BEING ALIVE, (Neil Astley, Ed.), Bloodaxe, 512pp 10.95
WILD GEESE Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, Bloodaxe, 160pp 7.95
BETWEEN TEARS AND LAUGHTER: Selected Poems by Alden Nowlan, 160pp, Bloodaxe, 7.95



I have a copy of the original Grove Press The New American Poetry. The reason I mention this is the word 'anthology'. And how even now, even today, when I hold this book and open it and browse its pages I fall in love all over again with poetry, with the adrenalin rush of holding in my hands poetry that calls out to me to wake up and be alive, and wanting to write poetry that will in turn generate another adrenalin rush somewhere else. I have no idea how to explain the feeling but it's a marvellous feeling. I know it involves romance and possibility and dream and myth; I know it also involves recognition, voices I understand and don't understand talking to me, and a refusal to be bored. It also has something to do, I know, with the fact that the book doesn't assume anything about me at all, and the book's poems don't make any assumptions about me either, beyond the fact that if I'm reading them then I am, presumably, a reader of poetry and therefore interested. And, with that given, the poems are there, and that's it. They'd be there anyway.

It's that word 'anthology' that started me thinking about this. Oh, and this thing I'm supposed to be writing about being alive. I mean,
Being Alive, the new anthology from Bloodaxe, the sequel to Staying Alive.

Staying Alive, published in 2002, apparently sold thousands of copies and, if we are to believe Bloodaxe publicity, 'introduced thousands of new readers to modern poetry, offering an international gathering of poems of great personal force, poems with emotional power, intellectual edge and playful wit. It brought many readers back to poetry, people who hadn't read poetry for years because it hadn't held their interest.' Among the anthology's readers you can count Mia Farrow and Meryl Streep. Meryl, she tells us (in her own words; it's not a script!), runs home to the book to argue with it, find solace in it, and locate herself in the world again. It's a beautiful image, I think, and not one I am going to ridicule.

I have no idea if the book did what Mr. Bloodaxe says it did. The only people I know who even know of it are people who know poetry anyway, but I have no way of checking if non-poetry readers were suddenly somehow grasped in a mysterious way by the reviews they didn't read or the word of mouth from people they didn't know and flocked to the local bookshop they no longer have to buy their first poetry book for years, if not for ever. I hope they didn't, because if people have to be introduced to modern poetry (and, of course, they don't) then they deserved much better than
Staying Alive was offering. They deserved much better than the several hundred somewhat flaccid and mind-numbing poems Neil Astley told them were 'exceptional'. Of course, there were some good things in it, and some poetry staples, but in the main it was solidly dull fare.

Perhaps one cause of my disquiet was the premise that poetry is good for you. No, let me re-phrase that, because it might be a slightly unfair interpretation. I quote, rather, from Astley's 'Introduction':

'Many people turn to poetry only at unreal times, whether for consolation in grief or affirmation in love.'

Actually, this is probably true, now I come to think of it. Four weddings and a cremation. But poetry isn't that for me, and never has been. Poetry isn't 'for' anything, as far as I know, notwithstanding that 'many people' think it is. That's okay. I am not many people. But if I try and imagine myself turning to poems to sustain me in grief or justify me in love - um, no, I can't imagine that.

New poetry readers also deserved better than the commentary Astley provided to accompany the poems, a commentary that reminded me strongly of the tones my old English teacher used to adopt when he told us what poetry was. Never mind how great swathes and styles and methods of modern poetry were ignored by it - you kind of expect anthologies to be exercises in exclusion, I think. But you might expect them to be a bit more open and honest about it. Does Neil Astley know how much power he wields?

Astley has, to give him his due, mastered the tone of the teacher who knows best. His  Introduction to
Staying Alive makes so many statements claiming to be facts within its opening paragraphs he ought to be ashamed of himself. For instance, '... most of us could only name one or two modern poems which have moved us profoundly and unforgettably.' I suspect the truth is that whoever the hell this 'us' is, and I assume Astley means the world of non-poetry readers who are now reading his book, then most of 'us' couldn't name any poems that have done this, except perhaps that what was it? that poem in Four Weddings again, that was okay, wasn't it? Astley's assumed identification with ordinary non-poetry reading people is sickly enough. But we are immediately expected to accept as fact that certain poems he names have 'unnerving power'. My English teacher used to tell us that certain things were great, and certain things were not great. He neglected to tell us we could make up our own minds.

'Most people [Are these the same people as 'many people'? I just wondered.] think contemporary poetry is either boring and irrelevant or pretentious and superficial.' That's another Astley fact. I would suggest that 'most people' have no clue what contemporary poetry might be, but if 'most people' read his selection of poems they might well think what he thinks they already think. (If nothing else, I can match his daft generalisation with one of my own.) And he's absolutely dishonest when he says to his supposed audience of poetry innocents that his book will show them 'the wide range of contemporary poetry from the past three decades, much of which is closer to Shakespeare than to Modernism in its address to concerns shared by the reader'. What is this rubbish? Do the poets he calls Modernist not have the concerns of, who? Ordinary people? Neil Astley can't be such an idiot, or think that the people who read what he's written are idiots on the same scale.

There are other Astley facts that bother me. I need to mention a habit he has which can best be described by quoting it:

'Another Frost poem, "The Road Not Take"', became America's
favourite poem because...'

'
Canada's favourite modern poet, Alden Nowlan...'

Oh, and I'll throw in:

' A great modern poem like...'

There is more than one way of approaching the issue that bothers me here. One approach requires that I accept the premise that these books are going to reach new poetry reading audiences. If I accept this, then I may have to accept also that these poetry new people will lap up the teaching tone Astley adopts and try to share his tastes. In other words, they might believe him. And they might wonder, when they read a particular poem they've been told is great, and they don't think it's great, what's wrong with them! This doesn't attract people to poetry; it puts them off. If, on the other hand, I grant that these people will make up their own minds, might they be disappointed as much as they are enthralled and excited? I wish, rather, they'd been given the chance to make up their own minds about a wider range of poetry than Bloodaxe settled for.

If I reject the premise and see all this thick anthologising as some fine marketing strategy, then the new reader becomes an irrelevance and one is driven to the 'Further Reading' lists at the back of the book to see how many more Bloodaxe books one needs to buy to enjoy even more thrilling poems etc. Whatever. Marketing isn't exactly a sin, although marketing such overwhelmingly dull poems on the back of phrases like 'poems that touch the heart, stir the mind and fire the spirit' may well be. It's enormously unfair to quote one poem out of several hundred to make a point, but the first poem in the book after the Introduction that uses that phrase begins

     This poem is dangerous; it should not be left
     Within the reach of children, or even of adults
     Who might swallow it whole, with possibly
     Undesirable side-effects...


Oh well, only another 500 unnerving pages to go. Of course, as with its precursor, Being Alive has some good poems in it but they tend to be the poems you can find easily elsewhere. Eliot and Auden and Bishop and so on aren't exactly hidden mysteries. But who exactly is Mary Oliver? Oh yes, she is 'one of America's best-loved poets': it says that on the back of her book, one of two companion volumes Bloodaxe has brought out to accompany Being Alive as the first in a 'World Poets' series. Oliver writes very precise, actually quite acceptable poems that are about a relationship with the world, and nature, and Go... They are exact and observant, laced with a spiritual joy:

     Across the waters
         something comes
              floating - a slim
                    and delicate

     ship, filled
         with white flowers -
              and it moves
                    on its miraculous muscles

     as though time didn't exist,
          as though bringing such gifts
               to the dry shore
                     was a happiness

     almost beyond bearing.

                            (from 'The Swan')

After a while, though, you kind of know what you are getting and going to get. The closing lines of 'Look and See' rather sum it up: 'Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we only look, and see.' I agree with the sentiment (apart from the 'Oh Lord' bit). But it's quite possible that by the time I attended to these poems I was Bloodaxed out. I think I could stand Mary Oliver's poetry in small doses.

The other poet in the series (a series of two, thus far) is Alden Nowlan, who we already know now is Canada's most popular etc. I know I should know about these people. I do now. He has won many prizes and awards, and has been dead twenty years. He is more of your working class downtrodden survivor assailed by hardship and disease man of the people rough at the edges life is a bastard but I'm hanging in there straight talking poet: And I like him quite a lot:

     Cornflowers

     I am a saint with a broken wing
                  who shakes his fists like the wind.
                                                                            You
     are the homecoming
                                     of the sun,
                                                      an hurrah of grass.
     The cornflowers are not yet
                 aware they will die soon
                             from last night's frost.
     They are like the Empress
     Elizabeth of Austria
     who was stabbed with a blade so thin
     she continued to smile
                                          and did not interrupt
     her walk,
                    although it had pierced her heart.
     Since in this place and season
                 they are the only flowers
                                that do not ask for money
     I give you them.
                               Nothing else is beautiful
     this hunchbacked October night
     except the moon.

But back to
Being Alive. Of course, I haven't read every poem in either of these two door-stopping anthologies. But I have spent several hours with these books and became increasingly dispirited. And, perversely, weighed down by a heavy heart and almost broken in spirit, I turned to poems to brighten me up. The poems I like in other books! But the poems I like aren't there to cheer you up after you've read some crappy poems!! That's silly.

I've lately become reconciled to the fact that lots of people like things, including poems, that I don't like. This condition co-exists with its opposite, that lots of people like what I like and don't like what I don't like. And the edges of all these things are blurred, and the world is big enough for all of us. And I try not to get too hot under the collar when the thing we are focussing on in particular is poetry, and I come across things about Poetry World I don't like much, or even loathe. In other words, I try to be mellow. But, of course, it doesn't work very well because when I walk in Waterstone's and into their Poetry section all I can see is this damn book. Lately, I've been chatting over with a friend how we should maybe do an anthology of our own, and put the world to rights.


               Martin Stannard, 2004