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 characterization is any aim in poetry); their pain is real, and their "wasted bitter years" are specific as their deaths and entrances. A personal predicament is projected outward in this human landscape, and at the same time a truth about the general life is revealed (since the individual is our source of knowledge about the universal, the mass, and a single imagination, if it has poetic scope, sympathy, the gift of extension, becomes representative for mankind). (pp. 201-02)
Souster's verdict on modern life is not very cheerful. Whether there is truth in [his] picture of waste, vanity, frustration, poverty and desperation, we may allow the reader to judge. The...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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....
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