Fiorito: Happy birthday, Raymond Souster
The poet had a cold, wasn’t well, couldn’t come; and so it was that Raymond Souster did not attend a tribute in his honour at the Runnymede Public Library.
A tribute to Raymond Souster?
The League of Canadian Poets, which Souster helped to found, has announced an annual prize in his name, to honour the best book of poetry by a League member.
The prize is apt and overdue.
But Souster is not just a champion of the league; he is also this city’s life-long laureate and the reason why so many people, including those who don’t read poetry, smile if you mention these words:
“Ten Elephants On Yonge St.”
Souster will be 90 years old on Sunday. He continues to write short, sharp poems; a lesson in this for all of us, and for some of us.
Greg Gatenby — you remember him from Harbourfront, and the International Festival of Authors — smiled somewhat wryly when the poet’s absence was announced. “A cold? That’s what he says. He’s very shy.”
Gatenby should know. He organized the last tribute in Souster’s honour, in 1998. Ray didn’t attend that one, either.
Donna Dunlop, Souster’s friend, editor and right-hand woman, produced a modest letter of regret from the poet, who asked that two of his poems be read.
One of these was, naturally enough, written to celebrate the appearance of the Runnymede Public Library on the Canadian $1 stamp many years ago. The second poem was a blistering anti-war poem, written in 1966 and still topical today.
If the lack of a guest of honour caused the packed house to groan in disappointment, it did not dampen the enthusiasm of those who came to pay homage.
John Robert Colombo spoke wittily and fondly of Souster’s work as an organizer of poetry readings. “He knew every poet worth reading in Japan, Canada, the U.S. and Britain.”
Terry Barker and Anna Yin mounted a kind of poetical, two-handed power-point about Ray, and we watched an NFB animated film of Souster’s poem, “Death By Streetcar.” Oh, children, gone are the days, not when we get run over by streetcars, but when films are made of the resulting poems.
Gatenby offered a charming story: “Ray held a reading for Alden Nowlan at the Isaacs Gallery.” You may know that Nowlan, a poet almost as shy as Souster, is also in the Canadian poetic pantheon.
“The reading was late. Nowlan hadn’t shown up. Ray told people to go home. A voice from the back of the room said, ‘I’m Alden Nowlan.’”
Then, echoing Colombo, Gatenby added this: “Ray ran that reading series for five years. The readers he brought in: Margaret Avison, Phyllis Gottlieb, Jacques Godbout . . . Robert Creeley, Charles Olsen, Frank O’Hara.”
We have nothing like it today.
Hugh Cook, who wrote a dissertation on Souster’s work said, “He wanted to make contact with his readers.” On the page, readers, on the page.
Kent Bowman told the assembled that he’d brought a card for everyone to sign, and everyone did.
Mick Burrs — I know him from the Prairies — read a couple of Souster poems. Norma West Linder was right to compare the poet Souster to the painter Colville.
And then James Deahl said this of Ray: “He teaches you how to live: honest, faithful, hardworking, dedicated, truthful, courageous; I wish I were half the man he is.”
Some 700 poets, members of the League, will be eligible for the $1,000 prize, which was established by an anonymous donation.
The best part of the evening?
Souster’s books were on sale; he asked that the money raised — more than $300 — be given to the Daily Bread Food Bank.
Joe Fiorito appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
FROM TEN ELEPHANTS ON YONGE STREET
“The Fire In The Tenement”
After the fire in the tenement,
besides the four closets of garbage,
six dozen wine bottles, eighteen gas cookers, seven wood-burning stoves,
three charred bodies found in a room,
which made it a little embarrassing
because not even the landlady
could remember their names.