Book Group: This month's title is 'Being Alive' edited by Neil Astley

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The Independent Culture

What do Meryl Streep, Van Morrison, Mia Farrow, Philip Pullman, Beth Orton and Ian Rankin have in common? Oddly enough, it's a book of poetry - or rather two, since these and other stars of page and screen have enthused about the new anthology, Being Alive, and its predecessor, Staying Alive. At this point, some readers will feel the itch to turn the page - after all, a poet (naturally) once said that the mention of poetry could clear an English crowd quicker than a fire-hose.

And that's the whole point of editor Neil Astley's endeavour. Being Alive (Bloodaxe, £10.95) carries on its forerunner's work of introducing modern poetry to people who don't ever read it, stopped reading it, or perhaps felt curious but never confident about this often forbidding world. Over its 500 pages, Being Alive recruits a regiment of forceful and accessible pieces from every kind of 20th-century poet. You'll find Hugheses, Plaths, Heaneys and Duffys all present and correct, rubbing shoulders with great overseas figures (Lorca, Milosz, Neruda) and a host of young voices. Different sections focus on the life of the senses, the soul, the family, the natural and political worlds. Astley's selections aim for surprise, excitement, impact. He quotes Emily Dickinson - "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Poetry as emotional GBH: will Being Alive make you see stars, or leave you cold? And modern poetry sceptics - could it make a convert of you?