The Essential Richard Outram by Richard Outram and Amanda Jernigan
The Essential Richard Outram is an elegant, affordable selection of poems by one of Canada’s great poets. By turns theatrical and philosophical – and often both at once – Outram is always intimately attuned to the wonders and the workings of language. This volume gathers well-loved lyrics alongside poems unpublished in Outram’s lifetime: there is much here for both long-time readers of Outram’s work and readers new to his oeuvre.
Richard Outram, long celebrated as a poet’s poet, has increasingly found an audience among poets and layreaders alike. As much at home with the physical as with the metaphysical, he is by turns bawdy and decorous, sensual and ascetic. He is a virtuoso ventriloquist, speaking now as a reluctant sailor, now as a heartbroken prophetess, now as ‘a bloody great Indian elephant’; he even speaks, occasionally – a rarer feat, this, than is commonly acknowledged – as himself. The Essential Richard Outram is an affordable, pocket-sized selection that will introduce readers to a variety of Outram’s registers and personae.
When Outram died in 2005, he left behind him more than twenty books of poetry, many of these privately published with his wife, the painter and wood engraver Barbara Howard. The poems in these privately-published books, alongside the deeply personal lyrics that Outram chose not to publish in his lifetime, comprise a little-read oeuvre of great importance. Collecting a selection of these rarities alongside highlights from Outram’s trade-publications, The Essential Outram provides a fuller sense of the arc of this poet’s career than has yet been made accessible in book form.
Since its inaugural year of 2007, the Porcupine’s Quill’s acclaimed Essential Poets series has celebrated Canadian poets and presented their work in an accessibly succinct and beautiful package -- sixty-four pages to introduce, reacquaint, provoke and enchant. The Essential Richard Outram is the seventh volume of the series.
Table of contents
Turns and Other Poems (1975)
Adam in the Very Act of Love
The Promise of Light (1979)
Petition to Eros
Epitaph for an Angler
Parting at Evening
Man in Love (1985)
Round of Life
Hiram and Jenny (1988)
Hiram and Jenny
Hiram on the Night Shore
Mogul Recollected (1993)
Mogul and Penobscot Mermaids
Benedict Abroad (1998)
Dove Legend & Other Poems (2001)
Late Love Poem
Meet Stance at the Eastern Gap
Tower Across the Water
Jonah as Boy Seaman
The Flight out of Egypt
South of North: Images of Canada (posthumously published, 2007)
Port Hope Garden
Ms Cassie (privately published, 2000)
Ms Cassie & Apollo
Ms Cassie Reads the Young Matelot’s Horny Palm
Ms Cassie by Tarnished Water
Ms Cassie & Last Word
Ms Cassie at Play
Ms Cassie in Bed
Lightfall (privately published, 2001)
The Beauty of Lear’s Daughters
Brief Immortals (privately published, 2003)
Remark of a Childless Man
A Walk Before Bed
About a Poem
Caroline Adderson on Richard Outram’s ‘Mogul’s Eye’
Did not survive fire and water, nor earth, nor air;
not the cumbrous elements. Nor did it become
quintessence, numberless as thou seest. No.
It is closed, clothed in darkness for all time.
Mogul’s eye was the still centre, the sometime
calm in the loomed elephant rage to be.
Wherein it mirrored the creature sun.
Mogul’s eye had looked on eternal light
grooming the endless orient riverine grasslands;
piercing the overlapped canopy of the unfelled forest;
burning stark verticals in high mountain passes;
knifing through chinks in the slats of a boxcar,
holding the motes mingled in shafts of gold;
tangling snarls in the steel mesh of enclosures;
rebounding blaze from a bucket of living water;
quenched forever at last in Penobscot Bay.
Mogul, alone among other beasts,
in common with man, could weep,
and did, real tears from his small eye.
In common with man, not without cause.
He drowned in salt water.
Being not man nor angel but beast, Mogul
saw not through his eye but with it life
in the myriad present: which is immortal.
And he beheld, as he was beholden to,
what he became: his one death.
This is the final poem in Richard Outram’s 1993 book, Mogul Recollected. Taken on its own, it cannot convey the cumulative power of the collection, which concerns a true event, the 1836 sinking of a ship in Penobscot Bay. The Royal Tar was transporting a circus when, during a storm, the mishandled boiler caught fire. Terrified by the waves, but also the flames, Mogul the elephant refused to jump into the ocean. Instead he placed his forelegs on the deck railing, which then collapsed under his weight causing him to
plunge onto a full life raft. All, including the elephant, drowned.
The poems look at the tragedy, which would otherwise be lost to history, from every possible angle, and here, in the final poem, the reader, already forced to contemplate not only the significance of death by fire and water of a fellow creature, but also its terrible treatment in life, now must look Mogul directly in the eye
and ask the age-old question: why must we suffer? The question is, of course, as unanswerable as the darkness of the death we are ‘‘beholden’’ to is inevitable. (Death and the ability to suffer are two more things we have in common with elephants beyond the ability
to cry.) Yet Mogul’s brave eye, ‘‘the still centre,’’ ever sought out the light, which in turn ever diminished as he moved from freedom to captivity, until it was just the ‘‘rebounding blaze’’ from the burning
ship reflected in the water bucket of slavery. Still he saw it, ‘‘eternal’’ light. He saw with that light-seeking eye, instead of through it.
In none of the four or five times that I’ve read Mogul Recollected, have I been able to get through it without sobbing for an elephant who perished more than a century and a half ago. The poems are a call to compassion, which literally means ‘‘to suffer together.’’ We suffer with the animals (though somewhat less so than they, I would venture), yet it is they who teach us how we might finally reach immortality. With their particular wisdom -- instinct, intuition, creature insight -- they perceive ‘‘life in the myriad present,’’ which goes on and on, recorded or not.
—Caroline Adderson, 2010; Shambhala Sun magazine
In her selections from the late Ontario poet Richard Outram’s more than 40-year career, Amanda Jernigan has crafted a mixtape of his poetry. Like any cherished mixtape, Jernigan’s selection allows for her own expression while also leaving her recipient’s own interpretation free to develop. Her goal isn’t didactic, but to compile Outram’s work that most affected her and then see how one responds to it. This is the purpose Outram’s own work, and makes Jernigan’s coy use of her own personal collection such an emotionally effective tribute. It’s about you, Jernigan and Outram all at once. The ever dualist -- with lines like, ‘‘Then let this moment, gentled, be / ephemeral as thought, / or disembodied love. It is. / And is not’’ -- the mix is only fitting for Outram.
The latest installment of the Essential Poets Series from the Porcupine’s Quill delivers in same manner as its predecessors. An elegant selection of poems from Outram’s extensive career provides the unfamiliar with a succinct glimpse of this great Canadian poet’s vision and versatility, while giving followers of his a warming selection deftly drawn from three decades of work and woven into a beautiful sequence of its own.
—Richard Coxford, ByTown Bookshop blog
‘In The Essential Richard Outram
, the writer’s formative poetic years are represented, in which formidable potential is shown nearly realized. True genius lies in his later poems. ... But his most affecting poems are those Outram never released in his lifetime, which are personal in a way only poetry can achieve.’
—Peter Dabbene, ForeWord Reviews
‘... Porcupine’s Quill’s "essential poets" series shares Laurier’s aims in bringing out the best work of Canadian poets in a convenient format, but it takes a less academic approach, one more appropriate to The Essential Richard Outram. Porcupine’s Quill has wisely asked poets, rather than academics, to choose the poems to be included, a tactic which has met with success, as with Robyn Sarah’s selection of Margaret Avison’s work the previous year. Younger poet and editor Amanda Jernigan delivers a high quality selection of Outram’s work which coheres beautifully in spite of the challenges of withdrawing individual poems from the carefully crafted sequences in which many first appeared. ... Outram’s poetic discipline is evident on every page of the collection, speaking gracefully through the compact iambic lines and rhyming stanzas which many contemporary poets studiously avoid or trivialize. ... Outram often oversees the drama he creates, waxing philosophical in a wry tone forced by the density of rhyme, his precise diction mixing plain language with rich vocabulary in tight quarters to stimulating effect not unlike that achieved by Avison herself.’
—Brent Wood, University of Toronto Quarterly
Previous review quote
‘[Richard Outram is] one of the finest poets in the English language.’
—Alberto Manguel, ‘Waiting for an Echo: On Reading Richard Outram’; Into the Looking-Glass Wood: Essays on Books, Reading, and the World; Toronto: Knopf: 1998
Richard Outram was born in 1930 in Oshawa, Ontario, the younger of two brothers. His mother was a school teacher and principal; his father, a veteran of the First World War, was an engineer -- ‘a man of ebullient presence’, as the poet Peter Sanger puts it, and a lover of ‘practical jokes, puns and word games’. Outram attended high school in Leaside, Ontario, then enrolled in the Honours B.A. program in English and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. There, he studied under Northrop Frye and Emil Fackenheim, two teachers whose work had ongoing influence on his own. Summers, he served as an officer cadet in the University Naval Training Division, training in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and on the Bay of Fundy. He went to work for the CBC in Toronto, as a stagehand, in 1953; he then moved to London, England, where, in 1954, he met the Canadian artist Barbara Howard. The two became lifelong lovers and artistic collaborators; they were married back in Toronto in 1957. They had one child, a daughter, who lived only for a day.
Outram’s and Howard’s interest in the reciprocities of word and image had led them to letterpress printing in their London days. Beginning in 1960, they hand-printed books and broadsides featuring Outram’s poems and Howard’s wood engravings and/or collaged designs, under their imprint The Gauntlet Press. Many of the poems collected in The Essential Outram were first published as part of limited-edition books or broadsides, circulated (for love not money) by Outram and Howard among their friends and acquaintances.
Outram had returned to his work for the CBC in Toronto in 1956. Embracing Dylan Thomas’s credo that a poet should write ‘not for ambition or bread’, he continued to hold down this day job (which was often, in fact -- being shift work -- a night job), working first as a stagehand and then as a stagehand crewleader, until his retirement in 1990.
After his retirement, Outram devoted himself to his poetry, and to the reading and thinking out of which it emerged. He wrote and published three new trade collections and numerous limited-edition works, including the hand-bound volume Lightfall. As he wrote to a friend, this was ‘the late, costly work [he] always hoped some day in good time might befall’.
In 2002, Outram and Howard faced ‘the harrowing tasks of moving ... body, soul and books’, from Roslin Avenue in Toronto, where they had lived for 28 years, to an old house in Port Hope, the small town on the shore of Lake Ontario where Outram’s paternal grandparents had lived. The house was lovely and spacious, with ample work-room for painter and poet both: ‘we are both in a state of exhaustion and elation,’ Outram wrote. ‘Happiness attacks are frequent.’
Just four months later, Howard fell and broke her hip. She died of a pulmonary embolism during the subsequent surgery.
Many of Outram’s works were collaborations with Howard; all of them, he asserted, ‘even the darkest’, were love poems and were written to Howard. When Howard died, his bereavement was total.
Two years later, having written his last poems, Outram allowed himself to die of hypothermia, sitting out on the porch of their Port Hope house, on 25 January 2005.
Outram left behind him more than twenty books of poetry, a lively correspondence, and a series of prose lectures delivered at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, of which he and Howard had been active members. His papers are held in the collection of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.
In Through Darkling Air: The Poetry of Richard Outram, Peter Sanger writes of the ways in which Outram’s life was marked by trauma: a childhood experience of sexual abuse; his father’s war memories; the deaths of his and Howard’s child and of his close friend Allan Fleming; the violent deaths of his parents; and Howard’s death. But in the colophon to Outram’s final collection -- an ‘act of elegy and homage’ to Howard, which he privately published in 2003 -- Outram inscribed the legend ‘We were very happy.’
In a 2002 interview with Michael Enright of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, Outram had said: ‘I so much admire Northrop Frye, for instance, who said -- and one thinks of his prodigious achievements -- how he had carefully arranged his life so that nothing had ever happened to him. A wonderful quote. Well really nothing much has ever happened to me, except absolutely monumental and wonderful things in terms of language and thought and reflection, and my true loves.’
Excerpt from book
A Walk Before Bed
Out of the fragrant dark
and back again goes
the lovely reluctant arc
that the sprinkler throws.
From having striped the lawn,
descending white plumes play
awhile, aligned upon
the sidewalk, in our way.
And not just anyhow,
but fanned as the pre-set
eccentric cams allow.
I wait; you brave the wet.
Well, ‘All flesh is grass . . .’;
I see the cycle through,
then, in good time pass,
desirous, after you.
Introduction or preface
To select from among Richard Outram’s hundreds of poems some ‘essential’ few, to sever these from their companions, and to present them here, seems almost an act of violence: Outram was a poet preeminently concerned with sequence, with the capacity of poems in sequence to present a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And yet, he was also concerned with the extent to which the whole could be inherent in the parts: so that each part, perhaps each poem, could be a way into the oeuvre. I held fast to this second possibility as I considered this selection, though I could never quite shake the memory of these lines from Outram’s poem ‘Routine’:
Yes, there are many paths that lead to the top of the mountain.
And likewise, friends, alas, there are many in fact that do not.
Granted, once there, all may bask in pellucid moonlight together.
This is not for Benedict, wanting breakfast, a consoling thought.
It is not for the editor, wanting breakfast, a consoling thought, either.
Nevertheless, I plunged in. And found myself immediately confronted with the question of what makes a poem ‘essential’. I once confessed to Outram my ignorance of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves. ‘Mandatory reading,’ he replied, ‘ -- harumph’. As a sometime teacher of university English, I have now come up with my own lists of ‘mandatory reading’, often including on them poems of Outram’s. But there is a considerable distance to be travelled between the mandatory and the essential. Mandatory reading is prescribed; essential reading is understood. The former is cultural, the latter is personal.
The Essential Outram is then, perforce, a personal collection. I began with those poems of Outram’s that have become essential to me -- that I have come to ‘understand’, if only in the most literal way: by learning them by heart. As the selection reached critical mass, however, I found myself -- in Outramian fashion, though not, of course, through his eyes -- considering the poems as a sequence. I made substitutions or additions in the interests of the story I began to realize I was trying to tell.
That story is the one described in Outram’s poem titled ‘Story’: let us begin with death ... that we may end with birth. I wanted to give a sense of the way in which Outram wrote from endings to beginnings -- using all the wiles that craft and chance afforded (not excluding smoke and, especially, mirrors) to conflate, even confound, the two.
Toward the end of his career, Outram liked to recollect Northrop Frye’s remark, made in reference to a reviewer’s dismissive comment that Frye seemed simply to rewrite his central myth in every book he produced: ‘I certainly do, and would never read or trust any writer who did not also do so. But one hopes for some growth in lucidity ... as one proceeds.’ Outram, like Frye, rewrote his central myth again and again over the course of his career. But the idiom in which he rewrote this myth evolved. We can see him moving from the general, to the particular, to the personal: from the archetypal figures of his early collections; to the vivid, individual personae of his mid-career poetic sequences; to the searingly personal voice in which he speaks in some of the poems from his final works, Nine Shiners and Brief Immortals.
The personal voice of those final poems was earned. Outram was suspicious of the confessional mode. Some of his most poignant lyrics, including three collected at the end of this book, he chose not to publish in his lifetime. He might have agreed with words spoken by A.E. Housman in Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love, which Outram loved and owned: ‘Confession is an act of violence against the unoffending.’ It was only after Outram had exhausted, for his purposes, all the resources of reflection and personae, that he let the man behind the mirror and the mask step forth.
I should introduce, briefly, Outram’s personae -- leastwise those who make cameo appearances in this book. Some of these are characters of his discovery (Eden’s Adam, Shakespeare’s Lear); many others are characters of his invention. There is banjoist Hiram and his lady friend, Jenny, from the sequence that bears their names. From the sequence Mogul Recollected, there is Mogul himself, ‘a bloody great Indian elephant’, and Percy, his hapless, human handler. From the sequence Benedict Abroad, there is Portland, a hospital-porter-cum-moonlighting-stagehand; Benedict, an enigmatic jailbreak; and Amanda, ‘an actress of chaste parts’, who reappears in the sequence Lightfall. There are sundry seamen. And there is the incomparable Ms Cassie, Outram’s passionate, heartbroken, streetwise prophetess.
All but two of Outram’s trade collections are represented here. (As the poem ‘Story’, from Turns and Other Poems , gave me my theme, I also let it give me my starting point, and so have excluded works from Outram’s two earlier trade publications. They, along with Turns and The Promise of Light, are handsomely represented in an earlier gathering, Outram’s Selected Poems: 1960-1980, published by Exile Editions.) I have also included poems from two late works that Outram published privately, in collaboration with his wife, the artist Barbara Howard, under their imprint the Gauntlet Press; and one poem from Outram’s final sequence, Brief Immortals, which he published privately under no imprint, after Howard’s death. I conclude with four poems that were never collected in Outram’s lifetime (though Outram and Howard did circulate the first of these as a Gauntlet Press broadside): ‘Midsummer Lovers’, ‘Remark of a Childless Man’, ‘A Walk Before Bed’, and ‘Late Night’. Where there are discrepancies between early and late versions of a poem (Outram would sometimes publish a poem privately, and then, years later, in a trade edition -- or vice versa), I have let the later text stand.
Many of the poems reprinted here were originally published in Howard’s designs and/or with her accompanying images. In the case of the poem ‘Salamander’, Porcupine’s Quill has been able to reproduce Howard’s wood-engraved image and to recollect her design. In other cases, the poems appear solo. One might read them as ‘details’ of the original works (many of which can now be seen on line in reproduction, through the Digital Archives Initiative of Memorial University). This is particularly the case with poems from Ms Cassie: Outram and Howard were insistent on the co-inherence of word and image in this sequence.
I am grateful to Outram’s publishers (Anson-Cartwright Editions, Porcupine’s Quill, and the St Thomas Poetry Series) for permission to reproduce the poems gathered here; to Susan Warner Keene and Peter M. Newman, trustees of the artistic and literary estates of Barbara Howard and Richard Outram; and to Peter Sanger, whose Through Darkling Air: The Poetry of Richard Outram supplied or confirmed much of the biographical detail recounted at the end of this book.
Outram was born in Canada in 1930. He was a graduate of the University of Toronto (English and Philosophy), and worked for many years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a stagehand crew leader. He wrote more than twenty books, four of these published by the Porcupine’s Quill (Man in Love , Hiram and Jenny , Mogul Recollected , and Dove Legend ). He won the City of Toronto Book Award in 1999 for his collection Benedict Abroad (St Thomas Poetry Series). His poetry is the subject of a significant work of literary criticism, Through Darkling Air: The Poetry of Richard Outram, by Peter Sanger (Gaspereau Press, 2010).
Richard Outram died in 2005.
Amanda Jernigan is a poet, playwright, essayist and editor. She is the author of Groundwork: poems (Biblioasis, 2011) and her work has appeared in Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry (Cormorant, 2011). Jernigan lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her husband and son.