Friday, March 19, 2010

The more things change...

The book has been lying around the house for months before I decide to pick it up. A relic really. Two men in the front cover photo looking for all the world like 1950 insurance salesmen: jacket, tie, Elvis Costello glasses – and then I remember that Wallace Stevens was an insurance agent…Actually no, Stevens was a senior VP in a Connecticut insurance firm. And so I relent. I pick up the book and remember with surprise why I bought it in the first place. Written by a prof of mine years ago: Frank Davey. Where is Frank these days? I wonder. And who, asks the guy raised on Eliot and Larkin, are Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster?

(l-r: Raymond Souster, Lena Souster, Avi Boxer, Bob Currie (on floor), Louis Dudek, Aileen Collins. Laurentian Hotel, Montreal, Autumn 1955.)

For 175 pages I try to find out. Early on they are the Duddy Kravitzes of mid-20th century Canadian poetry: Dudek, implausibly writing letters to Ezra Pound, then turning “legman” to the old loon following Dudek's visit to Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital. Souster, a member of the RCAF persuading Ralph Gustafson, Irving Layton and Miriam Waddington to publish their poems in his little magazine, Direction, mimeographing the lot on stolen RCAF paper and equipment along with portions of Henry Miller’s banned book Tropic of Cancer.

“They wanted,” Davey says of Souster and Dudek, “to become historically important both as emancipators of Canadian poetry and as the most original and talented writers of their time.”

Dudek and Souster first come together at a dinner hosted by John Sutherland whose new literary magazine First Statement preached in Davey’s words a “literary rebellion” that appealed to two young men anxious to make their mark. “Both perceived the relevance of Sutherland’s iconoclasm to their hopes for their own work and for Canadian poetry; more importantly, both recognized that Sutherland’s use of the “little magazine” form had deeply interwoven sociological and literary implications.”

Eventually Souster and Dudek would break from Sutherland, determined to cut their own path. Along the way they would establish, then kibosh through disagreement, youthful ineptitude or sheer exhaustion a half dozen magazine ventures: Direction; “Poetry Grapevine”; Enterprise; Contact; Combustion; Delta; CIV/n - virtually all of them mimeographed in Souster’s basement or carbon copied on Dudek’s typewriter and mailed without cover or wrapper “to anyone sufficiently interested to request it.”

Their most material accomplishment would be transforming the “little magazine” Contact into Contact Press, cornering the market on manuscripts by new poets by locating it “more precisely than could its commercial competitors” like Ryerson Press. But what's more striking than their need to feed their entrepreneurial instincts is their passion for poetry: Souster, intuitive, less cerebral than his friend resisted Dudek’s infatuation with Pound largely on grounds of feeling: “I know I get sloppy very often, too sentimental,” he exclaimed in 1965, “but I hope I never get Ezra Pound cold, Robert Creeley controlled.” That feeling is evident in Souster's “The Candy Floss of the Milkweed”:

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.

By contrast Dudek espoused a contradictory mix of abstract social and philosophical ideas and more audacious “action-inducing uses of language”. Ask Canadian poets, he writes in a letter to Souster in 1951, “to write again when they think they’ve said something straight from the shoulder, no monkey business. Goddamn decoration. All icing and no cake. All cake and no meat. We want something to chew into in a poem, not just words.’

Chew into this, says Dudek, from “A Street in April”:

There a pale head rising from an eyeless cavern
swivels twice above the street, and swiftly dips
back into the gloom of the skull, whose only lips
are the swinging tin plate and the canvas strips.

And here are infants too, in cribs, with wondrous eyes
at windows, the curtains raised upon a gasping room,
angelic in white diapers and bibs, to whom
the possibilities in wheels and weather – bloom.

But I have seen a dove gleaming and vocal with peace
fly over them, when his sudden wings stirred
and cast the trembling shadow of a metal bird;
so April’s without flower, and no song heard.

Dudek's poem is rather Yeatsian in manner, but powerful. Souster’s poem shows the influence of both Pound and Williams and is pretty good, too. These and other poems lend authenticity to their claims to be among the best Canadian poets of their generation. They also underpin the fascinating story of their collaboration.

Balance, equivocation or a fire in the belly?

I admire Raymond Souster enormously. It was he, more than Dudek, who drove the creation of the small magazines that the pair of them, together later with Irving Layton, would collaborate on. He also won the 1964 Governor General’s Award for The Colour of the Times and poems like the one cited above.

But for me the larger achievement belongs to Dudek whose role in bringing Canadian poetry out of a state of infancy Davey describes as “crucial”. It was, says Davey, a process whereby “Canadian poetry turned away from modernist austerity and existential despair and towards the expansions and affirmations which characterize post modernism.”

The statement makes my pulse quicken, not just for what it says, but for the fact it was said at all; that anyone should endeavor to summarize the thousands of particularities, the half or halting steps, the misgivings and hesitations, the halleluiah moments and moments of conscious failure that must comprise the work of a great many people over a long span of time – to attempt all this and to seem to get it right, is the thrill that comes all too infrequently from our reading.

So Davey says it and almost immediately you recognize how important it is not just for what it says about poetry a long time ago, but for what it says about poetry today, how the battle lines drawn in 1950 are virtually unchanged in the year 2010. Louis Dudek at the end was a morass of contradictions and competing impulses, Davey tells us – a latter day imagist committed to hard hitting clarity and economy of style, while at the same time writing in a vigorous, “fragmentary” fashion” culled from the organic processes of the “meditative” consciousness.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Economy of style, plainness and a preoccupation with “getting the image right” - to the point where contemporary poetry resembles nothing so much as a still life painting of Ken Dryden at the goal mouth – are today the distinguishing features of Canadian poetry. From the other end of the rink an effort to move the puck in ways we’re not used to, invoking greater playfulness, more adventurous deeks and turns, imprinting more vivacious, outraged pictures on the retinas of the opposing players and their fans – the Herculean efforts of a handful of poets who doubtless eschew hockey metaphors but for whom the intensity of the game is of equal importance. Guriel, Starnino, Wells, Outram, Lilburn, Babstock.

Would the arch rationalist Dudek have cut these poets any more slack than he did George Bowering in 1967 when he called Bowering’s work “light and flimsy”, or Victor Coleman whose poems he dubbed a “messy sort of doodling”? Likely not. Would Souster? Perhaps. Souster seemed less constrained by the iconoclasm that he and Dudek shared, less messianic in his intentions towards Canadian poetry – and perhaps for that reason more like us.

And what do we make of it, this desire to create, as Starnino calls it, a “meddlesome” poetry, poetry that risks seeming unpoetic, inclined to shake things up for no other reason than to shake us out of our doldrums? Where success and failure are not only not relative, but finally unimportant compared to the sheer will to make something on the page simply live.

Who are Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster finally? They are all of us.
Alas, Frank Davey’s eminently readable Louis Dudek & Raymond Souster (Douglas and McIntyre, 1981) is no longer in print, but should be available at most central libraries or through Open Library at


Conrad DiDiodato said...


an interesting (sympathetic)appraisal of Davey's book, particularly where the connections to uniquely Canadian sensibilities are drawn & celebrated.

I just revisited an old Blaser edition of Dudek's works, "Infinite Worlds" with which I'm only half-heartedly impressed. Re-reading Dudek, after all these years, brings back all my undergraduate frustrations of gibing professor's praises with work I felt then (as now)was middling to good. Dudek's characterization of the superior poet Bowering's work as "light and flimsy" is laughable.

Thanks for keeping the important CanLit discussion alive!

David Kosub said...

You're welcome, Conrad. Yes, I'm not a fan of all his poetry, but Dudek's story is compelling and he drove the conversation in a way that few others did in those days.


Harold Rhenisch said...

Ha ha ha.

Who are Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster finally? They are all of us

Answer: No They Are Not.

Oh, David, you tease.

If you were going to talk about Central Canadian poetry, at least you could have dragged in the far more accomplished Doug Jones and Ralph Gustafson.

But "All of us"?

Ha ha ha.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

All of the 'us' that is Central Canadian, classical, and to follow your metaphor, hockeyed, perhaps.

I wouldn't know.

If I'm going to read foreign poetries, I prefer central European ones.

Or at least Pound with the Laphroaig up rather than the Canadian Club.



David Kosub said...

Harold, that's my favourite scotch. Pity the original is no longer available in Canada.

Actually, I'm quite serious. Dudek and Souster are us to the extent that they represent competing strains in Canadian poetry, modernism versus post-modernism, the rational versus the intuitive, and that these approaches or paradigms tend to be national rather than strictly regional.

At the same time part of me resists the reductiveness implied here, something I think Davey avoids quite successfully by pointing out that ways of writing and talking about poetry often overlap or meld, as is particularly true of Dudek.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


thanks for saying what I didn't have the guts to say about Dudek, Souster.

By the way, just saw your website, and loved the piece on P.K.Page!We seem to have had the same sort of literary apprenticeship, except my university role models were dolts who actively discouraged anyone to express an original thought or write in a more individualistic style. Central Canada (i.e. McMaster in Hamilton) was not a great place for impressionable young English students to be.It's no wonder you've published so much.

Again, the honesty is refreshing.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Conrad. Yeah, Page was wonderful and not soon to be forgotten judging by Penn Kemp's delightful little story about her.

Thanks, too, for the kind remarks, though I'm not sure I'm saying anything particularly courageous; simply reporting and riffing a little on Frank Davey's account of Dudek and Souster.

I don't know much about McMaster U. Got my feet wet at St. Mary's in Halifax which had a great little English dept, then dipped them in a little deeper at York U where I took a contemporary lit course and a creative writing course from Frank. He has a lovely, slightly understated approach to teaching and a great sense of humour. Very knowledgeable and very helpful, too.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I'm not surprised to hear you come from Nova Scotia: in my opinion, a part of Canada that's produced our very best writers. My favourite poet will always be Alden Nowlan (if I ever travel East, and I will, my first stop will be his gravesite; favourite novelist, Ernest Buckler.David Adams Richards a close second. Which says a lot about my literary tastes.

You might be interested to know an article of mine on the sound poetry of Penn Kemp will appear in the April online edition of "Ascent Aspirations". I've had the privilege of meeting Penn and reviewing a sound poetry performance of hers that took place in London, Ontario last summer. P.K.Page was very much to Canada what Marianne Moore was to the States: nation's first lady, eloquent, elegant and masterful.

Again, thanks for keeping the literary debate alive. On a personal note, it's also good to feel that my opinions are always welcome (as they are here). In not a few Canadian poetry blogs I'm sometimes treated as if I were an alien or altogether ignored.The closed-mindedness of even some of our younger Canadian writers is sometimes very disheartening. I sometimes wish we were as 'democratic' as the Americans in that regard.

All the best!

David Kosub said...

All are welcome here, Conrad. Again, thanks for your kind remarks and your comments. We'll watch for your article on Penn.



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