Poet and critic Richard Outram was for me one of those writers who occasionally popped up on the periphery of my poetry explorations. I saw him referenced and quoted until I began to wonder who he was. Outram was like one of those neighbors you never introduced yourself to. You passed him or her once or twice a week and waved without an inkling of who they were or what they did.
Now we have a wonderful introduction to that neighbor in this collection of essays edited by Ingrid Ruthig. Upon reading her introduction to this assemblage, it is difficult not to delve further into whom Richard Outram was and what he did. She writes of Outram’s poetry: “The old and named give way to the new and named. If Outram is also, as Guy Davenport wrote, ‘a poet who can make the whole world look new,’ step across the threshold prepared to say more than ‘hello’ and become the traveler who is willing to walk unfamiliar roads barefoot.”
I was game. I wanted to meet the neighbor. An interview with Outram by Michael Carbert titled Faith and Resilience begins the book with a wonderful come-see. Outram, born 1930 in Oshawa, Ontario, rekindles memories of his student days with the legendary Northrop Frye and Gregory Bateson at Victoria College in Toronto. They discuss George Herbert, Auden, Hopkins and Emily Dickinson. Most interestingly, Outram confesses he had no idea he was going to be a writer until one fateful moment. He spoke of how he was sitting by the English Channel one gray day in February when he suddenly wrote a poem. “It occurred to me virtually formed and I wrote it down and it was small and slight but it was an actual poem. I was astonished. Absolutely astonished. It never occurred to me that such a thing might happen.” I love these episodes in which writers claim they had no control over choosing their craft; they are not uncommon. Once Outram penned his first poem, a literary possession took hold and never let go.
In “The Richard Outram/Northrop Frye Connection” Robert Denham describes how studying Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare with Frye at Victoria College influenced Outram’s later writing career. Anyone who has been to college in the last thirty years and taken a course in literature or browsed a used bookstore is most likely familiar with Frye’s collections of criticism and anthologies of literature. If you know nothing else about Frye, you know he produced these whopper tomes. Outram found Frye “remote” yet containing “humanity” and “charity.” Outram would send Frye his published volumes in his post collegiate years to general praise. Their lives overlapped throughout the years, sharing the stage while giving readings and exchanging correspondence. It was the posthumous publication of Frye’s notebooks which contained some of his best essays that would nourish Outram to the end of his days. He found himself “intensely informed” by these writings. Denham writes: “The assurance that one can move mountains is an assurance Outram took from Frye’s life work.” When Frye died, Outram wrote in his elegy “In Memory of Northrop Frye” that “We could mourn him. But that would be boasting.”
In 1957, Outram married the artist Barbara Howard, and together they formed the Gauntlet Press, with Howard creating beautiful wood block illustrations for Outram’s poems. In one of my favorite essays in this book, Jeffery Donaldson discusses this creative union in “The Gauntlet Mandala.” Donaldson begins by writing “To hold a Gauntlet Press book is an experience in itself. Your mood changes. Your hands become patient and thoughtful, inquisitive of texture and weight. Your eye becomes curious, ready, plumb, feels a ballast, is set adrift. You lean in to catch a scent of the quality and origins of the papers.” Never having experienced firsthand one of these editions, I felt the need to run out, find a copy and hold one myself. This sounds like a book experience you can’t fathom from a Kindle.
For the most part, only snippets and fragments of Outram’s poetry appear in the book. They serve as a tease, appetizers making you want bigger bites. After shaking this book down and running my fingers through all the pages, I had to visit the library in town for a main course. I’ll throw you a bone though—here’s one of my favorites, quoted in full in this collection. I love the title.
Man Riddled With Clues
I am my own fault
In the covering vault.
I remember myself never
I am beside myself here
Now I am found
With another wound
I am held so
All that I know.
I have seemed
To be redeemed.
I beseech You
For I know what I do.
I think that going into this book without being overly familiar with its subject is actually a good thing. Generally I shy away from collections of criticism but I found myself turning the pages, wanting to know more. I think even if you are a scholar of Outram’s work you will be further enlightened by the light these essays shed.
All told, the various essays contained in this volume light upon some interesting aspect of Outram’s life and work. Don’t miss Outram’s own piece, “An Exercise in Exegesis,” a lecture he delivered to Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club in 2002, in which he shares an intimate view on the art of writing poetry. He writes that he wanted not to speak on the craft of the poet but on “The Guile of the Poet.” Outram quotes Wallace Stevens when discussing why anyone writes poetry: “One writes poetry because one must. It is quite possible to have a feeling about the world which creates a need that nothing satisfies except poetry.” He then expands upon this sentiment by dissecting one of his own unpublished poems. By describing the genesis of his poem, he attempts to “throw some light on the way in which poems in general come to get themselves written.” Despite the wonderful biography of his poem, I am still left with the mystery of the inexplicable forces which seized him that one gray day by the English Channel and led him to produce that first poem. But that’s OK. Mystery is what drives me.
Outram’s wife, Barbara Howard, died in 2002. In 2005, he chose a poet’s dramatic and sad ending by taking his own life. I’m sorry I never met this poet in his own time, but if his ghost appears as my neighbor, I will now wave, knowing who he was and what he has done, thanks to this collection.