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"Richard Outram: A Preface and Selection by Peter Sanger", (The Antigonish Review, 2001)
Outram's work transcends fashion, expressing a private voice of public consequence in poems of great formal variety and range of tone. He is a most mercurial writer, delighting in satire and farce, in low (sometimes quite low) and high comedy, in metaphysical poems of intricate philosophical complexity and dignity, in straightforward or not so straightforward lyrical love poems, and in dramatic soliloquys voiced for outrageously imagined characters, including some animals. His diction may range from that of an aureate refinement, replete with significant capital letters and philosophical abstractions which modernism would have us despise, to that of a supple and frequently bawdy demotic. Outram may write straightforward narrative poems in which, as is not usually the case in contemporary narrative poems, things really do consecutively happen. He can also write subtle parables and allegories, or commit squibs and puns or propose riddles and anagrams. Unlike much recent Canadian poetry, his must be read while attending to the meaning, the full meaning, of every word. If the reader of one of Outram's poems feels the burden of an increasingly required concentration as the poem proceeds, it is because he or she is being asked (and being honoured by being asked) to read, simply to read. The best companion a reader can have when trying to understand an Outram poem is an etymological dictionary. In this respect, Outram's work resembles the work of two Canadian poets almost as neglected by critical attention as he, Margaret Avison and Jay Macpherson.
As a logical consequent, Outram is also a most referential and allusive poet. Anyone sympathizing with those Canadian poets who want only themselves and a few certain, chosen contemporaries to be read in their best of all possible worlds will find little of flattering predictability in Outram's work. His etymologies are frequently imbedded in the context of usages defined by the King James version of the Bible and by, in particular, Shakespeare, Milton and Blake. Among the other poets Outram alludes to most often are Herbert, Vaughan, Marvell, Pope, Smart, Arnold, Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. In its own way, Outram's work is as much a supple discourse with tradition as the ballets of Balanchine, the music of Benjamin Britten or the paintings of William Bailey. Just as a gradually increasing understanding of the work of these artists will release a spectator or auditor into an apprehension that the art of the past is that of the future or, to put the matter more accurately, into the intelligence and delight of knowing that past and future art are nothing else but eternally present, so also will a careful reading of Outram's poems.
If his poems have one single theme for a reader, it is that of the transfiguring power of the imagination. Like Blake's, Outram's work is concerned with the cleansing of the gates of human perception. His poetic universe, like Blake's, is theistic, but it is a universe where Sophia, or wisdom (as a Blakeian emanation, not a spectre) may be human intelligence and feeling. For Outram, affective and intellectual knowledge are never disincarnate. Love can only be incarnate. So also must be poetry. Outram's is not a dualistic universe in which mind and body, reason and emotion, are necessarily antagonistic. If we hear his poems as inflexible dialogues, we can be sure that the two voices we hear are not Outram's. They are our own, and we are engaged in the abstract severance of ourselves from minute particulars, a modern form of angelism from which the necessary angel of earth and metaphor has been emptied. It is an angelism unaware of the inevitable physical consequences of itself, namely the divinization of matter and its own inevitable imprisonment in an ecological entropism of feeling and intelligence, mind and body. Against this form of abstract angelism Outram's poetry is most radically in opposition.
For Outram, metaphor is real, not nominal. Words, or the act of imagination by which words exist, are the essential structure of the universe. By words this universe falls and is re-made in a cycle of apocalyptical imaginative renewal involving entities as simple as Jerusalem and as complex as the rose revealed by the crumbling of fire and the dissemblings of water when it reflects the leonine sun at midnight.
Richard Outram's works copyright © to The Estate of the Author.