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.


transcends the definitions that would confine it

In the high school I attended, the English curriculum covered only traditional poets, mostly people who’d died a century earlier, the poetry rhymed, highly stylized, rigid—poetry that, for me, had meaning only in an historical sense. In college, those same poets popped up again, but, thankfully, the works of a few contemporary poets were included as well. That’s when I discovered Nikki Giovanni, Randall Jerrell, Robison Jeffers, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, and, most important for me, Raymond Carver. Their work demonstrates that a poem should be, above all else, a vehicle to reach, entertain, challenge, console, and arouse its audience, that it shouldn’t be highbrow, pretentious nonsense (though such poetry has its place if only to torment high school literature students), that it doesn’t have to be the darling of academia or the folks down at the poetry slam to be important. Poetry, I believe, should be a construct that transcends the definitions that would confine it.

- C.S. Fuqua, in interview over at The Maynard. You can read the whole thing here.


the poet themselves

When I think of my ideal poems I think of my favourite poems and I’m not sure I could pin point specific characteristics. There is a mixture of maturity, of purposeful language, of emotional intelligence, of confession, of the poet themselves that makes a poem spark.

- Adrienne Gruber, in interview over at The Maynard. You can read the whole thing here.


a roll of nickels year in review

This here blog turned 11 in 2017 and it's now a full-blown tween. Moody and unpredictable, it can't even get its year-in-review post finished before the year's end. Still, here are the Roll of Nickels highlights from the (generally awful beyond the poetry) year that was!

January 2017: sincerity, music, risk - An Interview with Tim Bowling

"Aren’t we all insiders and outsiders, attracted and repelled by the world?" - Tim Bowling

April 2017: BC Poetry 2017

Year Two of the BC Poetry series saw 21 participating presses and 31 profiled books. My hope is to grow this even further in 2018!

May 2017: Nora Gould's Letter to a Young Mother

"There was never time for writing until I decided to do it then I fit it in and worked." - Nora Gould

September 2017: The If Borderlands: Reflections on the Poems of Elise Partridge

Not technically a Roll of Nickels post, as it ran over at PRISM international, but very much in the spirit of this blog, which has celebrated Partridge a great deal.

October 2017: between nostalgia and mainstream unease - An Interview with Chris Banks

"Perhaps you can’t live there, but you can see through to the strange terrain of the past even if the present moment bars the way." - Chris Banks

October 2017: throwing a little light on it - An Interview with Patricia Young

"The “big” subjects can sometimes be best explored when a little levity is introduced." - Patricia Young

November 2017: collapsed into something coherent - An Interview with Chimwemwe Undi

"This is something I see here in Canada: an attempt to decolonize without unmaking the colony...”" - Chimwemwe Undi

Most of the rest of the year was reading announcements and poetry quotes, quotes, quotes. I added 29 new ones this year, bringing the running total well past 400, with 500 in my sights in 2018. You can read all the quotes on poetry posted on this site here, or pick them out by individual author on the sidebar over there ----->

Oh, and in 2017 I also somewhat unexpectedly published a book, submitting it as a chapbook to Leaf Press in January only to have it come out as a full-length trade book in November! I'll be launching it on January 20th, if you're in Vancouver.

Thanks once again this year to PRISM international for simultaneously posting my interviews on their site. I hope to bring more interviews, and book profiles, and quotes your way in 2018, if the world isn't submerged in nuclear fire.

Happy New Year, all!


a decontamination process

I believe some poets begin from a position where they take language as a given. Others, like myself, have a profound distrust of language. This may seem like an extremely odd position—it’s like an artist distrusting colour, a sculptor distrusting stone, or a musician distrusting sound. With one difference. Neither the painter nor the sculptor nor the musician needs his medium to function on a daily basis. We all need words and language to function. We are told it is what makes us human. But in its day-to-day use this very language is very much devalued coinage. This is the same medium that is used to sell us goods we don’t want and, through political half-truths and lies, to convince us that what we know to be the truth is not really the truth. In general one of the most insidious uses of language is to separate us from a sense of integrity and wholeness. Essentially what I’m saying is that the potential seductiveness of language is dangerous. I believe many of those poets who are described as language poets begin from this premise. But for me there is another layer of distrust—historical distrust, if you will. After all, this was a language that the European forced upon the African in the New World. So that the exploitative plantation machine could be more efficiently run. It was a language of commands, orders, punishments. This language—english in my case, but it applies to all the languages of those European countries involved in the colonialist project—was never intended or developed with me or my kind in mind. It spoke of my non-being. It encapsulated my chattel status. And irony of all ironies, it is the only language in which I can now function. And therein lies the conundrum—“english is my mother tongue,” but it is also “my father tongue” (She Tries her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks). I begin from a position of extreme distrust of language and do not believe that english—or any European language, for that matter—can truly speak our truths without the language in question being put through some sort of transformative process. A decontaminating process is probably more accurate, since a language as deeply implicated in imperialism as english has been cannot but be contaminated by such a history and experience.

- M. NourbeSe Philip, from her book Blank: Essays and Interviews by M. NourbeSe Philip, as excerpted over at Lemonhound. You can read the whole thing here.


a wayward weirdo

Rejection, interestingly, ended up being a useful teacher in the process. I would bundle three or four of what I considered to be my most well crafted poems and include a little weirdo to round out the submission batch. Most all of the poems were rejected most all of the time, but when one would find a home, it was often a wayward weirdo, a poem where I quite palpably did not know what I was doing. And in grappling with that bewilderment, I’d had to reach outside what I knew and write toward what I didn’t.

- Michael Bazzett, from his essay "How Fetishizing ‘Craft’ Can Get in the Way of a Good Poem" over at Literary Hub. You can read the whole thing here.


to be read by people for whom poetry is an unnatural word

I really am angry at poets - and there are enough of them around, and I try not to be one of them - whose poetry has to show their great learning, and whose poetry is continually moving away from the average person who might happen to pick up a book and begin leafing. I think many poets - and I could name them, but I won't - do a disservice to you or me or other people who might have the same sorts of ambitions... I would like to be read by people for whom poetry is an unnatural word. We've been talking about this, you and I, we know that there's a whole bunch of people - whom we don't look down at for it - for whom poetry is an alien concept, and they shake their heads and turn and look somewhere else. Fine... But I do want to allow that person whom one imagines is the "non-poetry reader" who randomly picks up the book, I don't want to have him or her turn away from it and put it down and say "Oh, I always knew I disliked poetry" and then start looking wherever they normally look.

- Don Coles, in discussion with Jay Ruzesky, from Ruzesky's short video "Don Coles: Fire to a Trail of Thought". You can watch the whole thing here, or in the embedded video below:

Don Coles: Fire to a Trail of Thought from Jay Ruzesky on Vimeo.


January Dead Poets Reading

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch (Alice MacKay room) on January 14th, 2018, from 3-5 PM.

It will feature:

Richard Brautigan, read by Kelsey Klassen
Don Coles, read by Rob Taylor
Czesław Miłosz, read by Bethany Hindmarsh
Helene Rosenthal, read by Cynthia Flood

Attendance is free. Visit the DPRS website for more info on the series.

And yes, the Rob Taylor in the list above is me...

It's been almost five years since I last read at the series. I read Jack Gilbert in March 2013 (and wrote a little about Gilbert at the time here):

Me (Jack Gilbert), Aislinn Hunter (Marina Tsvetaeva) and Bren Simmers (Jane Kenyon)
When I thought of reading Don Coles' poetry this time around, the poems I would read came quickly. As with Gilbert, I've been a fan for a long, long time, with many a dog-eared book on my shelf. I've similarly admired Coles' interviews, most especially this long interview with Evan Jones, from the Manchester Review (from which I've twice quoted on this blog).

I was also very fortunate, in the last few years of his life, to get to know Don personally. He was as kind and encouraging to me as Richard Sanger described him in a recent Walrus profile, and I have so many good things to say for the role Don's poetry, interviews and friendship have played in my development as a writer. But, for now at least, I will save them for January.

I hope to see you there.


absorbed and shaken

You know, the day of the Forward Prizes in 2014, when I was there with my first-born, I had a cup of tea with another poet who had just become a parent too, and they told me that their editor, a very prominent and respected male poet, had told them not to write about becoming a parent - “allow yourself one or two” he’d said “but any more and it’s just embarrassing”. That story haunted me during my son’s first years although for a long time I felt ashamed rather than angry about it, because I believed it was true. I thought ‘Writing about this is the one thing keeping me alive, and it’s seen as embarrassing?’ Embarrassing! For who? Embarrassing to be a mother and to think about being a mother and to be absorbed by it and shaken by it? Embarrassing to make life, to make a creature with a soul, to have felt life and death move so closely?

- 2014 Forward Prize winner Liz Berry on writing about motherhood, in conversation with Natalya Anderson over at The Poetry Extension. You can read the whole thing here.


Poetry London Review of "The News"

This review of The News originally appeared on the Poetry London website in advance of my reading there in November 2017. I'm archiving it here. Great thanks to Katarina Meneses for her thoughtful read. 

You can find links to other reviews of The News on my website.


Delivering Big News Through Poetry: Rob Taylor’s The News
By Katarina Meneses

Rob Taylor’s The News is a collection of poems divided into the number of weeks of his wife’s pregnancy. On the surface, the collection of narrative poetry concerns itself with a soon-to-be father adjusting his life to prepare for his new child. However, it is a much deeper story that unexpectedly makes a connection to the reader with its down to earth plot. As each week passes, the narrator discusses topical events of that week, from having guests over for Christmas and discussing the famous cranberry sauce, to the devastating news of countless shootings due to persistent racism in North America:

Thirty-Eight Weeks

in the summer of your birth
“See You Again” topped the charts
and I lost track of the shootings.
By police. Of police…

When people discover that they will become new parents, many resort to a variety of parenting books to successfully raise their new child. Taylor, on the other hand, decided to write his own instead. The book is enjoyable as it makes connections to the real world with the news events that were happening, such as a policeman being shot, or more racism. The narrator discusses everything from accompanying his wife for her ultrasounds to experiencing anxiety over his child possibly having a disorder. The poems make each situation feel incredibly real through Taylor’s narrative voice, as it feels conversational. These are ordinary things that new parents go through and may be able to relate to:

Twenty Weeks

First thing in the door we pinned up
the scans, pass them from kitchen
to bathroom to bed. You could be
anyone, but we pause and insist –
you’re this one, this one.

The book not only tracks the progress of the unborn child; it also tracks the growth that both the husband and wife go through to prepare themselves for the life-changing moment when their child comes into the world. His wife’s name is finally revealed, a first for any of Taylor’s works, showing their relationship changing as they grow together.

It is interesting to note that Taylor has decided to take passages from other writers (such as Grace Paley, Rebecca Solnit, Albert Camus) and incorporates them into his work. At first it may seem odd because he is archiving his own experience with his first child, but delving deeper, readers can see how well it fits with his own work: ultimately, he is expressing how deep his experience is by making connections with others throughout history.

“Sixteen Weeks” contains a passage that illuminates the fear parents go through, wondering if their child will be healthy or will suffer complications. Taylor expresses his worries in each week, but week sixteen is the one that stands out the most as they go to the doctor’s office to get a checkup; even though they are given good news, Taylor always thinks there is that small chance that something could go wrong, as it always seems to be proven in the daily headlines.

Sixteen Weeks

The bloodwork is in –
a 1 in 20,000 chance
this will all go to hell
so we go to the phones
and you’re out…
…The technician’s
voice when she told us
our odds couldn’t be better –
all other numbers she delivers
are worse.

Overall, the collection is incredibly enjoyable as the poems seem realistic and relatable. Although the book may be most appealing to parents, the book is great for all, as it opens the minds of readers to realize the anxieties of welcoming a new life into the world, which is incredibly difficult as portrayed by Rob Taylor in The News.