A septuagenarian who has cultivated a modest but respectable place at the margins of general recognition for thirty-five years, Richard Outram has been vigorously championed of late by writers like Alberto Manguel, who has called him "one of the finest poets in the English language," and more recently, Peter Sanger, who just brought out, in limited edition, In Her kindled shadow...An Introduction to the Works of Richard Outram (The Antigonish Review Press, 2001). According to Sanger, Outram's work has always tended to "elude what affective and academic clichTs of pseudo evaluation happen to be current." However, one of the happy consequences of the increasing sway and authority of soi-disant "New Formalism" has been a growing appreciation of Outram's work (his collection, Benedict Abroad, did, after all, win the City of Toronto Book Award for 1999). For he is nothing if not "well versed," a deft and endlessly inventive formalist, a master in the making of traditional forms and line (he's especially enamoured of the rhymed quatrain, that most hoary of traditional forms). Unlike that of many in the New Formalist tribe, however, Outram's work demonstrates the truth of Pound's claim that formal verse structure "exalts the reader, making him feel that he is in contact with something more finely arranged than the commonplace." There is very little of the commonplace on any level in Dove Legends & Other Poems, a wonderful and wonderfully demanding book.
Dove Legend is Richard Outram's ninth book of poetry. It comprises poems from several other books of poetry originally put out under the imprint of Gauntlet Press, which he founded with Barbara Howard in 1960. About half of the poems picked for this partial "selected poems" are difficult. The other half aren't easy. Even at his most relaxed and straightforward, as in "Disrepair", or playful, as in "ŠWhat is our guilt? All are naked, none is safe'" or "Fifty-seven years of Infinity", you have the sense as you work through Outram that the Deity-formerly-known-as-God is assumed to be listening. And if not Him, then probably Blake. And if not either, then Northrop Frye. Such seriousness, even in the midst of spirited play, can oblige considerable exertion from the reader; you need to be at the very top of your game to follow the wise and witty engagements with the ineffable these poems undertake. Meaning here, as adumbrated through the warp and woof of venerable forms, is not merely embellished with, but deeply informed by the best that's been thought and said. Consistently enlivened by semantical intrigue, odd bits of philosophy and the jetsam of a popular culture that hasn't been popular for decades (I doubt Outram owns a television set), these poems proceed with little regard for either the compass of received opinion or usual modes of palaver (there are, for instance, only trace elements here of what William Logan decries as the "slavery" of the "soiled, complacent manner of the do-it-yourself Romantic style"). Moreover, as one of poetry's more accomplished lexical lepidopterists, his diction favours the arcane. But however unlikely or rare that diction, it's invariably apt.
In their eclecticism¨especially in the mixing of the idioms of high and popular culture¨these poems cast allusions sometime so obscure as to border on the perverse. Moving through Dove Legend you could just as easily be asked to identify George Weintraub Geezil from the defunct comic strip Popeye as be called upon to recall who said "get thee glass eyes!" (If you guessed King Lear, you can skip the rest of this paragraph.) The odd cull from fairly dated popular culture notwithstanding, Outram's primary locus of reference is the upper reaches of Parnassus: at some crucial juncture in their argument the preponderance of the hundred poems in this collection will assume a reader's intimacy with Shakespeare, Blake, Yeats, Eliot, Hopkins, Arnold, Donne, Stevens, or the Bible, to cite only his most frequent sources of allusion. If Byzantium isn't a familiar port of call in your reading life¨if you haven't, as they used to say, "been to school"¨much of Dove Legend won't make for particularly smooth sailing.
Outram, I should hasten to add, is no pedant, no monster of gratuitous erudition. Though there are occasional lapses (such as "On Our Anniversary", a lifeless pastiche of Donne), he wears his learning lightly, much like Joyce, Auden, or Larkin at their lively, ironical best. His habit of allusion and direct quotation, like his affinity for traditional prosody, is neither decorative nor the exercise of a feckless nostalgia. Rather, it is vitally organic. That is, it is his way of showing forth a vision which necessarily involves a re-telling of what others have already told, as this passage from the conclusion of "The Flight Out of Egypt" suggests:
. . .Love, it is this,
when they reach the rare bound of the universe
(we have contrived just such stringent myths
in fictions sans gods or beasts or withered
or mazarined maidens or bloodwine or sacred
or the least promise of valour), becomes my
that they will live in the new-sanctioned order
curve and return upon us shrived in this telling.
Outram's allusiveness is thus both method and subject; this is poetry calculated to "curve and return" in its "telling" through those elements in the tradition of English literature most disposed to do the heavy ideational lifting. The questions of concern to Outram are the old and necessary questions, those of most interest to the soul born again into an age of "stringent myths" (the Phoenix is Dove Legend's mythopoetic figure in the carpet). Outram's poetry thus positions the reader precisely where he imagines us all best positioned to see into the "new-sanctioned order of things":
So we still stand dumbfounded in the knot-quite
naming things out of sight. Not, mind you, out
The business of "naming things" generated by sensibility, on the other hand, while relevant and even necessary, is never undertaken for its own sake and only to the degree that it leads out to the ineluctable, and away from the death-in-life of the solipsistic. Don't expect, therefore, much parsing of the quotidian or the domestic in Dove Legends, or impressionistic confessionalism, or any of the mystagogical doodling that serves as ballast in less ambitious poetry. Though he often grounds a poem in personal history or private feeling, we're never allowed to forget that private life in the material world is a mix of shadows cast by the numinous.
In dwelling upon this book's sheer variety, scope, and humour, I've neglected to convey a proper sense of its abundant descriptive felicities. There are observational poems here, like "The Watcher" and "Reticulations", that wouldn't suffer by comparison with the best of Elizabeth Bishop. Consider this description in "At Close of Eve" of a bat his aunt has swatted with a broom: "it crumpled, fell, and twitching, chittering like shrill/spilled radio and bleeding from its wizard's snout." For all of its potential opacities, Dove Legends & Other Poems is a marvellous vision, limned by passionate thinking and canorous expression; a "knot-quite Garden" of instructive delight from a genuine master. ˛