Souster, (Holmes) Raymond
SOUSTER, (Holmes) Raymond
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Toronto, Ontario, 15 January 1921. Education: University of Toronto Schools; Humberside Collegiate Institute, Toronto, 1938–39. Military Service: Royal Canadian Air Force, 1941–45. Family: Married Rosalia Lena Geralde in 1947. Career: Staff member, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Toronto, 1939–84; poet-in-residence, University College, University of Toronto, 1984–85. Editor, Direction, Sydney, Nova Scotia, 1943–46; co-editor, Contact, Toronto, 1952–54; editor, Combustion, Toronto, 1957–60. Chair, League of Canadian Poets, 1968–72. Awards: Governor-General's award, 1964; President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, 1967; Centennial Medal, 1967; Silver Jubilee Medal, 1977; City of Toronto Book award, 1979; officer, Order of Canada, 1995. Address: 39 Baby Point Road, Toronto, Ontario M6S 2G2, Canada.
Unit of Five, with others edited by Ronald Hambleton. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1944.
When We Are Young. Montreal, First Statement Press, 1946.
Go to Sleep, World. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1947.
City Hall Street. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1951.
Cerberus, with Louis Dudek and Irving Layton. Toronto, Contact Press, 1952.
Shake Hands with the Hangman: Poems 1940–1952. Toronto, Contact Press, 1953.
A Dream That Is Dying. Toronto, Contact Press, 1954.
Walking Death. Toronto, Contact Press, 1954.
For What Time Slays. Toronto, Contact Press, 1955.
Selected Poems, edited by Louis Dudek. Toronto, Contact Press, 1956.
Crêpe-Hanger's Carnival: Selected Poems 1955–58. Toronto, Contact Press, 1958.
Place of Meeting: Poems 1958–1960. Toronto, Gallery Editions, 1962.
A Local Pride. Toronto, Contact Press, 1962.
12 New Poems. Lanham, Maryland, Goosetree Press, 1964.
The Colour of the Times: The Collected Poems of Raymond Souster. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1964.
Ten Elephants on Yonge Street. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1965.
As Is. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1967.
Lost and Found: Uncollected Poems. Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1968.
So Far So Good: Poems 1938–1968. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1969.
The Years. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1971.
Selected Poems, edited by Michael Macklem. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1972.
Change-Up: New Poems. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1974.
Double-Header. Ottawa, Oberon Press, and London, Dobson, 1975.
Rain-Check. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1975; London, Dobson, 1976.
Extra Innings. Ottawa, Oberon Press, and London, Dobson, 1977.
Hanging In: New Poems. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1979.
Collected Poems 1940–1993. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 8 vols., 1980–99.
Going the Distance: New Poems 1979–1982. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1983.
Jubilee of Death: The Raid on Dieppe. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1984.
Queen City, photographs by Bill Brooks. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1984.
Flight of the Roller Coaster (for children). Ottawa, Oberon, 1985.
Into This Dark Earth, with James Deahl. Toronto, Unfinished Monument Press, 1985.
It Takes All Kinds. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1986.
The Eyes of Love. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1987.
Asking for More. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1988.
Running out the Clock. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1991.
Riding the Long Black Horse. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1993.
Old Bank Notes. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1993.
No Sad Songs Wanted Here. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1995.
Close to Home. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1996.
Of Time & Toronto. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 2000.
Recording: Raymond Souster, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1971.
The Winter of Time (as Raymond Holmes). Toronto, Export, 1949.
On Target (as John Holmes). Toronto, Village Book Store Press, 1973
From Hell to Breakfast, with Douglas Alcorn. Toronto, Intruder Press, 1980.
Editor, Poets 56: Ten Younger English-Canadians. Toronto, Contact Press, 1956.
Editor, Experiment: Poems 1923–1929, by W.W.E. Ross. Toronto, Contact Press, 1958.
Editor, New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry. Toronto, Contact Press, 1966.
Editor, with John Robert Colombo, Shapes and Sounds: Poems of W.W.E. Ross. Toronto, Longman, 1968.
Editor, with Douglas Lochhead, Made in Canada: New Poems of the Seventies. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1970.
Editor, with Richard Woollatt, Generation Now (textbook). Toronto, Longman, 1970.
Editor, with Richard Woollatt, Sights and Sounds (textbook). Toronto, Macmillan, 1973.
Editor, with Douglas Lochhead, 100 Poems of Nineteenth Century Canada (textbook). Toronto, Macmillan, 1974.
Editor, with Richard Woollatt, These Loved, These Hated Lands (textbook). Toronto, Doubleday, 1975.
Editor, Vapour and Blue: The Poetry of William Wilfred Campbell. Sutton West, Ontario, Paget Press, 1978.
Editor, Comfort of the Fields: The Best Known Poems of Archibald Lampman. Sutton West, Ontario, Paget Press, 1979.
Editor, with Richard Woollatt, Poems of a Snow-Eyed Country. DonMills, Ontario, Academic Press, 1980.
Editor, Powassan's Drum: Selected Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott. Ottawa, Tecumseh Press, 1985.
Editor, with Douglas Lochhead, Windflower: The Selected Poems of Bliss Carman. Ottawa, Tecumseh Press, 1985.
Editor, An Acadian Easter: The Collected Poems of Francis Sherman. Ottawa, Borealis Press, 1999.*
Bibliography: Raymond Souster: A Descriptive Bibliography by Bruce Whiteman, Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1984.
Manuscript Collections: Rare Book Room, University of Toronto Library; McLellan Library, McGill University, Montreal; Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Critical Studies: "Groundhog among the Stars" by Louis Dudek, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), autumn 1964; "To Souster from Vermont" by Hayden Carruth, in Tamarack Review (Toronto), winter 1965; introduction by Michael Macklem to Selected Poems, 1972; From There to Here, Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 1974, and Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster, Vancouver, Douglas and McIntyre, 1980, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1981, both by Frank Davey; "Raymond Souster: The Quiet Chronicler" by Bruce Meyer and Brian O'Riordan, in Waves (Richmond Hill, Ontario), 11(4), spring 1983; "Baseball and the Canadian Imagination" by George Bowering, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver, British Columbia), 108, spring 1986; The Place of American Poets in the Development of Irving Layton, Louis Dudek and Raymound Souster (dissertation) by Sabrina Lee Reed, N.p., 1989; by Bruce Whiteman, in ECW's Biographical Guide to Canadian Poets, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, Toronto, ECW, 1993.
Raymond Souster comments:
Whoever I write to, I want to make the substance of the poems so immediate, so real, so clear, that the reader feels the same exhilaration—be it fear or joy—that I derived from the experience, object, or mood that triggered the poem in the first place …. I like to think I am"talking out" my poems rather than consciously dressing them up in the trappings of the academic school. For many years I held to the theory that all poetry must be written out of a sudden spontaneous impulse in which the poet is unbearably moved to write down the words of that vision. Now I am more inclined to echo the view of Guiseppe Ungaretti when he says, "Between one flower gathered and the other given, the inexpressible Null."* * *
Raymond Souster's poetic career has spanned five decades, and his Collected Poems comprise six volumes. Souster's early work is his best known, and the pieces most often found in anthologies date from the 1940s and 1950s. These are short lyrics, usually set in the city of Toronto, which nostalgically recall scenes of childhood or empathetically depict the solitary misfits who inhabit the city streets. Souster's later work, employing documentary material in longer forms, is less well known.
A strong documentary impulse runs throughout Souster's work. He articulates his view of the poet's role in "Poems Are Happening":
Poems are happening all around us,
but we don't see them,
or else can't hear them.
That's perhaps why they have to wave
and cry out like fools
until the poet comes along.
Throughout his writing career Souster has made it his task to record the overlooked poetic moments of everyday life. He makes poetry of his immediate environment, and since he has lived all his life in Toronto, this city is the setting for much of his work. Many poems evoke specific details of the city's landscape—streets, buildings, parks, landmarks. In a sense the body of Souster's lyric verse can be read as a documentary of Toronto and of the changes the city has undergone during his life.
Souster's lyrics can be roughly divided into the personal and the social. The personal lyrics explore a variety of themes; there are love poems and poems for friends and celebrations of the simple pleasures of life, such as jazz and baseball. The most distinctively characteristic of Souster's personal poems are those evoking the past, especially his own childhood, seeking in memories of a simpler, more innocent past "a lost but recovered joy" ("Yonge Street Saturday Night"). Like many modernist poets, Souster frequently expresses despair at the materialism and spiritual aridity of the modern world, and the nostalgic tone that marks much of his work reflects a desire to escape the painful realities of contemporary life: "the world, like us, / is tired, very tired of reality, / seeks to hide from it every chance it gets" ("Sunday Night Walk"). Reality, however, is ultimately inescapable, the past irrecoverable. Some solace is offered by the natural world, which Souster frequently celebrates in imagist lyrics. The nature he portrays is what survives in the modern urban environment—garden flowers and trees, birds, city animals such as squirrels, raccoons, and domestic cats, of which he seems particularly fond. He frequently juxtaposes such natural images with images of the inorganic city, as in "Dandelion":
Dandelion, if it wasn't
for your impudence
this dull split length of concrete
would never have burst into blossom
even once in its lustreless lifetime.
Nature retains its vitality in the inhospitable city, but the human figures who populate Souster's Toronto are less hardy. His social poetry focuses primarily on the victims of modern society, the misfits and outcasts who populate the city's streets and who are ignored by the competitive, self-absorbed crowds that surround them, for example, the old newspaper vendor who is a fixture on a corner in the financial district and the derelicts, drunks, drug addicts, and bag ladies who survive on the margins of urban society.
The strength of Souster's lyric verse lies in the simplicity of his style and the precision and clarity of his imagery. His concrete diction and conversational tone are effective in articulating the poems that "are happening all around us." His greatest weakness is a tendency toward sentimentality. This is a danger particularly in his sympathetic portraits of urban outcasts, although he generally guards against the temptation to self-indulgent pity and allows his unfortunate subjects to retain their human dignity.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Souster began to explore the possibilities of documentary verse, producing several "found poems" constructed from historical documents and writing a series called "Pictures from a Long-Lost World" that dramatize historical moments. A few of these works recall Canadian history, but most focus on European history, in particular, events of World Wars Iand II. Several of the World War I poems embody the recollections of Souster's father of his service in the 1914–18 conflict. More focus on World War II, however, Souster's own war. Souster served in the Canadian air force from 1941 to 1945, and although he did not see active service, arriving in Europe only as the war ended, his wartime experience has clearly been a major influence on his life and work. Many of his early lyrics recall his air force days in Nova Scotia and England. Some of Souster's "Pictures from a Long-Lost World" are based on actual historical photographs, others focus on individual moments, and several are narrative poems that recount specific incidents, often in the voice of one of the participants. These poems present a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward war. While condemning warfare, they celebrate heroism, especially heroic sacrifice in the face of insurmountable odds, and they convey a feeling of nostalgia for more heroic times. Some of the pictures of the past are very effective, in particular "Mauthausen, 1942," a stark evocation of the barbaric treatment of prisoners in Auschwitz.
The longer narrative pieces are less successful because of the amount of factual material they must accommodate. This problem is particularly apparent in Souster's most ambitious long poem, "Jubilee of Death." This book-length work tells the story of the disastrous Allied raid on Dieppe, France, in August 1942, giving particular attention to the prominent role played by Canadian troops. The poem is divided into four parts—"Preparation," "The Landing," "Withdrawal," "Surrender"—in which various participants in the action, ranging from Winston Churchill through various levels of the military command down to private soldiers, tell their own stories of the Dieppe landing in their own voices. Souster's dramatic technique is effective in conveying the complexity of the motivations and political pressures that led to the undertaking of this suicidal mission, as well as the chaotic experience of the landing itself. The volume and complexity of the factual information the story requires detract from the narrative's effectiveness, however.
In a brief poem entitled "Confession" Souster writes,
I'm not sure I'm ready for epics—
there are far too many little songs
the rest have left unsung.
Souster's attempts at epic, in "Jubilee of Death" and the longer "Pictures from a Long-Lost World," are interesting, but they are less effective than his "little songs." His greatest achievement lies in the shorter lyric poems, in which he captures in simple language and sharp, clear images significant moments of human experience.