Book Group: So many poems, so much to love

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The Independent Culture

When Staying Alive was published two years ago, I told readers of this newspaper to "go out and buy it for everyone you love". I even followed my own advice, placing a multiple order with Bloodaxe and duly dispatching copies to family and friends. Two years later, my injunction appeared on the inside cover of its "companion anthology", Being Alive (Bloodaxe, £10.95) - at the bottom of a long list that included Mia Farrow, Jane Campion and Philip Pullman.

When Staying Alive was published two years ago, I told readers of this newspaper to "go out and buy it for everyone you love". I even followed my own advice, placing a multiple order with Bloodaxe and duly dispatching copies to family and friends. Two years later, my injunction appeared on the inside cover of its "companion anthology", Being Alive (Bloodaxe, £10.95) - at the bottom of a long list that included Mia Farrow, Jane Campion and Philip Pullman.

In a cultural climate where most poets are lucky to sell a few hundred copies of their latest slim volume, Staying Alive went on to sell 100,000. No wonder Bloodaxe's editor Neil Astley thought it was time for a follow-up. Being Alive, he says in his introduction, is about "being human". He hopes that it will "pass Emily Dickinson's now famous test for true poetry, that it makes you feel as if the top of your head has been lifted off". His jacket even boasts a quote from Meryl Streep saying that the book "has a heartbeat". An anthropomorphism too far, perhaps, but clearly praise.

In a move that irritated the more precious reaches of the poetry world - who implied that he was dumbing down and selling out, like some trendy vicar swapping morning service for aromatherapy - Astley divided the poems in Staying Alive into user-friendly sections, with titles such as "Body and Soul", "Roads and Journeys" and the inevitable "In and out of Love". Each came with a little introduction, a mix of general musing, quotes from poets and handy hints on how to read. Sensible, down-to-earth and clear, it was a format that pissed off the poetry police but triggered a torrent of grateful letters from readers.

Sticking with the if-it-ain't-broke principle, Astley hasn't changed a thing. Here are the sections again: "Exploring the World", "Taste and See", "Family", etc. And here, of course, are the poems, more than 500 of them - poems that, if they leave the top of your head intact, do at least give you a tingle. Most reviews of anthologies include a long list of poems that have been left out. Here, the (almost ludicrous) broadness of the theme makes such carping irrelevant. The simple fact is this: there are an awful lot of good, funny, moving poems in the world, and an awful lot of them are in here. "A poem, like the clitoris, is there/ For pleasure," says David Constantine in one of the many poems in the book I hadn't read before. "The pleasure principle", he adds, "will do for you and me." And, on this occasion, for me.



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