Raymond Souster: Toronto poet and sometime-beatnik

I can tell from the sunlight on the window sill that this day means business. 

Raymond Souster was sometimes called the Bard of Toronto. Or street-poet-in-residence. One fellow poet called him “Canada’s Homer,” because at the end of his life, although totally blind, he continued to write and publish his poetry .

Last week I wrote Souster’s obituary.

Today I’ll fill in a few blanks: historical bits too lengthy and supplementary to include in the Globe and Mail piece.

Souster wasn’t quite a beatnik but he hung out with them at the old Bohemian Embassy coffeehouse on St. Nicholas Street, back in the dawn of the 60s when Toronto-the-good tried a little bit bad.

“I feel that it was baptism by fire because it was dark and you read on the stage,” said Margaret Atwood about the venue. “The washrooms opened right onto the room and every time someone used it a flood of light would fill the room.

“They also had what I think was the first espresso machine in Toronto which always seemed to be in use during the most dramatic points in the reading.”

It was on the second floor of a disused warehouse. Up a treacherous flight of wooden stairs into a dimly lit, smoke-filled room with black walls and small tables with checkered cloths and dripping candles.

Atwood shared a stage with Souster there. Later, she convinced him, who along with Irving Layton and Louis Dudek started up Contact Press, to release her first volume of poetry. The Circle Game not only released her onto a wider stage but also won her a Governor General’s award in 1966.

Atwood I can imagine at the Bohemian coffeehouse, her hair askew and her voice Atwoodian. Souster–not quite.

Raymond Souster was a conservative fellow who even so danced to the beat of the street. His true love was his wife Rosalia to whom he dedicated each of his 50 books of poetry. But Lia was agoraphobic and he preferred evenings at home with her to mucking about with the passionate crowd on St. Nicholas.

Some more history: The Bohemiam Embassy also featured Gwendolyn MacEwen, Milton Acorn, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, and Michael Ondaatje. To name but a few.

Bob Dylan came to a reading when he was 17.

Peter, Paul and Mary hung out there and maybe played with candle wax.

A young Bill Cosby did stand-up, taking a break from his regular gig a few blocks away at the Fifth Peg on Church Street.

Raymond Souster, a fine man and poet, part of our proud cultural history, died in Toronto on October 19th. He was 91.

The painting of him above was by Barker Fairley


About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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One Response to Raymond Souster: Toronto poet and sometime-beatnik

  1. Sheila Stewart says:

    Thank you so much, Noreen. Great to learn about about Souster.

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