There were good times, too. “Bud was a leggy 6-foot-1 and he was a runner in high school, winning races,” said his half-sister, Leslie Ottavi, who was 10 years younger, and now lives in Cary, N.C. “He was a voracious reader, he loved to read; his father left behind a lot of books. He started to write poems in high school.” He discovered Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.
“I found out that there were poets whose lives were as messed up as mine,” he once said. “Reading poems helped me get through another hour, another night, another day.”
At 18 he entered Ohio Northern University, but left after two years. He married his college sweetheart, Judith, a girl from New York, but the marriage, which produced a son, Aeron, did not last.
Mr. Osborn lost touch with his son for 30 years but around the time he turned 50, he found Aeron living in Oregon. They saw each other on two occasions, but the reunion was not successful.
His sister says Mr. Osborn got into hard drugs after college, in New York, where he did odd jobs. In his poems he described scoring “smack” and selling his blood plasma to a lab, “5 dollars the first visit and 10 the second.”
He did not see heroin as a problem then, but as a solution. He later wrote that it gave him peace and was the only thing that helped him sleep.
In 1969, with the Vietnam War raging, Mr. Osborn got his draft notice and left for Toronto. His first collection of poems, Black Azure, was published there by Coach House Press in 1970.
Living hand to mouth in Toronto in a cheap hotel on Sherbourne Street, he met a woman he calls Marie in his prose-poem Gentrification, but who his friends later knew as Cuba Dwyer, a Cherokee from the hills of Oklahoma. In 1986, when he was sinking deeper into addiction, the couple moved to Vancouver and found their way to the Downtown Eastside.
Ms. Dwyer eventually became a chaplain and ministered to the AIDS-afflicted, before returning to the United States. Mr. Osborn was still a junkie and supported his habit through theft and scamming. He was eventually arrested for stealing books from the UBC bookstore.
“A judge told me I was of no use no use at all to society,” he wrote in his poem Amazingly Alive, recalling this episode:
but I got news
news for him
a society of bullshit
bullshit and greed
ain’t no damn use
ain’t no use to me
On another occasion, he was taken to St. Paul’s Hospital following a near-fatal drug overdose.
“One day I emerged, 45 years old, broke, homeless, in a detox centre, with nothing,” he told an interviewer. He decided he wanted to live, after all.
He credited his victory over heroin and alcohol to the support of a Roman Catholic priest who refused to give up on him. From then on, though born Presbyterian, he identified as a Roman Catholic. Once clean, he moved to a halfway house away from the Downtown Eastside. But he moved back after a year to a studio on Powell Street in the DTES, where he found what he called “a community of prophets.”
In the film Down Here, one of several documentaries in which he appeared, he said it was a privilege to read his poems to a crowd of poor people in a park rather than have his verses appear in a literary magazine where few would see them.