Toronto poet Raymond Souster dies at 91

Raymond Souster, a prolific Toronto poet who helped advance the careers of some of Canada's most famous writers, has died at the age of 91.

Co-founded Contact Press, early publisher of Atwood, Ondaatje, Bowering

Raymond Souster, the prolific Toronto poet who helped advance the careers of Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and some of Canada’s most famous writers, has died.

Souster died in Toronto on Friday at the age of 91.

Raymond Souster wrote more than 50 works of poetry, much of it about Toronto. (Sheldon Grimson/Representative Poetry Online)

A resident of Toronto all his life, Souster's folksy poetry focused on the city, highlighting the daily lives of ordinary people and the experiences of city living.

Critic Robert Fulford called him "the poet-in-chief of Toronto," praising him for "catching a moment as it flies."

"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," Fulford wrote in 1998.

Souster won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1964 for his Collected Poems, The Colour of the Times. He also won the Toronto Book Award in 1980 for Hanging In and was nominated a second time for Uptown Downtown in 2006. Over the years, he published more than 50 volumes of poetry, three of fiction and also edited many poetry collections.

Influential publishing house

He was also enormously influential as a co-founder of Contact Press, a publisher of poetry that opened doors for writers such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.

Discovering there were too few outlets for poetry — especially experimental poetry — in Canada, Souster formed the publishing house with Irving Layton and Louis Dudek in 1952. They also launched and edited Contact magazine at the same time.

The three poets published their own work, but also writing by poets such as P.K. Page, Phyllis Webb, Eli Mandel, Leonard Cohen, Alden Nowlan, Milton Acorn, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Frank Davey, George Bowering and John Newlove. They translated the work of Québécois poets Roland Giguère, Anne Hébert and Alain Grandbois, among others.

Souster also revived the writing of 1920s modernist poet W.W.E. Ross and gave exposure to young writers in the anthologies he edited, including Poets 56 in 1956 and New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Poetry in 1966.

Atwood’s first poetry collection with Contact, The Circle Game, won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1966.

Contact Press lasted 15 years and served as model for author-owned, non-commercial literary publishing in Canada.

Lifelong Torontonian

Raymond Holmes Souster was born Jan. 15, 1921 and educated at University of Toronto Schools and Humberside Collegiate. He worked in a chartered bank from 1939 until his retirement in 1985, living most of his life in Toronto’s Junction area.

He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force ground crew from 1941 to 1945, with a brief stint in England. In 1943, while still in the air force, Souster and two friends launched a poetry magazine called Direction. It was one of three poetry publications he launched and edited. Contact lasted just two years. The third was Combustion, which ran from 1957 to 1960.

A Canadian nationalist, he believed in advancing and advocating for Canadian voices and championed small, independent presses. From 1969 to 2003, he published more than 20 poetry collections with Ottawa’s Oberon Press, among them Jubilee of Death: The Raid on Dieppe, It Takes All Kinds and Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Drawing on his Air Force experience, he published fiction under the pseudonyms Raymond Holmes and John Holmes.

Souster was co-founder and first president of the League of Canadian Poets, serving from 1967 to 1971. When he was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 1995, his citation paid tribute to his work as a poet, editor and shaper of the Canadian literary scene.

"One of Canada's most important, widely-read and enduring poets, he has been a vital force for the renewal of poetry since the 1940s," it read.

"His poems describe life in Toronto, ordinary people and the daily events, feelings and experiences of modern city living. A co-founder of the Canadian League of Poets, he has been a source of encouragement and inspiration to several generations of poets while promoting Canadian literature among students of all ages."

On his last birthday, Jan. 15, a tribute for Souster was held in Toronto and an annual writing prize in his name —sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets — announced. However, he was unable to attend due to health reasons.