There are some lines in the Al Purdy poem On My Workroom Wall, about the writers he admired, that go like this: "Don Coles's poem which says so much about the/lost Forests of the Medieval World/ it loses/ me in places I've never been."
It is hard to imagine two more disparate poets – one so bawdy, the other so retiring – and yet there is much to connect them: the original voice, the depth of feeling, the human echoes in lived landscapes that give you, the reader, a connection with what has gone before.
Mr. Coles, who died at 90 on Nov. 29, was revered for his 14 volumes of poetry, including The Prinzhorn Collection, Forests of the Medieval World, which won the Governor-General's literary award for poetry in 1993, and Kurgan, winner of the Trillium Prize in 2000. His erudite and seductive verse takes you, as Mr. Purdy said, to places you've never been and expands your mind and your heart.
He also wrote the intellectually persuasive novel Doctor Bloom's Story, which was a finalist for a Toronto Book Award in 2005. The narrator, a widowed cardiologist who wants to become a writer, is European by birth and Canadian by impulse, making him both the inverse and the mirror of Mr. Coles. Late bloomers as writers, the two men shared a physical resemblance – both as tall and lanky as giraffes – as well as introspective natures, a passion for reading history and literature, and an abiding interest in the craft of writing.
Less well known is how Mr. Coles, who only published his own first book when he was in his late 40s, quietly mentored other struggling writers. Flashing an acerbic red pen is an easy way to dominate, but Mr. Coles, who was never interested in scoring cheap points, always sought out something he could praise – an intriguing phrase or an incisive metaphor.
As an academic, he taught scores of students during a 30-year career in the humanities and creative writing programs at York University in Toronto and ran a residential poetry workshop at the Banff Centre in Alberta for a decade beginning in the mid-1980s. In the wider world he was a casual, empathetic reader for aspiring writers, including hockey legend Ken Dryden, when they sent him their pages for appraisal.
As a boy growing up without the benefit of inspiring teachers in pallid southwestern Ontario during the Depression and the Second World War, Don was encouraged to become a reader by his mother, a woman he once described to me as "an extremely bright person who introduced me to the world of books in ways that were not pedantic." Years after his mother's death, he continued to marvel at her influence. "What still knocks me out about her is that she never praised herself." How I wish now that I had asked Mr. Coles if he had channelled that relationship in his own work as a mentor.
Michael Redhill, winner of this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Bellevue Square, met Mr. Coles at York University in the mid-1980s, but really got to know him at Banff a few years later.
"He gave me the courage to try to be better," Mr. Redhill said in an e-mail interview, adding that "when you love someone's work, you're motivated to listen closely."
But what Mr. Redhill remembers most is "what he said to me about my young poems, face to face, and later in life, the many different conversations and e-mails I had with him that sent me running to the bookshelf or the bookstore. The depth of his knowledge, and the certainty he held in the importance of poetry, excited my intellect every time I encountered him."
Poet David O'Meara asked Mr. Coles to blurb his first book, Storm Still, in the late 1990s, even though the two had never met. The endorsement came back – "O'Meara offers a metaphor out of a rural kitchen as sure-handedly as he invites you into a new-minted Rilkean gravity" – along with a lunch invitation.
"He encouraged and grounded me," Mr. O'Meara said in an e-mail message. "He reminded me, by speaking about what he loved to read, that writing takes a lifetime of thinking, as reading does. He defended patience and subtlety and led by example." And he continued to praise new collections and to read and remark on Mr. O'Meara's poetry in e-mails and letters. Here's a typical Colesian compliment on an intriguing line: "It's got a kick that echoes about three times before the reader goes anywhere else with his day."
Mr. Dryden had a different introduction to Mr. Coles, but the results were equally transformative. Back in 1980, the year after the Vezina trophy-winning goalie led the Montreal Canadiens to a four-to-one-game triumph over the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Mr. Dryden had retired from hockey and was heading to Cambridge, England, with his family. Like many rookie authors, he thought it would be easier to write a book if he were away from the distractions of home. Before leaving Canada, two friends had told Mr. Dryden that Mr. Coles would also be in Cambridge that year. "Look up Don," was the advice.
Feeling isolated and uncertain, the hockey player contacted the poet. The two men, both tall, serious and athletic, met once a week for lunch and talked about Mr. Dryden's fumbling attempts to write the meditation on hockey and life that would eventually become The Game, a finalist for the Governor-General's Award in 1983 and touted by Mordecai Richler as possibly the best hockey book he had ever read.
Mr. Coles "made me feel that what I was trying to do was worthwhile," Mr. Dryden wrote in a tribute in the poetry magazine ARC in a special issue in honour of Mr. Coles's 75th birthday. Confessing that he "had no critical eye … no idea what was good and what wasn't," Mr. Dryden said that Mr. Coles "made me believe that no matter how ragged my work, there was something there. That I was getting there and would get there."
Reprising that experience in an early morning telephone conversation, Mr. Dryden mentioned that he had only recently read his mentor's iconic hockey poem Kingdom, about a solitary kid driving a Zamboni late in the day to clear the ice on a local rink. The poem illustrates what Margaret Atwood once described as Mr. Coles's "offhand but exact" way of seeing the world.
There are no bodies slamming into the boards, goals being scored, or sticks slapping the ice. While the skaters are home at supper, enjoying their "ampler lives," there is only the "slow dance of blue light in a darkening/space" as Mr. Coles, the unseen watcher, notes the kid "intent on getting it right," doing his circuits to make the rink, his kingdom, "ready again" for another game. And so, the poet's observation about the beauty of effort and skill and "getting it right" is transferred from the page into the imagination and the memory bank of the reader. It's like being behind the scenes before a play is performed or before the puck drops on a hockey game.
But Mr. Coles wasn't all introspection and erudition. He was also a die-hard fan of the Jays and the Leafs, a formidable tennis partner and a fierce competitor in almost any game, from snooker to volleyball – a legacy from his father, a natural athlete who had played basketball and tennis at the college level when he was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.
Mr. Redhill, who is on the shallow side of six feet, remembers playing volleyball against Mr. Coles at Banff. "He took an almost sinister pleasure," Mr. Redhill said, "in spiking the ball upon any writers cowering on the other side of the net. The look on his face when he did it – eyes wild, teeth bared in a huge smile – was also his expression when you broke him up laughing."
Donald (Don) Coles was born in Woodstock, Ont., on April 12, 1927, the second of four children of Alice and Jack Coles, a First World War veteran and the son of a local department store owner. Don, who was insulated from the worst ravages of the Depression, was slightly too young to be shipped overseas during the Second World War. Instead, he went to the University of Toronto in 1945, where he did an undergraduate degree in history and a master's in English, working under two hugely different but equally influential professors, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan.
After graduation, Mr. Coles went to Europe, studied at Cambridge, which would later become a sabbatical haven for him, and spent most of the 1950s studying, writing and working as a translator in Europe. He met his wife-to-be, Heidi Gölnitz, in Sweden, where she was working for a German firm. After they married in 1958 in her hometown of Lübeck, they continued to live a peripatetic European life, only moving to Toronto in 1965 when their daughter Sarah was three.
Mr. Coles reluctantly accepted a job offer from his contemporary, historian William Kilbourn, who was inaugural chair of humanities at York. Much to his surprise, Mr. Coles liked teaching, and happily settled in there until he retired in 1995, in his late 60s.
Mr. Coles leaves his wife, Heidi; grown children, Sarah and Luke; grandchild, Sawyer; siblings, John and Carolyn; and his extended family. A celebration of his life will be held on Sunday at 1 p.m at the Visitation Centre at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.