Raymond Souster died on Friday October 19, 2012 at the age of 91. I, like so many others, am deeply saddened by this news. Souster is a personal hero of mine, a model for a lifetime working in the service of poetry and the small press. His contributions are difficult to gauge accurately. I will happily argue any day that he is the single most important editor and publisher that Canadian poetry had in the 20th century. His work not only moved poetry forward in this country in pivotal moments in the 1950s and 1960s, he laid the groundwork for the way that much small press continues to operate today.
The day after he died, before I had learned of his death, I spent an hour re-reading some research I performed during my M.A. on his seminal Contact Poetry Reading Series prompted by a query from a fellow grad student. I spent the day with a renewed belief in the enormity of his contributions.
Souster is often, and far too readily, written off as a “poet of content,” a man who spent his life documenting the streets of Toronto in brief, modernist poems. As a poet, at his best, he wrote more than any one poet’s share of poems that will endure, some that have endured since the 1940s already: “The Hunter,” “Study: The Bath,” “The Six-Quart Basket,” “Flight of the Roller Coaster” to name only a small handful. My personal favourite has long been “The Lilac Poem,” unselfconscious in its gentle lifting from Kenneth Patchen, modest and self-effacing in the fashion of his public persona:
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.
Because there is so much made of strength and wealth and power,
because the little things are lost in this world,
I write this poem about lilacs knowing that both
are this day’s only: tomorrow they will lie forgotten. (Cerberus, 1952)
The renewed attention that his death will prompt will most likely focus on his contributions as a poet. The Colour of the Times, a book of collected poems published by Ryerson in 1964, won the Governor General’s Award and continues to be his definitive title despite the fact that he published actively throughout the second half of his life. It is a remarkable volume. Place of Meeting (Toronto: Gallery Editions, 1962) is a personal favourite. His long relationship with Oberon saw the immense nine volume edition of his collected poems published over several years, alongside a steady stream of new titles. But, rather than discuss his poetry here I would instead like to focus on his other contributions to Canadian poetry.
As an editor, publisher, and organizer, the importance of his body of work would be difficult to overstate. He founded Contact Press with Louis Dudek and Irving Layton in 1952. The press published an astonishing range of important books during its fifteen years of activity. Contact published first books, and first important books, by many of the poets who went on to shape Canadian poetry in the 60s and 70s: George Bowering, John Newlove, Alden Nowlan, Al Purdy, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Margaret Atwood. Souster was directly responsible for the first collection of poems by W.W.E. Ross that bore a publisher’s imprint. His final editorial project was the hugely influential anthology New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry (1966) (Victor Coleman was an important, though unacknowledged contributor to the selection process for this book). New Wave Canada published Michael Ondaatje, David McFadden, bpNichol, Victor Coleman, Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt (still Daphne Buckle at the time), William Hawkins, Robert Hogg, and others (see the full table of contents below). For many of these poets, it was their first substantial appearance in print. Contact sustained and nurtured Canadian poetry between WWII and the explosion of small presses in the late 1960s. It published books by young poets, books by established poets that consolidated reputations, translations, anthologies, all with the ethic that it was better to lose money producing important literature than to make money producing garbage. Souster often printed his contributions on a mimeograph machine in his basement. With Souster’s death, all three of the founding editors are now gone.
Cerberus, the first title produced by the press, is itself massively important. A shared volume between Souster, Dudek and Layton, each poet wrote a brief preface to their poems articulating their personal beliefs about poetry in Canada at the start of the 1950s. It is long overdue for a reprint, or a proper critical edition (to any publishers reading this: I’m free if you’re looking for someone to edit such a volume!). Souster rarely wrote about his own writing publicly, but his Cerberus preface still reads as a manifesto for his work, both as a poet and editor:
S. has always believed (and still believes) that the primary function of poetry is to communicate something to somebody else. Not too important what that something is, the thing is to get it across, “make contact.” If you fail here all that follows, everything else you throw in, is wasted, and you might as well start all over again. Ninety percent of modern poetry fails here. And will go on failing until it learn this and puts the remedy into practice.
This belief in the need to “make contact” informs all of his editorial and publishing work. His magazines (Direction [1943-1946], Contact [1952-1954], and Combustion [1957-1960]) strove to bridge gaps between generations of poets within Canada, as well as connect Canadian poets to the international community. Contact, a magazine that was started months before Contact Press and that provided the name, was subtitled “An International Magazine of Poetry.” Kenneth Patchen, Henry Miller, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Cid Corman and other international writers were published alongside Irving Layton, Phyllis Webb, Louis Dudek and other Canadians. He believed that Canadian poetry needed to expand its horizons, but also that Canadian poetry had something to contribute to modernism internationally.
The Contact Poetry Reading Series (see this “Contact” thread?) was a physical manifestation of all of these projects. Run from 1957-1962 in Toronto, primarily at the Isaacs Gallery, Souster and others (Kenneth McRobbie, John Robert Colombo, Peter Miller, Avrom Isaacs) brought a stunning range of American poets to read in Toronto alongside new and established Canadian poets. Leroi Jones, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, and others, read next to James Reaney, A.J.M. Smith, George Johnston, Margaret Avison, Leonard Cohen, Ralph Gustafson, Jay Macpherson, and on and on and on. The series paid their poets, a massive gesture in a country that rarely hosted readings to begin with. They hosted French Canadian poets (with handouts featuring poems in translation). They insisted that poetry had an oral/aural dimension that had to be returned. They presented the poet to the audience, and the audience to the poet, an act of great importance in developing a poetry reading public in Canada and convincing poets that there indeed was an audience.
I spoke to Souster twice over the telephone during my research in 2009. He was generous with his time and his memories, and his memories were sharp! Everything he told me lined up with what my research was showing. I regret not having had an opportunity to visit with him. His archives at UofT are a great untapped resource in the development of our understanding of Canadian poetry at mid-century.
Following the news of Souster’s death, my dad remarked that Souster had lived “a life of right work.” I think that is apt and accurate. While I am sad at his passing, I am also immensely grateful for all that he offered us, for all that we were lucky to have access to because of his tireless and often unacknowledged work. He has been marginalized by Canadian literary history. Without Contact, Contact Press, the Contact Poetry Reading Series, Combustion, and other projects of his, the literary landscape in this country would have developed in radically different ways.
Think about his legacy next time you attend a reading series, or pick up a small press book, or read a little mag. Souster insisted that we connect generations, that we connect geographies, that we connect writing and publishing, that we connect artistic languages and mediums, that we connect writer and reader. His injunction to “make contact” is as valuable today as it was in 1952.
And go read some of his poems too, they’re good for your soul.