Book review: Being Human

Share this article

Edited by Neil Astley Bloodaxe, £12

A RECENT journey I undertook involved several flights, hasty transfers, long train journeys and a language I couldn't understand. The only company I had was the third and latest addition to the Bloodaxe Staying Alive trilogy, Being Human, edited by Neil Astley.

Waiting to set off at 4am in an impatient queue, I was jolted by the directness and pertinence of Doris Kavera's "You have been given the world. / See what there is to see".

Seeing snatches of the news and international unrest, I simultaneously stumbled upon Nazim Hikmet's words, from prison in 1948: "endure the sadness / but so love this world".

The internationalism of this collection also hit home; more voices translated and singing from all round the world, a choir united in the huge importance of musicians, poets and creators.

Astley is wonderful at selecting poems with the kind of talismanic lines that really speak to people, but Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate then, commended the "range and courage of (Astley's] taste" in Staying Alive (2002).

Most readers probably don't tackle anthologies cover to cover, and I usually wouldn't, but Astley's careful orchestration of a "broad chorus of poems with shared concerns" makes immersive, cover-to-cover reading a pleasure.

Not only are the poems clustered by broad theme, with a lively introduction to each section by Astley, but within those groupings they speak to each other, in substance or across time: Ted Hughes's Fever, from award-winning 1998 collection Birthday Letters, follows directly after the Sylvia Plath poem it responds to, Fever 103, 1963.

Robert Lowell's Skunk Hour for Elizabeth Bishop; her The Armadillo for him in response. So the poetic conversations come of real life connections, artistic sympathies and time and place, making for a very satisfying marriage of content.

Astley has said the series was never intended to be a trilogy, but his reading continued to unearth wonderful discoveries from around the world. Overwhelming feedback from the public formed an unusual poetry publisher's mail bag, and coalesced to inspire Being Human.

This collection certainly continues the excellent work of its predecessors, bringing new work and poets to audiences, and drawing new readers to poetry, and at a mere 12 for 500 poems, no-one will be deterred from taking a risk.

Being Human is stimulating, inspiring, intelligent, witty and life-affirming, the perfect companion on a journey, literal and otherwise.

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 3 April, 2011