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Neil Astley, ed., Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (Highgreen: Boodaxe Books, 2002, £10.95, 496 pages, ISBN 1-85224-588-3)—Joanny Moulin, Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille I

In addition to being a poet in his own right, author of Darwin Survivor (1988), Biting my Tongue (1999) and the novel The End of My Tether (2002), Neil Astley is also known as the leading figure behind Bloodaxe Books. Since its foundation in Newcastle in 1978, Bloodaxe, the Northern publisher that took its name from Basil Bunting’s Briggflats, has resolutely dedicated itself to modern poetry, publishing a wide ranging choice of both new and established poets from the UK, the USA, Eire or the Commonwealth, but also a large collection of poetry in translation as well as critical essays on poetry. Staying Alive is the third in a series of anthologies, following in the steps of Poetry with an Edge (1993) and New Blood (1999).

Unlike The Bloodaxe Book of 20th-Century Poetry from Britain and Ireland (2000) edited by Edna Longley, which attempts to give a panorama of the mainstream, canonical and most probably lasting poetry of the last century, Staying Alive goes for the immediately appealing pleasure, risking the ephemeral and the trendy, in a genuine effort to share the “passion poesy” with the widest possible readership. With this anthology as with its predecessors, Neil Astley is clearly out to conquer back “the reading public [that] lost touch with poetry when modern poets lost touch with their audience early in the 20th century.” [26] The poems proposed in this book are all eminently readable and accessible, never obscure, difficult or daunting in any way. They have been carefully selected so as to create an ensemble that the greatest majority of today’s potential readers, and especially young adult readers, will feel at home with. The generation that loves French poet and novelist Michel Houellebecq is bound to relish these poems. In spite of a certain amount of middle-of-the-road self-control, this is obviously a heart-felt book, in which Astley has gathered poems that he likes, and whom he thought were most likely to resonate with the feelings of contemporary readers who have little or no acquaintance with contemporary poetry. His first purpose is to radically overcome the wrong received idea that poetry, especially contemporary poetry, is difficult and boring. Some of these poems at least are bound to click in with the “likes” of this or that very particular reader. And as everyone is aware that the mass of potential readers of poetry today are tremendously various and also remarkably impatient in their tastes and aesthetic judgements, Astley proposes a plentiful range of short, simple poems, by no less that 366 authors of various origins, styles, cultures, races, sexes and languages, too, for a great number of these are poems in translation.

This is not really a book to be read from beginning to end, but rather a collection to be browsed and zapped through, like a favourite bedside box of toys or music records to indulge in at random with the wantonness of privacy or to share intimately with friends. That is also why the poems are not conventionally catalogued by authors, by schools, by periods or by dates, but in twelve thematic sections—“Body and Soul”, “Roads”, “Dead or Alive”, “Bittersweet”, “Growing up”, “Man & Beast”, “In & Out of Love”, “My People”, “War & Peace”, “Disappearing Acts”, “Me, the Earth, the Universe”, “The Art of Poetry”—each of which is preceded and justified by a short introduction. Thus the anthology is framed by an editorial discourse, with a general introduction and a short concluding essay, “The Sounds of Poetry”, insisting that “The essence of all poetry has always been rhythm—NOT rhyme” [458], followed by the indispensable indexes as well as a glossary of prosodic terms, a list of further readings and several pages of acknowledgements that give a succinct bibliography for each of the poets mentioned.

If these accompaniments are obvious claims for the book to be taken seriously, it soon becomes clear from Neil Astley’s discourse that Staying Alive is also meant to be an influential anthology. The essential statement behind this massive selection of poems could be simplistically summed up by the notion that poetry ought to be about something or somebody. That is what is being reasserted by the thematic grouping of poems according to what is, after all, their subject-matters. It is also what is ultimately implied by the subtitle—real poems for unreal times—for this is the kind of poetry that aims at rooting us back into reality, in reaction against an age dominated by the endless deferral of meaning. “The contemporary poet usually seeks meaning in the particular.” [413] One tutelary silhouette looms over Astley’s shoulder: that of Seamus Heaney, the author of the Redress of Poetry (1995) whose name is dropped again and again in these pages, and under whose aegis Astley offers to reinstate the true authority of poetry by wrenching it free from, on the one hand, “the misguided attempt to urge poets to ‘speak out’ on political issues” and, on the other hand, “the killing of poems by careless dissection at school, then their intellectual ‘decoding’ as so-called ‘texts’ in universities by literary theoreticians.” [23] In short, Astley’s idea of good poetry would be that of a poetry that were more or less politically non-committal and intellectually easy to understand, which one would turn to “whether for consolation in grief or affirmation in love”[19].

Remarkably, in the long “index of writers”, one looks in vain for the names of American “objectivists” like Zukovsky, “Black Mountain” poets like Olson or Creeley, not to speak of any “Language” poets like Bernstein, Oppen, or some of their English counterparts like Crozier, or even Prynne, although the latter at least is also a Bloodaxe poet. Perhaps these are too difficult, or too political. Pound is represented all right, but by one four-line-long poem, “And the Days Are Not Full Enough” [130]. For indeed Astley is striving to redress the fact that “Much damage has been done to the public’s perception of poetry by attempts to make poetry more ‘relevant’. In the 1960s, encouraged by charlatans and mad mavericks of poetry and rock ’n’ roll to believe that anyone could write poetry, the avant-garde’s ‘free verse’ was hijacked under the banner of self-expression, and has since [has] been giving poetry a bad name through outpourings of rhythmless prose chopped into lines, much of it published in the less discriminating poetry magazines.” [462-3]

Behind the trusty helm of the Defender of Rhythm, Astley is waging here yet another anti-modernist crusade. The style of poetry he defends remains very strongly lyrical, self-centred and chatty. The poets he favours are still very much in the style of the “New Generation” poets, even though this tag is perhaps even more superficial than any other of those invented by literary magazines. Not that this is an anthology of New Generation poets, far from that indeed, but the selecting and editing is done is that particular taste. For the “New Gen” is a spirit and a style of contemporary poetry that spreads far beyond the narrow, but always already hazy, boundaries of its original definition. Nearly all the major figures listed as “New Generation Poets” in the 1994 special issue of Poetry Review are also to be found in Astley’s Staying Alive, along with many others. New-comers in deep collusion with the established generation, New Gen poets distinguish themselves by a kind of new gentility, not middle-class, but rather bourgeois-bohème, for they also bear the discreet but conspicuous standard of right-thinking anti-middle-class values. New Gen poetry is distinctively novelised and egocentric, each typical poem sounding very strongly either like a well-rewritten page in a private diary or an extremely promising creative-writing fragment of a novel in progress. Those remarks are meant to be mildly critical but certainly not disparaging: they amount to playing devil’s advocate by endorsing a negative reception of this idea of poetry, which is a currently widespread response, for instance, among French publishers of contemporary poetry. Yet what Astley advocates is less a new school of poetry than a new approach to what a poem ought to be, which has been fostered in the UK, over the last decade at least, by various institutions like the Poetry Society or the Poetry Book Society. Whether one likes it or not, Staying Alive both orients and rides the wave of the style of contemporary poetry that will prove to have found readers in Britain at the turn of this century.

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