Richard Outram is known to be a difficult poet. His poems are often philosophical and densely allusive, to the point sometimes of near opacity. This not entirely unearned reputation has made him something of a poet’s poet, very highly esteemed by a small number of dedicated readers. But, as Carmine Starnino has argued in his recent book [_A Lover’s Quarrel_], there is “another Outram” out there, one who does not need in-depth decoding by experts to be appreciated. Starnino singles out “Barbed Wire” as one of the finest products of that other Outram, and justly so. This profoundly moving occasional poem–one of very few overtly autobiographical pieces in Outram’s oeuvre–can be apprehended after a single reading by a non-specialist reader. This doesn’t mean that the poem yields its secrets easily; after reading this poem several dozen times, I still uncover previously unnoticed nuances in its lines.
(How Poems Work, September 2005)
“[P]oets are like great chessplayers with language,” Don Paterson says; “they look less at the next move, or the next ten moves, than at a Gestalt, at a system of relations.” A short poem offers us a prime opportunity to study this ‘gestalt,’ for just as every ‘move’ takes place within the larger system of the language, it takes place within the smaller system of the poem: each word in a poem is related to each of the others. These relations may be aural, grammatical, semantic, or spatial; they may be consonant or dissonant. They overlay the straightforward progression of the poem, so that the best poems–particularly once learned by heart–take on, for me, a quality of ‘thingness,’ of substantive existence that transcends their linear construction.
Richard Outram’s poem “Story” comprises a single sentence, twenty-six words in length. It is divided into two three-line stanzas. (The break, appropriately, comes after the word ‘breath.’) The first line of each stanza has three strong stresses; the second and third lines have two stresses each, though the metrical distribution of these stresses varies. The rhyme scheme unites the stanzas: aba cbc–or, if we count the slant-rhyme, aba aba….