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.'
-- Amanda Jernigan