Robert Gibbs

Robert GibbsPhoto: UNB Archives & Special Collections
Robert Gibbs
Photo: UNB Archives & Special Collections

Robert (“Bob”) John Gibbs (poet, novelist, short story writer, professor, editor, and critic) was born in Saint John, NB on 3 February 1930. As a child, Gibbs’ family moved frequently throughout Saint John. His various homes often served as the setting or subject of Gibbs’ writing later in life. He began writing poetry as a child and declared himself a poet at the age of nine; however, he kept his early work secret. After graduating from Saint John High School in 1947, he immediately began his BA at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton, where he found a community of writers. He joined the Bliss Carman Poetry Society and was mentored by Don Gammon, Elizabeth Brewster, Fred Cogswell, and Alfred Bailey, the founder of The Fiddlehead magazine. Gibbs’ poetry started appearing in this publication in 1949.

After completing his degree in 1951, Gibbs began a Master’s program, but left for England after his first year. There, he attended Cambridge University on an IODE scholarship and graduated with another BA in 1954. Gibbs then returned to New Brunswick and began teaching at rural New Brunswick schools as a source of income. He enjoyed the experience and completed the requirements for his teacher’s license through summer courses. After working for nine years as a teacher and an administrator in small communities and in Saint John, he returned to UNB to finish his MA. He continued his academic career lecturing in the Department of English and took classes in the evenings toward a PhD that he completed in 1970. His dissertation was titled “Aspects of Irony in the Poetry of E.J. Pratt.” (Gibbs would later help annotate Pratt’s complete poems, published in 1989.)

In his more than twenty-five years of teaching at UNB, Gibbs taught general undergraduate and Canadian literature courses and was the director of UNB’s creative writing graduate program. He served as both editor and poetry editor of The Fiddlehead. Upon his retirement from UNB in 1989, he was named Professor Emeritus.

Gibbs’ poetic works were first showcased in Fred Cogswell’s Five New Brunswick Poets (1962) alongside Alfred Bailey, Elizabeth Brewster, Fred Cogswell, Alden Nowlan, and Kay Smith. An active member of the Tuesday night “Icehouse Gang,” he would publish five books of poetry between 1968 and 1978: The Road From Here (1968), Earth Charms Heard So Early (1970), A Dog in a Dream (1971), A Kind of Wakefulness (1973), and All This Night Long (1978). A selection of his verse titled A Space to Play In (1980) was published by the League of Canadian Poets, and previously printed poems were re-published along with new material in The Tongue Still Dances: Poems New and Selected (1985). The collections Earth Aches (1991) and Driving to Our Edge (2003) are Gibbs’ remaining poetic volumes.

In describing his poetry, M. Travis Lane calls Gibbs both “a gourmet of the minimal” (“Roads” 47) and “an acknowledged master of the anecdotal poem” (“Voices” 149). She notes that “he usually devotes himself to asserting the value of the ordinary” (53) and speaks to friends, usually fellow Maritimers. Agreeing with this assessment of his voice, Jeffery Donaldson calls Gibbs’ poetry “personable, welcoming, and open” (235). His poetic subject matter has been summarized as “sensual and witty descriptions of human and non-human landscapes, subtle insights into relationships, a sophisticated understanding of the workings of the mind, the mutterings of dream, and the interworkings of conscience, the subconscious, grief, and nostalgia” (Lane 460).

The subconscious figures prominently in Gibbs’ collection A Dog in a Dream—an experimental project. Following the psychoanalytic practice of the time, Gibbs recorded everything that came into his mind before going to sleep, transcribed the images, and shaped them into poems.

Gibbs’ poetry has been compared to that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Gibbs has remarked that he feels an affinity with both Hopkins and Margaret Avison. He describes his own evolution as a poet (in the third person) in “English Poetry in New Brunswick, 1940–1982”: “Gibbs, though he never outgrew his love of word-play, did begin using a plainer, less obscure and rhetorical style. The stories he began writing in the late sixties helped his verse” (134).

Those stories turned into a full book in 1978. His first collection of short fiction, I’ve Always Felt Sorry for Decimals (1978), along with Angels Watch Do Keep (1997), capture the adventures of two orphaned brothers, Pompman and Hutchie Killam. Many of the ideas for these stories stem from narratives Gibbs created with his mother and brothers when he was a boy. Childhood permeates his poetry and prose, and his fiction is normally narrated by children living in New Brunswick in the time of Gibbs’ own childhood. Initially influenced by T.S. Eliot’s urban poetry, he often writes about Saint John. Gibbs’ fantasy novel A Mouth Organ for Angels (1984) combines both of these elements. As the book jacket describes, it is “the story of an hour—or a year—in the life of a small girl called Madeline. If Alice Liddell had been born in Saint John she would have been called Madeline, the White Rabbit Gingercat.”

Gibbs’ next novel, Kindly Light (2007), is also set in Saint John, but because its protagonist is elderly, the voice is different from his earlier works. It is “a novel written in highly formal prose that recalls the style of any number of late-Victorian or Edwardian tale-spinners” (Colford 104).

Gibbs’ creative works are always favourably reviewed, evidenced by Ronald Charles Epstein’s assertion that “Robert Gibbs is an important figure in Atlantic Canadian Literature.” In reviewing Gibbs’ first short fiction collection, Alden Nowlan went considerably further, saying that he “is arguably Canada’s most underestimated poet. Little known beyond the UNB campus, his verse is equal in quality to that of a number of writers with established national reputations” (7).

Since Nowlan’s death in 1983, Gibbs has served as literary executor of Nowlan’s estate. Gibbs edited two collections of Nowlan’s poetry—Early Poems (1983) and An Exchange of Gifts: Poems New and Selected (1985). He also compiled two collections of Nowlan’s essays into White Madness (1996) and Road Dancers (1999). In addition, he wrote a bio-critical introduction to the Nowlan Papers for the University of Calgary Archives, where they are housed.

Apart from Nowlan’s works, Gibbs edited the anthologies Ninety Seasons: Modern Poems from the Maritimes (with Robert Cockburn, 1974) and Reflections on a Hill Behind a Town (1980), a special edition of The Fiddlehead that marked the journal’s 35th anniversary.

Gibbs was the keynote speaker at the first Alden Nowlan Literary Festival, for which he composed the poem “A one-sided call to a many-sided man” (Driving 96-100), and the Festival two years later paid tribute to Gibbs. His body of work was further recognized in 1998 with New Brunswick’s Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in English-Language Literary Arts. He has been involved with the Maritime Writers’ Workshop since its inception and continues to live and write in Fredericton.

Lauren Caines, Summer 2009
University of New Brunswick

For more information on Robert Gibbs, please visit his entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Gibbs, Robert. All This Night Long. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1978.

---. Angels Watch Do Keep. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 1997.

---. A Dog in a Dream. New Brunswick Chapbooks 14. Fredericton, NB: New Brunswick Chapbooks, 1971.

---. Driving to Our Edge. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 2003.

---. Earth Aches. Fredericton, NB: Wild East, 1991.

---. Earth Charms Heard So Early. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1970.

---. “English Poetry in New Brunswick, 1940–1982.” A Literary and Linguistic History of New Brunswick. Ed. W.R. Gair. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 1986. 125-44.

---. I’ve Always Felt Sorry for Decimals. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 1978.

---. A Kind of Wakefulness. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1973.

---. Kindly Light. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 2007.

---. A Mouth Organ for Angels. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 1984.

---. Personal interview. 20 June 2009.

---, ed. Reflections on a Hill Behind a Town: An Anthology of Poems by Founders, Editors and Close Associates of the Fiddlehead to Mark its 35th Anniversary. Spec. issue of The Fiddlehead 125 (1980).

---. The Road From Here. New Brunswick Chapbook 1. Fredericton, NB: New Brunswick Poetry Chapbooks, 1968.

---. A Space to Play In. Toronto, ON: League of Canadian Poets, 1980.

---. “Three Decades and a Bit Under the Elms: A Fragmentary Memoir.” Essays on Canadian Writing 31 (1985): 231-9.

---. The Tongue Still Dances: Poems New and Selected. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books/Goose Lane Editions, 1985.

Gibbs, Robert, and Robert Cockburn, eds. Ninety Seasons: Modern Poets From the Maritimes. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1974.

Nowlan, Alden. Early Poems. Ed. Robert Gibbs. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1983.

---. An Exchange of Gifts: Poems New and Selected. Ed. Robert Gibbs. Toronto, ON: Irwin, 1985.

---. Road Dancers. Ed. Robert Gibbs. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 1999.

---. White Madness. Ed. Robert Gibbs. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 1996.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Barker, Edna. Rev. of I’ve Always Felt Sorry for Decimals, by Robert Gibbs. Canadian Book Review Annual (1978): 152.

Bauer, Nancy. “Coming Up True.” Rev. of Driving to Our Edge, by Robert Gibbs. Fiddlehead 222 (2004): 109-112.

Colford, Ian. “Round and Round We Go.” Rev. of Kindly Light, by Robert Gibbs. Fiddlehead 237 (2008): 104-5.

Donaldson, Jeffery. “Poetry.” University of Toronto Quarterly 74.1 (2004/2005): 200-50.

Dorscht, Susan Rudy. “A Space to Play In; Or, Telling the (W)hole Story: The Recent Poetry of Robert Gibbs.” Canadian Literature 116 (1988): 87-93.

Engel, Marian. “Be Grateful for Pompman and Hutchie.” Rev. of I’ve Always Felt Sorry for Decimals, by Robert Gibbs. The Globe and Mail 7 Oct. 1978: 43.

Epstein, Ronald Charles. Rev. of Angels Watch Do Keep, by Robert Gibbs. Canadian Book Review Annual (1999): 210.

---. Rev. of Kindly Light, by Robert Gibbs. Prairie Fire Review of Books. 8 June 2009

“Gibbs, Robert.” Who’s Who in Canadian Literature. 1987–1988. 127.

Lane, M. Travis. “The ‘Night’ Voices of Robert Gibbs.” Fiddlehead 220 (2004): 149-51.

---. “Roads Round About Here: The Poetry of Robert Gibbs.” The Humanities Association Bulletin 23.4 (1972): 47-54.

---.“Robert Gibbs.” The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. Eugene Benson and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1997. 460.

Mundy, Mary-Ruth. Rev. of All This Night Long, by Robert Gibbs. Canadian Book Review Annual (1978): 111.

Nowlan, Alden. Rev. of I’ve Always Felt Sorry for Decimals, by Robert Gibbs. Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 2 Dec. 1978: 7.

“Robert Gibbs.” The League of Canadian Poets. 15 June 2009

Waxman, Martin. Rev. of A Mouth-Organ for Angels, by Robert Gibbs. Quill and Quire 50. 10 (1984): 33.