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Tuesday February 1, 2005

RICHARD OUTRAM, POET 1930-2005

Writer who was a CBC stagehand by day viewed the world in a grain of sand. A private and intensely emotional man, his devotion to his art was nourished by a lifelong love of his wife, writes SANDRA MARTIN

On the coldest night of the winter, poet, stagehand and widower Richard Outram, having consumed a quantity of pills and drink, sat on the enclosed side porch of his house in Port Hope, Ont., and, in a grand Blakean gesture, contemplated the universe and quietly allowed himself to die.

Everything that made his life joyful emanated from his love for his wife and collaborator, the artist Barbara Howard. She died in 2002 during an operation to fix a broken hip. "Devotion is not too strong a word," said writer Barry Callaghan. "The two of them fed each other beautifully and with enormous intensity. They were the closing of the couplet. So, what are you going to do with a one-line couplet? He really was his work and his love for her."

Mr. Outram was not the only poet to have a day job that required entirely different skills from his literary vocation. The poet Raymond Souster, for example, spent his working life at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. It was Mr. Outram's conscious decision to spend his days at physical labour so his mind would be free in the evenings to devote to his poetry. But unlike other working poets, such as Mr. Souster, Mr. Outram won very little popular or critical acclaim.

Although he published steadily for more than 40 years, he won only one major prize -- the City of Toronto Book Award in 1999 for his volume Benedict Abroad. There is only one book-length critical study of his work, Peter Sanger's "Her kindled shadow . . ." An Introduction to the Work of Richard Outram, which was published in limited numbers by The Antigonish Review in 2001.

Instead of a popular audience, he had a series of passionate champions, such as Mr. Sanger, a retired academic. "Richard has both a physical and a metaphysical orientation that isn't compromised at either level," explained Mr. Sanger. "When Richard writes well there is absolutely no distinction between those two levels." Although Mr. Sanger agrees some poems are better than others, he says what makes Mr. Outram's work stand out is its "magnificence coherence." Every poem is ultimately linked to the rest of his body of work.

Richard Daley Outram was born in Oshawa, Ont., the son of Mary Muriel Daley, a teacher, and Alfred Allan Outram, an engineer who served in the artillery in The First World War and was wounded at Ypres in Belgium. His mother's father was a Methodist minister who was deeply involved in the negotiations to form the United Church of Canada in 1925. His paternal grandfather ran the hardware store in Port Hope, the town east of Oshawa where Mr. Outram and his wife moved in 2000.

Shortly after young Richard's birth, his parents moved to the Leaside area of Toronto. As a teenager, Mr. Outram was already interested in music and botany, two areas that remained central to his poetry for the rest of his life. Graduating from Leaside Secondary School in 1949, he went that autumn to Victorian College at the University of Toronto to begin an honours degree in English and Philosophy. There he encountered two professors, philosopher Emil Fackenheim and literary critic Northrop Frye, both of whom had a huge impact on the way he thought about the world. He also enlisted as an officer cadet in the reserve system of the Royal Canadian Navy, spending the summers of 1950 and 1951 aboard frigates in the Bay of Fundy and at HMCS Stadacona in Halifax.

After he graduated from the University of Toronto in 1953, he worked for a year at the CBC in Toronto as a stagehand and then moved to England where he found a job in the same capacity for the BBC. It was in London that he first began to write poetry and where, in 1954, he met visual artist Barbara Howard. From that meeting their lives were entwined until her death in 2002.

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