Raymond Souster’s Letters to Charles Olson

Edited and with an Introduction by Bruce Whiteman

In the past few years a good deal of attention has been focussed on Tish magazine and the influential role it played in introducing American post modernist poetics into Canada.1  As useful as these investigations have been, they have tended to obscure the fact that long before the first issue of Tish appeared in mid-1961, the poetics of the writers associated with Origin and the Black Mountain Review had been made available in Canada through Contact and Combustion, Raymond Souster’s Toronto-based little magazines. The history of Contact, and of the press of the same name which developed from it, has been told by Michael Gnarowski.2 Some of the details of Souster’s involvement with the post-war school of American poets have, however, been left unexplored. Fortunately, some of Souster’s letters to Charles Olson have survived, and it is hoped that the publication of these letters may help to amplify Gnarowski’s work on Souster and on the history of the poetry scene in Canada in the 1950’s.3

     There are fifteen letters in the group, and they span the years 1952-1965, a period which began with Contact and ended not long before the final Issue of Combustion.4 Louis Dudek had brought to Souster’s attention the first two issues of Origin (devoted respectively to Charles Olson and Robert Creeley) in the summer of 1951.5 Souster’s interest was eventually roused, and he wrote to Cid Corman, the editor of Origin, who at that time was living in Boston. Corman put Souster in touch with Robert Creeley, and, as the first of these letters shows, Creeley suggested that he write to Olson, who was then teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. A small correspondence ensued; some of Olson’s work appeared subsequently in Contact and Combustion; and Olson later came twice to Toronto to read in the Contact Poetry Readings series.6

     With the cessation of Combustion the correspondence between the two fell off. If Olson replied to Souster’s request for material for the “anniversary” issue of Combustion (see letter #15), his letter has been lost. But the few of Olson’s letters to Souster which have survived reveal his respect and admiration for Souster’s activities and work. One short letter closes: “And you with yr little machine in yr basement make the most LUCID magazine — in the world!”7

     Souster, for his part, wrote two poems about Olson,8 and by an editorial mistake had one of his poems included in Olson’s collected poems, Archaeologist of Morning.9  Notwithstanding his friendship with Olson and his activities on behalf of the American school in general, Souster’s poetry showed no particularly dramatic change during the period of Contact and Combustion. By his own admission, it was William Carlos Williams who had the greatest impact on the achievement of his mature style.10 Souster encouraged, published, and propagandized for the new American poetry, but he never confused its aims with his own.

     Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following: to Raymond Souster, for his generosity in responding to my questions, and for granting his permission to allow the letters to be published; to George F. Butterick, curator of the Olson Archives at the University of Connecticut Library, for making copies of the letters available to me and for allowing me to quote from Olson’s unpublished letters to Souster; and to Lakehead University Library, which owns the aforementioned letters and kindly provided me with copies of them.

    Notes to Introduction

  1. See Frank Davey, ed., Tish No. 1-19 (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1975); C.H. Gervais, ed., The Writing Life: Historical & Critical Views of the Tish Movement, with an introduction by Frank Davey (Coatsworth: Black Moss Press 1976); and Keith Richardson, Poetry and the Colonized Mind: Tish, with a preface by Robin blather (Oakville and Ottawa: Mosaic Press/Valley Editions, 1976).[back]

  2. Michael Gnarowski, Contact 1952-1954: Being an Index to the contents of Contact, a little magazine edited by Raymond Souster, together with notes on the history and the background of the periodical, with “Some Afterthoughts on Contact Magazine” by Raymond Souster (Montreal: Delta Canada, 1966) and Contact Press 1952-1967: A Note on its Origins and a Check List of Titles (Montreal: Delta Canada, 1971).[back]

  3. These letters are now housed in the Charles Olson Archive in the University of Connecticut Library at Storrs.[back]

  4. The final issue of Combustion was published jointly as the sixth issue of Victor Cole man’s magazine Island.  It is undated, but a letter from Souster to Cid Corman, now in the library of the University of New Brunswick, shows that it appeared sometime not long before July 2,1966.[back]
  5. Raymond Souster, “Some Afterthoughts on Contact Magazine,” in Gnarowski, Contact 1952-1954, p. 1.[back]

  6. See letters 11 and following and the notes thereto. An early version of Olson’s “I, Maximus of Gloucester, To You” had appeared in the third issue of Contact before the correspondence began.[back]

  7. Charles Olson, letter to Raymond Souster of January 17, 1958, now in the library of Lakehead University.  Quoted with the permission of the Estate of Charles Olson.[back]

  8. See “The Ax to Max” in Place of Meeting: Poems 1958-1960 (Toronto: Gallery Editions, 1962), p. 16 (this poem was later retitled “Cutty Sark” when it was revised for inclusion in Rain-Check (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1975), p. 150, and “The Ford Hotel Coming Down” in Extra Innings (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1977), pp. 10-11.[back]

  9. The poem in question is “Queen Street Burle-Q”. It was first published, unsigned, in Combustion #1 (January 1957), p. 6, where it followed Olson’s poem “The Loves of Anat, 1”. As Souster explained (in a letter to the present writer): “I had a little space left on Page 6 of the first number so inserted my short poem as a space-filler . . . As editor of Combustion I didn’t want my name to appear on any of the material used in the mag.” George F.  Butterick and Albert Glover, the editors of Archaeologist of Morning and Olson’s bibliographers, understandably assumed that “Queen Street Burle-Q” was by Olson and hence included it in the Olson book, which was published after the poet’s death.  Souster later revised the poem for inclusion in Ten Elephants on Yonge Street (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1965), p. 74.[back]

  10. Raymond Souster, “Afterthoughts,” p. 1.[back]