Staying Human: New Poems for Staying Alive,

Edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, £12.99

Review by Rosemary Goring


What do we expect of poetry? To have expressed what we could not express ourselves? To see ourselves as others see us? To have put into words emotions, ideas, impressions, thoughts we find impossible to articulate? The best poems do all of these things and more. Poetry may not change or cure anything – it is not a vaccine – but it can find its way into the bloodstream and make life more tolerable, less painful, more meaningful, less angst-ridden, more contented.

That, at least, is the belief of Neil Astley who, perhaps more than anyone in this contaminated and confused planet, has introduced poetry to people who hitherto had dismissed it as irrelevant. In Staying Human, he has selected poems that address directly what it means to be human. He may not use the word “empathy” in his introduction but it is his guiding sentiment.

A case in point is Amit Majmudar’s An American Nurse Foresees Her Death, which takes Yeats’s An Irish Airman Foresees His Death as its inspiration. Majmudar, I learn from the Poetry Foundation website, is based in Ohio and is the son of immigrants. As well as a highly-regarded poet and novelist he is “a diagnostic nuclear radiologist”. His poem is not ostensibly about him, no more than Yeats’s was about him. Majmudar has, however, imagined himself in the PPE of a nurse who sets off to work every day knowing it might be her last. In that regard, she is like an Irish airman in the First World War whose chances of survival were slim. “When the shift ends,” Mujmudar writes, “if it ever ends,/ I ghost the perimeter of my own life/ and set the alarm for four thirty in the morning.”

The war being waged here is against an invisible enemy, but the poet makes it feel tangible. It is one of around 500 poems included in this catholic, capacious, compassionate anthology. Astley declares them “real poems for unreal times”, which was also his rubric for Staying Alive (2002), which with its immediate sequels, Being Alive (2004) and Being Human (2011), did much to resuscitate an art that spoke only to members of a self-selecting and often smug society. In his introduction to Staying Alive, Astley acknowledged that “most of us could only name one or two modern poems which have moved us profoundly and unforgettably”. His ambition was to change that. But his bigger ambition, wonderfully realised, was to explore what poetry means and how it can help us. In short, it was “a book about staying alive”.

That there is a spiritual dimension to Astley’s editing is undeniable. Throughout the Staying Alive series he has given us poems that illuminate all aspects of human life. There is joy and sorrow, love and its loss, birth and death, war and peace, epiphanies and nightmares. Above all, though, there is pleasure. Majmudar’s poem appears in a valedictory section headed, “The future?”, the question mark striking an Attenborough-esque note about where we go from here and whether our very existence is in jeopardy. Initially, says Astley, environmental destruction was at its core but he expanded the section to include poems such as Gerda Stevenson’s Hands and Imtiaz Dharker’s two Seen From a Drone poems, which respond to the current coronavirus crisis. Many more will surely follow. They capture a moment and the sense of suspended animation. Life as we know it has stopped but where we go from here is anyone’s guess.

Staying Human opens appropriately with Tom Leonard’s Being a Human Being, which stands as a motto for what follows: “not to be complicit/ not to accept everyone else is silent it must be right”. Derek Mahon, who died recently, turns up in the second section, “Ten zillion things”, which is celebratory in essence: “Best skies at first light,” he writes in Rising Late, “but I don’t do dawn/ no more.” Frank O’Hara, according to Astley “the quintessential poet of living life to the full, living for the moment”, is represented not only with his poems but poems inspired by him. Such is the incestuous nature of poetry. Five poems, by John Burnside, Clare Pollard, Nick Flynn, Ian McMillan and Anjum Hassan, riff on O’Hara’s The Day Lady Died. It is as if they’re building a cairn, in homage first to O’Hara then, in turn, to Etta James, Amy Winehouse, Lou Reed, Pavarotti and, finally, in Hassan’s ode, to no-one.

One of the joys of such anthologies is making reacquaintance with old favourites – Wendy Cope, Galway Kinnell, Maura Dooley, Jackie Kay, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland – and the discovery of new talents. In the section called Mortal Hurt, for instance, in which recovery from serious illness is a main theme, I happened upon Julie O’Callaghan’s short poem, No Can Do, in which she resists an invitation to go out for a meal: “I’m this huge moose/ with no hair,/ a cheapo wig and cancer./ And I’m supposed to go/ and eat a Seafood Platter?/ No can do.” Astley notes that O’Callaghan survived cancer only to lose her husband, fellow poet Dennis O’Driscoll to the disease. Needless to say, he, too, is represented here. In Then, he writes: “Hard though I know/ you find this to believe,/ I was actually alive once./ Alive. And well enough,/ at least, to play my part.”

As you flit through the pages of Staying Human, you realise the boundless potential for such discoveries. At every turn there is an arresting line, an original metaphor, a generous intimacy. “My hangover is like a smashed windscreen,” writes Vidyan Ravinthiran. Like footballers who must leave nothing on the pitch, poets must give everything to the page. With its emphasis on poets first published this century, Staying Alive – a snip at £12.99 – is testimony that in these sick and troubling times, poetry is in resilient health. Spread the word.