Raymond Souster Souster, (Holmes) Raymond (Vol. 5) - Essay

Souster, (Holmes) Raymond (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Souster, (Holmes) Raymond 1921–

Souster is a Canadian poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Raymond Souster's So Far, So Good, selected from thirty years' work, shows well his tightness and opacity of line. Some of the early poems sound "holier-than-thou", but most of the work stands or falls on Williams's "direct treatment of the thing …". The maturing Souster rids himself of pre-established solemnities. His persistent limitation has been a clash between his sense of the world (wonder, or disgust when wonder fails) and his view of technique, a preference for understatement. Wonder understated! He has, to a great extent, overcome the obvious handicaps by a double means—increasing precision of language and displacement of moralizing by tolerance and humour, as in Battered or Yea Tigers, in Made in Canada.

Mike Doyle, "Made in Canada?," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1972, p. 358.

Souster is one of those rare poets who, like a good wine, improves with age. I'm not sure whose age, Souster's or mine. My first encounter with Souster's work was in 1966 in Frank Watt's poetry seminar, somewhere in the catacombs of University College in Toronto….

Here was a Toronto poet-banker, not quite a Wallace Stevens, but a figure of some reputation, who read the American poets, who had correspondence with W. C. Williams and, most amazing of all, listened to jazz, wrote about it in poems, and identified in some mysterious way with the forces of resistance and anarchy that thrive (or throve then) in the subsoil of American culture…. And yet some of us still felt uneasy; we felt, first, that imagist poems at best were well-laid paving-stones on a dead-end street, that they gave little and asked little of a reader. All that one could say of them was, so what? Secondly, we suspected poets with ideas, especially those who expressed their ideas directly rather than indirectly through sound and image. Souster, after all, was a bit too raw, too common; perhaps, in retrospect, we thought he was just a bit too Canadian. His muse was flat-footed from pounding a beat in downtown Toronto….

I discovered two years ago while making selections for 15 Canadian Poets that Souster's didactic verses, his slices of seedy city life with embarrassing moral and philosophical tags, constitute only a small part of his work…. Souster's new selection, The Years,… makes it possible to see the range and scope of his abilities as a lyric poet and, also, to understand the relation between his lyricism and his didacticism….

What emerges from almost all of Souster's social commentary is the question of personal responsibility. Souster is no Marxist or Socialist with a political or philosophical programme against which to measure the events of his time. His position is that of beleaguered humorist, troubled … with the matter of empathy, or sharing…. Souster's sense of his own guilt does not make good poetry when it expresses itself in the form of complacent moralizing or righteous indignation. The posture of complacency is mostly absent from The Years, but the indignation is not….

Souster's lyrics also contain his best social criticism. This criticism seems most convincing when it comes indirectly, when, in the course of talking about what he knows intimately, Souster reveals his awareness of the texture and quality of life around him. (p. 27)

There is much to say about Souster's verse, about his concern for craft, especially his untiring preoccupation with the line as something more than an arbitrary way of breaking up prose poems. (p. 35)

Souster's range is not large but his concern for technique is, as Pound would say, a test of his sincerity. In The Years, he describes one of his Jazz favourites, Ed Hall, as "a man at one with his art, not fighting it, / not trying to prove a damn thing." The less Souster tries to prove, the more at ease he seems with his craft. (p. 36)

Gary Geddes, "A Cursed and Singular Blessing," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1972, pp. 27-36.

Singing small seems to be Raymond Souster's way of being a poet in the world (something he shares with … [his mentor] William Carlos Williams …). Souster is at his best when dealing with local, immediate, concrete experience….

Noticing such things [as these] is Souster's chief strength: the face of the ragged postcard seller on Yonge Street, the movements of cats (another preoccupation shared with Williams), of small birds, the shapes and colours of old buildings, the small immediate actions of people. Yet, in the strict sense, Souster's are not the imagist poems they are often said to be, but rather (in Gary Geddes's phrase) "miniparables". They are "mini" in more than the obvious formal sense. As parables they tend to be judgments and when the judgments are small and local, involving the minutiae of daily life, they often contain a "shock of recognition", either painful or exhilarating, but in any case very real. (p. 123)

Souster presents himself (justly) as a man whose eye is determinedly on the object, as one who will not say more than is there. When in practice his aesthetic is most fully realized he often says a good deal less than is there….

When he truly has his eye on the object Souster is good at recording nuances of behaviour, particularly in relationships between people or in capturing moments in which someone is revealing a particular sense of himself ("Dominion Square", "The Ugliest Woman", "Central Park South", "Decision on King Street"). What makes these poems is the recognition of a moment's uniqueness. Seeing clearly at the precise moment is the good thing, but simply seeing clearly in itself is not enough to make a poem, as the shrug which may attend upon a reading of Souster's flatter poems will attest.

The particular technique depends on a catch of the soul, or epiphany, and when it fails results only in (the very thing Souster would set himself against) explanation (see, for example, "Shoe Store"). (p. 124)

Souster's other strength is in his sense of humour, well exemplified in "The Spider Outside Our Window", wherein the spider has to cope with the problem of what to do with a rose petal which has fallen into his web:

Then one day, inspiration! He painted up a sign in bug's blood, hung it out proudly:


Because of its characteristic brevity and opacity (in Pound's sense) Souster's work does not lend itself to (or require) analysis. (pp. 124-25)

Mike Doyle, "Singing Small," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1974, pp. 123-25.