Being Alive

Edited by Neil Astley

Readers might remember the predecessor to Being Alive. It had a young sorrowing face on the front cover that, as sales support, became almost emblematic of poetry as an emotional and healing force. The anthology was called Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times. Its message was loud and clear: poetry can help people to better their lives by sharing the weight of life's often cruel (and sometimes beautiful) experiences. More importantly perhaps, Staying Alive proved that poetry can reach book-buyers who wouldn't usually buy poetry. Post 9/11 and the general public quickly swallowed it up and Staying Alive seemed to have arrived at the right time. It soon sold by the shelf-load, was praised by poetry and non-poetry buyers, while largely sniped at by academics for being too one-eyed in its approach, and for the inclusion of certain poems that just don't honour poetry's presumed ability to affect the heart or conscience. All this was two years ago, and a companion anthology has arrived.

The second instalment (a third is due out in 2006) looks good from the cover alone. American photographer Nan Golding is on the front, looking pensively out of a train window (after escaping the clutches of her abusive partner). Though she might be the last to admit it, Golding's work has become increasingly mainstream over the years, so it almost fits to notice beneath her a thumbs-up appreciation of both anthologies from actress Meryl Streep. Further endorsements come from the likes of Van Morrison and Beth Orton giving this anthology (before you even consider the 500-plus poems) an impression of a long-lost friendship rekindled between poetry and the wider world of popular art.

Of course what is more important than all this is the poems themselves. Like Staying Alive they are divided into sections. Examples include 'Men and Women', 'Family' and 'Mad World' (the latter reminding me of that gnawing Christmas cover by Gary Jude). However, the poems within each section fit well enough, which is testament to Neil Astley's editorial ability to pluck the very best poems from a huge number of poets in the world, and even to select suitable poems from otherwise mediocre poets. The first section ('Exploring the World') doesn't really get going until Muldoon's 'Symposium', a series of witty clichés inverted into juxtaposition. Three of the preceding poems are about poetry and what it means to write which became slightly tiring after the first one. Writing poems about writing poems should be a last resort for poets and not really a proper curtain-raiser for an anthology that hopes to 'touch the heart, stir the mind and fire the spirit'. Nevertheless, once you soon get beyond what actually feels like a series of curtain-raisers and into the cyclical metaphorics of poems like 'Not the Furniture Game' by Simon Armitage (with its crisp backward glance towards Ted Hughes' 'Lovesong') and the beautiful sense of dislocation in Michael Longley's 'Echoes', then it feels like the main course has arrived. What you get instead from thereon, and I suppose this is typical of most varied anthologies, is a giant table-feast of poetry, with the occasional dish that you'd prefer to spit out, and others which taste quite incredible. The second section, suitably named 'Taste and See', serves more of the latter, and is one of the best segments of the whole book. Examples of the incredible include Sylvia Plath's 'Blackberrying', one of her best poems not to be over-anthologised. Additionally, the raw ebullience of poems by Michael Donaghy ('The Present') and Czeslaw Miloszs' 'Gift', strike an added poignancy because of the sadness of the recent death of both these brilliant authors. Donaghy's poem, in particular, stands tall in here. It was one of his best.

Threaded with diversity, Astley's selection casts a huge net over the poetry world. The inclusion of some of the most important living poets is evident from translations of Palestine's Mahmood Darwish (strangely the best selling contemporary poet in France!) and Iraq's leading poet (now residing in the U.K.) Saadi Youssef. Serbia's Ristovic and Indian-born Vijay Seshadri also make the boat, and with Darwish and Youssef they offer some of the most vital poems in the anthology. Along with a strong American contingent which thankfully includes August Kleinzahler, Mark Doty, Theodore Roethke and Hart Crane, among others, and some of the best Irish poets (from Seamus Heaney to Sinead Morrissey) Being Alive has an international, almost all-embracing feel to it. This invitational feel is accentuated by the varied list of anthologies in the carefully constructed further reading in the appendices. All this adds kudos to Neil Astley's taste as a lifelong reader of poetry.

There are some surprising selections featured throughout, which make for good and bad ingredients. I winced at seeing Maya Angelou's poem 'Still I Rise', but while her work makes me shudder, I reluctantly can see how someone who doesn't read poetry at all might like it. However, I did enjoyed reading poets like Julia Darling and Helen Farish for the first time. Farish's poem about newly born twins was as beautiful as Don Paterson's recent parental poems in 'Landing Light', which were oddly admitted. Indeed there are no poems at all from Paterson, and while certain folk (especially the avante-garders) might argue that the guy has had enough prize-winning coverage recently, he surely deserved at least one poem in a collection such as this, particularly when promising apprentices like Jacob Polley get three poems in.

Yet the poems, on the whole, are not a bad representation of contemporary poetry. The big hitters (like Neruda, Yeats and Plath) are in there and have high-quality poems included. Snippets from Eliot's 'Four Quartets' eventually round things up, and with it you are almost convinced that Being Alive is another 'Rattle Bag'. But it's not. The primary reason for this is the overplayed focus on poetry as a healing tool. While many people start being interested in poetry by way of its undoubted therapeutic capabilities, anyone who starts to know their Hughes from their Holub will tell you that poetry is essentially about language, its excitability, elasticity and its limitless attempts to transcribe the beautiful, the fleeting, the mad, or indeed the difficult. While Being Alive recognises this more so than Staying Alive, its lens is still somewhat preoccupied with the sorrowing, with how poetry can be used as a light-switch in the dark.

Three anthologies (Being Human is intended for release in 2006), although different, appear to lean (or be leaning in the case of Being Human) towards poetry as a prop for when times are downright rotten. What would be useful, if poetry is to be truly understood, is for mainstream audiences (and Bloodaxe to their credit seem ever-willing to tap into non-poetry audiences) to know that poetry can be utilised in whatever personal weather.

This is not to say that Being Alive takes itself too seriously. There are light-hearted poems throughout the anthology (Bukowski's 'sexpot' being one of the best) and there are some great language poems in the offering. Astley has more savvy and experience than to consider his chief editorial role as mere solacer. Indeed he mentions eloquently in the editorial introduction of how poetry doesn't offer 'simple medication, it opens up the senses, it disturbs, questions and challenges'. It's hard to disagree, and with this in mind perhaps Astley will not be as vilified as two years ago for creating another successful anthology. His editorial comments actually make a lot of sense, and its refreshing to see him not having to respond to critics in his editorial space, as with previous anthologies.

However, the bindings in these three anthologies seem to be that in order to 'bridge' poetry to mass audiences; contemporary poetry has a responsibility to comfort. Perhaps this way of seeing poetry is a public misconception, and Bloodaxe will hoop in a wider audience to poetry, by first letting them see what they expect to see: poetry as a helpful, sometimes mysterious oddity rather than an art based on language, working practice and technique. Having got their attention, then the door will be opened and everyone will be thanking Bloodaxe for breathing life onto the flagging fire that is contemporary poetry. I for one hope so, but remain slightly po-faced and unconvinced.

Like its predecessor Being Alive will probably sell better than any other poetry anthology this year. In many respects it deserves to. Essentially, Being Alive is an enjoyable read, at a very decent price, with heartfelt, gritty poems of so many different styles. What's more: there is no Kipling's 'If' included, or its sickly mirroring poem 'Desiderata'. Should Being Alive reach its mainstream target-audience and they find contemporary replacements beyond poems that for many people still symbolise what poetry is, then Being Alive will have truly done some good.

James Byrne


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