Robert Gibson: 1923–2003
1923 – September 2003
Robert Gibson, also known sometimes by the pen name Ubugu, was active with Haiku Northwest in its early years, and Holly House Publications published a collection of his haiku, Children of the Sparrow, in 1999, with artwork by Karen Klein. He also published Westport Haiku in 2002 and Except Perhaps in Spring in 2003, also from Holly House. In 2000, a poem by Robert inspired the title of a Haiku Northwest anthology, To Find the Words, that won first place in the 2001 Merit Book Awards from the Haiku Society of America:
white clouds . . .
some day i hope
to find the words
The following is a short autobiographical sketch Robert wrote (date and source unknown but most likely from the World Haiku Review; lightly edited).
Autobiography of Robert Gibson
I was born on my great grandfather’s farm near Lamar, Missouri, in 1923. My first move was to Chicago, Illinois before I was a year old. I say my first move because my father worked for the U.S. Treasury Department and his job made it necessary for my family to move every year or so from one large city to another all over the country. I was seldom in one city, and therefore one school, for longer than a year. Because of this transient existence I learned a lot of things, but little of it was the schoolwork I was sent to school to learn.
My grandfather, who was a man of some influence, was against my growing up in large and strange cities and arranged for me to spend my summers with the Ogibwa Indians on Lake Winnibigoshish in northwest Minnesota. I spent my summers, and in some years winter too, until 1935, learning to be an Indian. In 1935 my family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah where I graduated from high school just before World War II. I served as a pilot in the Army Air Corp in Europe for four years.
I worked for several years as an anthropologist for the World Health Organization in North Africa and Central America. For three years I was in charge of photography for the Polaris Missile Project. I earned an M.A. in clinical psychology at San Francisco University, and later, after several years of college teaching, earned my Ph.D. at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I spent my summers for twenty-eight years doing anthropological research with the Babine Carrier Indians in northern British Columbia. I am now retired from teaching and write and do black-and-white photography.
The inaugural issue of World Haiku Review celebrated Robert Gibson with the following “This Is Your Haiku Life” essay (date most likely 2001; online link no longer available; lightly edited).
This is Your Haiku Life: Robert Gibson
by Susumu Takiguchi, Oxford, England
Robert Gibson is a retired college professor of psychology and anthropology. He is 78 years old. It was in the 1960s in San Francisco that he was introduced to haiku by his friend and mentor, Alan Watts. Gibson recalls that one day Alan Watts handed him the four volumes of R. H. Blyth’s Haiku and said, “Read these,” which he did. Life has never been the same again.
In those years, was working for the United Nations and the World Health Organization as an anthropologist and photographer. He was in San Francisco in between trips to North Africa and Central America.
Gibson had spent some substantial time in Japan. Immediately after the war, he travelled to Nepal to see the mountains and then backtracked to Japan where he studied Judo at Kodokan for two years, achieving Nidan rank. Then he returned to America and earned a B.A. and M.A. in anthropology. Gibson then spent two more years in Kyoto, studying Zen Buddhism. At that time, he does not believe he even heard of haiku. It was probably because of the right time, when Gibson was introduced to haiku, that it made a great impact on him. He already had good knowledge of Zen, photography, and anthropology, which helped him to go deeply into Blyth’s volumes. What caught his profound interest was that each haiku presented an image that was simple and yet had implications that continued to reveal themselves for years after putting the books down. The lesson he learned from the books was that these short poems had power, not in what they said, but in what they implied.
It was Gibson’s job to get medical doctors into, and back out of, some very difficult places. So he always had four or five intelligent men with whom to share his newfound haiku, and they all had a lot of time, driving and hiking in the wilderness, in which to contemplate the haiku. In the years to come he would discover that his friends, too, had learned to love haiku.
Several years after his first encounter with haiku, Gibson was invited to have lunch with Alan Watts and, incredibly now, with R. H. Blyth himself. Watts was far more interested in the conceptual basis of haiku and how it interacted with Zen than he was in writing haiku, and Blyth, too, appreciated the haiku of others more than writing his own. Both did write haiku, but seldom published them. So, during the luncheon, they spoke of haiku in rather abstract terms. Gibson felt that he was there to learn and said little until the subject of implication came up. Then he did ask a question or two and Watts said that he felt that haiku was all in its implications. Blyth stated the same thing in saying: “The true subject of a haiku is never mentioned in the haiku.”
Now in his retirement, Gibson is reminiscing these past years. He went through his haiku poems which have been accumulating during the long forty-odd years. The result has come up with a handsome collection called Children of the Sparrow, a title taken from a haiku by Issa he adores. To see some of the examples of these modest but profound poems would now be in order.
from an unseen cherry tree
drift past my window
first azalea presses
against my window
cat moves her kittens
one by one by one
green leaves sink into darkness
from house shadow
to tree shadow
sails in a world
of morning breeze
old dog stretches yawns
in the sunshine
her whole life trapped
in her web
the man and his shadow
in the same coffin
the cherry tree again
on the ceiling we
are alone tonight
new year’s day
throwing away one more
sparrows crowd the bushes
near the feeder
a pure white world
In a profile on the Carpe Diem Haiku Kai website, dated April 26, 2016, Gibson is quoted as saying the following about his pen name:
My nom de plume, “Ubugu,” is a Japanese botanical term. Think dandelion fluff. Strictly defined as: not the fruit or seed but the appendage or group of appendages aiding in the transport of the fruit or seed. This recognizes daemonic cryptomnesia, and thereby releases me to continue on my merry way without fear of indictment.
The same profile includes the following untitled haibun-like reminiscence, and suggests that it was written by Robert Gibson. However, it may have been written by Robert’s son, R. P. Gibson, Jr. All the facts recounted apply to Robert Junior, and not to Robert Senior. The narrator was born in 1944, as was Robert Junior. At the time of his narration, he is 71 years old. That suggests 2015 as the date of composition. Robert Senior died in 2003, Robert Junior in 2021. Whether Robert Junior is indeed the writer of the reminiscence, as well as its subject/narrator, it is still of interest because it shows that he too caught the haiku bug. Like father, like son.
Life on the river, when we are allowed to stay still and absorb the view, eventually suggests that the landings and signs along the way obscure a bounty of unknowables. I emerged in 1944, a war baby, a preborn bastard fathered by an Air Corps Cadet, carried to term by a teenage Wisconsin girl. Hardly uncommon, and practically excusable: grasping for handholds while the world wages war. The LZ was Shamrock Texas, the eastern edge of the Llano Estacado. My paternal grandparents, Dust Bowl survivors and suitcase farmers, made a place for me. At age 6, I was given over to Cheviot Hills Military Academy, an exclusive Culver City, California boarding school. How this was financially possible still today ranks among my chief unknowables. There, everything by the numbers. I learned to make my letters by the numbers. I learned to eat by the numbers. The environment was sterile and unbending. Then words came along. Then sentences. Then books. The marks rose off the page, transfiguring into ideas and pictures. The word for yellow was indeed yellow. The more words and I played together—coming easy as remembering—the better acquainted we became. And thus began my lives in letters. At every juncture, language patiently adjusted to my level; that which I couldn’t understand was salted away for future processing.
In my forty-fourth year, haiku formally found me. I was writing my second book, Rubbings: A Vietnam Pastoral, and found myself high-centered. The Higginson/Harter book [The Haiku Handbook] that literally flew off the bookstore shelf offered a parsimonious dimension to writing I was made ready to learn. From then on, the architecture and resonance from little stacks of pebbles joined the Rubbings narrative.
a cloud passes
behind the moon
i feel you there
tho when i look—nothing
to touch me
i must reach to you
mist and meadow
when I see my friend
Now in my seventy-first year, a mental haibun travels with me: in a remote old forest of tall redwoods and ferns, a small cabin. I lean out from a paneless opening, charmed by the wonder in all I see. The peace is complete save this forest whisper:
is for you
it is not yours