One Way or Another: On Don Coles and his Poetry

On January 14th, 2018, I gave a short talk and reading on the life and poetry of Don Coles, as part of a Dead Poets Reading Series event. What follows is an extended version of that talk, with weblinks to the poems read. I hope you enjoy it.


Don Coles (1927 - 2017)
I’ve been a coordinator of the Dead Poets Reading Series since 2011, but I haven’t read here in five years. I’ve wanted to make space for others. But when I heard, in late November of last year, that Don Coles had died in Toronto, at the age of 90, I pulled myself out of retirement. Don Coles’ poetry has meant a great deal to me, and in recent years his friendship did too. I wanted to share both with you today.

Don was an intimidating man, both physically and intellectually. 6’4” (with a reportedly formidable volleyball spike), he was educated by Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye at U of T, receiving an MA in English Literature, then off to Cambridge for a second correspondingly-pond-hopping MA in Canadian Literature, the start of 14 years spent in Europe studying, working and marrying (just once, I should clarify, to his wife, Heidi), before returning to Toronto and a 30 year career teaching Humanities and Creative Writing at York University. On top of that, in the 1980s and 90s he developed a reputation as a demanding (cantankerous?) reviewer of poetry books, a legacy that, he confessed late in his life, he still felt caused certain writers to avoid him at dinner parties.

But, beyond its literary and cultural (and architectural, and historical, and...) references which would often sail over my head, his writing was never standoffish, never intimidating, always welcoming. And the man himself, just the same.

Reading of the poem "Kingdom"

I first contacted Don while I was poetry editor at PRISM international, to arrange publication of his poem “Flying”, which appeared in his final collection A Serious Call – our exchange was warm, but formal and brief. When I received a copy of that book a year later, I sent him an email saying how much I appreciated it, and his writing in general. I wasn’t sure I’d get a reply (how often did an 88-year old check his email?). Instead I quickly received:


how lovely of you! (if that sounds ironic, it is NOT so intended: just happens to be an uncensored rendering of the first four words your letter brought out of me)

And that was Don, the Don I got to know in the in-person and electronic conversations that followed: Bursting with open enthusiasm and anchored by critical self-reflection (he later apologized for his accidental over-indulgence with the two “Rob!”s off the top). A man filled with the best kinds of contradictions. As Richard Sanger put it, in his recent tribute to Don in The Walrus:

Little Bird
Like all writers, he had his contradictions, and they were fruitful: he was a Canadian who seemed to write mostly about Europe, an unabashed elitist who strove to make his poems accessible, an adamant opponent of writing about writing who could be supremely (and sometimes excessively) self-conscious in his own work, a poet who refused to read in public but wrote magnificently for the ear, a master of economy and terseness who in perhaps his greatest poem, the book-length Little Bird (1991), just couldn’t stop talking.

To these lovely contradictions I’ll add that he was a deeply educated and opinionated man who didn’t let any of that stand in the way of simple human friendship, simple human kindness. Richard Sanger spoke of the time he confessed to Don that he’d read neither War and Peace nor Anna Karenina, and Don replied, with envy, “Well, you’ve really got something to look forward to!”

And another contradiction: he had the ear and eye and training of a formalist, but channeled them into superficially “untended” free verse (he spoke once of the need for metre in all poetry, but also of the need for metre to “be obliterated by the arising requirements of the poem, the line”).

Take his poem “Sampling from a Dialogue”, from his 1979 collection Anniversaries, which opens in a way that suggests a Petrarchan sonnet but then, as the poem requires, “falls apart” formally, in keeping with the subject matter.

Reading of the poem "Sampling from a Dialogue"

Me, at the reading, itemizing
Don's books (it took a while)
When I met Don he was the author of sixteen books: ten poetry collections (including 1993 Governor General’s Award Winner Forests Of the Medieval World and 2000 Trillium Prize winner Kurgan). He had also published two new and selecteds (one in the UK, one in Canada), one “Essential” poems, edited by Robyn Sarah, a book of translations of the Swedish poet (and later Nobel Laureate) Thomas Tranströmer, a novel, Dr. Bloom’s Story, and a collection of essays and reviews, A Dropped Glove in Regent Street: An Autobiography by Other Means. I had two books, one only just released. But he treated me as a peer, and read and replied to my books in short, attentive notes which I will treasure for the rest of my life.

My short, attentive note on his books: in Don Coles’ best writing I find three predominate themes – childhood, literature, and loss, all three meeting in a sense of nostalgia (all children become adults, all books are fixed in a moment while the world moves on, and yet both return and return to us, in memories and re-readings). In a 2002 interview in Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation, Stephanie Bolster offered the expressions “Nostalgia for the present” and “presentiment of loss” to describe this preoccupation. Don replied:

[Those] are both good (without being identical they are very similar) and I find myself easily in either. Both, of course, are seamlessly linked to memory. The feeling, this “nostalgia” or “presentiment of loss,” can be overpowering, even paralyzing: at its most positive, though, it’s as close to the centre and source of art, of poetry, as anything. That’s not strong enough: it is, for me, the principal source of poetry, and poetic temperament. One can be struck by its power in obvious ways, e.g. watching one’s child in a particularly moving moment, knowing that this child is even now growing away from this moment – also, though, in less obvious ways, in any moment at all in which the thought of transience occurs to one. And it’s entirely clear to me that the power would be either less or altogether absent were “time,” its passing, not an essential part of it, of this image one is watching. It can seem intolerable that it will not endure, the physical, living, reality and beauty of this moment (“Stay stay, thou are so fair!” as Faust cries out). If this unendurable feeling is indeed what I’m calling it, i.e. “unendurable,” then I must do something about it or else, I suppose, in one sense or another, metaphorically or literally, die. That’s no overstatement (I do say “metaphorically”!).

Here are three of my favourite poems on these themes:

Reading of the poem "Somewhere Far From This Comfort"
Reading of the poem "Flying"
Reading of the poem "My Death As The Wren Library"

Death as books, books as life. The power of one or two words to mean just about everything (the moon among all the faces), even after the author is gone. In a 2012 interview with Evan Jones, Don said:

I asked myself how much it mattered to me that I had never met Albert Camus, never heard him read, never had the chance to tell him how, on my first reading of a remembered page of the first of his books (L’Etranger, a thin book which, for its clarity and its swiftness and also for its thinness was carried about in my back pocket for most of a Paris summer long ago, the first summer of the book’s life and the twentieth of mine), two sentences moved out of their paragraph and gave me a minute or so’s feeling of something I had no experience of and no definition for but knew was special, knew that the two sentences had halted the usual haphazard running of the film of my life and was now letting me know, or guess, or half-understand, with a sort of, possibly (the word I’m choosing to use next here could ruin all this, I know, but try not to let it do that), wonder, that two average-length sentences could do this, that I was now in an unusual mind-state which these sentences had, without a syllable of warning, effected, achieved, for me. I was, I think, startled that this was a thing you could do, that the little echoes that these words were mutually and perfectly offering and receiving inside their lines could do this. But that’s all it was. It was the words, the lines, the little thin book. It wasn’t the man, it was what he had in a special hour, or in twenty tries over two weeks, made.

A Serious Call
A noteworthy element of Don Coles’ writing life is how late he started publishing: his first book came out at 48 (though I should note he was writing before that. In 1993 in The Globe and Mail he described his writing in his 30s as “Wordy and ornate. But I stripped it down and got rid of that. The best craft is transparent.”) He made up for that fallow period by writing poetry of an incredibly high quality until his death. His last poem in his last book, the long title poem in A Serious Call (most of his books had one or more long poems, often at the end), was a return to his major themes: youth, loss, literature. This time a memoir-in-verse to a good friend, John Rolph, with whom he’d worked, as a young man, at Grattan’s bookshop in London. The poem opens with an anecdote about Pushkin:

Dying on a couch in his study after being
shot in a duel, Pushkin was asked if he
wanted to say goodbye to his closest
friends. He looked around at his books
and said, ‘Goodbye, friends.’

And twenty pleasurably-wandering pages later, including a digression to discuss William Law's 1728 publication A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, the poem closes like this:

Later John Rolph was to move, with his wife and two sons,
to the North Sea town of Lowestoft, where he opened
an antiquarian-book business and, near the end of his life,
developed an interest which involved him in devoting, as he
wrote to me to explain, a few minutes' calm and untroubled
thought at the start of each day directed towards
one or another of a small number of friends, among whom,
me. Such a thought was not a prayer, he explained;
and, clearly not content with this, added that he himself was
'never a pray-er'. That note ended with him
expressing the hope that one day someone might find
a name for what this non-praying, prayer-less, thought

My most recent and, obviously, last note to him, sent
two years and two months ago, was answered by
his widow. I'd written to ask how, with regard to the title
which he had not, so far, found for that early-morning
thought concerning chosen friends, he would feel about
'a call'.

It wouldn't have to be serious, that call, I'd said.
Or it could be. Whatever he decided (was what I wrote)
I'd probably get to know about it, one way or another.

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