TIME WAS that British poetry was the preserve dusty old English professors and eccentric maiden aunts, with the occasional hippy chick in floral dress or angry young man in black French polo neck thrown in.
Neil Astley set about trying to change that when he began publishing poetry books in the northeast of England in 1978. His success has been spectacular. By presenting poetry in an imaginative way Bloodaxe has helped rescue it from the fringe elements who thought they owned it.
Staying Alive, the first in this series, was published in 2002 and was a bestseller, a word rarely used to describe a poetry book. Its reach and influence has been and continues to be huge and it spawned a successor: Being Alive.
Being Human (ed Neil Astley, published by Bloodaxe Books ), the third in the series, will be launched in Galway this evening, as part of the Cúirt festival, in the Town Hall Theatre at 6pm with readings from the book by Denis O’Driscoll and Penelope Shuttle, both of whom have poems included.
Being Human is divided into nine sections, each with titles such as ‘Life History’, ‘War and survival’ or ‘Body and soul’. What I loved about the previous two books – and I don’t use the L word often when reviewing poetry – was the way they combined poems I’d known a long time with striking poems by poets of whom I’d never previously heard.
It was between their pages I first discovered the wonderfully dark work of the Serbian-American absurdist, Charles Simic. Being Human includes TS Eliot’s early almost masterpiece, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, a poem which will be known to many from school.
Also here is WH Auden’s ‘The Fall of Rome’, for my money one of the best poems written in the past 100 years. Yehuda Amichai was Israel’s leading poet until his death in 2000. His ‘The Place Where We Are Right’ is brilliantly stark:
“From the place where we are right/flowers will never grow/in the spring.//The place where we are right/is hard and trampled/like a yard.//But doubts and loves/dig up the world/like a mole, a plow./And a whisper will be heard in the place/where the ruined house once stood.”
Other standouts are Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘We Remember Your Childhood Well’, a poem I had never previously read, and Pascale Petit’s visceral ‘Self Portrait with Fire Ants’.
Irish contributors include Rita Ann Higgins, Eamonn Grennan, Seamus Heaney, Paula Meehan, and WB Yeats. Even if it’s just so you can give poetry one last chance: buy this book. It isn’t one you’ll read end to end. There are poems here you may not read for years, but then one day, in some particular mood, you’ll open its pages and your eyes will fall on a line which speaks to you in whatever place you happen to find yourself then.
Tickets to the launch/reading are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie