Until Wednesday night, no one knew how far Raymond Souster could carry this shyness business. You can't read the history of Canadian poetry without encountering him, yet somehow he remains obscure. His legendary shyness has created, over five decades, a curious form of anonymity: he's at once omnipresent and invisible. You rarely see him on television or hear him on the radio. He's written thousands of poems, Oberon Press has brought out the Collected Poems of Raymond Souster in seven volumes (Volume Eight appears next year), and he won the governor general's award for The Colour of the Times in 1964. He's edited four different journals, each with a perfect poetry-magazine name: Direction, Enterprise, Contact, and Combustion. He helped start the careers of Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, among many others.
But he's averse to public appearances and stays out of sight most of the time. He managed to remain unseen even at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto last week, when he was the star of the show.
Greg Gatenby decided some months ago that Souster, 77 this year, deserved one of Harbourfront's evening-long tributes. Among many other reasons, Gatenby acknowledges Souster as an inspiration for his own literary program at Harbourfront. From 1957 to 1962, Souster ran a series at the Isaacs Gallery, presenting Canadian poets such as Leonard Cohen (in his first Toronto appearance), Al Purdy, F.R. Scott, and James Reaney, and American poets like Frank O'Hara and Charles Olson.
When Gatenby proposed a tribute, Souster didn't reject the idea; shyness and modesty aren't necessarily the same thing. But he didn't promise to show up, either. At other Harbourfront tributes, someone like Brian Moore or Mavis Gallant usually spends the evening sitting under a Niagara of praise, then graciously comes forward to be interviewed. That didn't appeal to Souster. Still, Gatenby's powers of persuasion are as legendary as Souster's reticence. He figured Souster would show up.
But for his own private reasons, he stayed home. As his admirers filled the Brigantine Room, word passed around that tonight we were doing Hamlet without the prince. Gatenby suggested Souster might slip in at the last minute, and people kept glancing around. But no Souster.
It was a good evening anyway, or so it seemed to this participant. Barry Callaghan talked about the loneliness of writers of Souster's generation. Avrom Isaacs spoke about being Souster's co-publisher (they brought out Souster's poems with Michael Snow's drawings). Al Purdy remembered Souster the person. I talked about his many poems on his native city, Toronto. Bruce Whiteman, the author of a Souster bibliography, thoughtfully placed him in literary history.
This collective essay in biography produced a fresh appreciation of Souster's role: he's a connector of Canadian literature, pulling together disparate poets, helping them know each other and meet their tiny audience. He's a one-man, no-budget Canada Council. His literary magazines were always self-financed and often self-printed, on a mimeograph machine. The Contact Press books were published from his basement, including The Circle Game, which won Atwood the 1966 governor general's award and established her reputation in poetry. The same year, Souster brought out New Wave Canada, a collection of young poets, including Michael Ondaatje. (On Wednesday night, Ondaatje's eloquent letter of tribute to Souster--"He brought many of us to the surface and we owe him everything"--was read out by Gatenby.) In that same period, Souster helped found the League of Canadian Poets.
One of the many unusual aspects of Souster's life is the way he earned his living. Most poets live by teaching, augmented by a little journalism, but Souster has never taught--and never written even a book review, so far as I know. He earned his living by working in a bank. Unlike another poet-banker, T.S. Eliot, he seems never to have looked for an alternative. In 1939, not long out of high school, he went into what is now the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. He left for four years in the RCAF, then returned to the same place and stayed there until retirement.
In 1956 Louis Dudek, introducing a selection of Souster's work, mentioned one of his main subjects, "his sordid and wondrous city, Toronto." Souster writes eloquently on nature, on war, and most passionately on love, his wife being his muse. But many of us think of him first as the poet-in-chief of Toronto. A city comes to life only after writers have invented it, and Souster has been among Toronto's inventors, adding a layer of poetic reality to the abstractions of asphalt, glass, and brick. His Toronto poems work like photographs in the Henri Cartier-Bresson tradition, inscribing small pieces of space and time on the memory, catching a moment as it flies. Whatever Raymond Souster touches, he leaves richer.
Since the 1950s I've known him a little. I think that once, just to be sure he wasn't fooling all of us, I called on him at the CIBC branch where he said he worked. He was there. I watched him, muscular and graceful in his grey suit, slide out from behind the counter to greet me, smiling his enigmatic smile. Or did I just dream that encounter? Souster, even in memory, remains elusive. That's the way he likes it.