Robert Ernest Hawkes

Robert HawkesPhoto: UNB Archives
Robert Hawkes
Photo: UNB Archives

Robert Ernest Hawkes (poet, educator, scholar, and editor) was born in Coal Creek, New Brunswick—located near Grand Lake in Queens County, southern New Brunswick—on 19 March 1930. He was the eldest son of Ida (Paisley) and Robert Wilmot Hawkes. His mother was a homemaker and his father had been working in lumber camps since the age of fourteen. Ida and Robert had three sons and lived in poverty, despite their hard work. One childhood memory of Hawkes is getting electricity in the family home when he was nine years old in 1939.

The Great Depression loomed over the family, the scarcity of money meaning that people bought goods from the local general store on credit in the hope that one day they would be able to pay off their tab. The imminent threat of the Second World War also cast a dark shadow over Hawkes’ childhood. In 1936, his father bought the family’s first battery-operated radio and Hawkes remembers hearing Hitler’s speeches through the tiny speakers in his home. He also remembers bombers practicing maneuvers above both his home and Grand Lake.

But these hardships did not inhibit the developing sensibility of the young poet-to-be. His grandmother, Paisley, was a housekeeper for the Crosby’s —the famous molasses company family in Saint John— for nineteen years. Mrs. Paisley took her grandsons to the Crosby’s huge house in Rothesay for visits, where the chatelaine of the household, Mrs. Hattie Barnes, gave the boys Big Little Books as gifts. When the annual shipment of Crosby’s molasses arrived at the general store in Chipman, the Hawkes received their yearly four-gallon barrel for free.

Hawkes credits his parents for his love of reading and words. Both were readers and subscribed to the Telegraph-Journal. His father’s singing voice was especially melodious, instilling in the young Robert a sense of the beauty of words. In his recollection, “Words had their value. They had music. They described worlds we didn’t know but learned about” (Interview with author).

The first Hawkes arrived in Saint John in 1783 from the state of New York. Many generations later, a young Robert attended Coal Creek School, a one-room schoolhouse that he would later return to at age seventeen as teacher. He also attended church with his mother who was a Baptist. His father was a professed atheist, though always proud of his Anglican-Loyalist roots. Throughout his childhood, Hawkes attended both Baptist and Anglican services, not out of religious devotion but rather because of the social opportunities that those occasions provided in the small community. The Book of Common Prayer captivated his imagination, particularly the flow of its rhythms and the elegance of its prose. His early encounters with its language provided later inspiration for two books of poetry, Cranmer and Pole, Archbishops (2000) and William Laud, Archbishop (2008).

In July 1947, the seventeen-year-old Hawkes attended the New Brunswick Teacher’s College (NBTC). His lifelong career as an educator began shortly afterwards in the Coal Creek School, where he had forty-five students in grades one to eight. A year later, at the age of eighteen, he moved to Chipman Superior School to teach grades eight and nine, later moving to schools in Minto and Fredericton Junction. His years in New Brunswick rural schools prompted him to research and write about the teachers who came before him. His book, In Duty Bound: Parish School Teachers of Queens County, New Brunswick, 18181837 (1989), establishes the history of education in the county. It includes the names of the teachers and nine found poems that Hawkes based on historical documents he came across while researching. His appreciation for the early educators is clearly felt in the work, which doubles as both a historical document and poetic re-telling of the past.

In 1956, Hawkes graduated from the University of New Brunswick (UNB) with a degree in English with Honours and a minor in Latin. That same year, he won the Bliss Carman Memorial Prize and the Douglas Gold Medal for a composition on the Irish Theater Movement. Just as significantly, his time at UNB enabled him to develop friendships with other New Brunswick poets, such as Bob Gibbs and Fred Cogswell. After receiving his degree, Hawkes won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study at Duke University, where he completed graduate studies in American literature in 1957. He followed that degree with a BEd from UNB (1963) and a MEd from Dalhousie University (1966), obtaining a post teaching English at the NBTC. When UNB amalgamated with the NBTC in 1973, he became the chair and a long-serving member of English Education and Language Arts, a position he retained until he retired in 1989 with the distinction of Professor Emeritus.

Hawkes served on various literary journals as poetry editor. He was co-editor (poetry), with Bob Gibbs, of The Fiddlehead between 1981 and 1996. He was the poetry editor for The Cormorant between 1993 and 1996. For six years, he also served as the Anglophone Associate Editor for the Canadian Modern Language Review, a quarterly journal.

Hawkes’ career as a poet began in the mid-sixties when he started sending poems to literary journals in Canada. Since that time he has published nine collections of poetry: First Time Death (1970), A Place, a People (1972), People of the Dance (1975), Spring That Never Freezes (1977), Paradigms (1983), This Grievous Injury (1992), Cranmer and Pole, Archbishops (2000), Poems for the Christmas Season (2004), and William Laud, Archbishop (2008).

He is perhaps best described as a modernist poet. His verse is short, concise, reserved, and technical but still carrying lyrical quality. His poems are best read aloud, as his words are carefully chosen and never wasted. His poetry reveals truth of mood rather than fact or image. It is not nostalgic or freighted with idealism but reveals hidden truths found in everyday moments or the buried lives of historical subjects. W.B. Yeats is an obvious influence, especially his conversational poetry that champions and recreates place. Especially interesting are his found poems, like those from In Duty Bound, where he evokes what life was like for early educators. Those nine poems read as petitions made to the Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick: a woman receiving sub-par compensation because she is a female teacher; an Irishman asking for permission to leave his teaching post so he can bring back his destitute wife and family from Ireland; a case of sexual abuse; and a man whose only hope of supporting himself is through teaching because of his mangled hand. In each case, Hawkes recreates the moment so readers may experience the depth of its emotions. The result is a picture of early educators as selfless social pioneers whose meager means were disproportionate to the vital role they played in shaping the province’s most important resources—its youth.

Hawkes’ contributions in bringing New Brunswick history and people to light have been moving and invaluable. His sense of his own work is as follows:

My writing is inspired almost entirely by people, especially the poor who manage to survive in spite of their physical, mental, and economic distress. Though sometimes people say my poetry is too sad in tone, I like to think that it celebrates man’s ability to endure in the face of great odds. In this spirit, I like to think of my poetry as more optimistic and celebratory than pessimistic and denunciatory. (“Hawkes, Robert” Contemporary Authors 227)

Hawkes still (2009) resides in Fredericton. He is married to Peggy (MacLeod) Hawkes who teaches in the English Language Program at UNB. They have five grown children and, on occasion, they travel to Coal Creek.

Raina Howe, Winter 2009
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Hawkes, Robert. Cranmer and Pole, Archbishops. Fredericton, NB: Broken Jaw Press, 2000.

---. Cranmer: Excerpts From a Letter He Might Have Written to His Friend Alexander Aless in the Early Morning Hours of March 21, 1556. Fredericton, NB: Broken Jaw Press, 1997.

---. First Time Death. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead, 1970.

---. In Duty Bound: Parish School Teachers of Queens County, New Brunswick, 18181837. Fredericton, NB: U of New Brunswick P, 1989.

---. Paradigms. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead, 1983.

---. The People of the Dance. Guelph, ON: Alive, 1975.

---. Personal interview. Summer 2009.

---. A Place, a People. Guelph, ON: Alive, 1972.

---. Poems for the Christmas Season. Illus. Peggy Hawkes and Todd Hawkes. Fredericton, NB: Broken Jaw Press, 2004.

---. Spring That Never Freezes: In Memory of Burns Leckey. New Brunswick Chapbooks 22. Fredericton, NB: The New Brunswick Chapbooks, 1977.

---. Ten Poems for Christmas. Fredericton, NB: n.p., 1977.

---. This Grievous Injury. 1992. Fredericton, NB: Broken Jaw Press, 1995.

---. William Laud, Archbishop; Memoranda From Court to Tower. Victoria, BC: Poppy, 2008.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

“Biographical Sketch.” Robert Hawkes Fonds. MG L25. Archives and Special Collections. Harriet Irving Library, U of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB. 2007.

Clarke, George Elliott. “Imaginative Works From Fredericton’s Broken Jaw Press.” Rev. of Cranmer and Pole, Archbishops, by Robert Hawkes. The Sunday Herald [Halifax, NS] 22 Apr. 2001.

Gibbs, Robert. “English Poetry in New Brunswick, 1940–1982.” A Literary and Linguistic History of New Brunswick. Ed. Reavley Gair. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead & Goose Lane Editions, 1985. 132-134.

“Hawkes, Robert.” Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 113. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1981. 226-27.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Rev. of Cranmer and Pole, Archbishops, by Robert Hawkes. Literary Review of Canada 8.10 (Winter 2000/01): 9-10.

Stevenson, Warren. Rev. of Spring That Never Freezes, by Robert Hawkes. Canadian Literature 80 (Spring 1979): 103-04.