Bringhurst, Robert

Robert Bringhurst, poet, translator, linguist, critic, typographer, book designer (b at Los Angeles, US 16 Oct 1946). The son of a migrant couple, Robert Bringhurst was raised in communities throughout Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Alberta, and British Columbia. Bringhurst spent 10 years as an undergraduate, studying physics, architecture, and linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and philosophy and oriental languages at the University of Utah, before obtaining a BA in comparative literature from Indiana University. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA, and taught there between 1977 and 1980. Though an independent scholar, he lectures frequently and has served as poet-in-residence and writer-in-residence at a number of Canadian, American, and European universities.

Much of Bringhurst's work is in the area of book design and typography, and reflects his interest in the relationship between language and written script. He was a contributing editor to Fine Print: A Review for the Arts of the Book (1985-90) and provided a seamless revision of Warren Chappell's key text A Short History of the Printed Word. Bringhurst's own 1992 The Elements of Typographic Style is considered a classic in its field, and likewise The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada (2008) is a substantial contribution to knowledge. In 2009 Bringhurst was awarded the American Printing History Association award for his achievements.

His first book, The Shipwright's Log (1972), a collection of verse, was published in an edition of 260 copies. Subsequent collections, such as The Beauty of the Weapons, short-listed for the 1982 GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD, received greater distribution; however, much of Bringhurst's poetry has appeared in limited editions, chapbooks, and broadsides. While his earliest verse showed the influence of modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, that which followed has demonstrated an increasing diversity in both language and technique. Beginning with The Blue Roofs of Japan (1986), Bringhurst has written polyphonic verse intended for performance. New World Suite no. 3 (2006), what the poet terms "chamber music for speaking voices," is composed of lines written for three voices talking simultaneously. Ursa Major (2003) is a multilingual work employing English, Cree, Greek, and Latin to explore cultural variations on the myth of the constellation. The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-1995 (1995) and Selected Poems (2009) provide overviews of his work.

Bringhurst is best known for The Raven Steals the Light (1984), a retelling of ten HAIDA Trickster myths, co-written and illustrated by Bill REID. The Black Canoe (1991), a collaboration with photographer Ulli Steltzer, centres on Reid's Spirit of Haida Gwaii, the sculpture commissioned for the Canadian embassy in Washington, DC. The book is at once an overview of Haida history and culture, an account of native land claims, and an interpretation of the sculpture in the context of Haida mythology. Bringhurst continued his work on Reid, whom he cites as a mentor, as the editor of Solitary Raven (2000), a posthumous collection of writings by the artist and sculptor.

Haida culture is further explored in Bringhurst's most ambitious work, Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers, a trilogy featuring his translations of oral stories, poems, and histories transcribed by American anthropologist John Reed Swanton at the turn of the 20th century. In the first volume, A Story as Sharp as a Knife (1999), Bringhurst provides an introduction to the classical Haida storytellers. He claims that First Nations oral literature has been presented incorrectly as anonymous stories, myths, and folktales, rather than works of creative individuals. His argument is strongest in the second volume, Nine Visits to the Mythworld (2001), devoted exclusively to translations of Ghandl (Walter McGregor), whom Bringhurst considers more accomplished "than any Canadian poet or novelist who was writing in English or French during his time." The collection of nine narrative poems was short-listed for the inaugural Griffin Poetry Prize. Being in Being (2003), collecting the works of the storyteller Skaay (John Sky), completes the trilogy.

Much of Robert Bringhurst's latest work has taken the form of essays, including The Tree of Meaning (2006), a collection exploring storytelling, mythology and oral culture, and Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (2007), which examines poetry's relationship to other forms of art and thought.

Bringhurst's work has been honoured throughout his life. He was awarded the Macmillan Poetry Prize in 1975, held a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry (1988-89) and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of the Fraser Valley in 2006. He lives on Quadra Island, British Columbia.