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By 1973, George Jonas already had his trademark tinted glasses. (Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail)
By 1973, George Jonas already had his trademark tinted glasses. (Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail)

Margaret Atwood on George Jonas: The happy hungry man Add to ...

This essay is the introduction to George Jonas’s posthumous Selected Poems: 1967-2011, which is in bookstores now.

George Jonas – acerbic journalist, libertarian political commentator, mordant crime writer, risk-taking radio and television producer, forger of witty epigrams, erudite multilingual reader, motorcycle enthusiast, indiscreet raconteur, wearer of black leather garments, loyal friend to his friends, loyal annoyance to his enemies – this George Jonas, who has worn many guises and played many parts, began, in my own life, as a poet.

This was in the Sixties. Faced with the plummeting of reliable sales of Hamlet as high schools moved away from the set curriculum, Jack McClelland of McClelland & Stewart had begun his policy of aggressively publishing Canadian authors. Meanwhile, younger writers – most but not all of them poets – were sensing a dearth of opportunity for their literary works, and were forming new companies: Coach House Press, Talonbooks, and House of Anansi among them.

Anansi put out its initial list in 1967. Among its titles were a reprinting of my own first book, The Circle Game, and George Jonas’s first collection, The Absolute Smile. So I knew George in the way poets knew one another then: We published in the same small literary magazines, we collected in the whirls and eddies around the public poetry readings that had sprung up here and there, we helped edit one another’s books, and we read one another avidly: a new poetry collection was an event among us.

I seem to have known George by letter even before I met him in person. (We wrote paper letters then, depositing them in mailboxes, with stamps on the envelopes.) The contact was made through Dennis Lee, a mutual friend and poet and soon to be the co-founder of Anansi. It was George who suggested that I submit work to Kayak, a poetry journal operating out of Santa Barbara, not then the upscale address it has become. Sure enough, there is Kayak, listed on the Acknowledgements pages of each of our books.

Then I myself got sucked into the vortex of Anansi, becoming at first an unofficial poetry editor, then an official one as well as a board member.

And so it was that I met George. It must have been around 1969; miniskirts were still with us. George was already sporting the tinted glasses that remained his trademark; he was smoking some recherché kind of cigarette; he had a thin tie, being, not then and not ever, a person who went in for hippie deshabille. What an elegant figure he cut! He would have been right at home in the fin de siècle of Whistler and Wilde, in the 18th century of Pope and Swift, and possibly among the steampunkers of today. But not, for instance, among the romantics of the Keatsean variety: not for him the dreaminess, the open shirt, the windblown cravat. His excesses were of a different kind. Byron would be a fitter comparison: the combination of world-weariness, edged quips, and dollops of here-today gone-tomorrow sex, plus the odd tender love lyric – that was closer to the Jonas style. Some years later, George was on a writerly junket in the Northwest, and was boarding a plane; one of the writers commented of his fellow passengers that these were not the people he would choose to die among. Came the Jonas drawl: “When it comes to dying, it doesn’t much matter who you do it with.”

George was not exactly of his time, or rather the time in which I met him. He was older than my cohort of young poets, having been born in 1935, as opposed to our 1939, 1940, and 1941. He was extra-sophisticated: Not only was he European, with the advantage that conferred in those days before “Eurotrash” had become a term, but he had escaped from Hungary during the 1956 uprising – an uprising that had occurred while I was still in high school, and that had made a deep impression on me. How daring! Such an escape granted him extra points, and the right to be amused by the naiveté of innocent Canadians like myself. I was later to meet other members of the Hungarian diaspora who had made it to Canada and distinguished themselves in the arts – Anna Porter, née Szigethy, who became a publisher of mine; John Kemeny, film producer; George Kaczender, film director – but George Jonas was my first. They all knew one another, and shared a certain kind of knowledge, and a certain kind of darkness.

So there was I, a naive, miniskirted Canadian, and there was George, amused. George was later to commission a teleplay by me. That was in the early 1970s. The play was called Grace Marks, and was the story of the double murder that took place in Richmond Hill in the 1840s described by Susanna Moodie in her second book, Roughing It in the Bush. This play would lead to my 1996 novel, Alias Grace. But none of this was known to us while George and I sat at an outdoor café on – as I recall – St. Clair Avenue.

At that moment I was somehow supposed to be editing George’s second book of poetry, The Happy Hungry Man. I recognize the jacket copy I wrote for the back of the book: I was a dab hand at writing jacket copy in those days. “Jonas interrogates a contemporary life,” I wrote. “What is real when a man has food and hence no belief in food? When he has shelter and hence cannot pursue it? … what is at stake in his recent poetry is our lives.”

Not bad, as jacket copy. But I don’t recall that I did much actual editing. George’s work was already finished. In fact, it was already polished. I may have suggested something about the order of the poems, which form a quasi-autobiographical sequence (think Byron’s Don Juan). But that was about all I did.

How fresh these early poems seem today! Direct, formally accomplished, restless, incisive; conscious of death and history and of the meaninglessness of much human activity, but conscious also of fleeting moments of pleasure, and not immune to love. These poems are devoid of self-pity even when they speak of it. Jonas spares no one and nothing, but especially not himself.

Wearing a braided tie,

Cheerful most of the day,

I write poems as I

Have almost nothing to say,

Jonas quips of himself in his poet persona. Those of us who have read his poems over the years – not to mention his other writing – don’t believe him, however. He has had a great deal to say. And he has said it, always excellently.

This essay is the introduction to George Jonas’s posthumous Selected Poems: 1967-2011, which is in bookstores now.

Copyright © 2015 O.W. Toad Ltd., From Selected Poems: 1967-2011, George Jonas, published by Cormorant Books Inc., Toronto. Used with the permission of the publisher.

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