revised edition, updated by Bringhurst.

Bringhurst, Robert & Ulli Steltzer. The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwai (Douglas & McIntyre, 1991).

The Calling: Selected Poems, 1970-1995 (McClelland and Stewart, 1995).

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

A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World (Douglas & McIntyre, 1999). Bringhurst, Robert (translator).

Bill Reid. Solitary Raven: Selected Writings (D&M, 2000). Bringhurst, Robert (editor).

Nine Visits to the Mythworld: Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas (Douglas & McIntyre, 2000). Bringhurst, Robert (translator).

Being in Being: The Collected Works of a Master Haida Mythteller, Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay (Douglas & McIntyre, 2001). Bringhurst, Robert (translator).

Ursa Major: A Polyphonic Masque for Speakers & Dancers (Gaspereau Press, 2003, 2008).

The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing and Meaning (Gaspereau Press, 2004).

The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Essays (Gaspereau 2006).

Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (Gaspereau 2007).

The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada (Raincoast / The Atkins Library, CCSP Press 2008). $60. 978-0-9738727-2-9

Selected Poems (Gaspereau, 2009). $27.95 9781554470686

Stopping By, long poem (Hirundo Press: Hamburg 2012) letterpress edition

Learning to Die (U of Regina) $19.95 978-0-8897-7563-3. Co-Writer Jan Zwicky

The Ridge (Harbour Publishing, 2023) $22.95 9781990776250

[Book Prizes Photo: Bringhurst with Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo, 2005]

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2009] "Anthropology" "Poetry" "Publishing" "First Nations" "Folklore""Art" "Theatre"