Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Souster, (Holmes) Raymond (Vol. 14)
Souster, (Holmes) Raymond 1921–
A Canadian poet and editor, Souster is a "poet of Toronto" and celebrates that city and its people in unsophisticated, epigrammatic verse. There is a compassionate tone in much of Souster's poetry, and his focus is often on social concerns: the despair of the underprivileged and the problems of political systems and urban society. His work bears the influence of the Imagist school of poetry, particularly the work of William Carlos Williams. Souster has also written two novels under the pseudonyms of John Holmes and Raymond Holmes. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
[The] permanent ground of Souster's poetry is human deprivation and loss. Unlike other poets who find their dream of happiness and fulfilment in the future, or even in the present, he looks backward to the past…. Happiness is "a lost but recovered joy"; and all are "groping for something lost they will never find / in the drab of the street, in the dirt, in the smoke, in the noise." The imagery of youth usually conveys this meaning of loss in Souster's poetry, as in "Young Girls", where it is also an image of sexual promise; or in the poem remembering boyhood—
It's nothing but desire to live again, fresh from the
beginning like a child.
Some of his most moving and beautiful poems turn on this theme…. [Joy] is often the achieved reward of Souster's patient realistic vision, so that retrospective nostalgia is only a more defeated direction in an idealism that ends in measure and acceptance.
The sense of loss and deprivation, the erosion of time, the cruel impersonality and brutality of the city are nevertheless the groundwork of these poems. Nor is it a private and personal condition limited to the poet. The bulk of Souster's poetry deals with other people—the people of the city—and these are truly observed, not faceless democratic symbols as for example in Carl Sandburg. They are actual individuals (not that...
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The evidence of Souster's spontaneous writing method is on every page of [The Colour of the Times]. In fact it goes a good deal further than that. Poets who refuse to revise their work, on the ground that revision always sullies the spotlessness of the original poetic impulse, are common nowadays, but most are willing to correct errors in grammar or slips of the pen; at least they are in those cases where the errors are simply stupid and meaningless. Not Souster. Either he is not willing, or he refuses, for whatever reason, to look at the printer's proofs. How else can you account for the poem in which he speaks of the 'socketless eyes' of dead people when what he means is 'eyeless sockets'? In a poem called 'The Lovers' he mixes up the cases of his pronouns; in another poem he says 'sever' where he means 'impale', he writes 'I can't decide which will outlive each other' when what he really can't decide is which idiomatic expression he intends to use, and elsewhere 'trace' as a verb is confused with 'print', 'ands' and 'buts' are used indiscriminately, a man splits rock with an axe (maybe that's possible in Ontario, but not in Vermont), streams are 'offshoots' (not tributaries, in-shoots) of rivers, and so on.
Souster has the answer to all this, of course. Word-polishing. 'It makes me want to laugh,' he says, and elsewhere: 'O let nothing matter if not beautiful … as that singing water.' In other words, a poem that has any...
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The surface values of Raymond Souster's poetry are easily discernible and have been pointed out many times. He is gentle and humane. He frequently writes about small events and common people. He observes with affection the streets and characters of his native Toronto. He seems to like cats, baseball players, and newspaper vendors. His poems are simple and direct.
The Years … supports and reinforces this view of Souster, perhaps with something of a vengeance….
Souster has [the capacity to feel others' misfortunes deeply], and it could make his poetry grotesquely sentimental and ultimately very bad. It is hard to say why it doesn't, but it is probably for two reasons. First, he means it. Second, he is a poet and not a pretender. (p. 35)
The Years includes a well-known poem ["Death Chant for Mr. Johnson's America"] which, to my mind, represents Souster at his didactic worst…. [While] he may be a master of the simple-minded love song, the simple-minded hate song is not Souster's speed. He is capable of making the sickliest sentiments about blind newspaper vendors ring true, but his curse on Imperial America sounds forced, faddish and phoney. This is bad, because Souster's main asset as a poet is not inventiveness of form or profundity of thought, but emotional honesty and integrity. Normally he is not trying to be clever, current or fashionable; he means what he says and makes the...
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F. W. Watt
[In Change-Up: New Poems Souster] gives us one of the freshest and best books he has ever written. There is nothing radically new, only modest developments, in technique and subject-matter. But the vignettes of city and domestic life are clearer and more vivid, the language still more transparent, with fewer of those occasional verbal blotches that make us uncomfortably conscious there is someone between us and the experience trying to influence our feelings. Above all, the candour and sincerity are more undeniable than ever. Souster refuses to become slick and glib. If his pitying hand slips too easily into his pocket to bribe a beggar's outstretched palm, Souster himself is the first to notice it and feel ashamed. There is, I think, a more somber view of reality than ever, yet never histrionic, always embodied in the facts of life closest to the poet's experience. Only he could put his strangled cat Minou and the body of Mussolini hanging upside down in the same poem, a lucid, fiercely exact poem, and make us feel with anguish that indeed "There is no escape / no other place to go / the murderers are everywhere."
Only Souster, too, could undress his wife in front of us, celebrate conjugal love as if it were as "hot and good" as any affair, startle, disturb, embarrass, and touch us with his awkward intimate revelations and finally win the day—leave us moved by a new sense of the possibilities of human tenderness and fidelity...
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The reason Raymond Souster hasn't changed much as a poet in the last three decades or so—hasn't Developed, hasn't Extended His Range, hasn't Re-Assessed His Position—is that he started off in the 1940s doing what he wanted to do and has never stopped wanting to do it. What he's been doing, all these years, is writing hymns of praise to the Toronto he loves and to the professionals he admires. Souster is the most Torontocentric of Canadian poets. (pp. 75, 77)
In his new book, Extra Innings, there's a poem called "Old Woman on Yonge Street" in which the poet simply observes an old woman and marvels at her resilience. It could have been written by Souster in 1955—which is not to take anything away from its purely Sousterian beauty or from its abiding respect for its subject. There are poems that refer to the old Ford Hotel, the Trillium ferryboat going to Toronto Island, the Isaacs Gallery. Souster is Toronto's own sweet singer, the Whitman of the repressed old city that is slowly giving way to the new cosmopolitan metropolis. (p. 77)
Souster's other theme through all these years has been professionalism, particularly as demonstrated in sports, poetry, and jazz…. His tendency to celebrate his fellow poets has increased in recent years—his subjects in this book range from Rilke to Charles Olson, from Archibald Lampman to W.W.E. Ross, the much neglected figure who brought modern poetry to Canada. (pp. 77,...
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Although Extra Innings is sub-titled "New Poems," the reader familiar with Souster's work will not find in this collection much that is "new" in subject-matter and in style. Few, however, will be disappointed by this. Souster's greatest strength is his ability to go on finding, in his own life and in the ordinary life around him, materials for poetry. This unforced consistency deserves our respect, as does Souster's obvious sympathy for the victims of cruelty and misfortune and, most particularly, of the pervasive indifference that marks urban life. Concern and compassion are as evident in this collection as they have been in his previous volumes, and are, as usual, plainly and directly expressed.
While Souster's sense of values is impressive, many of his poems are not. The materials drawn from ordinary life are often trivial, the directly-stated feelings are seldom examined, and the colloquial style sinks at times to flatness and cliché. (p. 37)
Souster is assuming, of course, that many readers, having had similar experiences in their own lives, will not find it difficult to associate themselves with the poet's emotional response. Easy emotional commitments are nearly always suspect, however, even in poetry….
And when Souster, in "Waiting for the Poem to Come Through," makes an analogy between writing a poem and hitting a curve ball, serious baseball fans with a serious interest in poetry...
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