Fine

June 28, 2009

I hadn’t heard of Don Coles till a week and a half ago, but I’m very very happy I did (which is often what happens to me with Canadian poets). His A Dropped Glove in Regent Street: An Autobiography by Other Means came across my desk, and I liked the looks of it. Luckily, having just bought a house, my local library had it, so I don’t have to buy it. Quite yet. I’m sure I’ll want a reread before too long, and then I will.

The word that comes to my mind about the book is “fine”. Finely detailed, finely crafted. And yet warm and rich.

It is an autobiography by other means…it includes memoir, but also includes some of his book reviews, and thoughts on literary biography and translations. Incredibly intelligent without being harshly ‘clever’ (I need earnest-ness in books, especially ones like this), Coles’ voice is conversational and thoughtful.

The book also shows his poet’s attention to the details of the language, both in what he notices in what he writes about, and in his own writing: “having arrived in this unpremeditated country” is just one example that struck me.

And his knowledge is encyclopedic, offering many wonderful literary quotations:

“The written word loses its power if it departs too far…from the ordinary world where two and two make four.”  George Orwell.

“When you are old you have to stay in the shade, however witty you are.” Italo Svevo (a friend of Joyce.)

“The poet is a metaphysician who actively engages with nature, who goes out of himself, who hunts down the otherness of being.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This, from Darwin, on his wife, Emma: “She has been my greatest blessing, and I can declare that in my whole life I have never heard her utter one word which I would rather had been unsaid. I do not believe she has ever missed an opportunity of doing a kind action to anyone near her.” (How wonderful!)

And one I’m particularly drawn to at the moment, having finished reorganizing my library and having bought a house. William Morris, the designer, “once asked himself the rhetorical question, what did he consider the thing most to be longed for. His immediate reply was ‘a beautiful House’, and he continued, ‘and if I were further asked to name the thing next to be longed for, I should answer, a beautiful Book.'”

Here’s what Coles says is his aim:

“What I mean to do…is this: I mean to show how an individual’s growth – whatever we call that myriad of felt, seldom-documented experiences that, beginning in earliest childhood, forms itself in him or her – can, if actively pursued and cultivated, lead to a relatively consistent series of attitudes and judgments, of values ‘aesthetic’ in nature but also operative politically, socially, in one’s public life as well as one’s kept-to-oneself thoughts.

“Well, no, that’s not what I mean to show. Really not. Too diffuse, too unhorizoned. That way lies madness, lies an endless and Byzantine discourse, lies Matthew Arnold. I have a more modest chase in view. Namely or chiefly: myself.”

I hope Coles found himself. He’s certainly there, in this book, for us to find, as well as all the writers and artists he writes of. It does my mind and my soul good to know that there are still people and ideas like this, where experience and language and thought are valued. To quote him, “my heart bends a little when I think of it.”

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One Response to “Fine”

  1. daughterofben said

    In addition to owning/building a beautiful house, William Morris is himself a fascinating man. (An art prof. had us do a study on his company, and now I get irrationally excited whenever I see his name).

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