- Galloway, Scotland
Alastair Reid was a poet, a prose writer, a translator, and a traveller.
Born in Galloway, he served in the Royal Navy in wartime, and afterwards left Scotland to live in a number of different countries and languages. In the 1950s, he became a travelling correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. He published over 40 books - poems, essays, prose chronicles, and translations - and his writings have been widely translated. Intimacies: Poems of Love (2008) is a translation of Neruda.
His books include Inside Out: Selected Poetry and Translations (2008) and Outside In: Selected Prose (2008). Alastair Reid died in September 2014.
In the introductory note to his book Weathering: Poems and Translation (1978), Alastair Reid states: 'I look on this 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.'
This statement, in it brevity and its simplicity, introduces us to the integrity and honesty which Reid brings to writing, be it poetry, prose, translation or his pieces as travelling contributor to the New Yorker or elsewhere. The welcome publication of the two volumes of Inside Out: Selected Poetry and Translations and Outside In: Selected Prose (both 2008) at last enabled a just estimation of Alastair Reid as one of the essential writers of our day. Reid was born a Scot and has written on Scotland, among other things, but his main base, infamously, has been c/o the New Yorker and he is as at home in a Spanish village or in Latin America as anywhere else.
Reid was known, first and foremost, as a poet then later as a prose writer. Reading through the poems collected in Inside Out we are struck by the stylistic coherence of the poems. His poetry is noticeable for its clarity of utterance. The voice in the poem shapes the form of the poem in an organic way which is nonetheless carefully structured. The poems show no noticeable development and, due to this, have a curiously timeless quality. It is a surprise to note that his first three books of poems – making up his main corpus - were published in the 10 years between 1953-1963, so were, in the main, the product of the 1950s, although other poems come from the next 15 years. The order of the poems in the present selection differs from that in earlier selections so it is difficult to be certain which poems in the book are the oldest. The poems have avoided the ‘literary’ and are near to Wordsworth’s idea of a man talking to men. We are presented with a voice, but a voice pared down to essentials as in ‘Growing, Flying, Happening’:
'The point is seeing - the grace
beyond recognition, the ways
of the bird rising, unnamed, unknown,
beyond the range of language, beyond its noun.
Eyes open on growing, flying, happening,
and go on opening. Manifold, the world
dawns on unrecognising, realising eyes.
Amazement is the thing.
Not love, but the astonishment of loving.'
Here we have a poem ‘beyond the range of language, beyond its noun’ which refreshes our vision and returns us to the vital importance of being alive in the moment. As Goethe wrote: 'Nothing is worth more than this day.'
Reid’s famous poem, ‘The Academy’, looks beyond the noun again and compares the stasis of the academy with the essential moving-on of any life fully lived:
'I do not think of the academy
in the whirl of days. It does not change. I do.
The place hangs in my past like an engraving.
I went back once to lay a wreath on it,
and met discarded selves I scarcely knew.'
Reid is entranced by the essential change of life and rejects stability which he sees as a form of evasion. This makes Reid a poet not easy to categorise or pin down. In his later poem ‘Weathering’ he comments on how a sapling once ‘planted, knee high’ to him has ‘grown to be / twenty times me,’ which reminds us of his comment: ‘I am more interested in the essential act of putting-well-into-words, good writing.’ The poem ends:
'Weathering. Patina, gloss, and whorl.
The trunk of the almond tree, gnarled but still fruitful.
Weathering is what I would like to do well.'
Reid is also a fine translator of other poets. The phrase, ‘better known as a translator than as a poet’, used to appear with monotonous regularity in critical writings on the poet Michael Hamburger. The same might be the case with Alastair Reid. Like many other readers, I first came across his name as the translator of the Spanish language poets Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, although he has translated other poets, such as Heberto Padilla and Eugenio Montejo, as well. Like Hamburger, Reid brings to translation all of the skills of a poet as well as the understanding of language of an experienced speaker. He is, furthermore, in many ways the equal of the notable poets he has translated. Inside Out includes his essay ‘Borges and Neruda’, both of whom he knew and both of whom respected him. In one conversation with Neruda on translating his work, Reid writes: ‘Once, in Paris, while I was explaining some liberty I had taken, he stopped me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Alastair, don’t just translate my poems. I want you to improve them.”' Reid himself has a poem, ‘What Gets Lost’, which refers to Robert Frost’s much quoted dictum that ‘Poetry is what gets lost in translation’. Reid comments: 'it is not what gets lost in translation but more / what gets lost in language itself’. In the same poem he comments tellingly: ‘translators are ghosts who live / in a limbo between two worlds’.
His translations are an essential element of Reid’s poetry and it is right that they appear in the same book. Reid’s range of experience of other literatures is far greater, far deeper, than that of many contemporary poets and his translations have introduced something new into English language poetry.
In his introduction to Outside In: Selected Prose, Andrew O’Hagan identifies Reid’s prose as ‘among the best prose writing to have emerged from Scotland over the last hundred years’, a comment supported by the work itself. There is the sense of a real life lived in real places in Reid’s prose, along with a calm natural style reflecting the thing expressed without strain or rhetoric. The style is the man, poised and direct, sensitive to language and, like all good style, transparent and clear. In many ways it is fair to claim that the years as a poet and translator have led to the excellence of the prose. As Reid himself has written: ‘What drew me always to writing was its portability: it required essentially no more than a notebook and a pencil, and it allowed me to own my own time, to travel light, to come to rest anywhere, a freedom I made full use of …’. Outside In gathers writing under two headings: ‘Home’ and ‘Abroad’. It includes a marvellous piece on ‘Digging Up Scotland’ and many other pieces written on living in countries abroad, including: ‘Notes on Being a Foreigner’, ‘Notes from a Spanish Village’ and the brilliant recollection ‘Remembering Robert Graves’ which is essential reading for anyone interested in Graves and his work.
Jonathan Barker, 2010