In the 1950s and 60s Ruth Gilbert received more than her fair share of male condescension and negativity. Reviewing The Luthier (which won the Jessie Mackay Memorial Award for Verse along with James K. Baxter’s Pig Island Letters) Louis Johnson (‘nobody refers to the successful woman versifier as "poetess" anymore’) set about categorizing her as just that – alluding to her as one of those ‘poetesses’ who believe ‘that above all else they must be ladylike, must always be seen in a clean apron, with never a hair out of place’ and has her ‘singing’ as a bird ‘chirping away merrily’ albeit to his discerning ear, somewhat like ‘the mechanical nightingale.’
Despite this, Johnson had no problem in accepting Ruth Gilbert’s poems for his prestigious volumes of The New Zealand Poetry Yearbook where her work appeared regularly well before the publication of The Luthier.
The twelve poems from The Luthier that are recorded here are dedicated to Ruth Gilbert’s father the Rev. Henry George Gilbert who as a youth enlisted to fight in South Africa. His letters, Soldier Boy – A young New Zealander writes home from the Boer War, present a poignant account of his experiences. Later he trained as a Presbyterian Minister and was subsequently appointed army chaplain. He sailed for France one month after Ruth was born in Camp Featherstone, March 1917. At Hamilton’s St. Andrew’s church he worked till his retirement in 1946. Stained glass windows depicting “The Good Shepherd” are dedicated to his memory.
The poems are a moving, evocative and powerfully emotive remembrance of a time when the family holidayed at their Raglan bach. Here the father made violins, involving his children in the creative process, teaching them not only technicalities but reverence for the craft. The analogy to poetry becomes obvious, and as one listens, it is clear that the poet (whose mother, Florence Margaret Carrington was a music teacher) was deeply affected by this ‘Aladdin’s cave of wonder and delight / where time and loss are not’.
This exquisitely crafted and controlled sequence not only recalls the past, but re-creates it in the present. Listening, we rejoice in the ‘Beauty, Balance, Poise and Symmetry’, of the natural, biblical and miraculous worlds conjured by the poet’s finely tuned lyrical tone where music and grace are paramount - ‘Something of honey in it – yes, and sun!’
1967 Jessie Mackay Poetry Award, joint-winner
2002 New Zealand Order of Merit