One of Canada’s most revered poets, Robert Bringhurst is also a typographer, translator, cultural historian, and linguist. Born in 1946, he studied comparative literature at Indiana University and poetry at the University of British Columbia. Bringhurst’s own poetry draws on his experiences with Native American myths and storytelling, as well as his training in philosophy, comparative literature, and linguistics. Bringhurst’s poetry is known for its wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and linguistic clarity. He is eclectic in his approach to literature, taking inspiration from sources as diverse as the Bible, the ancient Greek poets, and the epics of the Haida, one of Canada’s native tribes. In the Observer, Kate Kellaway described Bringhurst’s poetry as “rare but never rarified.” She continued: “Bringhurst aims high: he attempts to grasp the essence of what it is to be alive… He also has the curiosity of a scientist. He never overindulges in emotion. His writing is at once lyrical and spartan. And yet he is witty. And while he has no taste for lamentation, many a poem catches, calmly, at the heart.”
Bringhurst has published over a dozen collections of poetry, including The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-1982 (1982), The Blue Roofs of Japan (1986), Conversations with a Toad (1987), The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-1995 (1995), and Selected Poems (2009). In an interview with Intelligent Life, Bringhurst spoke about his poetry’s interest in philosophical questions rather than personal exploration: “I am not my favourite subject. The earth is a lot bigger and more interesting than I am. I also have a strong desire, as I was saying, not to be trapped in my own time. The poetry of the present, when it isn’t playing language games, is routinely full of self-display and personal confession—or to put it more kindly, it is full of self-exploration. In classical Greece or Tang Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, and in the great oral cultures that were native to North America, there was very little art of that kind. Artists in those times and places were interested in human relations too, and had serious questions to ask themselves—but most of the time they found it more fruitful and more powerful not to deal with the self directly.”
Bringhurst’s book The Elements of Typographic Style (1992) is considered one of the most influential reference books on typography and book design. The work has been translated into ten languages, and is now in its third edition. Reviewing the book, the writer Roy Johnson noted that Bringhurst “can conjure poetry out of the smallest detail, and he offers a scholarly yet succinct etymology of almost every mark that can be made—from the humble hyphen to the nuances of serifs on Trajan Roman or a Carolingian Majuscule.”
Bringhurst has also published many books of prose, including mediations on philosophy, language, music, art, and ecology. Recent titles include The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology (2006) and Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (2009). A translator and cultural historian as well as a poet, essayist, and typography expert, Bringhurst’s work with the Haida, a Canadian tribe, includes helping to translate their epics into English. His books on Haida mythology and story-telling include The Raven Steals the Light (1984), A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers (1999), and Nine Visits to the Mythworld (2000), which was short-listed for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. Bringhurst’s other awards include the Wytter Bynner Fellowship, awarded by US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin. Married to the poet Jan Zwicky, Bringhurst lives on Quadra Island, British Columbia.
Worked as journalist in Beirut, Lebanon, 1965-66, and in Boston, MA, 1970-71; dragoman in Israel and Palestine, 1967-68; law clerk in Panama Canal Zone, 1968-69; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, visiting lecturer, 1975-77, lecturer in English department, 1979-80; School of Fine Arts, Banff, Alberta, poet-in-residence, 1983; Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, adjunct lecturer, 1983-84; Ojibway & Cree Cultural Centre Writers' Workshops, Atikokan & Espanola, Ontario, poet-in-residence, 1985; University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba, writer-in-residence, 1986; University of Edinburgh Scotland, Canada/Scotland Exchange Fellow and writer-in-residence, 1989-90; Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Ashley Fellow, 1994; University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, writer-in-residence, 1998-99; Frost Centre for Native Studies and Canadian Studies, Trent University, conjunct professor, 1998—. Military service: U.S. Army Intelligence, seconded to Israeli Defense Force, 1966-68; Judge Advocate General's Corps., 1968-69.
- The Shipwright’s Log, Kanchenjunga Press, 1972.
- Cadastre, Kanchenjunga Press, 1973.
- Deuteronomy, Sono Nis Press, 1974.
- Eight Objects, Kanchenjunga Press, 1975.
- Bergschrund, Sono Nis Press, 1975.
- Jacob Singing, Kanchenjunga Press, 1977.
- The Stonecutter’s Horses, Standard Editions, 1979.
- Tzuhalem’s Mountain, Oolichan Books, 1982.
- The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-82, McClelland & Stewart, 1982, Copper Canyon Press, 1985.
- Ocean/Paper/ Stone, William Hoffer, 1984.
- Tending the Fire, Alcuin Society, 1985.
- The Blue Roofs of Japan, Barbarian Press, 1986.
- Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, McClelland & Stewart, 1986, Copper Canyon Press, 1987.
- Shovels, Shoes and the Slow Rotation of Letters, Alcuin Society, 1986.
- Conversations with a Toad, Lucie Lambert, 1987.
- The Calling: Selected Poems, 1970-1995, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto), 1995.
- Elements, with drawings by Ulf Nilsen, Kuboaa Press (New York City), 1995.
- Selected Poems, Gaspereau Press (Kentville, Nova Scotia), 2009.
- Boats Is Saintlier than Captains: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Morality, Language, and Design, Edition Rhino (New York City), 1997.
- A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
- (With Warren Chappell) A Short History of the Printed Word, Hartley & Marks, 1999.
- Thinking and Signing: Poetry and the Practice of Philosophy, Cormorant Books (Toronto, Canada), 2002.
- The Elements of Typographic Style, 3rd edition, Hartley & Marks (Point Roberts, WA), 2004.
- The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, Counterpoint Press (Berkeley, CA), 2006.
- Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking, Counterpoint Press, 2009.
- (Editor with others) Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver), 1983.
- (With Bill Reid) The Raven Steals the Light, Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1984.
- The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, photographs by Ulli Steltzer, Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1991.
- The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (television documentary), CBC, 1992.
- (Editor, and author of introduction and notes) Bill Reid, Solitary Raven: Selected Writings, Douglas & McIntyre, 2000.
- (Translator and editor) Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, Nine Visits to the Mythworld, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2000.
- (Editor and translator) Skaay Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, Canada), 2001.
Guest editor of Arabic literature and Greek issues of Contemporary Literature in Translation, 1974, 1976; contributing editor, Fine Print, beginning 1985. Author of Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America, 2004; and The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing and Meaning, 2004. Contributor to anthologies including The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse, The New Canadian Poets, Inside the Poem, and World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time.
- Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1996.
- Inside the Poem, edited by W. H. New, Oxford University Press (Toronto, Ontario), 1992, pp. 93-100.
- Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Antognish Review, volume 85-86, 1991, Peter Sanger, "Poor Man's Art: On the Poetry of Robert Bringhurst," pp. 151-169.
- Books in Canada, 1995, Scott Ellis, review of The Calling, pp. 30-31.
- Canadian Dimension, July-August, 1996, Terren Ilana Wein, review of The Black Canoe, p. 42.
- Globe and Mail (Toronto), December 24, 1983; June 24, 1995, Chris Dafoe, "Robert Bringhurst: In Ink and Paper," pp. C1-C2.
- Journal of Canadian Poetry, volume 12, 1998, Iain Higgins, review of The Calling, pp. 27-46.
- Library Journal, volume 101, 1976, Norman Stock, review of Bergschrund, p. 819.
- Maclean's, July 12, 1996, John Bemrose, "The Timely Wisdom of Traditional Tales," p. 56; July, 1999, John Bemrose, review of A Story as Sharp as a Knife, pp. 56-57.
- New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1986, Jorie Graham, "Making Connections," pp. 32-33; February 9, 1992, Karal Ann Marling, "A Noah's Ark of the North," p. 13.
- Poetry, volume 144, 1984, Robin Skelton, "Recent Canadian Poetry," pp. 297-307.
- Quill & Quire, volume 61.5, 1995, Michael Redhill, review of The Calling, p. 36.
- Star (Toronto), April, 1995, Philip Marchand, "Simplicity Motivates Poet's Work of a Lifetime," p. H6.
- Whig-Standard Magazine (Kingston, Ontario), March 26, 1988, Larry Scanlan, "Notebook: Interview with Robert Bringhurst," p. 25.
- The Reader Winter 1995—Robert Bringhurst, http://collection.nlc-bnc.ca, (March 6, 2000).
- Review of The Elements of Typographic Style, http://www.mantex.co.uk/reviews. (March 6, 2000).