Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times by Neil Astley (editor)

“Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment.”
— Carl Sandburg, Good Morning, America

This new anthology from Bloodaxe is a marvel of editorial skill and taste, offering 500 modern poems by diverse writers as a demonstration of the efficacy of poetry in the modern world. Most of the poems here are by contemporary writers in English or in modern translations, and there are none that pre-date the twentieth century, so the anthology expresses itself in a largely familiar modern idiom, and sets out to elaborate the immense flexibility and range of that idiom as it manifests itself in poetic forms.

Poetry anthologies always (but not always successfully) exist in the tension between the subjective tastes of the anthologist/s, and the objective necessity of exemplifying a range, a period, a style, a theme. The best anthologies turn this tension to positive effect, balancing editorial commentary, available space and the unavoidable fingerprints of organisation with the self-selecting tendencies of certain poems and certain writers, to produce collections which energetically generate new understandings out of the unavoidable juxtapositions and curtailments of the form.

The best example of this in recent years has perhaps been Ted Hughes’ and Seamus Heaney’s The Rattle Bag (Faber), and Staying Alive is a worthy companion to this. Neil Astley’s editorial commentary, introducing each section of the book, is both light and authoritative, informative and unobtrusive, and, along with the introductory and concluding essays, and the glossary of poetic terms and list of further reading, constitutes a contribution that renders this book useful as a teaching text as well as an anthology for the non-academic reader.

Indeed Astley can’t resist a dig or two at the perceived appropriation of contemporary poetry by the academy, approvingly quoting a description of Elizabeth Bishop’s teaching methods at Harvard in order to emphasise his own position on the reading of poems:

One did not interpret poetry, one experienced it. Showing us how to experience it clearly, intensely, and, above all, directly was the substance of her teaching. One did not need a sophisticated theory. One needed only intelligence, intuition, and a good dictionary.”

Elsewhere Christopher Logue is quoted to the same effect: “Poetry cannot be defined, only experienced”.

Certainly Staying Alive will reward readers who approach it armed with these tools. I’ve carried this book around with me for the past two weeks, reading it on buses and trains, in cafés and at home. Every page offers its own reward, and, in the manner of good anthologies, the reader finds the familiar and the new jostling against each other for attention, the new forcing a reconsideration of the familiar, the familiar offering up for contemplation the new.

The editorial skill manifests itself in such fruitful sequences as the five poems in the middle of the second section, beginning with Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, followed by Louis MacNeice’s “Snow”, Paul Muldoon’s “History” (which comments on MacNeice’s poem), Maura Dooley’s “History” and Vladimir Holan’s “Snow”.

Quite apart from the beautiful counterpointing here of contrasting voices addressing similar themes, we get a sense of the international flavour of the anthology an American, two Northern Irishmen, an Englishwoman from Cornwall and a Czech from Prague offer, between them, a miniature example of the whole book’s driving force, which lies in its insistence on comparisons and relations rather than on each poem as a discrete entity. Poetry, for Astley, is a continuous activity and each poem a continuous contribution to an ongoing poetic engagement with human experience, while he also allows each individual poem the space to generate its own significance for the reader.

The book is organised thematically, dividing its contents into twelve sections with broad titles such as “In and Out of Love” and “Dead or Alive”. The values that the book promotes are positive and, as the publisher’s blurb asserts, “life-affirming”, if only in the sense that one is confronted with overwhelming evidence of an art form that is thriving in what might seem, to the outside observer, to be an increasingly hostile cultural environment. On this evidence, poetry certainly performs all the functions that Astley claims for it.

The book also addresses a question that haunts contemporary poetry and has led to precisely the intellectualisation that Astley is so wary of – the question of what poetry actually is, and how it can be defined. Astley harnesses dozens of definitions of poetry, many from contributors to Staying Alive, in order, perhaps, to demonstrate that poetry exists on its own terms and consists in part in producing and defining itself. Emily Dickinson’s rather bizarre definition provides one half of the book’s frontispiece: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Quite. Elsewhere Miroslav Holub offers a different, more thought-provoking comment: “This is one sense of poetry. A little concoction of words against death. It’s almost the instinct against death crystallised.”

The final section of the anthology, “The art of poetry”, presents poems that explore the question of poetry in a variety of ways, from the pure, crystalline abstraction of Wallace Stevens’s “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself” to Helen Ivory’s deeply confessional “Note to the reader: this not a poem” which concludes: “There is no need to hide behind poetry. / I won’t try to be clever with you”.

There are too many wonderful poems here to adequately represent the full range and delight that Staying Alive offers. It’s a book to dip into or read for sustained periods, a book that will make you want to chase up writers you’ve not read before, and a book that offers the best available primer in contemporary poetry; a book to give to others to show them what words can do. The penultimate poem in Staying Alive is Seamus Heaney’s extraordinary 16-line sonnet “Postscript”, from his collection The Spirit Level. It could have been written with reviewers of Astley’s anthology in mind:

Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry though which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”