Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times

‘Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times’, a poetry anthology edited by Neil Astley (2002) – 496 pages


 ‘A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.’  – Randall Jarrell  

‘Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’ – Don Marquis


I finally discovered a poetry anthology that works for me, ‘Staying Alive’ which is edited by Neil Astley,  I admit I’m late to the party, since this book was published way back in 2002 and has already sold over 200,000 copies in Great Britain alone.  However this book of poems is so powerful, I consider myself fortunate to have discovered it even now at this late point, better late than never.

Too many anthologies seem to be written more for the poets who appear in their pages rather than for the people actually reading the poems.  I’ve read anthologies where none of the poems hits home.  If I don’t discover even one poem which strikes me or stays in my mind, that anthology is a failure for me.

‘Staying Alive’ takes a different approach which can best be summed up by its subtitle: ‘Real Poems for Unreal Times’.  The focus here is on the reader.  These are contemporary poems written since 1900.  Many of the poets are justly famous like Robert Frost, T. S Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Larkin.  Yet there are many other lesser known poets as well. The amazing thing is that many of the poems by the less famous poets rival the classics.  This anthology gives a good sense of the continuation of poetry from the early twentieth century until now.  It may have been helpful to know the year each poem was first published, but in this book the emphasis is on the words of the poem itself.    

Neil Astley founded his poetry publishing house Bloodaxe Books in England in 1982.  At least since then he has been devoted to finding and publishing other people’s good poems. He has played a fundamental role in getting new poets published and in increasing the audience for poetry.

‘Staying Alive’ is divided into twelve sections with such section names as ‘Body and Soul’, ‘Roads and Journeys’, and ‘Bittersweet’.  Each section starts with a short explanatory note from Astley. Of course the poems don’t always fit neatly in to their categories or fit into more than one category,

I’m not going to quote individual poems here, but I will list a few from the book which particularly impressed me.

 ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver (Page 28)         (This poem has a place of honor in the book as the first poem and the only poem that is outside of all of the twelve sections of the book.)

‘And the Days Are Not Full Enough’ by Ezra Pound (Page 130)

‘I, Too’ by Langston Hughes (Page 326)

‘The Moose’ by Elizabeth Bishop  (Page 87)

   ‘The Door’ by Kapka Kassabova (Page 70)

‘Consider the Grass Growing’ by Patrick Kavanaugh (Page 455)

‘Staying Alive’ is a book that I will pick up occasionally whenever I want to discover another good poem or poems or to reread an old poem I particularly like.  It was followed by two more major anthologies also edited by Neil Astley, ‘Being Alive’ and ‘Being Human’, both of which I’ve added to my future gift wish list.

I would recommend ‘Staying Alive’ to anyone who already has an appreciation for poetry and wants to discover more poems or anyone who wants to develop a taste for poetry.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I love poetry anthologies and this sounds fascinating. I haven’t heard of Astley, but it does sound like a good blend of the famous and unknown. My latest anthology is a Best American Poetry 2013, and that reminds me I really should get back to it. I often intend to read a poem a day, and then forget. Although I never participate in “challenges,” this is one I need to do for myself: read more poetry.



    • Hi Kat,
      While researching this, I found out about another poetry anthology edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney called ‘The Rattle Bag’ which sounds interesting. I’ve tried the ‘Best American Poetry’ series and can never figure out if my inability to appreciate a book is lack of concentration or that the poems just aren’t good enough. Mary Oliver is a new discovery, and before that I have to go way back to Philip Larkin to find a poet I really like.
      There is a poem in the Astley book by Elizabeth Bishop called ‘The Moose’ that really impressed me.



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