He was born on 22 March 1926 in Wigtown, Galloway – his father a Church of Scotland minister, and his mother a doctor –and given what he calls ‘a gentle, kindly beginning’ there and in the summers they spent on Arran. According to Reid’s own accounts – notably in the essay ‘Digging up Scotland’ – he developed a sense of the possibilities of other lives and travel very early. He had a year at St Andrews University before he joined the Royal Navy, with which he served in the Indian Ocean during the Second World War, and returned to complete his degree in classics.
In the early 1950s Reid was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in New York State, had published some poems in the New Yorker and a slim volume, To Lighten My House (Scarsdale, NY: Morgan & Morgan, 1953). He went to Mallorca for a holiday and happened to meet there Robert Graves, who had lived on the island for many years. From 1953 Reid spent part of each year in Deyá, and saw a great deal of Graves; in 1958 he remarried and settled in Madrid, and began travelling all over Spain, and writing essays for the New Yorker. He had a son, Jasper, in 1959; his marriage broke up when he fell in love with Margot Callas, then Graves’s muse, and the friendship between the poets did not survive this. Reid continued to spend summers with his son, in a Spanish mountain village.
Reid and Jasper lived on a houseboat on the Thames in the mid-1960s, moved to Antioch in Ohio for a year while Reid taught there (1969) and then to St Andrews for a year; spent a year wandering in Latin America and then five years back in London while Jasper finished his schooling. ‘Moving was like putting on different lives, different clothes, and we changed easily, falling in with the ways of each country, eating late in Spain, wearing raincoats in Scotland…’ (‘Other People’s Houses’). Reid went on to South America, and for many years divided his time between New York and an isolated house in the Dominican Republic, his contract with the New Yorker spanning forty years. He continues to live in New York with his long-time partner, the writer Leslie Clark, and frequently returns to Galloway.
His immersion in Spanish life meant an immersion in the language: ’I felt altered by it. To enter into a language is to assume much more than a vocabulary and a manner; it is to assume a whole implied way of being ’ (‘Digging Up Scotland’). The by-product was a desire to translate, ‘not so much out of intention as out of reading enthusiasm’. For over a decade, Reid’s own poetry was set aside in favour of translating, notably the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, separately encountered in 1964: ’Borges’s work is as spare as Neruda’s is ebullient, as dubious and ironic as Neruda’s is passionately affirmative, as reticent as Neruda’s is voluble’ (‘Borges and Neruda’). He has said that the key to translating these entirely different poets has been the ability to summon up their voices, heard in occasional meetings – as at Neruda’s impromptu birthday party on the houseboat in Chelsea, or when Borges stayed in St Andrews on his way to collect the Nobel Prize.
Other Latin American poets Reid has translated include the Cuban Herberto Padilla and Mexican José Emilio Pacheco, whose brief poem ‘High Treason’ seems particularly relevant to Reid:
I do not love my country. Its abstract lustre
is beyond my grasp.
But (although it sounds bad) I would give my life
for ten places in it, for certain people,
seaports, pinewoods, fortresses,
a run-down city, gray, grotesque,
various figures from its history,
(and three or four rivers).
Process is central to Reid’s poetry, not the accomplished thing but the thing – the emotion, the person, the landscape – in the process of becoming itself. ‘Eyes open on growing, flying, happening,/and go on opening.’ The conversational ease is immediately engaging. He has said that having his writing corrected by Robert Graves was an extraordinary education in writing well, and alongside the attention to voice in translation, the effect on his own poetry has been to produce a consistent tone that has not changed much over the course of his writing life.
In Scotland, his best-known poem is ‘Scotland’, which contrasts the rare beauty of a summer day with a Scotswoman’s Calvinist prediction that nature will exact its payment. It embodies Reid’s sense of exhilaration with regard to the Scottish landscape, and his sense of the Scottish character as fettered. It is a contradiction that resonates with many readers of this poem – perhaps too many for Reid, who in 2007 read and then ceremoniously burned the poem at StAnza, the annual poetry festival in St Andrews.
Reid’s poetry came back into circulation in Scotland in 1978, when Canongate published Weathering; poems and translations; the same press combined poems – including some translations – and prose in Oases, a pocket-size hardback in 1997, which brought his work across these genres to the attention of a new generation.
The author said, in the foreword to Weatherings, that he regarded the book ‘as something of a farewell on my part to formal poetry, which seems to me now something of an artificial gesture, like wearing a tie. I am more interested in the essential act of putting-well-into-words, good writing; and I feel that the fine attention one gives to words in poems can also be applied to prose. But it is from poetry more than anything that one learns to say well.’
Indeed his high reputation perhaps rests more on his prose – recently collected as Outside In (Polygon, 2008) – and translations than on his poetry now, but ‘Scotland’ has earned Alastair Reid, for that poem at least, an indelible place in anthologies.