Raymond Souster died two weeks ago. I'm not sure how that registers with Canada's poetic community. The few words I've overheard from other contemporary poets about Souster's poetry have indicated either faint scorn or mumbled indifference. And for a poet easily positioned by the arts media as a "people's" favourite for his plain recordings of traffic -- from both street and mind -- Souster seems, like every other poet in this philistine country, to have been up against it for eager listeners. When the unofficial poet laureate the past seventy years for Canada's largest city is a literary ghost, it's a curious commentary on the poet's role in public discourse.
But the neglect among poets is a little more troubling. I suppose Souster's personality has a little something to do with it. A shy and modest man by all accounts, he not only refrained from tooting his horn and touting his lines, he actually downplayed his accomplishments and preferred the background. At the same time, he spearheaded the pre-Canada Council mimeographed mail-outs, eventually co-founding and leading Contact Press, doing the publication and distribution, paying for all of it, and even organizing events where he introduced some of our internationally revered figures to the game. So he was hardly invisible.
The only theory I can come up with is Souster's timing. His poetry is in line with the times, and (indeed) one of his two best books is entitled The Colour of the Times (1964). His poetic sensibility was formed in the lean thirties, and any poet who didn't get blown away on a shifting wind was -- the same as every poet in England -- writing about deprivation, human frailty, metaphysical bafflement and/or anger, social injustice, and hidden graces. But Souster's tentative, plainspoken realism was an awkward fit since his best work was hitting the street just as postmodernism was touching down, and would also have little in common with the later Canada-Council-juiced confessional anecdotes of scores of other poets who would, at first glance, appear natural cohorts. But their sensibilities were quite different. Souster used a subtly shifting narrator as his "I", and in any event, was much more outward-looking than the other book-a-year authors. If a hobo was puking by the curb, Souster's focus was on the hobo, while the confessionalists turned the camera back on themselves in reactive fascination. (The postmodernists, in this scenario, would have doubted the veracity of any feelings attributed to the hobo, as well as to the emotions of the recorder. All three -- hobo, observer-poet, meta-observer would be subsumed by the meta-meta-theorizer as a computer algorithm kicking in at the beginning of a physics experiment with inanimate objects.)
But like those other prolific plain speech poets of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, Souster wore out his welcome just as he was hitting his stride. I finally stopped reading him altogether with 1977's painful Extra Innings. The sentimentality, always prevalent though sometimes endearing (even affecting), had hardened into a bathetic tic. The diction, narrow yet at the same time flabby, became particularly unthinking. And the bite and drama, the range of experiences once entertaining and fresh, had disappeared.
But there's another Souster in those first few books that doesn't often get discussed, at least not in a public forum. The Toronto diarist may have been mistaken for the stereotypical meek banker, but four years in the RCAF during WWII either created or gave definition to a tough, weary-wise discrimination which either leaks or declaims in a wide range of poems from this period. (Francis Mansbridge was wrong. Souster may have had a narrow stylistic range, but his cast of subjects was both wide and deep.) The Lawrencian "Old Man Leaning On A Fence", the amusing and succinct prophecy of "Girls Playing Softball", the black and sad wisdom of "Ties" (perhaps his finest poem), the epigrammatic surprise of "Thrush", and the hilarious social jab of "Ten Elephants On Yonge Street": these and more show a poet with much to say, and a personality to make it new (in the best sense), all the more remarkable since, yes, his technical adventures were indeed limited and often clumsy.
Souster won't compete with our best in any latter 20th-century anthology, but he's much more than a community footnote. In a perverse reverse, it often seems it takes the death of a poet, even one of advanced years, to finally get others (poets and general readers alike) to revisit the used book store and the library for a thin slice of his total work (though his recent Collected will hopefully go a long way to make this an easier pursuit). It takes an enormous amount of sifting, but there're more than a few flecks of mica to be found.