Somehow we don't expect poets to be bankers. But Raymond Souster who passed away on October 19, at the age of 91 combined the job of writing his lucid lyrical poetry with a job at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce foreign exchange for the first forty six years of his career.
He didn't write like the one percent though. He had a gritty lean immediate style that frequently addressed issues of the day. It's a mode of poetry also exemplified by poets like Al Purdy and Milton Acorn-and often called by its modern day exponents, People's Poetry.
In keeping with that categorization Souster wasn't just a banker and a poet, he was an infrastructure worker as well. In the barely postcolonial literary world of the 50s, he along with Louis Dudek and Irving Layton, started Contact Press one of the first artist run publishing houses in Canada. Thereby he helped foster the works of Leonard Cohen and Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and Canada's first poet laureate, George Bowering.
"When I was trying to start out," says Bowering, "I was reading Layton, Dudek and Souster. I felt as if I were learning most from Souster. That's partly why I wanted my first real book to be published by Contact Press and why I was so damned glad that it was. I know that Ray had most to do with that."
The ‘master-gatherer' and poet John Robert Colombo (Colombo's Canadian Quotations) recalls Souster fondly:
"Ray served as the still centre of poetry in Toronto. He established a north pole to complement the south pole of the academics. He single-handedly introduced Modernism in poetry to the city. He also corresponded with many of the movers and shakers of American poetry - notably Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara, Robert Creeley, LeRoi Jones - and brought them to Toronto to read at a series of fabled readings at the old Greenwich Gallery and the later Isaacs Gallery. Not for nothing was he known as the Dean of Toronto Poets."
If you or your child has ever experienced a poetry reading at school, it was likely through an initiative of the league of Canadian poets-an outfit cofounded and first presidented by the unassuming Souster.
After a life of forty-one volumes of currently enduring poetry, two novels and uncountable foreign-exchange transactions, the venerable Raymond Souster's good works live on not only between the covers of his volumes of poetry but in the form of an award established last year in his name by the League of Canadian Poets.
But the true award for Souster was the joy of writing the poetry itself. Or as he put it in his poem, The thundering horse:
"for better or for worse you're hooked/must ride the thundering horse/hanging on any way you can/not the most graceful way to go/but even to be allowed to touch those great white flanks/ is a privilege and pleasure''