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Raymond Souster: a great of CanLit when CanLit was great

A famous Canadian poet likes to say that being a famous Canadian poet is like being a famous croquet player.

And so when one dies – even a hugely influential one, a writer with a whole school around him, a movement, a press, a lasting mark – there is no public mourning. In the case of Raymond Souster, an inspiring figure of the 1950s and 1960s, who died last weekend at the age of 91, there was no obituary, no mainstream-media announcement for two whole days.

This is not just because nobody cares about poetry. Souster, although still publishing until at least 2006, had not been a prominent part of the literary scene for years. His particular style of poetry – a very straightforward, prosy, conversational style – is itself reminiscent of the mid-fifties, of a folksy, everyman tendency in late modernism. It is the kind of thing one finds oneself reading on posters in the subway (posted there by well-meaning bureaucrats) and it's quite sweet, but it doesn't seem reflective of the jagged, information-saturated contemporary mental state.

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(Here's a bit of The Lilac Poem: "Before the lilacs are over and they are only/ shrunken stalks at the ends of drooping branches, / I want to write a poem about them and their beauty/ brief and star-shining as a young girl's promise.")

Souster was a massively prolific poet: He published more than 50 books. He won the Governor-General's award for poetry in 1964 and got an Order of Canada in 1995. He wasn't much for the limelight, though. He worked in a bank for most of his life and was notoriously shy. He was not part of the contemporaneous Beat generation; he was not a counterculture guy. His poetry – similar in tone and intent to that of the Black Mountain group in the United States, with whom he corresponded – mines the anecdotal and the quotidian. It frequently describes the streets of Toronto; for this reason he is often lauded as a hero of the place. It is true that when he first began setting his scenes there, there was no literary mythology around our plain cities. He did do something to encourage unashamed reference to the local in our literature.

But Raymond Souster should be remembered not for his somewhat sentimental and craft-free poetry. He should be remembered for what he did as an editor and critic. He, Louis Dudek and Irving Layton created, out of nothing but love, a couple of little poetry magazines; one was called Contact (1952-54), and that magazine then became Contact Press (1952-1967), one of the first independent Canadian publishers of any kind. There wasn't an explosion of small Canadian presses until the late 1960s. As publisher, Souster brought out the first books of almost an entire generation of poets: They included works by Leonard Cohen, Alden Nowlan, Milton Acorn, Gwendolyn MacEwen, George Bowering and John Newlove, as well as a young writer named Margaret Atwood. Her book with Contact, The Circle Game, went on to win a Governor-General's award itself, in 1966. Souster also edited several anthologies of new Canadian writing, including the influential New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry (1966). He was also one of the founders of the League of Canadian Poets, an organization still very much alive today.

You have to be impressed by the brio and ambition of Contact Press. It was a kind of samizdat: simple, unadorned books – sometimes even mimeographed – for a tiny group of enthusiasts. And this was done with no government funding whatsoever. The critic and editor John Metcalf has cited Contact as a positive model for what Canadian publishing would be like without government support: a rugged, self-sufficient underground without qualms about mass opinion or bureaucracy.

All this was part of an artistic coming of age. It was a time when it felt rebellious to be casting off a colonial sense of inferiority. And as a result of that effort the word Canadian is no longer synonymous with provincial.

But as another result, we don't worry about it any more. And so we are not as impressed by national stature, or even by the romance of colloquial speech. In poetry in particular, the word cosmopolitan is being used as the highest kind of praise. The word CanLit is used more as vague disapprobation than as romantic rallying point. It is one of the triumphs of cultural nationalism that it made itself irrelevant; this is a sign of its success. It's still strange that one of its most devoted endorsers should die in a kind of awkward quiet, like one of the lonely urbanites in one of his own poems.

Riding the Thundering Horse

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by Raymond Souster

To be told in print at age sixty-three

that you're not a poet because what you write aren't poems,

isn't the help it might have been at, say, twenty-three.

Then perhaps you might have shaken the habit,

tried booze or more sex to compensate,

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come out fairly unshaken.

Now, unfortunately, it's much too late,

for better or for worse you're hooked,

must ride the thundering horse

hanging on any way you can:

not the most graceful way to go,

but even to be allowed to touch those great white flanks

is a privilege and pleasure,

which the little man with the quivering pen

could never, never comprehend.

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