Friday, 16 August 2013


My obituary of the poet and translator F.D. Reeve, father of the actor Christopher, is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. Because I had been at Wesleyan when Reeve was teaching there, I wrote a bit more than I'd been asked. In my researching I found the lists of poetry readings at the Honors College, and saw that I had read with other student poets not long after Reeve had performed as 'the Blue Cat'. Because my friend Seth Davis was in the College of Letters, he knew him well. Seth was kind enough to share his memories with me, thus the piece may give the impression I knew Reeve, which isn't so. Because I over-wrote, little bits were trimmed here and there in the paper. Rather than explain what's gone, I'll just post my copy here. Seth is the student who received an evaluation written in rhyming couplets--among the other differences are my description of the Frost-Krushchev confrontation as 'ill-tempered', my analysis of Richard Wilbur's translations from Russian, and the reference to Reeve's 2005 novel My Sister Life.


In the early stages of his career, the poet F.D. Reeve, who has died aged 84, found himself best-known as the translator who accompanied Robert Frost on his famous 1962 visit to the Soviet Union, the man in the middle of Frost's ill-tempered showdown with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Years later, having established himself as a poet, novelist, and translator, Reeve would find himself overshadowed again, by his eldest son Christopher, who achieved worldwide fame as the actor playing Superman in the smash 1978 movie hit.

Ironically, Reeve himself had given up acting to pursue poetry. If anything, he was better-looking than his son; I was a student at Wesleyan University when Reeve was a leading light in the inter-disciplinary College of Letters and his poetry was receiving its highest acclaim. Richard Wilbur was the University's poet in residence, and the two shared an almost impossibly handsome patrician elegance. I found that most striking when they performed on campus with the Russian poet Andrei Vozhnesensky, reading translations of his work. Reeve was fluent in Russian; Wilbur didn't speak the language but worked from Reeve's literal translation and his own sense of the intonation, meter and rhyme . The dueling verses were equally thrilling.

Franklin D’Olier Reeve was born in Philadelphia 18 September 1928. His father ran Prudential Financial, and although F.D. often told students his middle name was Delano, after President Roosevelt, D'Olier was his mother's family name. He was educated at the elite Philips Exeter Academy, and then at Princeton, where he studied under the poet and critic R.P. Blackmur, and became entranced with Russian literature after reading Anna Karenina. After graduation he travelled in Europe and worked in the Dakotas harvesting wheat, which would provide the material for his first novel, Red Machines (1968). In 1951, he married Barbara Lamb; Christopher was born in 1952 and a second son, Benjamin in 1953.

Reeve began graduate work at Columbia University, while working as a longshoreman and a jobbing actor. But he quit acting because he said he would have to 'give up too much of my inner self' to continue writing poetry. In 1956, he and Lamb divorced; she took the children to Princeton, and married a stockbroker, while he married a fellow Columbia student, Helen Schmidinger. That marriage also ended in divorce, as did his third, to Ellen Swift. His relationship with Christopher would always be difficult, and didn't improve with the son's fame. In interviews Christopher spoke of resentment toward his father over the bitterness of the marital break-up, and the awkwardness of his shared upbringing.

When F.D. Reeve gave his first public poetry reading, in New York, he was introduced by Blackmur, and shared the stage with Denise Levertov and the priest and future anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan. He received his PhD in 1958, and taught Russian at Columbia, where his first book, a study of Aleksandr Blok, was published in 1962. By then, he'd been selected for one of the first academic exchanges with the Soviet Academy of Sciences, which led to his selection as Frost's translator. Later he wrote a fine memoir of the trip, Robert Frost in Russia (1964), noting how he used the trip to introduce Frost, and himself, to the younger, more open, generation of Soviet writers.

After returning from Russia in 1962, he moved to Wesleyan, where he taught for 40 years. Originally head of the Russian department, he gave up tenure for an adjunct position in the College of Letters, which allowed him freedom to live and work elsewhere, eventually in Vermont, for parts of the year; particularly at Yale from 1974-86. He was a popular teacher, renowned in my time for his evaluation of one star student's colloquium, written entirely in rhymed couplets. That was his most successful period of writing; between 1968 and 1973 his first two collections of poetry, In The Silent Stones and The Blue Cat were published by major publishers, as were his next three novels, Just Over The Border, The Brother, and White Colours (1973). He would not publish another novel until My Sister Life in 2005.

Reeve translated Turgenev's short novels, and produced two anthologies of Russian drama. His renaissance as a writer was triggered by his move to Vermont, where he settled eventually in Wilmington with his fourth wife, creative writing professor Laura Stevenson. His third book of poetry, Nightway, finally appeared in 1987, followed by an exceptional critical work, White Monk (1989) tying together Dostoevsky and Melville. Between 1992 and 2010 seven more books of poetry appeared from independent presses, as well as a selected poems, A World You Haven't Seen (2001). He wrote two books of short stories based around his working on the Hudson River docks, and translated poetry by Bella Akhmadulina and Leonid Andreyev's 1908 novel Seven Who Were Hanged, which took on added resonance in the age of terrorism. His last published work was the novel Nathaniel Purple (2012) set in rural Vermont.

Reeve died 28 June 2013 in Lebanon, New Hampshire, of complications from diabetes. He is survived by Stevenson, his son from his first marriage, and a son and two daughters from his second. In a 2002 poem, 'Home In Wartime' Reeve wrote:

If I die first, gather the lost years
with the late September apples. At sunset ghost me
beside you on the steps to watch
the tangerine-lavender clouds turn gray.
Go on, go on.

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