The precision, originality, and playfulness of Robert Gibbs' poems have captivated readers for over half a century. Mixing the cerebral and the heartfelt, Gibbs' poems investigate and celebrate family, history, and nature with decisive imagery, idiomatic immediacy, punning wordplay, and breadth of imagination.
Robert Gibbs' paternal great-grandfather was a Gibb from Kenneway, Scotland, who served in the navy and later settled in the Midlands of England; after the move, ``s'' was added to the family name. The poet Gibbs' maternal ancestry (Towers, MacQuarries and Hoars) stemmed from Scottish and Irish roots. When she was a young woman his mother, Bessie Tower, from Turtle Creek, Albert County, New Brunswick, spent two years in Saskatchewan. There she worked as a cook for a threshing crew and turned down a marriage proposal, then returned to the Maritimes in 1925. She soon regretted the move and hoped to return to Moose Jaw, but then she met Robson Gibbs, an engraver and jeweller, and married him in 1926. Her third son, Robert John Gibbs, was born in Saint John on February 3, 1930.
After early schooling in Saint John, Gibbs furthered his education at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and at Cambridge University, where he was an IODE Scholar from 1952-54. At UNB he completed an MA thesis, ``Symbolism and Imagery in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot.'' For several years he taught in his native province. First he was responsible for ``all subjects, grades nine to twelve,'' in a one-room school house in Central Hampstead (``best job I ever had, farm-fattened''); then later became principal of Cambridge High School from 1955-58, followed by a five-year period teaching at Prince Charles Junior High School in Saint John. In 1950 Gibbs's poems began to appear in The Fiddlehead, and during his years of taking classes and studying for his first two university degrees, then working in public schools, he was one of the contributors whose work appeared most frequently in that journal. One of his professors at UNB, clearly an early influence on his writing, was the brilliant polymath, poet and cultural historian A. G. Bailey, whose life and works Gibbs would honour over fifty years later in his poem ``AGB.''
The many-faceted Protestantism of Gibbs' family had an impact on his imagination in both poetry and fiction. His father was raised Anglican, and his mother Baptist. The great aunts and uncles among the MacQuarries (his mother's maternal line) included Bliss, a grocer at whose house Robson Gibbs boarded when he met Bessie, and a Reformed Baptist who later became a Pentecostal minister. Aunt Flo was a Seventh Day Adventist, Uncle Charlie a Wesleyan, Aunt Sadie United Church, Uncle John a Christian Scientist on PEI, and Uncle Cliff -- a potato farmer in Carleton county -- a Jehovah's Witness. Even though Gibbs' mother would tell him that he inherited his ``gift of gab'' from the MacQuarries' maternal line, the Hoars, actually it was the spirited religious loyalties of the MacQuarries themselves that inspired some of the drama, comedy and colour in his two books of short fiction, I've Always Felt Sorry for Decimals and Angels Watch Do Keep, books revolving around Hutchie and Pompman Killam, the orphaned children of missionaries.
In 1963 Gibbs began his many years of service teaching at the University of New Brunswick. In his spare time he began working on a Doctorate, which he completed in 1970 with the dissertation ``A Study of Irony in the Poems of E. J. Pratt.'' He held various administrative positions in the Department of English, including Director of Creative Writing and of Graduate Studies, and worked in several editorial capacities -- as well as occasional book-reviewer -- for The Fiddlehead from 1968 until after his retirement in 1989. Eighteen years after the first publication of his poetry in literary journals, Gibbs's first chapbook, The Road From Here, was released in 1968 as the first of the New Brunswick Chapbooks series, followed two years later by his first full-length collection, Earth Charms Heard So Early, published by Fiddlehead Poetry Books who also published Gibbs's subsequent collections during the 1970s, A Kind of Wakefulness and All This Night Long. The community workshop ``McCord Hall'' or ``The Icehouse Gang'' on the UNB campus provided the first audience for many of his poems during that 1970s and '80s, and Gibbs offered insightful criticism and generous support for many other writers there; it was also at McCord Hall that he began reading aloud his Hutchie and Pompman stories.
When he was fifty-five years old, Goose Lane Editions -- which had evolved from Fiddlehead Poetry Books and would eventually become a far more ambitious and versatile press -- published a new and selected poems by Gibbs. Oberon Press of Ottawa published his books of short stories, as well as his two novels A Mouthorgan for Angels and Kindly Light and two volumes he edited of Alden Nowlan's newspaper columns for The Telegraph-Journal. As Nowlan's literary executor, Gibbs also edited a volume of the poet's new and selected poems for Irwin Publishing. Though Nowlan is nationally and internationally better-known than Gibbs, diligent readers will want to compare the similarities between these two Maritime poets as well as their considerable differences. Gibbs' poetry possesses both the intensity and the originality required to inspire and influence Canadian poets and those of other countries now in the twenty-first century.
`In the modern world of cell phones, texting, and Twitter, ``Getting in touch with nature'' has become a cliche, something that sounds like the latest status update from one of several hundred Facebook friends. The Essential Robert Gibbs, the latest collection in The Porcupine's Quill Essentials series focusing on Canadian poets, helps to restore an emphasis on the natural world by seizing on the little details we often miss day to day.
`Influenced by the landscapes that surrounded him during his long teaching career at the University of New Brunswick, Gibbs wrote many wonderful poems, the best of which have been collected here. The Essential Robert Gibbs offers works from the beginning of Gibbs's writing career, through the productive 1970s, and on to its latter stages, with the final poems collected here dating to 2003.
`Gibbs's poetic innovations can be subtle but effective, such as the substitution of spacing for punctuation, as in this fragment ``From Verse Journal'', in which the narrator rises early and reflects on his lover's sleeping form: ``That grace that sleep / so well opposed to my waking / Iwithdraw from / stealthily and whisper / Wait wait a little / till I break this perfect egg''
`Other times, Gibbs puns and plays delightfully with his words, like a child creating novel combinations of food on a dinner plate. In the excerpt ``From A Dog in a Dream'', Gibbs describes a poet dying on a river: ``Words no longer words / divided him asunder / and left him to stink / like a split fish on a drying rack / a kipper / an unread herring''
`Gibbs is known as a Maritime poet – that is, a poet from one of the three Canadian Atlantic coast provinces, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Gibbs's own New Brunswick. Sometimes the ``maritime'' influence is clear, but the bulk of Gibbs's poetry is viewed through the lens of the land, even when the main focus of a poem is less tangible. Interactions with other people, musings on various themes – all are filtered through this physical world mindset, as when Gibbs describes eating blueberries and ruminates on cranberry juice on his way to bigger and weightier subjects. The reader's response to the ongoing descriptions of wild mushrooms, birdcalls, and flowers will likely be the factor that makes The Essential Robert Gibbs merely a pleasant read, or ... well, essential.
`Despite his nimble wordplay, Gibbs's poetry does not aim to dazzle; it does not generally shout for attention but rather waits for the reader to adjust to its own pace and rhythm. It is a polite but potent sort of poetry – perhaps what an American reader might expect from a Canadian poet. For a patient reader of well-crafted poetry, The Essential Robert Gibbs opens up a rich world, right before our eyes and well worth exploring.'- Peter Dabbene, ForeWord Reviews
?The Essential Robert Gibbs brings together some of the finest, most thought-provoking works from the poet's career.?- Lori Gallagher, The Daily Gleaner
?A prize-winning poet himself, Bartlett presents Gibbs as a metaphysical poet with earthy touches, with a ken for the dense, intense nature scrutiny of British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and as one who is kin to U.S.-U.K. egghead T.S. Eliot and homeboy bard Alden Nowlan.?- George Elliott Clarke, The Chronicle Herald
?Boiling down Gibbs' oeuvre to the essentials was undoubtedly for Bartlett a difficult if not sometimes heartbreaking task. He is to be congratulated on succeeding in serving the reader a taste of the variety of the forms in which Gibbs wrote – ranging from rhyming couplets through narrative ballads to experimental free form as in the excerpts, ?From A Dog in a Dream.??- The Fiddlehead
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