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D. G. Jones worked as a poet, translator, essayist, editor and professor. (Terence Byrnes)
D. G. Jones worked as a poet, translator, essayist, editor and professor. (Terence Byrnes)

Poet Douglas Gordon Jones helped art of translation flourish in Canada Add to ...

D. G. Jones was one of the great statesmen of Canadian poetry, who lived during the formative post-war years of Canadian literary nationalism.

A double winner of the Governor-General’s Award – first in 1977 for his collection Under the Thunder the Flowers Light up the Earth, and in 1993 for Categorics One, Two and Three, his translation of Normand de Bellefeuille’s Catégoriques un deux trois – Mr. Jones provided an example to his fellow writers of how to span Canada’s “two solitudes” with grace and ease. He did this not just as a poet and translator, but as an essayist, an editor (he co-founded Ellipse, a journal devoted to French and English translation) and as a professor (he helped to build the University of Sherbrooke’s program of Québécois comparative literature). All this at a time when the notion of bilingualism had not yet been put into practice, let alone become widely accepted as a guiding cultural principle.

“Doug Jones was one of the most significant Quebec poets to follow the generation of F.R. Scott and A.M. Klein and Anne Hébert,” says Michael Ondaatje, who was part of Mr. Jones’s extended family. “He always had one of the most precise and careful as well as suggestive poetic voices in the country. I suppose my favourite book of his was Under the Thunder the Flowers Light up the Earth. It was one of the best books we did at Coach House Press.” Like the painter, David Milne, who used the negative space of unpainted canvas to evoke snow-covered rocks, fields and hills, Mr. Jones combined nature imagery with the whiteness of the page – the space between words – to capture something elusive in the human condition. Such is the case in this excerpt from his poem The Stream Exposed with All Its Stones:

The stream exposed with all its stones

Flung on a raw field

Is covered, once again,

 

With snow.

 

It is not hidden. It

Still flows.

[…]

 

I tell you

Nakedness is a disguise: the white

Is dark below.

 

This silence is the water’s cry.

 

I tell you in those silent houses girls

Are dancing like the stones.

Mr. Jones will also be remembered for Butterfly on Rock, his brilliant critical study of myths of identity in Canadian literature. The book took its title from a poem by Irving Layton and played an important role in Margaret Atwood’s similarly themed work Survival. “Doug’s book was the only full-length study I knew of at the time,” Ms. Atwood says. “There were some articles, but no big book like that.”

Douglas Gordon Jones was born Jan. 1, 1929, in Bancroft, Ont., the oldest son of the former Arlene Ford, an affluent American with an artistic streak, and Gordon Jones, whose family owned a successful lumber and pulpwood business in the area. Tragic circumstances followed the Joneses: Doug’s brother Charles, aged 3, drowned in the nearby Trent River; his father, Gordon Jones, died when Doug was a young man; and Donald, the youngest, was killed some years later. A shy, extremely private man, Doug Jones rarely discussed these matters, but his poetry returned often to the formative landscape of his childhood.

Mr. Jones attended Lakefield College School. On weekend visits to Toronto to play sports against Upper Canada College and other schools, his roommate, Gordon Mills, introduced him to Betty Jane (Kim) Kimbark, the daughter of a wealthy Toronto industrialist. Friends at first, they grew closer by writing letters and became a couple against the wishes of Kim’s mother, who objected to “that boy from the bush.”

The young couple married in September, 1950, and moved to Montreal to study literature together at McGill University. In Montreal, Mr. Jones met writer Louis Dudek, who sparked his interest in modern American poetry, helped him publish his first poems in CIV/n and Contact, and introduced him to literary luminaries such as Irving Layton, F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith.

Degrees, itinerant teaching jobs and children followed in rapid succession: a BA (honours) from McGill in 1952; a master’s from Queen's in 1954 (Mr. Jones’s thesis focused on Ezra Pound’s poetry and translations); teaching assignments at Royal Military College in Kingston (1954–55) and the University of Guelph (1955–61); and four children: sons Stephen and Skyler, daughter Tory, and son North.

“He would read to us every night after dinner, or before bed,” Tory says. “I loved going on walks with him in nature. He loved that.”

“He was a curious mix of calm and intensity,” Stephen says. “Reading and meals were the social time, where we got to know our father. Otherwise he was immersed in his reading and writing, and his own world.”

Like Robert Frost, Mr. Jones wrote in the dead of night, often working until 4 or 5 a.m. “When he was into something, he didn’t seem to get tired. You never knew when you came down in the morning if Dad would be asleep or awake, but often, there he was, drinking coffee.”

Mr. Jones’s first book, Frost on the Sun, was published in 1957, and many of its poems reappeared in The Sun is Axeman in 1961. That same year, Mr. Jones took a position at Bishop’s University, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. In 1963, the University of Sherbrooke offered the budding poet and teacher a professorship. The family bought a house nearby in the picturesque lakeside village of North Hatley – an “Athens of the North,” in the words of local novelist Ron Sutherland, due to the presence of so many artists and intellectuals (F. R. Scott and Hugh MacLennan among them) who lived or summered there. Mr. Jones would continue to teach at the university until his retirement in 1994. He lived in the house on Houghton Street in North Hatley for the rest of his life.

During the early 1960s, the Joneses’ marriage disintegrated, and the couple divorced in 1964. Kim Jones married Michael Ondaatje, moved to the Kingston area and had two more children, Quintin and Griffin. Mr. Jones married Sheila Fischman in 1969. “Doug introduced me to translation,” says Ms. Fischman, who is recognized today as Canada’s greatest literary translator. “I didn’t know how to go about it. He encouraged me to translate something and that changed my life.”

After Ms. Fischman and he split, Mr. Jones married Monique Baril in 1976. His third and final wife became his muse, translator, proofreader and editor for the next 40 years. Relations between the families remained caring and cordial. “All the kids were close, regardless of father,” Kim says. “Doug is godfather to my daughter Quintin, with Michael. They called him Uncle Doug.”

“Dad was into tarot cards when I was a teen,” Tory says. “It was incredible what he could say, the insights he would have about a person through those cards. My dad taught me that.”

More books followed, including Phrases From Orpheus (1967), the landmark study Butterfly on Rock (1970) and Under the Thunder the Flowers Light up the Earth, which won the Governor-General’s award in 1977. “If Canadian poetry had a set of ‘first principles,’ Under the Thunder would be one of them,” says poet and critic Carmine Starnino, who edited Mr. Jones’s collected poems for Véhicule Press in 2010.

Over the next 20 years, Mr. Jones published another dozen books of his own work and translations of Quebec poets Paul-Marie Lapointe, Gaston Miron and Émile Martel (father of novelist Yann Martel). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1978), conferred an honourary doctorate by the University of Guelph (1982) and, in 2008, invested as an officer of the Order of Canada.

If Mr. Jones’s star faded in recent decades, it was largely because he suffered from emphysema. “He was a two-pack-a-day man,” Ms. Fischman says. “He couldn’t breathe,” said Satoshi Saito, an internationally renowned sculptor and lifelong friend. “Around 2000 I wanted him to go to Japan, and arranged for an invitation from the consulate. But Doug couldn’t make it. He worried about his health. We were all very sad.”

Mr. Jones had his demons, including a family life that at times was tumultuous, but the love and care of that same extended family helped him continue his work until his last days. “Monique took wonderful care of him,” Kim Ondaatje says. “It’s because of her that he lived so long.”

“He stopped publishing but I don’t think he stopped writing,” says poet and editor, Jim Johnstone. “He sent me a ton of new poems at the end. Along with the chapbook he published in the early 2000s, there might have been enough for a whole new book.” Several of these new poems will appear in The Essential D.G. Jones, to be published this fall by The Porcupine’s Quill.

Despite setbacks to his health, Mr. Jones continued to grow as an artist. In later years, he became “a prolific and passionate computer artist, generating compelling works that were a unique combination of his artistic vision and poetry,” his son Stephen says. The family is planning a retrospective of his computer art, to be held this summer in North Hatley.

Doug Jones leaves his wife, Monique Baril; children, Stephen Jones, Skyler Jones, Tory Chambers-Jones and North Jones; stepson, Nicolas Grandmangin; goddaughter, Quintin Ondaatje; Griffin Ondaatje; and 10 grandchildren.

Derek Webster is a Montreal-based writer and editor. Mockingbird, his first book of poems, was published in October.

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