Remembering D.G. Jones (1929-2016)

D. G. JONES DIED on March 6, 2016, at the age of 87. An influential literary critic and translator, he published over 12 books of poetry, including The Stream Exposed with All its Stones (2010). Jones won the Governor General's Award twice (for poetry in 1977 and for translation in 1993) and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008. Partisan asked poets, critics, and editors to share their thoughts on his passing.   

 D.G. Jones.

D.G. Jones.

1957 was a big year in Canadian letters: the Canada Council for the Arts was established, Jay Macpherson's The Boatman was published, Frye's Anatomy of Criticism came out, and D.G. Jones released his first collection, Frost on the Sun. Louis Dudek had been complaining for years that "les jeunes," the initiators of a new poetic movement ready to pick up where the forties poets had left off, were nowhere to be found. And then—bam! Jones and his mythopoeic compatriots arrived with fanfare and transformed Canadian poetics. Jones did it again with Butterfly on Rock, helping at once to coalesce Canadian myth criticism into a definable tradition and transform how we understand the shape of the Canadian imagination. For all this, and more, he will be greatly missed.  

When I think of D.G. Jones, I remember his generosity of spirit. Despite being ill, he was very involved in work on his PQL Essential (which is forthcoming this fall)—I have stacks of handwritten letters, artwork, and new poems that he sent to aid in the process. Moreover, he offered his friendship, despite my initial approach as a fan. In one of his last poems, "Suddenly", Jones writes of "a flock, a body, the birds / moving, moving the air, moving / the bank behind the house". The shift between the animate and inanimate, along with the economy of language, is characteristic of his late work, which is often surprising in its intensity. I thought of these lines when I'd heard he'd passed, imagining his poems being carried forward by readers who've yet to discover them.

One of the first books I ever read on Canadian literary criticism was D.G. Jones’ Butterfly on Rock. At the time, that book opened a thousand doors to ideas of place and identity for me. The influence was huge. Until then, I was mainly writing about the world of work, from inside that experience. Butterfly on Rock moved me to venture beyond that world and beyond the anecdotal in my poems. 

I recalled reading, and rereading, Under the Thunder the Flowers Light Up the Earth in the library of Loyalist Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Kingston, Ontario. I was a poetry-mad teenager, publishing poems in Quarry and reading all the CanLit I could find. I'm sure that the copy of the book, which had just won the Governor General's Award, was in my high school library thanks to Marie Lloyd, an inspiring English teacher. Recently, I've been writing what I call "punk haiku." I wouldn't have cited Jones as an influence on them and yet I was amazed to realize, on re-reading his work, that he very likely is—his mythopoesis, his fondness for three-line stanzas with adroit twists; nature and urbanity clashing and wooing. Nothing one reads is ever lost. 

One of the first books I ever read on Canadian literary criticism was D. G. Jones’ Butterfly on Rock. At the time, that book opened a thousand doors to ideas of place and identity for me. The influence was huge.

I first encountered D.G. Jones in a paperback Canadian poetry anthology that I found in Don Gorman’s old bookshop, Shakespeare’s Shelf, a long-gone place just off 17th Ave in Calgary. A quick flip hooked me with “Devil’s Paint Brush” and these lines: “They are suns / Burning in a spider’s space, / They are / Nipples by Matisse – One / White daisy.” Although infused with the typical Canadian imagism of that era, these lines answered the call from poets A. J. M. Smith and Raymond Souster for a fresh look at sexuality using forthright language. Later I learned about his translations and criticism and his great theme, “Let the wilderness in.” Jones’ distinguished career is the sort that results from passion and a lifetime’s devotion. His poems charmed me with their elegant simplicity, especially his sweet elegy “Soliloquy to Absent Friends,” where my own name turns up. Let your bed be poetry, and goodnight, Mr. Jones. 

You and I, and old Quixote, Micheline, 
And men and women whom we never knew, 
And others whom we shall never know, 
May find one bed together against the cold.

What to say of the dead? We sometimes feel they’ve left us mid-sentence. Unaware he’d passed away two days earlier, I sent D.G. Jones a long-overdue note. For weeks I’d felt an urgency to reconnect and for weeks, distracted, I let it slide. My news and questions for him now hang unanswered in the ether. What to say of someone with whom you corresponded, but never met? In my mind, he will remain “D.G.”, not Douglas or Doug. We were acquainted, though only just. Beyond losing out on a chance to know the person better, I’ve failed to know his work as well as I feel I should. What to say of the poet who, by his calling, leaves more than a trace of himself on the page? What words will serve? Perhaps the poet’s own are the very place to look—“They exist / Beyond your grief; they have their own / Quiet reality.” Over the coming weeks I’ll connect in the only way remaining—through D.G.’s poems, his words. And in their own quiet reality, I suspect I will find more than something to say in response: a glimpse of the man beyond the initials. 

The passing of D.G. Jones reminds me how promiscuous and faithless I can be as a reader. Luckily, at times, with a new edition or a new translation, or in this case sadly, with an obituary, I will be reminded and so rediscover with such great delight the poetry that’s part of me, but that I’ve forgotten about. So this week I went to reread Under the Thunder the Flowers Light up the Earth. That was not Jones’s first book, but it was the first one of his I read as a young poet, and I was enchanted by it. I never knew the man of “flowers in a pickle jar,” his poem about Milne might have been about himself; he was the poet of the sun as axman, of thunder as light, and “he went quietly / where islands curl up for the winter.”

“I want the bitten world and not / a garden of enduring flowers” In the picture he stands at the microphone, in profile, in repose, against a dark background, cigarette to his lips in his right hand, sheaf of paper before him in his left. Eyes cast down, fixed on words. A pause in the reading. Thirty odd years ago, in North Hatley, his place. Prime of life, still. Words yet to come. I choose to remember him so. I flip open his Collected and out slips the card that came with it: “May it in some small measure say ‘hearken’ for all the good things you’ve given one.” The good things are what he’s left us: the enduring flowers, and, yes, most especially, the bitten world. Doug, farewell.

What to say of the dead? We sometimes feel they’ve left us mid-sentence. Unaware he’d passed away two days earlier, I sent D.G. Jones a long-overdue note. For weeks I’d felt an urgency to reconnect and for weeks, distracted, I let it slide. My news and questions for him now hang unanswered in the ether.

D.G. Jones was a brilliant translator of difficult poetry, as brilliant as he was a poet. He is appreciated and he will be missed by generations of students and readers. It was D.G. Jones who introduced me to translation. I was newly arrived in Quebec and determined to become fluent in French. But I didn’t know how to go about it. He encouraged me to translate something and that changed my life. He suggested Anne Hébert’s great nouvelle, Le Torrent. I was not yet ready for that difficult text but a seed had been planted and I looked elsewhere. Eventually I found a writer whose prose was more suitable for me and eventually I found a publisher for my translation of Roch Carrier’s first novel, La Guerre, Yes Sir! I enjoyed the necessary research and the exploration of my own language and when I moved to Montréal from the small Eastern Townships village, North Hatley I began to translate Québécois fiction not as an exercise now, but as a career. I described and defined myself as a translator. Thanks to D.G. Jones.

The passing of Doug Jones is a double loss. His poetry offered pleasure and restless, brilliant innovation. His pioneering critical study, Butterfly on Rock, offered us the gift of a coherent view of Canadian literature. What honorable achievements: to clarify literary tradition and extend it in his own poetic practice. Two lines from “The Perishing Bird” come to mind: “What the heart once felt, / What the mind conceived.” 

D.G. Jones was responsible for two of Canada’s most distinctive poetry collection titles: A Throw of Particles and Under the Thunder the Flowers Light Up the Earth. Both were apt. The image of broadcast particles hints at how his poetry resides in discrete moments, in the illusion of spontaneous scatterings. Many of the poems have overriding arcs, yet they progress through the accumulation of fragments, patches, and glimpses; they’re open-windowed poems, recording humble perceptions in ways reminiscent of the ancient Chinese poets and thinkers beloved by Jones. The image of under-the-thunder flowers illuminating the planet (“earth” could mean both soil and Earth) combines the rhyming booms of “under” with the skipping rhythm of bright blossoms. Jones’s best work has gravity, yet carries itself lightly; it’s paced with great care, and moves unpredictably. No reader of poetry should pass up the opportunity to see, listen, think, and feel with Jones.

Doug Jones’ artful engagements with snow, water, wind, and sky do for Canadian poetry what David Milne, Paul-Emilie Borduas, and Jean-Paul Lemieux have done for our painting. Over more than fifty years and a dozen books, Jones meditated on negative space—how the white of the page, like snow, can represent a covered presence and its absence, a crow’s call and the surrounding silence; how storms on Lake Massawippi, the body he lived beside for decades, match something both alive and empty within ourselves.

Rereading Doug’s work over the past week, I’ve been struck both by how his language changed over the decades—especially in 1990s collections like The Floating Garden and Wild Asterisks in Cloud—and by how consistent his underlying vision remained. Silence, accident, humour, and love are intertwined in his work like the stems of a vine, flourishing widely but all leading back to the same place. The detritus of the world leaves an untidy residue in Doug’s poems, as he intended. It’s a brave aesthetic, in the end, one that has been overshadowed by tidier, more marketable, pre-fab styles (IKEA, anyone?). But I don’t think Doug saw it that way. That’s him, standing at the back of the room, “oddly overlooked” in rob mclennan’s nice phrase—no, he’s left the building, with a smile on his face, going for a walk in the brisk spring wind, collar upturned, dog in tow.

WHAT TO READ NEXT: “I often joke that the easiest way to confound an English-Canadian poet is to tell them there are major Canadian poets who don’t write in English.”