The Modesty and Mastery of Don Coles

He taught a generation of young writers that poems take work and patience

black and white photograph of old man
Courtesy of Vehicule Press / Danielle Schaub

Don Coles, who died last week at ninety, took a long time over his writing—he was forty-seven when his first book of poems appeared. That legendary patience not only played a role in his becoming one of Canada’s best poets, but if the art form in this country is as vibrant, accomplished, and celebrated as it’s ever been, it’s in good part due to the example he provided to generations of younger writers. He taught that poetry required work and that poets should read, and aim to write, the best poems they could. Two weeks ago, Giller Prize winner Michael Redhill saluted his “first true mentor” on the CBC’s The National as the poet watched from his sickbed. Since then, Coles’s death has provoked an outpouring of tributes from readers, fellow writers, and former students.

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.

He was also the small-town boy who became our great cosmopolitan. Born in Woodstock, Ontario, in 1927, to parents who had met at the University of Toronto, Coles had a fortunate childhood, his greatest difficulty being that he was unusually tall (six foot four) and shy about it. (Even in his eighties, he had a way of inclining wistfully toward you as though apologizing for his height.)

His father was a First World War vet and star athlete turned businessman who, after the war, returned home to where his English-born father had set up a profitable department store (later sold to Eaton’s). Coles’s mother, the top student in her graduating year at U of T, had turned down a scholarship to Oxford (which her admiring professors had put up, since the Rhodes scholarships were only for men in those days) in order to marry and have children. It was she, Alice Coles, with her library of novels, who nourished her son’s literary and scholarly ambitions. Like her, Don went to Victoria College, where he studied under Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, learned French during summers spent in Quebec and Paris, and narrowly missed out on a Rhodes (his graduating year being full of the preferred manly Second World War veterans). He still headed off to Europe in 1949 and didn’t return to live in Canada for fourteen years.

The postwar Europe that welcomed and formed Coles was very different from today’s affluent Eurozone. It was poor, divided, and—for North Americans—cheap. His first summer in Paris, he and a Canadian friend lived off the few gallons of cooking oil they’d imported to sell on the black market. The big writer in those days was Albert Camus, and Sweden was becoming the home of sexual freedom. Like Pound, Eliot, and others, the young Coles seemed to devour Europe whole, starting first in England, with years in London and Cambridge, before moving on to Florence, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen.

He learned languages (Italian, Swedish, and German, on top of French) and read voraciously (Tolstoy, Flaubert, Proust, Mann, Musil)—the principle being that if you take in enough good writing, something decent might eventually come out. Though he would later disparage the plays and novels he wrote then, incorrigible self-deprecator that he was, the raw material—stories, words, sense impressions—remained. Many of the best anecdotes from that distant world found their way into his “autobiography by other means,” A Dropped Glove in Regent Street. They include the poet drunkenly exchanging a few words with Sylvia Plath minutes before she met Ted Hughes and sealed her fate, two elderly Cambridge dons who disputed which of them had first bedded Rupert Brooke, and the dockland bookstore Coles worked at for five pounds a week.

Returning to Canada in 1965 with his wife, Heidi, a German woman from Lübeck he’d met in Sweden, and their daughter, he landed a job teaching at York University on the basis of a published chapter from one of those disparaged novels and soon found himself in the middle of things, the hotbed of CanLit. Everyone was writing poems, it seemed, and Coles tried his hand. It turned out Flaubert’s command—“every word tipped with fire”—wasn’t a bad way to start.

His first three books were edited by Dennis Lee (helped by Margaret Atwood) and revealed an unusual tact and elegance, a light touch coupled with deep feeling for life’s tragedies, large and small. In “William, Etc.,” he remembers six brothers:

all bearing the Coles name and all lost at sea
on the same ship, same day, in the ‘14–‘18 War [ . . .] would have been my uncles, once or twice removed,
if that day hadn’t removed them before.

And, thinking of the lockers they have gone to, he closes with another grave pun:

 . . .absences everywhere you could say—
except for Davy Jones and those old watery arrangements,
what a jostling under “C” that day!

Many of these early poems were about other people (town figures, characters from Tolstoy or history, his mother, who was lost to dementia). Like Hardy, he had an ear for the emotions behind the plainest speech and could make a whole poem out of a dialogue. His poems could be very funny (such as “Mrs. Colliston,” about an adulterous husband and his “excellent Balbriggan underwear” in small-town Ontario, 1918). Most importantly, he was developing a voice: one that could be both offhand in tone and precise in its phrasing, both colloquial and learned.

Coles’s first two books came out in the 1970s when both confessional poetry and Canadian nationalism were at their height. It must have been some challenge for a poet of Coles’s learning and temperament to teach the monuments of European high culture at York—Canada’s then most culturally and politically radical university—while, in his creative-writing seminars, having to face the sort of emotive verse that was having its moment. He would remain hostile to confessionalism all his life. (His own short first marriage was never mentioned in his writing.)

Luckily, by the 1980s, the climate had changed: English Canadian writing opened up to the outside world, jubilantly discovering multiculturalism and immigrant narratives. For those poets who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, when the era’s garrulous free verse had begun to wane, Coles’s deft, sophisticated work became a secret rallying point. We wanted more from the art and wanted the art to do more—and weren’t prepared to let national piety dictate our choices. In his poetry and his person, Coles taught that good poems take work and patience. As a teacher, both at York and then at the Banff Centre for the Arts, he, as Redhill put it, “gently but firmly urged his students towards more depth, more economy, more honesty.”

And he just kept getting better. Alberto Manguel, a key figure of those years, championed his poems internationally. Coles’s poems began to appear in the London Review of Books. Coles started to incorporate more narrative elements in his poems and to make them longer: “The Prinzhorn Collection” is an eight-page dramatic monologue, and K in Love is a sequence of lyrics inspired by Kafka’s writings. And then, in contrast to the latter’s short clipped vignettes, came Little Bird. Subtitled “Last Letter to My Father,” it is a writer’s apologia pro vita sua set across the dining room table from his silent father, suspicious of all wordiness:

Who cares? Not you,
I think, who
Took little pleasure in such
Flamboyancies, and not overmuch

in language, either
never using two
words when one would do,
and sat in spreading

silence, when I, a schoolboy
then, swarmed among syllables
for the sheer joy
& hell of it, monologuing

at mealtimes like an anointed
asshole until, too late,
you’d dispatch me with a pointed
“That’s it. Just take your plate
with you when you go, all right?”

The poem’s loose, irregularly rhyming quatrains and subject matter allowed Coles to give free rein to those traits and tics of his that might sabotage a shorter work: his self-questioning about his choice of words and métier, that syntax that could stretch a sentence over pages, piling clause on clause, qualification on qualification, drawing you deeper into the father-son labyrinth only to pull up short with a rapid shift of tone (“bullshit”) or leave you to ponder the dreamt of little sparrow of the title, pecking at ashes in an empty castle, and the poet’s sorrow that his father, gone and having left no words behind, must now vanish for good.

His next collection, Forests of the Medieval World, won a Governor General’s Literary Award in 1993 and included some of his most powerful work. “Driving in the Car with Her” delicately celebrates a most ephemeral pleasure, the sight of a woman’s legs in the passenger seat of a car, “crossing or uncrossing” and reflected in the windshield:

[ . . .] No matter
Whether, rearranging herself, she
Occasionally pointed them towards him
Or away, the car’s

Little hurtling sky
Kept them close, and unmolested
Unless by a pensive hand

“Someone has Stayed in Stockholm” imagines a road not taken, a Coles still in Sweden, while “The Edvard Munch Poems,” merges his voice with that of the painter’s and recasts the key life experiences of Munch so vividly that it brought new power to the rather tired device of a sequence of poems inspired by a life. There were more books: Kurgan, with its beautiful poems inspired by family and childhood, won the Trillium Award in 2000; his prize-winning translations of the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer; a special edition of Arc poetry magazine on his 75th birthday. Then, finally in 2004, the novel, Doctor Bloom’s Story, on a very Colesian theme: Dutch doctor emigrates to Toronto, takes up writing late in life and faces an intolerable moral quandary, all recounted in that inimitable voice.

Just as he kept playing tennis into his 80’s, Coles continued producing work that was new and vital: the two late collections, Where We Might Have Been (2010) and A Serious Call (2015) explored the byways of memory in unpredictable, unfussed meditations that juxtaposed the most incongruous elements recalled from his reading and life (Eatons and Proust, Sir John A, Camus, small town Ontario, the Vienna Opera).

For someone who made their debut so late, he lived to experience a rare success. In many ways, he recalls no one so much as Jorge Luis Borges—not the media invention of the final years but the shy, courtly, self-effacing writer who, like Coles, returned home after a protracted European apprenticeship and wrote the stories and poems we remember. For Borges, being Argentinian meant a way of looking at the world, not a narrow repertory of native themes. With equivalent tact and mastery, Coles showed scores of Canadian poets that there is a way to be both Canadian and cosmopolitan, to be at home both at the hockey rink (“I like it best when the Zamboni’s /out there doing its ignored choreography”) and in the larger world.

He was also famous for being reclusive, not giving readings, and not attending literary events even when it was his book being launched or getting the prize. This was a principled resistance to self-promotion and a belief that the work should speak for itself. It was also a survival strategy: even if many of his friends and former students made up that “babbling tribe,” how could one possibly carry through with all the small talk and insincerities such occasions demanded? In fact, he would come out—never to promote himself but to support you, if he judged it important—and then vanish discreetly. And those who bristled at his high standards and supposed elitist tastes would do well to remember also his extraordinary modesty. Coles never seemed to be ranking his own work vis-à-vis other poets but always in the much larger scheme of things. In the end, we must all be judged sub specie aeternitatis, and we might as well get used to it now.

And he had friends, plenty of them. I first met Coles in the mid-1990s. Having read his work for years, I’d sent him a copy of my first book of poems, received back a courteous, approving note and the suggestion we might find time for lunch. We connected: I, too, had spent my twenties in Europe, learning languages and serving my own writerly apprenticeship. There were more lunches over the years, sometimes a dinner or a play together. Lunch with him might start with chat about the latest literary splashes, scandals, or fashions—he would invariably counsel the long view—before we moved on to the main course, the real gossip: What have you been reading? When I once confessed I’d read neither War and Peace nor Anna Karenina, his reaction was not disapproval but envy: “Well, you’ve really got something to look forward to!” He sniffed at a novel I thought he’d love, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (“It’s really just a novella”), but the story by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa about a mermaid was dynamite.

I realize now what we were really doing was continuing that irreverent, Withnailesque ranking of great works that Coles began with his friend John Rolph at Grattan’s bookshop in London sixty-some years ago—a process brought to life so vividly in Coles’ last book, A Serious Call (2015), where, boots on the table, the two young men awarded “Pour le Mérite badges to this or that writer.”

Last winter, I sent him an email telling him I’d finally got round to Anna Karenina: my mother had been sick, and on my trips back and forth to Ottawa, I’d been listening to it on audiobook in the old Constance Garnett translation while following along in the new, much-lauded, Pevear-Volokhonsky version. Like Janet Malcolm, I much preferred the Garnett and had come to the conclusion that the unmusical new version would be impossible to read aloud. What would he think?

A month or two later, Coles wrote a long email back. No mention of his illness but, since I’d taken a long break from publishing poetry, a full three multilingual paragraphs urging me to get my new book of poems out meddesama (“you might enjoy getting to know the svensk for ‘all at once’ or ‘right away’”). I read the email quickly late at night and got on with things. Last week, after his death, I reread it and only then understood what he was telling me in its last PS:

“Tolstoy . . .I finally, one-quarter the way into my fifth reread of W&P, packed it in. I was still finding little ingots, but. Some other year, if it shows up. The year, I mean.”

That was—is—the thing about Don Coles: you always have to read him twice, at least. Just like the great authors he loved.

Richard Sanger
A playwright, translator, teacher, and poet, Richard Sanger died on September 12, 2022, at the age of sixty-two. His most recent book of poetry is Fathers at Hockey.