ON RAYMOND SOUSTER: a good Toronto poet Toronto never discovered
PERHAPS IT’S APPROPRIATE, in some hideously local way, that the only Toronto poet in the city of Toronto is mostly ignored by Torontonians. Raymond Souster’s books sell few copies, the magazines in which his poems appear are read by few people, and only the odd newspaper reviewer bothers to notice that he exists. The Toronto city council has struck him no medals, and on great civic occasions no one asks him to compose an appropriate verse. Souster probably likes it this way: he enjoys his privacy, and 1 believe that some of the people he works with in a downtown bank are entirely unaware that when he goes home at night he publishes books, edits magazines, and writes poems that are among the most engaging and (my guess) most lasting of this generation in Canada. In this period in history, of course, poets tend to be anonymous creatures, their verse lost in the mass of printed matter that surrounds us (unless, of course, they happen to be sick and miserable alcoholics, in which case they come to be known as very funny fellows). Raymond Souster is especially easy to overlook. His conversation is so unaggressive and unpretentious that you could talk to him for hours without realizing he was anything other than a bank employee of modest ambition; it would be hard to guess that he would read poetry, much less write it. Nor does he seek a reputation — he doesn’t write book reviews, or even appear on TV to denounce the suburbs. Like any poet he’s absorbed by the human condition, but with him this absorption is as likely as not to manifest itself in a casual interest in jazz or baseball.
Souster is now forty-two. He has been writing verse since he was a teenager and publishing it since 1945. His new volume, The Colour of the Times: The Collected Poems of Raymond Souster, draws together what he thinks is the best poetry he has published over the last nineteen years in his own books and in anthologies. Over these years, Souster has edited the little magazines Contact and Combustion and has helped organize the poetry books published by Contact Press, an enterprise in which he has worked with poets like Louis Dudck and Irving Layton. Souster’s own poetry may at times have been overshadowed by the flamboyance of other Canadian poets, or by his own promotional activities on other poets’ behalf, but this new book makes it clear, if it was not clear before, that Souster is a remarkable and valuable poet.
He is not, of course, “a Toronto poet” in any self-conscious sense. His themes are love, death and loneliness, but his setting is Toronto and some of his best poems are crammed with
local landmarks like the Don River, Massey Hall. Grenadier Pond. Casa Loma and public places like the Colonial and Town jazz bars and Angelo's restaurant In one poem Souster writes “what are poems for but for celebration / of our time on / earth, years behind us and ahead?” and yet much of his verse is a cry of anguish rather than of celebration: and age does not wither us decently it rips us, desolates us opens a door on nothing on darkness
In his introduction to an earlier Souster volume, Louis Dudek referred to “his sordid and wondrous city, Toronto.” Looking around this city, Souster finds in it images of loneliness, isolation and corruption:
Haven't you seen the river before, did you know it runs and smells like a sewer, haven’t you choked on the smoke from these factories
looking in the night like the tombs of many ghosts?
where beauty and truth have been burned out. slugged out, given the gate forever?
Much of Souster's verse depends on ironic contrast, as in one piece about an injured victim of the Second World War: “The historians say / Mr. King saved Canada / As for Steve / he gets a pension / and may learn in time / to walk without a cane.” More often it leans on tension between “poetic” language and either slang or absolutely blunt speech:
It’s cold in the streets, winter’s coming.
The white whip of winter waits to be swung with a crack in our stupid, grinning faces.
Souster would be as good a poet if he lived in Winnipeg or San Francisco, of course: Toronto provides for him only a familiar situation in which he can comment in his direct but resonant way; the city is merely the background and point of reference for his highly personal poetry. Still, it seems a pity that Torontonians hardly know he is there.
fW THE COLOUR OF THE TIMES: THE COLLECTED POEMS OF RAYMOND SOUSTER, Ryer-
son Press, 121 pages, $4.95.
ON THE NEW PEARSON BOOK:
With friends like John Beal, what politician needs an enemy?
JOHN RORINSON BEAL is the sort of journalist who makes politicians seem even duller than they actually arc. Politicians agitate themselves over the harm done them by crusading, exposéprone reporters, but they should recognize that the real threat is the journalist who smears a thick layer of tedium over his subject’s personality and thereby leaves the public excruciatingly bored with the whole issue. John Robinson Beal is just such a writer, and he does just this to Lester B. Pearson in his new book, The Pearson Phenomenon, the first biography of our prime minister.
Like many people, I admire the prime minister; more than that, J know he has had a fascinating career. And yet when I put down The Pearson Phenomenon I found myself over-
come by a wave of boredom, not only with the prime minister but with his friends, his colleagues, his problems, and his future.. This is a curious effect, because Beal is an Ottawa reporter for Time magazine, and Time magazine is nothing if not absorbing. Moreover, the cover story on Pearson which l ime ran last spring, and with which Beal was credited, was a fascinating article. Perhaps the problem is that Beal, when he sits down to write a book, is staggered by the solemnity of the occasion and abandons both his journalistic skills and his powers of interpretation. For certainly The Pearson Phenomenon exhibits none ol those qualities which make Time so interesting; it lacks drama, irony, conflict, humor — it is, in fact, the very model of a bad biography, and if the prime minister can recover from it he is a far more skillful politician than his enemies (or even his friends) have ever admitted.
John Beal exhibits a passion for the obvious which would instantly win him a job on any editorial page in Canada. “Competition is always keen for the great plum of being head of government,” he likes to say, or, speaking of the Pearsons’ wedding, “It was the beginning of a very happy and rewarding family life and contributed to his subsequent success.” He has a nice talent, too, for the kind of statement that reduces a complex problem to a simple, warmhearted, human, meaningless phrase: “An outsider can only conclude that what the French Canadian wants is nothing more than to be loved.” And he has a weak-
ness for the sort of phrase that is unintentionally comic — “Insight into Pearson’s outlook,” he says at one point.
The Pearson Phenomenon’s main contribution to the enlargement of knowledge is some long quotations from diaries that Pearson kept in London just before and during the war, and in Washington during the war and just after it. Apparently Beal has been allowed to see and copy only selected passages, and these are among the most innocuous. There is a great deal about press relations, some funny business about conniving to have Mackenzie King invited to a Roosevelt-Churchill conference in Washington, and a good many social notes. The only material of great interest concerns the personality of King. In one passage we learn-that, when a section of the British House of Commons was blitzed, King cabled Pearson asking him to obtain a few stones from the wreckage for King's well - planned ruins at Kingsmere. So Pearson had to go around the next day and ask some of the men who were desperately digging the city out to box up a couple of chunks of Westminster as
souvenirs to send to Ottawa. The incident suggests, perhaps, that King was even more mean a man than earlier evidence had revealed.
’ THE PEARSON PHENOMENON, by John Robinson Beal: Longmans C anada Limited. $5. 210 pages.
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