Looking back at Bancroft born poet D.G. Jones

·9 min read

As April is National Poetry Month, Bancroft This Week is taking a look at a poet who was born here on Jan. 1, 1929. His name was D.G. (Douglas Gordon) Jones. In addition to being a celebrated poet, he was also an acclaimed translator and educator. Friends and colleagues like professor Marc Andre Fortin, professor Patricia Godbout, poet, editor and teacher Steve Luxton, writer rob mclennan and filmmaker and translator Donald Winkler give their thoughts and insights on Jones, his literary work and his legacy.

Jones was born in Bancroft in 1929 and grew up here. His father Gordon ran one of the local lumber mills. Jones received his education at Lakefield College School, McGill University and Queen’s University. He was also a teacher, instructing students in English Literature at the Royal Military College, the University of Guelph, Bishop’s University and the Université de Sherbrooke. Jones not only taught at Sherbrooke but also started their comparative Canadian literature program.

Jones won many awards throughout his career, including two Governor General awards; one for poetry for his 1978 collection Under the Thunder the Flowers Light up the Earth and one for translation in 1993 for his rendition of Normand de Bellefeuille’s Categorics One, Two and Three. Jones cofounded bilingual literary journal Ellipse with Sheila Fischman in 1969, which to this day is the only literary periodical in Canada that gives reciprocal translations of both English and French-Canadian poetry. His poetry publications span nearly 60 years, and a dozen volumes, the last being The Essential D.G. Jones (2016). He also published a book of literary criticism in 1970 called Butterfly on Rock: A Study of Themes and Images in Canadian Literature, and translated numerous works by writers like Paul Marie Lapointe, Normand de Bellefeuille, Gaston Miron and Emile Martel.

Jones passed away from pneumonia on March 6, 2016 in North Hatley, Quebec. He is survived by his third wife Monique, his four children Stephen, Skyler, Tory and North, his stepson Nicolas and his ten grandchildren.

Godbout and Fortin, both professors at the Université de Sherbrooke, knew Jones personally and professionally. Godbout met Jones when she came to study for her M.A. at Université de Sherbrooke in 1983, and Jones was a professor there. She says he was very welcoming and supportive of her, offered her a role at Ellipse and was the one who decided she’d be a literary translator.

“So, he was very good in that way, very welcoming and making you feel like you were part of something, but in a low-key way,” she says.

Fortin met Jones in 2012, and was introduced to him by Godbout. After visiting his house in North Hatley a few times, Fortin and Godbout asked him if he’d be interested in handing over his substantial archives, which he was. Jones also ended up donating his extensive library to the Université of Sherbrooke. According to Fortin, the latter contained about 1,600 volumes, many of them first editions signed by their authors.

Fortin enjoyed the times he’d sit with Jones and discuss Canadian literature, while sharing a glass of whiskey.

“He was still very interested in what was happening in Canadian literature and we’d talk about all the developments; who was publishing, the poems themselves and he’d ask if I knew of anyone he’d not heard of and things like that,” he says.

In addition to his passion for Canadian literature, Fortin says he was also fascinated by birds, which would show up in his poems a lot.

“We’d sit at his kitchen table, the bird feeder right outside, and he would name every single bird that came in and all the migratory birds. You could really tell a love for nature that continued. So, it was very pleasant, a very peaceful experience just chatting with him,” he says.

Fortin reveals that Jones had a cottage on Paudash Lake, called Keewaydin, which he sold in the 1970s. It became a mecca for many writers and poets over the years, including Michael Ondaatje, F.R. Scott and Louis Dudek among others. Fortin calls the 1950s a very formative time in Canadian literature, and Keewaydin played a key role in that. In 1954, Keewaydin hosted a poetry festival that ultimately begat the 1955 Writers’ Conference at Queens’ University in Kingston.

“So, there was a very historic connection between Bancroft and this writers’ conference and the creation of Canadian literature programs in universities across Canada,” he says.

Godbout also credits that 1955 writers’ conference with increasing Jones’ sense of being a poet and of being part of something.

“He was very young, in his 20s, and already he was part of something. So, it helped him to decide he was going to be a poet. It’s not that popular a choice, so it is as if he established that for himself,” she says.

From Jones’ archives, which contained personal letters and letters from literary colleagues, Fortin says that he was generous with this time and energy helping younger poets and writers.

“He just kind of showed a caring kindness to getting writers to really promote themselves and to work on their art. It’s in those letters the network that formed in that very formative time of Canadian literature that you can really see him as a pivotal figure,” he says.

Keewaydin and Bancroft had a special place in Jones’ heart, according to Fortin.

“When we’d collected his archives and library, he asked us for one poem he’d written early on in his career that was about his early life in Bancroft and he wanted to make sure it was in the archive,” he says.

That poem was called ‘Sequence of Night,’ and was originally published in the Tamarack Review in 1983.

Godbout and Fortin reveal their favourite works written by Jones. Fortin says that instead of a favourite poem, he found the breadth of Jones’ poetry interesting.

“It looked at such a wide area of thought around issues like science, philosophy and esoteric or even ancient forms of being. It really comes across in his poetry. I was surprised to find he wasn’t just a nature poet, which a lot of people look at Jones as, but he was very interested in science and different epistemologies,” he says.

Godbout says she really liked Jones’ poem “A Portrait of Anne Hebert” which was a poem about Quebecois writer Anne Hebert. She finds it interesting because it was written after he met her at a writers’ conference in Quebec in 1958.

“At that event, Hebert was part of it and she came into the room and spoke. The way he talks about her, her gait, and the connection he makes with her writing is very, very, to the point, especially if you know her work. It’s a perfect portrayal and a very good poem,” she says.

Luxton knew Jones from 1976, when he moved to eastern Quebec after getting a teaching job at Champlain College in Lennoxville, near Sherbrooke.

“Being a young, aspiring poet, I got to know other writers in the region, some fresh to the craft like myself and also others much more experienced. Each November, a reading entitled The Seventh Moon was held in an elegant North Hatley hotel [Hovey Manor]. I first heard Doug read there and then in the next year or two, happily joined him on stage. Thus, we got to know each other,” he says.

The Seventh Moon event was created by Jones and writer Ronald Sutherland in 1975, linking French and English-speaking poets in Quebec with a shared passion for their craft.

Of Jones’ work, Luxton says he was impressed by his deft choice of words and exquisite images, especially when dealing with nature. He thought that Jones’ poems and the observations in them had a gleaming fragility, like sunlight or moonlight on spiderwebs. He goes on to say that Jones was taken by and wrote poems about painters like David Milne who presented subjects suggestively and elliptically. According to Luxton, his wife, prize winning haiku poet Angela Leuck loves Jones’ work.

Jones’ poems that Luxton makes special note of are “Kate These Flowers” (The Lampman Poems) sections five, six, seven and eight from Under the Thunder the Flowers Light up the Earth (1977), “A Little Night Music” from Balthazar and Other Poems (1988) and “White Shadows” from Grounding Sight (1999).

“Doug, whether he had a Scottish background or not, I don’t know, was canny and wry, but warm. One time in a tavern, the Golden Lion in Lennoxville, I was telling him that just having returned from graduate school in the U.S. how outgoing Americans were and how socially reserved I now found Canadians. He chuckled fondly at any notion I had of drawing them out very quickly. As a proponent of less being more, and silence being more eloquent than noise, I think he will be a writer who is repeatedly, delightfully rediscovered and recommended among poetry readers,” he says.

mclennan thought that Jones was a quiet and thoughtful poet who seemed to absorb more than he let on.

“[Thus] allowing his poems to speak across the length and breadth of his attention. Who else could have brought I such a range of seemingly jumbled references or thoughts, especially in pristine order? I loved his cadences, watching his rhythms bounce slowly down the length of each page. The calm of his lines showed a steady hand and a quick wit,” he says.

Whenever mclennan reads Jones’ work, even a short note he’d receive in the mail from him, he was always sparked to write something in response. According to mclellan more than a couple of his projects were deeply influenced by Jones, most notably his poetry collection paper hotel from 2002.

“Perhaps I should go back to one of his books on my shelf and see what else he might have to teach me, something I may just have missed. There is so much packed into the safety and possession of his short lines. One can never catch everything,” he says.

Winkler recalls that he met Jones through his wife, translator Fischman, who had previously been married to Jones in 1969 and for a few years after and lived in North Hatley, Quebec.

“He had encouraged her to begin translating literature, and the two of them had founded the translation literary review Ellipse, which made a huge contribution to the communication between Quebec and English Canadian literature, poetry in particular,” he says.

According to Winkler, what he admired in Jones’ poetry was his feeling for Canadian nature, fostered in his youth, and his rendering of it, which he characterized as precise, concrete, pithy and in no sense sentimental.

“His devotion to his craft was impressive, and although I was never his student, I know he was a rigorous, compassionate, demanding and inspiring teacher. I contributed to an anthology of Quebec poetry in translation that he edited, and in that enterprise, he was as rigorous and understanding as in all his other undertakings,” he says. “And his book Butterfly on Rock: A Study of Themes and Images in Canadian Literature (1970) remains a classic of Canadian literary criticism.”

Michael Riley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Bancroft Times