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Poetry support system for when it's needed most

STAYING ALIVE: Real Poems For Unreal Times. Edited by Neil Astley. Bloodaxe Books pound;10.95.

Staying Alive 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."

In the section called "Dead or Alive", William Empson's villanelle, "Missing Dates" ("Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills"), is followed by Weldon Kees's "Villanelle", which ends: "These nights one hears a creaking in the hall, The sort of thing that gives one pause. The crack is moving down the wall. We must remain until the roof falls in."

Gjertrud Schnackenberg's tightly packed "Signs" revisits the image of cracking plaster in the next poem: "The plane's X in the sky, spelling disaster: Before the whistle and hit, a tracer flare; Before rubble, a hairline crack in plaster And a housefly's panicked scribbling on the air."

This is followed by a single sentence 13 lines long, "From When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone" by Galway Kinnell, breaking the spell of rhyme with a freefall into tumbled images of human love and loss.

Following Hart Crane's "Forgetfulness" with Billy Collins's poem of the same name moves from Crane's "Forgetfulness is like a birdI " and "Forgetfulness is rain at night," to Collins's fabulous prosaic clarity:

"It is as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain to a little fishing village where there are no phones."

Perhaps more than anywhere else, the section called "My People" is packed with high points: Roy Fisher's "The Nation", Kit Wright's "Everyone Hates the English" ("Anyone ever born English Should shut up, or fuck off, or die."), Harri Webb's "Synopsis of the Great Welsh Novel" and W N Herbert's "The King and Queen of Dumfriesshire" ("They are cast in bronze, with Henry Moore holes shot in each other by incessant argument; these are convenient for holding her tartan flask, his rolled-up Scotsman.").

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 at any level is the assiduous 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. But averagely receptive readers may go for years between showings of Il Postino and Four Weddings and a Funeral, or find themselves spending valuable tube time opposite adverts for travel insurance just at the moment their soul is crying out for poetry.

And we live in times that are too unreal, surreal, spiritually starved and linguistically slippery to leave such encounters to chance. Given the breadth of the editor's reading, and the passion of his commitment, we should perhaps be less astonished at how well the book achieves its aims. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, but rather for the hungry at heart.

Sian hughes

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