The old black-and-white photograph on the cover of The Names of Things, David Helwig’s 2006 memoir, shows the bearded, bespectacled poet and author standing inside the skeleton of a house under construction. He’s youthful, lean and sinewy, clad in a tight T-shirt, a measuring tape hooked into a pocket of his boot-cut jeans, his right hand gripping a mallet.
That image deftly sums up Mr. Helwig’s reputation in the world of Canadian literature. A son of the working class, he was the journeyman, the craftsman, the highly skilled, hugely prolific jack-of-all-trades. Seemingly unacquainted with writer’s block, he could easily turn from composing a delicate poem or constructing an ingenious novel to furnishing a dramatic script for the CBC, editing a short-story anthology or translating some Chekhov. He wrote for newspapers and magazines, provided radio commentaries and, in latter days, became an online columnist, too.
“He had extraordinary discipline,” said his daughter Reverend Maggie Helwig, an Anglican priest and author herself. “Every day he got up and wrote. And as soon as he finished a book, he would start the next one.”
“He was a person with a lot of forward energy,” added his wife, Judy Gaudet. “He loved the challenge of hustling his work.”
Mr. Helwig, who died on Oct. 16 of cancer at the age of 80 on Prince Edward Island, published close to 50 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction over a 50-year career. Along the way he saw his share of accolades, which included serving as PEI’s poet laureate, winning the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Matt Cohen Prize for lifetime achievement and being named a member of the Order of Canada. His friends and contemporaries were a Who’s Who of Canadian literary and cultural heavyweights, from Margaret Laurence and Michael Ondaatje to Timothy Findley and John Hirsch. Yet, Mr. Helwig himself never sought the spotlight and remained under-appreciated, one of CanLit’s best-kept secrets.
Poet Ingrid Ruthig, who edited a collection of essays on Mr. Helwig’s work, published this fall by Guernica Editions, believes he was disinclined to bang his own drum. “It seems to me he simply wanted to get on with the work – to create – and spent most of his time doing just that.”
Born on April 5, 1938, in Toronto, David Gordon Helwig was the only son of William, a carpenter, and Ivy Helwig, a bookkeeper. After spending his early years in Toronto and Hamilton, he moved at the age of 10 to Niagara-on-the-Lake – then a sleepy backwater – where his parents had bought a furniture repair business. As the Helwigs struggled to get by, their intellectually inquisitive son was discovering literature in high school. He recalled reading War and Peace and other classics on the long bus ride to school. By the time he was 17, he wrote in his memoir, he was determined to live the life of a writer.
He won a scholarship to study at the University of Toronto, where he excelled. His lifelong friend, the concert pianist William Aide, met him there, while taking a course on the modern novel. “David was the star of that class,” Mr. Aide recalled. “I remember he delivered a paper, that he’d written the night before, on Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which I found revelatory.” His interests weren’t exclusively literary. He also dabbled in music and theatre, writing the libretto and lyrics for a folk opera, Katy Cruel, and spending the summers helping to run the Straw Hat Players in Peterborough, Ont., where his associates included the actor-turned-novelist Mr. Findley and William B. Davis, later of The X-Files. Another actor in the troupe was Nancy Keeling, also a U of T student. She and Mr. Helwig married prior to graduating in 1960.
That year, Mr. Helwig won another scholarship to study at the University of Liverpool. The couple moved to England, where their first daughter, Maggie, was born. They returned home in 1962 when Mr. Helwig was offered a teaching job at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
It was in Kingston that Mr. Helwig began his writing career. His first book, the poetry collection Figures in a Landscape, appeared in 1968, followed a year later by a collection of stories, The Streets of Summer. Both were published by Ottawa’s Oberon Press, the beginning of a long relationship that also saw him edit Oberon’s annual Best Canadian Stories and Coming Attractions anthologies, the latter a showcase for unpublished talent.
“He launched so many careers,” said Maggie Helwig, who co-edited Coming Attractions with him. “He was brilliant at finding young writers with promise and helping them get on their feet.”
While in Kingston, Mr. Helwig also ran a reading group at Collins Bay Penitentiary and helped a former inmate write a book about prison life. He took a break from teaching in 1974, when legendary director John Hirsch, then heading up CBC Television’s drama department, hired him as a literary manager. After two tempestuous seasons under the mercurial Mr. Hirsch, he returned to Queen’s in 1976 to teach part-time. But in 1980, he quit to embark on a full-time career as a freelance writer.
Another lifelong friend, the journalist and author David Lewis Stein, said Mr. Helwig’s decision to abandon the safety net of a steady income was heroic: “He became one of the very few people to live entirely as a writer. It required a measure of quiet courage. Many of us dreamed of living as writers but we retreated to steady employment. David stayed the course.”
By the mid-1980s, he made a commercial breakthrough when Viking Penguin began publishing his novels, starting with The Bishop. He taught himself Russian in order to translate a book of Chekhov’s stories. All the time, he continued with the least profitable but most soul-satisfying of literary pursuits – writing poetry.
“My persuasion is that David was one of our major poets,” Mr. Aide said, although not a fashionable one in his day. Mr. Helwig professed to be bored with free verse and preferred the discipline of formal structures and rhyme. “He was inexhaustible in creating his own structures,” Mr. Aide said.
His preferences may have reflected his innate musicality. A bass baritone who had once considered a career as a professional singer, Mr. Helwig possessed a rich voice that belied his slight appearance. As a child, Maggie Helwig vividly remembers him striding up and down their house, reciting John Donne’s seventh Holy Sonnet in his magnificent tones. “Then, when he was finished, he declared, ‘Now that’s poetry!’ ”
During his time in Kingston, Mr. Helwig’s marriage started to fall apart and he and Nancy separated permanently in 1992. He moved first to Montreal and then, in 1996, to Prince Edward Island, having reconnected with Ms. Gaudet, a PEI native whom he’d first met as a graduate student at Queen’s.
The couple settled in the village of Eldon and Mr. Helwig entered a new phase, writing his 12-poem cycle The Year One – winner of the 2004 Atlantic Poetry Award – and a string of accomplished novellas, including his Nabokovian tour de force The Stand-In. The latter, considered by many to be his finest work of fiction, takes the form of three lectures delivered by a professor hired at the last minute to replace a mysteriously deceased rival. Douglas Glover, reviewing it in Canadian Notes & Queries, called it a work of “ferocious intelligence” that is “gorgeous, seductive, compelling and liberating.”
PEI embraced the Ontarian expatriate, making him its poet laureate for 2008-09, while he in turn was active in its cultural community, singing in the local choir and chairing the board of the symphony orchestra. Having raised daughters Maggie and Kate (a conservation scientist), he became stepfather to three more girls, Ms. Gaudet’s children.
Maggie Helwig said he was an always-present father who treated his children seriously and stimulated their intelligence: “I had an education from him that school could never even approach.” His stepdaughter Mary Gaudet, now a medical doctor, wrote that Mr. Helwig “inspired me to look closely, think deeply and calmly persist. He made a house filled with love.”
And he never stopped writing. Although beset by illnesses that slowed him down in his final year, he never lost what he called in his memoirs the “urgent desire” to describe and “create the world.”
He left behind a wide-ranging body of work marked by his intelligence and compassion. “He represents a touchstone in our national literature,” Ms. Ruthig said. “On the edge of the spotlight, but solidly there.”
Mr. Helwig leaves his wife, Judy Gaudet, his daughters Maggie and Kate Helwig and their mother, Nancy Helwig; as well as grandchildren Simone Helwig and Émile and Pascal Royer; and step-daughters Mary, Caitlin and Christina Gaudet.