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Staying Human: New Poems for Staying Alive Edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books)

Staying Human: New Poems for Staying Alive Edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books)

Perhaps going against the grain, for a book with a more popular following, indeed maybe people who don’t often read poetry, rather than for its critical reception I’ve found this book quite vital and engaged and indeed, to my ears, broaching new ground for poetry’s place including in the quite diverse market of anthologies, a Bloodaxe specialism.

Arguably Neil Astley’s now four volumes of the Staying Alive series, from 2002, is the most impacting mainstream venture in poetry publishing possibly since the Hughes/Heaney Rattle Bag. The emphasis here as there is on the single poem. Rattle Bag was organised alphabetically by poem title. I’d say thankfully Astley has not done so and the poems here are arranged thematically under ten headings with a poets’ index. 

I think a difficulty arises in pitching either too high or low. Readers might have high expectations of these poems, but they are very human with human qualities and flaws, hardly the Psalms of David. I think a little time and poring over the book makes that all too apparent.

Having ten sections to contend with I think is actually a merit. Each comes with a short editorial introduction. Speaking of first and last I think the opening is a little underachieved, the conclusion nearly persuasive once we get to it.

So, very briefly, Tom Leonard (d2018) first up presents us with,-

            not to be complicit

            not to accept everyone else is silent it must be alright

            not to keep one’s mouth shut to hold onto one’s job

            not to accept public language as cover and decoy   (beginning ‘Being a Human Being’, p22)

This is something of a call to the creative impulse to remain critical and engaged, ie not just parrot what we’re taught or told but to use our independent faculties. It does seem to me a mite understated, but actually on going through the rest of the book it holds up remarkably well. This is something of the sense of what it says ‘to be human’.

The book actually covers a great deal of humanist ground, with a stress on empathy and relating and recognising those relational qualities in poems that deal with how we think and feel. Astley chooses to end with the poet Nick Drake and the ecocrisis, with a poem called ‘The Future’, though Astley adroitly names this section with the question mark, ‘The Future?’. 

            Think of me not as a wish or a nightmare

            but as a story you have to tell yourselves   (p499)

A standout I think is ‘Conversations about Home’ by Warsan Shire, and her prose poem has some remarkable lines like ‘Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.’ (p419) This is from section 8 called ‘Roots and Routes’ which has those resonances of where we feel we belong.

An excessively critical voice would doubtless deride some of these efforts as too populist and accessible, not enough craft on offer. But there are very reputable poets here besides, like Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Vahni Capildeo, Ruth Padel and James Berry, one could go on. If I have some modest misgiving it is perhaps that the emphasis on poems not books speaks a little to the very contemporary and the fleeting foreground of awareness, although perhaps reading some of the fine poems on exhibit here might lead the inquisitive further to books by the collected, comingling authors.

Clark Allison 30th April 2021

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