A Delicate Balance: Craft in Raymond Souster’s Poetry

by Francis Mansbridge

    Raymond Souster’s poetry has been given a mixed reception by the critics. Negative comments have been numerous, particularly in regard to his approach to the craft of writing poetry. Hayden Carruth, for example, in a lengthy review of The Colour of the Times (1964), states that Souster believes technique to be “the property of the establishment, an academic thing he must reject to save his purity”.1 Michael Taylor, also reviewing The Colour of the Times, castigates Souster for “an unsure grasp of elementary technique”2 in such poems as “Litter” and “Room at the Top of the Stairs”. At the other extreme from Taylor’s attack is William Carlos Williams’ commendation (“Have confidence in yourself. You’ve got it.”3) and Hugh Kenner’s statement that “the Layton-Dudek-Souster group, along with several others in England and America constitute the poetry of the fifties”.4 Closer to home, and more directly related to craft, Fred Cogswell has noted Souster’s “great craftmanship and dedication”,5 and both Gary Geddes6 and Eli Mandel7 have made valuable contributions in their discussions of the nature of Souster’s poetic effects. Perhaps most helpful to an understanding of Souster’s craft are comments by Michael Gnarowski on “balance and equilibrium”8 as central to Souster’s poetics. With all this talent on Souster’s side it is tempting to appeal to authority, resting securely in the credentials of Souster’s supporters. But while there is an attractiveness to being possibly wrong with Williams and Kenner than right with Carruth and Taylor, it would be better yet to be right based on the evidence of the work itself. Carruth and Taylor have been far more careful in supporting their statements with specific references than some more sympathetic readers of Souster’s poetry who tend to drift into vague generalizations such as Dudek’s “[Souster’s poetry] has a sureness of touch and scope of vision that will amaze and delight futurity”,9 or Jonas, “it is hard not to be affected by his spell”.10

    While it would be doing Souster an injustice to claim that all, or even the greater number, of his poems embody a mastery of the craft, a small but appreciable number repay a close critical reading. Many of his better poems maintain a delicate ironic poise, barely avoiding the self-indulgent sentimentality which weakens much of his work. This poise, or “balance and equilibrium”11 as Gnarowski terms it, is at the heart of Souster’s poetry; it is often achieved through a subtle interplay of images and ideas. “The Penny Flute”, first published in 1941, provides a good example of Souster’s ability to stain complex tensions within a poem:

On the side street as we came along it in the darkness
an old man, hat beside him on the pavement, was playing
       a penny flute.
The sound was small and sweet, a whisper beside the machinery
of the cloth factory across the street (almost as if he wasn’t          playing
for an audience, only for himself).

            I wondered
who he was, how long he’d been standing there
piping that thin string of music.
            But we were late
    for where we were going
and young and impatient: we didn’t have time for old men
    and thin lonely tunes,
especially tunes played on a penny flute.

(Colour of the Times, p. 1 )

Major contrasts in this poem, which help create a delicate balance, are beteen youth and age, camaraderie and solitude, the restless mobility of the youths with the old man’s immobility and apparent contentment to stay where he is, and the “small”, “sweet” sound of the flute with the noise of the factory. Describing the music as a “thin string” may imply a further contrast between this metaphorical string and the very material thread, or string, used in the cloth factory. The poet strikes a delicate balance between the art, represented by the old man’s music, and the society, represented by the young people and the cloth factory, who are at best indifferent to art. Overtones of the Good Samaritan story, with the narrator and his friends passing by on the other side of the old man, give an added resonance to the poem.

    “Dominion Square”, another early poem, also employs a middle class narrator, somewhat older and more self-aware than the narrator of “A Penny Flute”:

They wouldn’t understand my haste
in getting out of the rain, in leaving this cold
wind-blowing night for the tavern’s
warm heart, for its hot, steaming food,
much beer, and the subtle music
     of the violin:
they seem almost a part of the rain
like the policeman in the white cape, white rubber boots to the        thighs,
who stands in the centre of the traffic
and directs with a sure hand:
            They seem almost a part of the night,
     these two lovers,
with their slow lingering steps, their total unawareness
of everything in this city but their love, the strength,
     the honest lust in their bodies touching
as they walk across the Square . . .

(Colour of the Times, p. 8)

Parallel structures help create a unity and balance in the poem. “They almost seem a part of the rain” is repeated, with the last word changed to “night”, with other parallel constructions occurring in the third and fourth lines, and the fourth last line of the poem. The comfortable world of the tavern, with its hot food, its beer, its warmth, and its soft violin music, is associated with the narrator and middle class comfort. These are opposed to the “honest lust” of the young lovers, to the rain, and to the policeman directing traffic. The haste of the narrator contrasts to the “slow lingering” movement of the lovers, while his consciousness of his surroundings is balanced by the lovers’ oblivion to everything except each other. His isolation highlights their communion, while the whiteness of the policeman’s rainwear stands out against the darkness of the night. The two worlds are linked by the narrator’s feelings of painful loss and isolation. This feeling of loss, or of an inability to make contact with a world of spontaneity and freedom which exist just beyond the grasp of the narrator, informs much of his poetry, giving it a bitter-sweet poignancy.

    It is interesting that in “Dominion Square”, “The Penny Flute”, and many other of his poems, the narrator is placed on the side of the philistines. The poet reveals a wry sense of humour in the creation of a middle class narrator, which is complemented by a more “poetic” mask, more common in his earlier poetry, assumed for denunciation of the injustices of society. The latter mask allows less scope for humour, while the former allows a greater use of ironic distance. Even in the types of narrators employed, then, opposites are created.

    As Souster progresses in his poetic career, use of opposites to create an artistic balance continues. But, at least in his better poems, this balance becomes more subtly implied through the patterns of imagery rather than the more direct statements in the two poems previously discussed. “The Candy Floss of the Milkweed”, first published in 1959, provides a good example of this later approach:

Softer, more delicate
than the skin of any girl
who ever walked up Yonge Street,
the candy floss of the milkweed
carried by the wind
to the farthest corners
of the valley
(valley dead
and dying with autumn)

a first snow
already lightly falling,
but carrying life
not death
wherever it touches
however carelessly the earth.

(Colour of the Times, p. 72)

Contrasts exist even in the title of this poem, as candy floss is man-made, artificial, and short-lived, while milkweed fluff, in spite of its superficial physical resemblance, natural, and, as a seed, a harbinger of life. The first association of the milkweed fluff are with the skin of a girl, another image suggesting vitality, although this is immediately countered by the introduction of the regularity of a city street. In the second stanza the milkweed is asociated with the wind and valley, both apparently natural, vital forces, although it appears that the locale of the poem could be either the city or the country. If the city, the valley would not be a natural valley, but the unnatural chasm of a skyscraper-lined street. This urban valley would be twice-dead — once because it is in the city, and again because it is dying with the autumn of the year. In the third stanza the milkweed is associated with snow, an image generally linked with death in Souster’s poetry. Yet because it is a seed it carries the potentiality for life wherever it touches the earth. Yet if the poem is set in the city, the life it brings will find no encouragement. So opposites flow out, one from the other, multiplying in complexity with the progress of the poem.

    When Souster turns to more traditional forms of poetic expression, the effects are not always as felicitous as in the above poems. Here, too, the poems often turn on a delicate ironic balance, but Souster often finds the formal restrictions of stanza and rhyme a straitjacket that hinders his delineation of the tensions of modern urban life. Forms closely followed should produce a distancing effect between the poet and his poem, enabling him to objectify his emotion under the discipline of a self-imposed restraint; but Souster’s use of traditional forms often produces a quite different effect, as evidenced by the poem “At Split Rock Falls”:

At Split Rock Falls I first saw my death
in a sudden slip the space of a breath;
my windmill body met the crazy shock
of uncounted centuries of stubborn rock.

At Split Rock Falls I saw green so green
it was as though grass had never been;
in the dappled depths of that pure pool
my face looked at me, recognized a fool.

From Split Rock Falls as I came away
the hint of a rainbow topped the spray,
and the trees tossed down. O let nothing matter
if not beautiful, swift as that singing water.

(Colour of the Times, p. 66)

Souster apparently considered this an important poem, as it was ordinally published separately in a chapbook by American Letters Press in 1963. The narrator is again the outsider in a scene of pulsating life. His encounter with the scene is met with immediate frustration and a vision of his death. Positive feelings aroused by the natural beauty of the scene are balanced by his sense of being an intruder; the water reflects back to him nothing more than his own fool’s head. But while the experience, apparently involving a near accident at a falls, may have been important for the poet, its poetic equivalent has serious defects. The diction is trite and unimaginative (“uncounted centuries”; “green so green”). “Crazy” is a favourite word in Souster’s poetry; as used here it lacks precision. It is often difficult for the poet to combine the conversational idiom with the exactness necessary for all good poetry.

    The handling of the meter in “At Split Rock Falls” is often awkward. The rhythmic pattern is established in the first line as iambic tetrameter, but the frequent insertion of extra syllables and the unresolved tension between the form and the demands imposed on it by the content, make the rhythm rough and jerky. The last line of the first stanza, “of uncounted centuries of stubborn rock”, contains seven unaccented syllables and only four accented. The three unaccented syllables together are particularly awkward. Only the last stanza reveals some metric felicity, and here the diction, with rainbows and “singing waters” is stale. Souster’s unobtrusive irony and melancholic detachment are generally more effective in poems which are able to find their expression in the flexibility of more open forms.

    With some exceptions such as the above, most of Souster’s poems in traditional forms were published in the 1940’s. Some of those in which the forms are handled in such a fluid manner that their presence is unobtrusive are moderately successful. In “Point Duchene” the narrator is again left in melancholic solitude, haunted by memories of the past and a lost love, depressed by his present isolation:

O the little cottages are all asleep,
the bus with the last passenger is gone,
the ocean licks in slowly over the misty flats,
and the present is drawn

shut and the past invades, invades
the all-too-silent silence of the room,
and the warm night at the window is just the night,
and the bed without you colder than the tomb.

(Colour of the Tunes, p. 7)

The rhetorical opening and the repetition in the second stanza (“invades, invades”; “all-too-silent silence”) detract from the conversational tone, but the avoidance of a set metric pattern, variation in line length, and enjambment between stanzas, all help to divert attention from the fact that in rhyme and number of lines the form used is that of the quatrain. Traditional forms are used by Souster mainly in his early years of writing poetry, perhaps before he was sure of his authentic voice and was still experimenting to ascertain its true nature. His use of the language of common speech is seldom quite at home with these forms.

    Souster is most effective in forms which allow him to explore what he appears to view in his poetry as the precarious relationships between the individual and others around him in a modern urban environment. Blank spaces, generally one line in length, are often used to emphasize the isolation of the individual. The most likely impetus for his use of this technique was his reading of Williams beginning in 1952; in May of that year Louis Dudek had given him a copy of Williams’ Later Collected Poems.12 From the late fifties on Souster uses this device a great deal, while early poems republished in later collections are often revised to incorporate the benefits of this spatial arrangement. If the pause given to the space when reading the poem is equivalent to the length of time it would take to read if words were in the space, the effect is generally that of emphasizing the quiet, introspective tone of his poetry. With the conversational, laconic idiom he employs, the spaces seem a natural, almost inevitable accompaniment. Often they correspond to the blank spaces that exist in conversation, those moments of Forsterian “panic and emptiness” which are a part of modern life for so many:

“Death by Streetcar”

The old lady crushed to death by the Bathurst streetcar
had one cent left in her purse.
            Which could mean only
one of two things: either she was wary of purse-snatchers
or all her money was gone.
            If the latter,
she must have known that her luck must very soon change
for better or for worse:
            which this day had decided.

(Colour of the Times, p. 49)

The tone of this poem is matter-of-fact, a terse but emotional rendering of an urban accident. The blank spaces suggest the narrator pausing a moment to reflect on the implications of what he has just said. The reader, led to do the same, is drawn more completely into the world of the poem. This technique also has the effect of dividing a poem into stanzas, but with less formality than the traditional fashion, which tends to seal the stanzas into self-contained units. The advantages of stanza breaks are acquired without the formality that might be unsuitable for his poetry.

    These blank spaces also render “nothingness” an integral part of the poem, thus giving it a positive existence. But then the blank space of the page surrounding the poem becomes a further extension of the nothingness enclosed within the poem. Applied to the content, the implication is that this is a small event in a tiny known area surrounded by a void. Even here the narrator’s knowledge is drastically limited. There is no attempt at emotional identification with her situation, as the narrator is safely detached, perhaps reading of the event in a newspaper, or watching it on television. The black humour of the second line, with its ironic parody of the marriage vows, harmonizes with the detached tone. This objective view of an urban accident implies a dark vision of the world, one that is communicated in much of Souster’s poetry.

    Yet although Souster often dwells on the negative experiences of life, in most of his best poetry there is a calm acceptance of the pain as well as the joy of life which prevents his poetry from lapsing into a mindless pessimism. Fantasy and whimsy provide ways of coping with, or perhaps escaping from, the pressures of urban life. “Night of Snow” combines fantasy with a balanced structure and use of sound to enhance the meaning:

Night of snow
slow sifting down
drifting shifting and piling over streets,
fences, houses, skyscrapers,
piling over and spilling down
till all the world is swallowed up
by one last fragile shivering
flake of snow.

(Colour of the Times, p. 69)

The reptition of “i” and long “o” sounds, the internal rhyme of the first three lines (“snow”-“slow”; “sifting”-“drifting”-“shifting”), and the reptition of “down” and “piling over” enforce the melancholic peace of the poem, while the lengthening lines suggest the deepening of the snow, until in fantasy even the house and skyscrapers are buried. The choice of such words as “down” to suggest both the direction of the snow’s fall and its feathery qualities also adds to the subtlety of the poem, while the symmetrical arrangement of the lines enforces the finality of the ending. “Night of snow” is echoed by “flake of snow” in both grammatical structure and vocabulary.

    Souster’s technical accomplishments and approaches to his craft are, admittedly, less than breathtaking. His poetic range is narrow, and the techniques he employs correspondingly modest. But through years of experimentation he ascertained those techniques which are most suitable to the expression of his vision of the world. Souster has a perennial ability to be purpled with joy at the most apparently insignificant events, and the ability to communicate this joy in a lucid manner. He also has the ability to enter the dark underside of life, and give articulate expression to the isolation and frustration which for many are the key-notes of our time. In many poems the joy and despair interpenetrate in a fascinating manner to give a delicately ironic view of what it is like for one man to be alive in a contemporary urban world.


  1. Hayden Carruth, “To Souster from Vermont,” Tamarach Review 34 (Winter 1965): p. 82.[back]

  2. Michael Taylor, “Bad Times,” Edge 3 (Autumn 1964): p. 108.[back]

  3. William Carlos Williams to Raymond Souster, 28 June 1952. This letter is published in its entirety in Island, 17 September 1964, p. 47. A substantial portion is also published in Gary Geddes, “A Cursed and Singular Blessing,” Canadian Literature 54 (Autumn 1972): p.28.[back]

  4. Hugh Kenner, “Columbus’s Log-Book”, Poetry 92 (June 1958): p. 177.[back]

  5. Fred Cogswell, “Poet Alive”, Canadian Literature 13 (Summer 1962): p. 71.[back]

  6. Garry Geddes, “A Cursed and Singular Blessing,” Canadian Literature 54 (Autumn 1972): p. 28.[back]

  7. Eli Mandel, “Internal Resonances”, Canadian Literature 17 (Summer 1963): pp. 62-65.[back]

  8. Michael Gnarowski, “Raymond Souster: au dessus de la Melee?”, Culture 26 (March 1965): p. 62.[back]

  9. Louis Dudek, “Groundhog Among the Stars,” Canadian Literature 22 (Autumn 1964): p. 48.[back]

  10. George Jonas, “It is Hard Not to Be Affected by His Spell,” Saturday Night (December 1971): pp. 35-36. Hi. lo[back]

  11. Michael Gnarowski, Ibid.[back]

  12. Raymond Souster, “Some Afterthought on Contact Magazine,” in Michael Gnarowski, Index to Contact Magazine, (Montreal: Delta Canada, 1966): p. 1.[back]