January 15,1921 – October 19, 2012
Raymond Holmes Souster, OC, was the true bard of Toronto, the city where, aside from service in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, he spent his entire ninety-one years, never far from his beloved Humber River. No other poet has written so deeply about the Queen City.
Souster began publishing poetry at the age of twenty-one. Since turning ninety-one he has brought out two full-size books of new work: Easy Does It and Never Counting the Cost. Never a slacker, he wrote his final poem on October 5, 2012, a mere two weeks before the end. His death brought to a close a remarkable seventy year publishing career.
He was the last active member of the Great Generation of Canadian poets that included, among others, P.K. Page, Margaret Avison, Louis Dudek, Al Purdy, Eli Mandel, Milton Acorn, James Reaney, and Anne Szumigalski. Souster won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1964 (for The Colour of the Times), was presented with Canada’s Centennial Medal in 1967, won the City of Toronto Book Award in 1979 (for Hanging In), and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1995. He was a founder of the League of Canadian Poets and served as LCP President from 1967 to 1971.
During the 1950s, he edited first Contact and later Combustion, the foremost Canadian poetry magazines of their day. With Louis Dudek and Irving Layton he also ran Contact Press for fifteen years (1952 – 1967), which published initial books by many of Canada’s most important contemporary poets. For several years Souster hosted dozens of poetry readings in Toronto, bringing to Canada such major writers as Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and other members of the so-called Black Mountain School.
Between 1945 and 2012 he published two novels (one a bestseller) and at least fifty-nine collections of original poetry. He also edited or co-edited ten volumes of Canadian poetry and, with the late Richard Woollatt, four Canadian literary textbooks for use in Ontario schools. Through his textbooks as well as volumes like 100 Poems of Nineteenth-Century Canada, Comfort of the Fields, Vapour and Blue, Powassan’s Drum, and Windflower, Souster established himself as a leading expert on the poetry of Archibald Lampman, William Wilfred Campbell, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Bliss Carman. These books also introduced the Confederation Poets to readers in the last half of the 20th century.
His poetry tended to fall into five main subject areas: love poems to his wife of many decades, Rosalia; nature poems, often set in the Humberside area of Toronto, especially in the Humber River valley; poems dealing with political and current events, usually from a leftist perspective; the bravery of soldiers and the horrors of war; and his Christian faith, he was a member of the United Church. In the years following World War II no one did more to introduce Modernism to Canadian readers. His poetry is among the very finest ever written in this “snow-eyed country” he so loved. It forms a lasting legacy.
Both Donna Dunlop, his personal secretary and executrix, and I know that Ray had no use for obituaries. In his view, the personal details of a poet’s life are unimportant. It is only the gift that counts, not the giver. But I cannot let it go at that.
I was blessed to have been Raymond Souster’s friend for the last three decades of his life. We first met when he was working at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and I for Maclean Hunter (we were both number crunchers), and we sometimes got together for lunch. Later there were annual poetry afternoons in his backyard on Baby Point. In terms of human courage, honesty, compassion, and devotion to family and church, Souster led a life that was pure inspiration to all who were fortunate to know him. He spent more time editing, publishing, and promoting the work of other writers than he gave to his own poetry. In short, he was the most decent, generous, modest man I have ever known. And, as the final member of the Great Generation, the passing of this fine poet closes an extraordinary era of Canadian literature.
Souster is survived by his wife Rosalia.
by James Deahl
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October 25, 2012
I have been reading the tributes to Ray in the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, NOW, and other places. While it is true that Ray was a great publisher, editor, and readings organizer, he was first and foremost a poet. I have started to get the impression that Ray is considered to be a minor poet, whose best years were in the 1950s and 1960s, who did a lot to promote other (and better) poets. Allow me to be clear, Ray did more to promote other poets than anyone else during the 1950s and 1960s. AND he was also one of the very finest poets to ever put pen to paper, and not just during the 1950s and 1960s. Ray wrote great poems from the 1940s into the 21st Century.
. . . James
from NOW Magazine
Farewell to poet Raymond Souster 1921-2012
Souster, like Milton Acorn and Al Purdy used lyricism to address the big issues
By Robert Priest
Somehow we don’t expect poets to be bankers. But Raymond Souster who passed away on October 19, at the age of 91 combined the job of writing his lucid lyrical poetry with a job at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce foreign exchange for the first forty six years of his career.[briefbreak]
He didn’t write like the one percent though. He had a gritty lean immediate style that frequently addressed issues of the day. It’s a mode of poetry also exemplified by poets like Al Purdy and Milton Acorn—and often called by its modern day exponents, People’s Poetry.
In keeping with that categorization Souster wasn’t just a banker and a poet, he was an infrastructure worker as well. In the barely postcolonial literary world of the 50s, he along with Louis Dudek and Irving Layton, started Contact Press one of the first artist run publishing houses in Canada. Thereby he helped foster the works of Leonard Cohen and Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and Canada’s first poet laureate, George Bowering.
“When I was trying to start out,” says Bowering, “I was reading Layton, Dudek and Souster. I felt as if I were learning most from Souster. That’s partly why I wanted my first real book to be published by Contact Press and why I was so damned glad that it was. I know that Ray had most to do with that.”
The ‘master-gatherer’ and poet John Robert Colombo (Colombo’s Canadian Quotations) recalls Souster fondly:
“Ray served as the still centre of poetry in Toronto. He established a north pole to complement the south pole of the academics. He single-handedly introduced Modernism in poetry to the city. He also corresponded with many of the movers and shakers of American poetry — notably Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara, Robert Creeley, LeRoi Jones — and brought them to Toronto to read at a series of fabled readings at the old Greenwich Gallery and the later Isaacs Gallery. Not for nothing was he known as the Dean of Toronto Poets.”
If you or your child has ever experienced a poetry reading at school, it was likely through an initiative of the league of Canadian poets—an outfit cofounded and first presidented by the unassuming Souster.
After a life of forty-one volumes of currently enduring poetry, two novels and uncountable foreign-exchange transactions, the venerable Raymond Souster’s good works live on not only between the covers of his volumes of poetry but in the form of an award established last year in his name by the League of Canadian Poets.
But the true award for Souster was the joy of writing the poetry itself. Or as he put it in his poem, The thundering horse:
“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’’