Poet triumphs in £30,000 Costa prize

Writer wins literary title for moving series of tributes to wife who died of cancer

Victory may have once again eluded novelist Colm Tóibín, "clear favourite" in the final heat of the Costa Prize, but it was an outright triumph for poetry as Christopher Reid's collection of poems won the prestigious £30,000 Book of the Year award yesterday.

Reid, 60, a rank outsider among the bookmakers, is only the fourth poet in the history of the prize to have claimed the overall Costa Book of the Year title. His work, The Scattering, which earlier this month won the poetry category, was chosen from among the five category winners. The poems were written as a tribute to his late wife, who died of cancer in 2005.

The oldest of the five contenders for the prize, Reid was one of the most unexpected winners for years, although he has won a clutch of poetry awards over his long career.

The novelist Josephine Hart, who chaired the panel of judges, said The Scattering had been the overwhelming favourite among the 10-strong panel. Even those who favoured two others of the five contenders, who included Tóibín, said they would not object if Reid walked away with the prize.

The Scattering was written as a tribute to Lucinda Gane, a TV actress and Reid's partner of 28 years whom he movingly called "amazingly vivid and unstoppably lively". He said he had not discussed writing the collection with her while she was alive, but he imagined she knew that he would write about her death. "I had written plenty of poems for her, lots of love poems, while she was alive. We never discussed what I'd do after her death but I think she knew I would turn to putting it all in words, rhymes and rhythms," he said.

Reid said that although he had written the book for "my own private needs", he had received letters from readers who said it had helped them with grieving. He said the intense, personal subject matter helped him to raise the standard of his poetry: "In this instance, it was an absolute necessity to be straightforward, to tell no lies."

The book consists of four poetic sequences, the first written during his wife's final illness, and the other three at intervals after her death.

Ms Hart said the work was a life-affirming read as well as a deeply sad one. "As Yeats said, a poet always writes out of his private life, and his greatest work he writes out of his tragedy. We feel Christopher Reid took a personal tragedy and made its emotions universal. It's bizarrely life-enhancing, and speaks of the triumph of life."

Earlier this year, Reid had been picked as the poetry category winner above the latest collections from Ruth Padel, Clive James and the South African poet Katherine Kilalea.

A Scattering was published last year and reached the 2009 short lists for the Forward Poetry Prize and the T S Eliot Prize for Poetry. Alister Babb, Waterstone's poetry buyer, said that by winning the Costa award: "Christopher Reid joins giants such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney as one of the few poets to take the prize, and in doing so, bring more people to this undervalued art form." Born in Hong Kong, Reid was educated at Oxford before becoming a journalist and book reviewer. He was poetry editor at Faber & Faber for nearly a decade, and professor of creative writing at the University of Hull from 2007 to 2009.

Reid triumphed over Tóibín's Brooklyn, Raphael Selbourne's first novel, Beauty, Graham Farmelo's biography, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius and Patrick Ness children's book, The Ask and the Answer.