Staying Human: anthology edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe

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Poetry has had one of its moments during this pandemic. It is generally agreed that more people have been writing it, reading it, turning to it. So it would seem that editor Neil Astley inadvertently picked the right year to publish his latest Bloodaxe anthology, Staying Human, the fourth in the Staying Alive series. He had completed his selection at the start of 2020, just as Covid struck, and extended the final section of the anthology at the last moment to include some poems written in response to the global crisis. 

My task in this review is to transmit the joy to be found within its pages; the poetry of moments, of epiphanies; inspirational poets that succeed in writing about happiness, always a difficult subject to tackle. I recommend reading three or four poems within it at a time; maybe two or three times a day, if you have more time. If that sounds like a prescription, well, perhaps it is.

Nevertheless, some of the poems come with warnings. The section ‘Innocence and experience’ includes poems about the joys of having children, but also the pain experienced over miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion and the deaths of young children. Astley says in his introduction to this section: “Some readers may find a number of the poems in this section quite disturbing, particularly if they’ve had personal experience of some of the difficult areas mentioned”. But such poems can offer comfort, too.  

The anthology also pays a particular tribute to the American poet Frank O’Hara, granting him his own section, ‘After Frank O’Hara’. Astley describes him as “the quintessential poet of living life to the full – living for the moment”. He goes on to explain how he has included poems by O’Hara and by “later writers extending conversations O’Hara started over 50 years ago in his Lunch Poems.”

Astley says that this approach reflects his wider philosophy in putting the Staying Alive series of anthologies together, “pairing poems by different writers which address each other either directly or by picking up a theme or phrase, as composers do in music, and ‘orchestrating’ the sections in such a way as to bring these conversation alive for the reader, so that poems will seem talk to one another … Each poem has its own voice while at the same time speaking from a broad chorus of poems with shared concerns.” Those shared concerns can be fundamental, or more day-to-day: for example, before taking lunch with Frank O’Hara, there is first breakfast, in the ‘Ten Zillion Things’ section, with one poem titled ‘quince jelly’ followed by ‘Marmalade’, which is followed by ‘If God Made Jam’, which is followed by ‘Meditation on a Grapefruit’.

Less appetising, perhaps, are a couple of poems in later sections, about the Whitechapel fatberg, now in the Museum of London, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Other titles in the final, Covid-adjusted section include ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’, ‘The End of the World’, ‘The Virus at My Window’, and ‘An American Nurse Foresees Her Death’.

It is impossible to generalise about the wealth of poetry in this anthology, yet I will try. For me, the attraction of Staying Human – just like the other anthologies in the Staying Alive series - is that it contains poems that are open in their meaning, that sometimes wear their heart on their sleeve, that don’t aim to be obscure. It held and diverted my attention while I was in Spain in early November, having fled the UK’s impending second lockdown, before we had to face returning home; for that reason especially it will always hold a place in my heart. Staying Human would make a wonderful Christmas present for someone you love.


Staying Human, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, £12.99 


Background: Write Out Loud's interview with Neil Astley 



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