By Jay Parini
My old mentor Alastair Reid died only two years ago at eighty-eight. He was a Scottish poet and translator, and we met in 1970 in Scotland, where I lived for seven years. He was an astonishing fellow: wry, witty, learned, and lavishly gifted as a poet and critic. My sense of what a poem should “sound like” came from reading him carefully. There was a deep musicality in his work, an accessibility as well, that struck me then and has remained with me throughout my life.
I met Alastair in a pub, having been introduced by a mutual friend. He invited me to bring him poems to read, and I accepted this offer gratefully. I would pedal out to his cottage by the sea in the afternoons, at tea time. We sat in his kitchen, drinking mugs of tea, eating toast and biscuits. He would hunch beside me and silently “correct” my poems, as he put it. He circled words, crossed out lines, rearranged stanzas. Sometimes he would just draw a thick line through the whole poem and push it back to me. I knew exactly what that meant!
Alastair directed my reading as well. (I was not enrolled in any course with him. Indeed, he had nothing to do with the university, where I was a graduate student when I met him, in the midst of writing a thesis on Gerard Manley Hopkins and the influence of St. Ignatius Loyola on his poetry.) I had never before heard of Borges or Neruda, but Alastair turned me in the direction of their work, which he was translating. Indeed, he introduced me to both Borges and Neruda. The former came from Argentina to visit Alastair in Scotland. The latter, Neruda, came to London at one point from Paris, and we went to dinner together—a vivid evening for me.
Learning to write was, for me, also learning to read. I remember reading “Among School Children” by Yeats and complaining to Alastair that it was beyond understanding. So he led me stanza by stanza through this complicated poem and its stream-of-conscious movement toward a blazing final stanza where the whole poem focused in the symbol of the chestnut tree, which cannot be separated into leaf, blossom, and bole.
Often I can hear Alastair’s voice in my own as I write and read. His accent—a mild Scottish lilt—seems vaguely to undergird my own way of speaking, although only I can notice this. His impeccable ear for the sound of poetry certainly taught me how to listen to a line of verse.
Frost once said that a poem has to carry a tune. I still believe that, and I listen for the tune in any poem. I want to believe its music. I want it to play freshly on my ear. I’m always looking for what Frost famously called “the sound of sense.”
In Scotland at that time, there was a kind of poem afoot that Alastair wrote and, perhaps even more sharply, could be found in the work of Norman MacCaig. I met MacCaig through Alastair, and he also became an important figure for me—someone whose work I really cared about, learned from, imitated. In a new poem that’s in my New and Collected Poems, I have a poem in the manner of MacCaig, although Alastair is there too:
I take some comfort from old frogs
who squat around the pond
like Bodhisatvas, contemplating
nothing but their own exclusion
from the world beyond them, falling
deeper into selfless
silence and the dereliction
of all duty but to sit like this,
apart from offspring
leaping in the air or falling
through their parachutes of flesh
or dying on the road like Jesus,
with their arms outstretched.
is their mode, as unheroic as
the rocks around them,
clumped and cooling as the night comes on.
I can only read this poem to myself in the voice of MacCaig, who had a marvelously whimsical manner. Alastair used to call it “a whim of iron,” and that pretty much summed up the case.
As I get older now, moving into my seventh decade, these looming presences from my youth become more important. They played such a role in helping me to shape an image of what poets did, how they did it, and what their poems could do on the page. I think I’ve spent the past four or more decades working my way toward what I saw then, trying to find and reframe it. In a few poems, I think I’ve actually got to that point—a kind of arrival that is satisfying. As Eliot wrote so wonderfully in the fifth section of “Little Gidding”: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
About the Author
Jay Parini is a poet, novelist, biographer, and critic. His five books of poetry include Anthracite Country and House of Days. He has written eight novels, including Benjamin’s Crossing, The Apprentice Lover, The Passages of H.M., and The Last Station—the last was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. Parini has written biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, and, most recently, Gore Vidal. His nonfiction works include Jesus: The Human Face of God, Why Poetry Matters, and Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America. Visit his website.