Book of the week: poetry support system when it's needed

Staying Alive: real poemsnbsp;for unreal times , edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books pound;10.95) could be seen as the story of how one reader fell in love with poetry, and like all good love stories, it is a contrary, emphatic and compelling read.

This is at once an intensely personal and idiosyncratic odyssey through the best of contemporary verse, and an almost evangelical attempt to lead the reader, rather in the manner of a spiritual guide, through those moments of life that seem to require poetry.

It is not only at times of national disaster or mass mourning that people feel the need to pin verse to railings and to paper the boarded-up edges of bomb sites with extraordinary words. Staying Alive groups its poetry around those heightened moments of life that call on poetry - birth, sickness, jubilation, doubt and mourning - rather than the work of particular poets.

This is essentially a reader-centred structure, one that makes unlikely connections between writers, cultures and forms, and above all, one that challenges notions of sentimentality. As Gavin Ewart's "Sonnet: how life too is sentimental" baldly asserts: "It would have been hard to exaggerate our feelings then."

Almost as illuminating and entertaining as the organisation of the poems are the essays, comments, notes and appendices. Issues such as whether poetry really ought to rhyme are tackled with conscientious seriousness. All technical terms are glossed with great care. An additional blessing for those who teach poetry is the listing of further reading, with a brief description of what to expect from each anthology, workshop manual or textbook. On this score alone the book is without equal as a handbook for students and readers.

The aims of the book are openly ambitious. Neil Astley sets out to bring together poems that have the ability to arrest the reader "profoundly and unforgettably", poems you might find yourself re-reading on a tube train, pinning to your noticeboard or carrying in your wallet.

A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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