It was cloudy on Saturday morning as a small group of people gathered in a sunken area off Bloor Street West in Toronto – an area known by its residents as Swansea. The occasion was the dedication of a plaque beside a set of concrete stairs leading to Willard Gardens Parkette. The plaque honours the late poet Raymond Souster, a longtime area resident and one of the key figures in modern Canadian poetry.
Among the gathered crowd were two of Toronto’s poets laureate: the current laureate, George Elliott Clarke, and the first laureate, Dennis Lee.
“It is true that I was the city’s first official poet laureate, from 2001 to 2004,” Lee told the small crowd in his prepared remarks, “but everybody knows that from the 1940s on, the pioneering poet laureate of Toronto was Raymond Souster. He imagined us into poetic existence in the thousand images and vignettes that make up his testament, a mosaic of life in the city that he jousted with and loved.”
A banker by trade, Souster was a resident of the Swansea neighbourhood for most of his life, spending the years between 1947 and 1964 at a house on Mayfield Avenue, out of which he composed 13 volumes of poetry and inaugurated Contact Press, which Lee calls “the most important poetry press in English Canada” at the time.
Souster was “Mr. Toronto,” says Clarke, “very down to Earth, someone who was connected very poignantly to the everyday lives of Torontonians, to the life of the city. Someone who had a great deal of compassion, but compassion mixed with a sense of wonder.”
Clarke compares Souster to American poets Wallace Stevens and Carl Sandburg, and to a modernist version of Robert W. Service. “But an urbanized and imagist sensibility as opposed to a more Whitmanesque ballad tradition.”
Author and journalist Joe Fiorito points to the influence of the Black Mountain poets on Souster’s work, and asserts that Souster helped bring Canadian poetry “out of the bush and into the towns and the cities.”
“He’s who we have instead of Frank O’Hara,” Fiorito says. “The identification with the city: he’s of the sidewalks, of the downtown.” Along with modernist poets such as F.R. Scott and Earle Birney, Fiorito says, Souster “helped Canadian poetry to grow up.”
Souster’s fidelity to the urban environment, and the west-end patch of Toronto he called home, served as the inspiration for Saturday’s unveiling, which was the brainchild of Clarke. When the poet laureate first approached Toronto councillor Sarah Doucette with the suggestion of erecting a commemorative plaque by the stairs that Souster traversed so often during his lifetime, Doucette says, “I knew I couldn’t say no. We had to do this.”
“Ray loved this park,” says John Robert Colombo, who was present as a representative of the League of Canadian Poets, an organization Souster helped found. “He did not love the new name of the park. I don’t think he knew who Mr. Willard was. … He didn’t mind the word ‘gardens,’ but the word ‘parkette’? No! He would never use that. I’m sure the League of Poets has a list of words you don’t use and parkette is one of those.”
Souster’s importance to the city and to Canadian poetry was clear from everyone who ventured out to the unveiling ceremony, including the current owners of the Mayfield Avenue house in which the poet lived. They have agreed to have a second plaque erected on their property as part of the Toronto Legacy Project (an initiative spearheaded by Lee during his time as poet laureate).
Donna Dunlop, Souster’s literary executor who cared for the ailing poet in the final years of his life, calls him “my best friend.” Dunlop attended the unveiling bearing another piece of good news: there is a new collection of Souster poems in the offing. Come Rain, Come Shine: The Last Poems of Raymond Souster will appear from Contact Press later this year.
In his extemporaneous remarks during the ceremony, Clarke summed up the impact of Souster’s poetry on him this way: “It is very inviting, accessible at every level. He expresses a childlike love at what is simple and consternation at what is difficult, especially war and poverty and other violations of the human spirit. To me, he’s a kind of CCF poet – not necessarily of socialism, but in terms of what I like to describe as the citizenship of caring.” During the ceremony to commemorate the newly anointed “Souster Steps,” the clouds parted and the sun appeared. One likes to think that Souster would have approved.
This post first appeared on That Shakespearean Rag.