Outram, Richard (Daley)

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OUTRAM, Richard (Daley)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: 1930. Education: Victoria College, University of Toronto. Career: Worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Awards: Toronto Book award, 1999, for Benedict Abroad.



Eight Poems. Toronto, Tortoise Press, 1959.

Exsultate, Jubilate. Toronto, Macmillan Company of Canada, 1966.

Creatures. Toronto, Gauntlet Press, 1972.

Seer. Toronto, Aliquando Press, 1973.

Thresholds. Toronto, Gauntlet Press, 1973.

Locus. Toronto, Gauntlet Press, 1974.

Turns and Other Poems. London, Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1975; Toronto, Anson-Cartwright Editions, 1976.

Arbor. Toronto, Gauntlet Press, 1976.

The Promise of Light. Toronto, Anson-Cartwright Editions, 1979.

Selected Poems: 1960–1980. Toronto, Exile Editions, 1984.

Man in Love. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1985.

Hiram and Jenny. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1988.

Mogul Recollected. Erin, Porcupine's Quill, 1993.

Around & About the Toronto Islands. Toronto, Gauntlet Press, 1993.

Hiram and Jenny—Unpublished Poems. Ottawa, Food for Thought Books, 1994.

Peripatetics. Toronto, Gauntlet Press, 1994.

Tradecraft. Toronto, Gauntlet Press, 1994.

Eros Descending. Toronto, Gauntlet Press, 1995.

Benedict Abroad. Toronto, St. Thomas Poetry Series, 1998.

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Richard Outram is not used to making the headlines, but he did so in 1999 when he was named the recipient of the Toronto Book award. The award, with a cash prize of $10,000, marked the publication of the book Benedict Abroad, a series of poems about a typical Torontonian. The award gave rare public recognition to a poet who for more than four decades has continued to write his own idiosyncratic poems while paying scant attention to the misunderstandings of the public and the demands of the media. It is good to see talent and dedication honored.

Until now Outram's poetry has been more prized than praised, but there are indications that his work could reach a wider readership than it has had in the past. Limited editions of suites of his poems, beautifully designed and illustrated with wood engravings by his wife, the artist Barbara Howard, have appeared in private editions produced by the Tortoise, Gauntlet, Martlett, and Aliquando presses. Over the years the suites have been collected and reprinted in volumes that appear to be not so much stock takings as statements made along the way.

If a single word encapsulates Outram's poetry it is "metaphysical," for like the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England he composes poems that are traditional in form, mainly metered and rhymed, bright and brief, lyrical in tone, celebratory in spirit, religious in nature, philosophic in attitude, and rich in contrasts, paradox, and wit. What prevails is a sense of self and a sense of self-imposed limits.

Outram has not wavered from his concerns since the publication of his first full book, Exultate, Jubilate, in 1966. Two of its poems epitomize themes characteristic of his work. The first is that of the magician, the second that of the master. References to magicians and escape artists and shamans appear in many of his books. The last stanza of "Prestidigator" brings the curtain down:

Padlock the stage
Door; and douse
The lights: this is
A dark house.

The magician is out of business but still in possession of his powers. The last lines of "Djinn," about a mischievous spirit nearly released from its bottle, suggest that the poet may be seen to be a miracle worker, releasing the spirits, but that he is certainly not a free agent: "(I shall be his master, Master; / He must do what I must ask!)" Especially effective is the repetition and intensification of the word "must." Outram's poetry was like this in the 1960s, and it is like this at the end of the century: allusive, subtle, and suggestive, if unfashionable.

The poem "Escape Artist" in Turns and Other Poems (1975) includes these lines, indicative of the poet's power with language:

I learned to pick handily
Locks of all known makes;
To shatter the strongest links;
To slip the most cunning snare
That one could contrive...

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine anyone else writing or rewriting any of Outram's poems or slipping these cunningly contrived bonds. Who is imprisoning whom? The poet the reader? The expectation the subject matter? Fate the poet? "Riddle" in The Promise of Light (1979) suggests that there are phases or levels of freedom:

Subtle on a simple ground;
Always lost as I am found;
If you would discover me,
Then surrender & be free.

In the end everyone is discovered, redeemed. In form and content, in iambic lines and rhyming verses, there are echoes of vatic poets like William Blake and Jay Macpherson and perhaps a reverberation or two from a highly mannered poet like Robert Finch.

Selected Poems: 1960–1980 (1984) reprints eighty-three poems from the first phase of Outram's life and work. The tone is lyrical and celebratory, though certainly not in the manner of Christopher Smart or Walt Whitman. Outram is too much a schoolmaster for that. Indeed, there is something of the cleric to him, as many of the poems allude to a deeply felt Christian faith. For instance, "In Praise of Poetry" ends with "and praying, being prayed."

"Conjuror with Doves" appears in Man in Love (1985), an illustrated collection that resembles an emblem book. Stage magicians produce doves that fly away, but evidence of their appearance remains:

After, a single
White evident feather drifts, settles
Through silence, cherished.

Outram's later book-length collections have overriding themes of their own, akin to John Berryman's collections and W.B. Yeats's "Crazy Jane" suite. Hiram and Jenny (1988), which takes an affectionate peak at friends in a small Maritime town, brings to mind Edwin Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology. Also set in the Maritimes is Mogul Recollected (1993), a series of poems about a circus elephant that drowned in 1836. The volume elicited the praise of Alberto Manguel: "Richard Outram is one of the finest poets in the English language." Finally, Benedict Abroad (1998) has a Bech-like subject who is not only a Torontonian but also a "man of the world."

Outram is a man who measures and treasures his words. With each new poem, with each new book, he conjures up contrasts and paradoxes of a metaphysical and almost mystical nature that attest to an art and a craft worthy of admiration—and many more readers.

—John Robert Colombo