Did you choke over my words, spit out gasps into a brown paper bag? Were you startled or just amused? A headline like a poem title needs to grab the reader by the throat and I hope this one does. Still it’s not intended to be disrespectful of two literary giants. My rationale easily rolls like water from my tongue: I hate the taste of beer and wouldn’t share a bottle or glass of lager or ale with anyone no matter how famous he/she might be.
Also it’s too late to cry over any type of beverage including a tipped over bottle of poetic spirits. Imagine the suds sliding across the wooden table and along the pub floor. Okay, that’s moving away from the topic. Milton Acorn and Raymond Souster are both dearly departed and unless their apparitions appear before us, no one will have the privilege of speaking to them again. Sad news indeed! Acorn passed away in August 1986 due to complications of a heart condition and diabetes. Souster died in October 2012. He was 91 years old.
I wish I had met them or at least heard them read.
Both are considered legends in the poetry world. Acorn received a Governor General Award in 1976 for his poetry collection The Island Means Minago. Souster received the same award in 1964 for his work The Colour of the Times. Both would have been great mentors. Unfortunately I was a late poetic bloomer; Acorn and Souster escaped my radar before I knew who they were.
Even today, my knowledge of these two poets is limited, gleamed from second hand sources. My goal is to read all their work cover to cover! I wish I had the luxury of time but this is what I’ve learned so far.
Souster’s legacy reminds me that poetry does not make one famous or financially wealthy. All his life, he was considered shy and despite being prolific and leaving behind more than 50 volumes of his work, he remained a banker to pay his bills. According to Canadian poet James Deahl, Souster wrote about “love, nature, war, social, injustice jazz, religion, and beauty. He was also the first president/chairman of the League of Canadian Poets and was a kind and gentle man. As I wrote in my tribute poem “Won’t see his poetic face/plastered on a Canadian bill.” Societies in general scratch their heads when it comes to respecting and understanding poets.
Acorn’s legacy of work taught me that there are different types of poets, just like there are different types of musicians or artists to suit different markets. Acorn was a “people’s poet” who wrote about everyday concerns for the common folks and employed wit, politics and strong emotion in his work. He produced more than 15 books and like Souster, he enjoyed helping younger and more inexperienced writers.
James Deahl is one of those poets who knew and spent time with both Souster and Acorn. He has studied their work and has written extensively about their lives. In 1987, he edited and compiled The Northern Red Oak, a tribute to Milton Acorn published by Unfinished Monument.
More recently he edited In a Springtime Instant: Selected Poems by Milton Acorn published as part of the Mosiac Press Canadian Literature ‘Icon” series.
Earlier this year in Toronto, he edited and launched Under the Mulberry Tree: Poems For & About Raymond Souster. Published by Quattro Books, this anthology features tribute poems by those who knew the poet well and those who are just learning about his work. The contributors include: Steven Michael Berzensky, Kent Bowman, Ronnie R. Brown, Terry Ann Carter, John Robert Columbo, Allan Cooper, Robert Currie, James Deahl, David Donnell, G. W. Down, Margaret Patricia Eaton, David Eso, Chris Faiers, George Fethering, Joe Fiorito, Michael Fraser, Ryan Gibbs, Katherine Gordon, Andreas Gripp, Debbie Okun Hill, Laurence Hutchman, Karl Jirgens, Laurie Kruk, Dennis Lee, Norma West Linder, Bruce Meyer, Brian Purdy, Bernadette Rule, Simcha Simchovitch, Glen Sorestad, Lynn Tait, S. J. White, Carleton Wilson, Michael Wurster, and Anna Yin.
On Sunday, April 27 starting at 1 p.m. at The Book Keeper in Sarnia, seven of these contributors: Berzensky, Bowman, Deahl, Gibbs, Okun Hill, West Linder, and Tait will be reading and celebrating the legacy of Acorn and Souster. Additional readings are also planned for Ottawa and North Bay in June.
As Deahl wrote in his introduction to Under the Mulberry Tree: “No poet learns the craft without the help and sage advice from those who have already achieved a higher level of writing.”
Three cheers to all the poets including Acorn and Souster who believed in the power of the written word and who will continue to leave their mark on the next generation of writers. As an emerging poet, I still have so much to learn. Maybe one day, I’ll acquire a taste for beer or maybe not.