The typical setting for a poem by D. G. Jones, in 1953 or 1973, is some rural place in the Canadian Shield at that time of year when it is still winter but perhaps beginning to be spring. The difference between the 1953 poem and the 1973 poem lies in where the poet is situated. In the earlier poems Jones is the interpreter of the landscape. In the later ones he is part of the landscape. It is as difficult as that. To put it another way: during his early career he seemed faced with a dispute—shall he be "realistic" or "mythic"? Later he succeeded in discarding both poses, in favour of being actual. He learned to listen to his own body, the music it was (forced) to make in its environment, and there is the body of his later work, as beautifully trim as any we have heard in this country.
Jones has a reputation as an "intellectual" poet…. Certainly he has always distinguished himself from the majority of Canadian lyric poets writing in English, they who are satisfied to tell you how they are feeling right now about some occasional perception. Jones has always wanted to know that, plus: what does it mean…. [A] consecutive reading of his work reveals that he has always been looking for a world-view that would seem sensible given his perceptions and emotions. (p. 7)
Jones embodies the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon poet in a strange wintery land, the first morning outside Eden. For that was the European Eden, not so much a garden as a garrison, where the animals were paraded in front of you and you were allowed to name them and subject them to your use. The consistent development and improvement of Jones' writing has come about as the words seeped through the walls, as the man became resolved to living the rest of his life in his own wilderness, himself as explorer, with memories, maybe, of "home". (pp. 7-8)
[Frost on the Sun (1957)] exhibits the early lines of the conflict in Jones' poetics. In the introductory poem, "John Marin" … the poet announces that he wants to make poems as particular and interdependent as the rest of nature; that is, not poems about nature, but poems to take their place in nature…. So the poem begins with a smart identification of strophe with plant and bird, themselves difficult to separate:
Do poems too have backbones: stalks of syntax on which sway the dark red or blue images— a flock of red-wings swaying in the alders—….
Compare some lines written in 1970, where the urgency to fabricate metaphor has been overcome, and the poet simply submits to his own functioning in the place and poem:
I am led into the winter air by certain nameless twigs, as bare as we are. I would find them also in our mouths (pp. 8-9)
He gets observably more interesting as the forms assert themselves over the structures—in that way Jones became a most serious and worthwhile demonstration of the great leap forward in postwar Canadian literature.
There is a great deal of energy being exercised in that first book, so much being tried out, so much desire on the young poet's part to meet, perhaps, the cosmos, especially the portents in its immediate manifestations, birds, the sun, snow. Hoping to be equal to the real itself, Jones brings to the poetry-making act all the tricks of poem-writing. He is performing them—lay a Greek name on the landscape here, a simile there, a couplet beside that. But the poem, not the...
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poet, is made to live in that scene. (p. 9)
It is a curious (subjective?) thing that you can feel Jones' mind moving more than you can most poets', and thus you can feel the difference between the tangled lines that try to feed rime-schemes, and the others that attempt to re-enact perceptions. (pp. 9-10)
The centre of Jones' work tries to resolve the dialectic between … pessimism and that hope. The influence of Robert Frost can be guessed at here, and the worlds of the two poets are not all that far apart, vestiges of Puritan New England and U.E.L. Canada. The reader can't help noticing that in these early poems Jones views nature from and in his solitude…. The early loneliness outside of Eden is met by an earth, nature that endures, and Jones consistently shows it enduring despite men's depredations. (p. 10)
[The Sun Is Axeman] shows a desire on Jones' part to compose longer poems, to get beyond the lyric, and beyond the stasis imposed by presentation of a mind willing only to reflect upon a universe. (p. 11)
The English [influence], with the voice of Auden somehow heard along the line, seems to have produced two essentially "academic" features: the fact that so many poems work upon extended metaphors, and the pose of the detached sensibility…. Perhaps the best example of the detached and academic poem is "Antibes: Variations on a Theme", wherein abstract noun-phrases lie dead where one wants to find verbs or where the lyric with its unlikely verbs sags into reflection, a reflex of the cortex wanting to respect itself. Often the abundant similes are used to connect the natural scene with the Hellenic one in the teacher-poet's head, leaving in our museum a picture of the academic back home on the family farm.
The problem, of course, is Jones' decision to appear as observer, to keep himself hidden from any eyes looking back…. I think that Jones instinctively distrusted the mode but found that he had to punch his way out of its bag with its gloves on his hands. Moments of clarity and actuality are shared when he is not concerned with sustaining a metaphor or structure. (pp. 11-12)
One can't help feeling gratified to find that once again [in Phrases from Orpheus] the clear attention to voice as the base for form opens for the reader a clear vision of the materials and thought presented. A naked strophe takes its place in the field beside a sunlit rock. The particulars of the verse imitate human speech, and speech is nature, to advantage undressed if you like. I am suggesting that Jones' welcoming of life (his argument, what it means, etc.) depends upon the bright (candid) sharp profile of his line and stanza in these poems—I don't think that anyone could read them aloud and be confounded by the voice that is articulated. It is the clarity of Yeats, Pound, and Williams, the music of the human voice that makes the sun rise in the morning.
Part of the advance is made by the class of the language. Academic inversions and circumlocutions are dropped in favour of highly vocal exclamations that remind one of Williams—"What a ruckus!" Authentic personal slang finds its way in now, and brings the poems home, so that after the poet refers to a "two-bit creek," one feels with him "a new respect for / Metals, rare-earth, salt." But most of the advance is in the integrity of the syllable, line and stanza, particulars that respond to the rhythms of a voice, part feeling, and once into print, part ideogrammatic. (pp. 16-17)
[The] items of nature are no longer pathetic, but joined and celebrated. That change, as it involves the poet and his poems, is the source or energy of hope, or at least hope of reconciliation. The poems are still set in winter and before hovering spring, but now "We shall survive / And we shall walk / Somehow into summer." Somehow—there's resolution and qualification in that word. The earlier poet Jones was, with his detachment and brainy irony, an idealist, and a stoic. Now he is a stoic, but he says "I thought there were limits to this falling away, / This emptiness. I was wrong." His poetry is now a part of that process, not its opposite, not its dreamy redemption. Poems are not finite, but constantly metamorphose themselves. They are not signs of the poet's control over (his) nature; being inside nature, they are process…. (pp. 18-19)
As in his earlier poems, in [Phrases from Orpheus] Jones records many images of rural nature—seasons, weather, soil, growth. But now there are so many images of nature denuded, bare branch, stone, the great naked Canadian Shield that does not provide welcoming habitat for furze or figure of speech. Feelings, like signs of life, must be tenacious and carefully searched for, "deep in the silence / Which is continuous sound."
The image of nakedness has special emotional meaning for someone writing out of the Anglo puritan and academic backgrounds. It bespeaks strong and once-infibulated desire. But it is the way to join rather than observe the earth…. (p. 21)
Butterfly on Rock (1970) can tell us much of the place that Jones the poet has come to by the end of the sixties. At the same time as the book is the most convincing symbolic reading of our literature we have seen recently, it states in prose many of the principles the poet has come to as his own due to the Orphic voyage.
Paramount among these is the replacement of the ego. It once peered over the battlements of the stockade—now it is looking for an explorer's way across the uncharted continent….
It is not surprising … to note that the word "courage" has become as important to Jones as the word "candour" once was…. The emphasis is on heart and discovery, thus mortality—and such realization calls for its representation in the form of the verse. Jones' verse becomes, around this time, open and vocal, responsible and vulnerable to changes in the weather, exterior or interior. (p. 22)
The poems written since Phrases from Orpheus are songs of a man who is once again above ground and now at home there. The lines and stanzas are more thoroughly integral, fully used, than ever before, and they are shaped by the poet's full physical faculties, as inevitably authentic as the interreactions of wind and tree-stand.
The scenes are still generally winter, or the last days of winter, but now winter rimes with the rest of the year and not allegorically with poet's gloom:
The climate of the flesh is temperate here though we look out on a winter world (p. 23)
There are lots of people in these new poems. They are addressed in title and poem; they are simply in the world. The snow now has signs of people in it, their tracks that mess up a perfect quatrain and let us follow—who is to say that their steps are not ours as we put our feet into them? Jones is no longer the idealist. He is at home now. In fact the house has become a very important image. He is living there, with other people, no longer a spectre on the rise of the landscape. (p. 25)
At home in the flesh, at home in the land, at home in the number one, after all the enumeration in Eden and on the Ark has become only rumoured history. D. G. Jones is proof that there is a tradition of English-Canadian poetry, and that the tradition is going to be here. (p. 27)
George Bowering, "Coming Home to the World," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1975, pp. 7-27.