There is a point in the afterlife of most poets where the reading public either decides to remember them, or lapses into forgetting. This decision, if the poet is lucky, is often directed by a junta of friends and fans that remember them from the work they produced while alive, and can guide their oeuvre into the slightly altered light we are sometimes willing to allow a handful of newly canonized voices. Richard Outram, the great lyrical purist of late 20th Century Canadian poetry, is at that point in his afterlife. Since passing on in 2005, a number of critics and associates have attempted the delicate procedure of crafting enough of a frame for his work to place it somewhere on the wall in the gallery of contemporary poetics. I say this is a “delicate” procedure because it can so often suffer the dulling effect of mass vocalization, as idiosyncrasies and exceptions get lost in the broad public memory. Even my above nine-word frame (great lyrical purist of late 20th Century Canadian poetry) unleashes its own attacks on subtlety and specificity. He's not a “Canadian” poet in the usefully regionalist meaning of that term. He wrote into the 21st Century. Not all of his work was lyrical (often dramatic, often concrete) and by extension he wasn't a lyrical purist. Such is the difficulty of describing a creative life, there is always too much to hold in your hand, too much to relay to a third party without falling back on the passive request to just “go read some of it.”
The problem of relaying information is at the centre of a new book of essays by a collection of Outram acolytes, associates and (yes, occasionally) apologists. They are a generally responsible and well-read group of describers, making regular use of the prose Outram himself produced to describe his work as well as quoting the longer attempts at reconciliation (or, to borrow a decidedly Outram-occupied word, recollection) done by people like Peter Sanger. Sanger himself has the collection's longest, densest, and most unapologetically admiring essay, and the fact that his past work on the subject is alluded to by most other essayists suggests that the canonization process for Richard Outram is itself developing a kind of canon, and this points to a maturity in the field that can only make his fans happy and optimistic.
The possibilities, and problems, of fandom always haunt the edges of this kind of collected criticism. At this stage in the afterlife of Richard Outram, the lingering fear of his being forgotten by the future, as happens to most good poets, is too real and raw to let his critics rest on their haunches. The book is full of the kind of broad, unaccountable, words I've used myself in this review (good, great, successful, beautiful, etc). In working this way, the authors are lifting their shared hero onto their collective shoulders. It is so important at this stage to simply repeat his name, in text and in taverns, to successive generations of readers, that any discussion of the kind of good / great / successful / beautiful work he created is at best a decoration, and at worst a distraction, from the eulogizing effort at hand.
The collection as edited by Ingrid Ruthig is therefore written for lovers of Outram's work. It assumes that nobody much else is going to pick it up. Probably, this was the correct editorial path, but once Outram himself gets out of the way after Michael Carbet's interview, a real mantra of exceptionalism sets in. Robert Denham's historical account of the Outram-Northrope Frye relationship is plenty interesting, as is Amanda Jernigan's piece of the macroeconomics of sequencing and Jeffrey Donaldson's extended-metaphor-on-the-subject-of-metaphors, but they all start from such a place of unquestioned fandom that they don't necessarily open a lot of doors to those of us who (and here I announce my own biases) loved Hiram and Jenny but found the dour fairy tale stuff in Dove Legend and the clippity-clop rhyme schemes that come and go in every Outram book to be only about half as perfectly crafted and subtle as their creator likely did. This is the problem, really, of claiming a canonical space for a writer who never captured enough critical attention in life to have it guaranteed to him in death, however warranted that attention might have been. His acolytes have to spend so much time repeating judgements of quality that the rest of us are left with little concrete reference points to compare him to.
My favourite essays in the book either don't suffer the above affliction, or it presents in them a set of symptoms unique and eccentric enough to make for excellent reading by themselves. The collection twists around Zachariah Wells's essay entitled Ellipses and Interstices, which presents itself as the first dispatch that really approaches the work from anything less than an absolutist's appreciation. He digs up two of the very few moments of criticism in Peter Sanger's work, one of which describes Outram's “extremely, perhaps excessively, compressed and abstract poems.” Wells moves on from this notion to share Sanger's idea that Outram's more accessible (a loaded word, I know, but it is Sanger’s, not mine or Wells’s) poems are grounded, and reliant, on his most abstract ones.
This is a big idea, the kind that can create a through-line towards the mainstream canonizing work of a matured literary post-mortem. It's a narrative-building idea, one on which us hesitant fans can hang their hat. It could have been the thesis of this group effort, really, but most of the group (including, as an interview subject, Outram himself), is a touch too concerned with shouting his name to allow for a meditation that accepts the anticness of certain of his works as something that could haunt his other ones. A purist might demand that new readers move from novices to completists as quickly as possible, so it's warming somehow to see Wells suggest the uncompromising voice behind some of Outram's microepics could be of more good to future readers as a study for his more public works (such as Hiram and Jenny, or whatever you prefer). This is likely true, but it's an argument that requires confidence in Outram's place in posterity to gain real traction from the rest of his critical class.
Brian Bartlett's essay on Mogul, Recollected, is also an excellent read. It is a pleasing nod to the expansive properties of Outram's work that, among the ten short answers to the question “What kind of book is this?” that begin Bartlett's discussion (“An apocalyptic vision. An ark. An entertainment.”) not included among them is the label of “a savage farce” that Sanger once assigned that volume. In fact, the farcical possibility would seem to be the furthest thing from Bartlett's mind as he continues to answer his own question. Even in a collection that is often unsubtle in its attempt to rally harmoniously around a message, there is plenty of room for innumerable good, different, answers to the same simple questions.
This little book is an important signpost in the development of work around an important poet, and it has been lovingly created by a group of readers that see a sort of Outram-centred possibility to our understanding of recent evolutions in the writing and reading of poetry. That their collected vision strays occasionally scotopic can be understood by the conditions of the book's publication. It's a cold dark place for a recently deceased poet, and the job of expanding our memory of Outram's work can begin only after the importance of his output is acknowledged.
Jacob McArthur Mooney has published commentary and criticism widely, and his two books of poems include The New Layman’s Almanac (2008), and Folk (2011). ingridruthig.wordpress.com
So, I'd like to start with a comment made near the end of your Late Nights with Wild Cowboys, in the poem "Jawbone." You express real fear and anxiety over the prospect of having your life and love be objectified, turned into summary, a bowdlerized rendering that "[leaves] nearly everything out." More than that, though, you are worried about how we ourselves are complicit in this sort of exclusionary act. I guess what I'd like to ask first, then, is: do you imagine poetry as a means of letting things in rather than keeping everything out? And what are you aiming to let in, exactly?
I really do think of poetry in that way, in terms of providing a space -- an opening -- in which it might be possible to say the things that are hard, and perhaps impossible, to say otherwise; in which to express that inarticulate feeling that you get sometimes...continue reading
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The poem raises the expected questions about what we censor and screen in popular media. What is considered objectionable, and why? Placed at the start of a collection whose title references Armageddon, "Advisory" leads the reader to expect a certain discomfort.
With that warning, the book moves to the title...continue reading