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Neil Astley introduces Being Human

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Being Human is the third book in what has now become the Staying Alive poetry trilogy. Staying Alive and its sequel Being Alive have introduced many thousands of new readers to contemporary poetry. Being Human is the companion volume to those two books - a world poetry anthology offering poetry lovers an even broader, international selection of poems with emotional power, intellectual edge and playful wit. Staying Alive has the subtitle ‘real poems for unreal times', and Being Human extends that territory with selections of poems that are not just relevant and timely but universal in addressing the human condition.

The range of poetry in Being Human complements that of the first two anthologies, presenting another 500 thoughtful and passionate poems about living in the modern world. It has more great poems from the 20th century as well as many more recent poems of rare imaginative power, with an even greater emphasis on world poetry, showing what it means to be human in different cultures.

When I first had the idea for Staying Alive, it was for a diverse and lively book to introduce new readers to contemporary poetry as well as to show existing poetry readers (whose access to international poetry is restricted by the narrowness of British publishing) a wider range of poems from around the world. I had no thoughts then of a sequel, let alone a trilogy, but I also had no idea that these books would be championed so enthusiastically that readers would want a third, companion anthology.

Staying Alive
is still being discovered by new readers. Ten years on I'm still receiving letters, postcards and e-mails expressing people's appreciation, all saying how much Staying Alive had helped or stimulated them and fired up their interest in poetry.

Talismanic poems were a popular feature of Staying Alive and Being Alive. These are the kinds of poems that people keep in their wallets, on fridges and noticeboards; poems copied to friends and read on special occasions. Such has been the appeal of Staying Alive and Being Alive that many readers have written not only to express their appreciation of these books, but also to share poems which have been important in their own lives. Being Human draws on this highly unusual publisher's mailbag, including many talismanic personal survival poems suggested by readers from all walks of life, along with others named by writers at readings and in newspaper articles and blogs. Examples of these include, in particular, poems by Robert Frost, Jane Hirshfield, Langston Hughes and Rilke. One poem even served as an actual talisman for its author: Brian Turner kept a copy of ‘Here, Bullet' in his breast pocket while he was serving with the US Army in Iraq.

Interviewed at Ledbury Poetry Festival last year, Billy Collins made this comment: ‘Poetry is about time... The oldest theme in poetry is carpe diem because poetry is about time running out and then ending in death... Poetry used to be about history - Homer is about history - but once you have other kinds of recording devices besides poetry then the subject of poetry becomes time.'

I was doing my final reading for the anthology when I heard him say that, and immediately realised how much time was the focus of all the poems I'd been copying and trying to organise. So the thematic thread linking the poems in all the different sections of Being Human is our relationship with time. The poems in the anthology relate to many different aspects of being human: love, loss, war, death, grief, suffering, illness, birth, growing up, childhood, family, ageing, mortality, memory, self, identity, home, hope, body and soul, animals and humanity. But every one of these poems is also about time. Even lyric poems embody some kind of narrative with a time line or undertow.

Human understanding and intimacy are created not out of order or perfection but through acceptance of difficulty, inadequacy, imperfection, making do, shortage of time. Alan Dugan's marriage in ‘Love Song: I and Thou' is a house in which

Nothing is plumb, level, or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch...

- while Jaan Kaplinski's untitled poem begins with the line ‘The washing never gets done' and continues: ‘The furnace never gets heated. / Books never get read. / Life is never completed.'

Yehuda Amichai's ‘A Man in His Life' concludes: ‘A man doesn't have time in his life / to have time for everything.' In the anthology's extract from her long poem ‘Shape of Time', Doris Kareva writes:

You have been given the world.
See what there is to see.

must have time for the self -
for mirth and laziness
time to be human

- while Dennis O'Driscoll's ‘Vigil' is one of many poems in the book warning against squandering that time: ‘Life is too short to sleep through.'

Warnings against wasting that life and denying our hopes or dreams crop up again and again in these poems, notably those by Langston Hughes (including ‘What happens to a dream deferred?') and Rainer Maria Rilke: ‘You must change your life' (‘Archaic Torso of Apollo').

Rilke's famous caveat has been picked up by numerous poets, including Randall Jarrell in ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo', whose speaker cries: ‘You know what I was, / You see what I am: change me, change me!' Mark Doty has said that his poem ‘A Green Crab's Shell' was written in response to Rilke's ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo', while W.H. Auden's line ‘We must love one another or die' in ‘September 1, 1939' finds echoes in Philip Larkin's poetry, in ‘What will survive of us is love' in ‘An Arundel Tomb' and ‘we should be kind / While there is still time' in ‘The Mower'. There are also direct connections between living poets: for example, Robert Lowell wrote his poem ‘Skunk Hour' from Maine for Elizabeth Bishop, who responded from Brazil with ‘The Armadillo'.

As with the previous anthologies, I have "orchestrated" the selections in Being Human in such a way as to bring these conversations alive for the reader, so that poems will seem to talk to one another, with themes picked up and developed across a whole series of poems, and not just by writers known to one another. Each poem has its own voice while at the same time speaking from a broad chorus of poems with shared concerns. In this way Being Human serves, I hope, as a vocal testament to both the individual and the universal power and relevance of contemporary poetry.

Neil Astley
founded Bloodaxe Books in 1978, and was given a D.Litt by Newcastle University for his pioneering work. As well as Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human, he has edited over 1000 poetry books, and has published several other anthologies, including Passionfood: 100 love poems, Do Not Go Gentle: poems for funerals, Earth Shattering: ecopoems, and two collaborations with Pamela Robertson-Pearce, Soul Food: nourishing poems for starved minds and the DVD-book In Person: 30 Poets; two poetry collections, Darwin Survivor and Biting My Tongue; and two novels, The End of My Tether (shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award), and The Sheep Who Changed the World.

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