Davey on Dudek and Souster

Frank Davey, Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1980. viii, 200 pp.

Frank Davey's book on Dudek and Souster is the first extended critical study of either poet to appear, and as such it is a welcome addition to the "Studies in Canadian Literature" series. Souster in particular, for all the bulk of his work and despite the consensus as to his influence on other poets as writer and editor, has attracted very little appraisal beyond reviews of individual books. The two poets have obviously distinct styles and approaches to the poem, but their friendship and joint literary endeavours make their pairing in a critical study an acceptable and useful one. The book is divided evenly between a consideration of each of the two, with three chapters devoted to Dudek's work and three to Souster's. An introductory chapter examines their work as editors and publishers, and the final chapter attempts to place their poetry within the developing tradition of Canadian modernism.

    Davey's approach combines the phenomenological and the Marxist, and though these two methods may ultimately be irreconcilable, they coexist comfortably in this book, despite occasional lapses into authoritarian jargon. Of course as a poet of the postmodern persuasion himself, Davey is acutely conscious of the dangers of academic criticism, and these he is able by and large to avoid. One must also consider that he is aware of the fact that these two poets prepared the way for the generation of which Davey is himself a part (Contact Press published Bridge Force, his first major collection); and in light of this, he has produced a remarkably fair and objective book.

     In chapter one, Davey presents the first extended narrative to relate the rise and fall of the press and magazines with which Dudek and Souster were involved. Here, as throughout the book, he has relied heavily on unpublished letters and other material, and the result is clearly an original and long overdue examination of Contact, Combustion, Delta, and CIV / n, as well as Contact Press, all of which were vitally important vehicles for Canadian poetry in the 1950's and early 1960's. Davey points out that Souster and Dudek began their activities as editors and publishers partly out of a conviction that the large publishing houses were uninterested in poetry because it was not a commercial commodity. While this is basically true — Dudek addresses the matter in Literature and the Press and Souster mentions it in his preface to Rain-Check — Davey, I think, overstates the case. Macmillan, for example, published books for almost 40 years before their trade division began to make a profit. Of course their poetry list included such titles as Brief to Beauty, but surely it is an exaggeration to say that such publishers "treat literature as commodity rather than art". Davey's belief that "Souster's resistance to the commodity culture extended beyond his writing to his publishing ventures" leads him to state that "most of the Contact Press books [Souster] produced were mimeographed." This is simply not true: of the 49 books published by Contact, only seven were mimeographed.

    The middle six chapters comprise the critical study of the poets' works. Davey keeps a nice balance between close study of individual texts and criticism of a more general nature. He begins by investigating Dudek's notion of "functional poetry," and points out how ratiocination and meditation first entered Dudek's work clearly in The Transparent Sea, and from then on dominated his books. He then goes on to examine the long poems Europe, En Mexico and Atlantis, which obviously (despite their shortcomings) appeal to him as forerunners of the long poems and serial poems of the 1960's and 1970's. Chapter four, an earlier version of which was published in 1978 in Open Letter, deals with Dudek's activities as scholar and theorist; and as it concludes with a glance at Dudek's public statements about Souster, it leads handily into the next three chapters, in which Souster's work is examined.

    It is in approaching Souster's poetry that Davey's Marxism becomes too doctrinaire and his critical language overlarded with jargon. Souster's work itself does open the way to this sort of approach — the by now famous cripples and ecdyasists lined up on one side and facing the by now infamous businessmen, technocrats and generals on the other — but Souster's social realism is not as intellectualized as Davey makes it out. He quotes from one of Souster's letters to Cid Corman: "I'm afraid the surface of most things is attractive enough for me — let me lead people to them, make them aware of them — and let them take the deeper meaning as it hits them." Well, perhaps this is sufficient authority for Davey to fit a Marxist politics and poetics onto Souster's work, but to my mind he overemphasizes Souster's alleged "Marxist avoidance of description, didactic content or the commodity fetishism of the aesthetic object."

    In his final chapter, Davey recapitulates some of his contentions and places Dudek and Souster within the defining circle of Canadian and international Modernism. In his remarks on individual poems and books Davey is frequently severe, but in this chapter he grants the two poets their due as seminal figures in modern Canadian poetry. In so doing he is, if anything, somewhat chary. Souster's correspondence with the Black Mountain poets certainly shows that his dissatisfactions with the limited achievement of Canadian poetry up to the 1950's were at least as great as his unhappiness with the media available to poets for the publication of their work, which latter Davey is at greater pains to emphasize. Souster's letters to Olson, Creeley and Corman demonstrate clearly that he was looking to the United States for the lead in contemporary poetry; and he himself played no small part, through Contact and the Contact Poetry Readings, in opening up Canadian poetry to the American influence that would become so dominant in the 1960's. "Whatever the exact extent of their influence," writes Davey, "Dudek and Souster helped enlarge, enrich and modernize Canadian literary perspectives." Davey's book goes a very long way toward establishing the nature and degree of this influence. It is, at the same time, a serious and readable study of two poets whose work is, in and of itself, an important part of the literature of Canada since 1945.

Bruce Whiteman