"This book feels so vital that I want to keep it under my pillow"
This week Sarah Brand, library assistant at Bognor Regis Library, tells us about Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times
“I’ve always found the concept of a favourite book quite difficult. It’s a bit like asking a parent to choose their favourite child. There are the ones from my childhood that inspired me to read in the first place, the ones from my adolescence that helped me in the struggle to find my identity and now the ones in adulthood that resonate so loudly with me that I can find myself physically nodding and wishing I could take the author for a pint.
“Having said that, at a time when we are all so much more aware of our own mortality, of the minutes and hours in our days and the significance of how we fill them, in the end there was really only one choice – Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times. For me, this book, which is edited by Neil Astley, is a truly life-affirming anthology of poems exploring what it is to be human. I know that there may be people who think that poetry is not for them and at one point in my life I might have counted myself amongst them. After studying English at university, poems became something to be dissected like organs on an operating table and I was often troubled by that fear of not ‘getting it’. It was this collection that gave me back my love for poetry and helped me reconnect with the pure delight that the format can inspire.
“One of the reasons I love this anthology so much is just how accessible it is. There really is something in it for everyone. It’s divided into twelve headed sections which serve almost like an emotional compass to guide you around the collection. You’d only have to look at my own copy with its dog ears and dirty thumb prints to identify some of my favourite areas including; In and Out of Love, Growing Up, Bittersweet, War and Peace and Disappearing Acts. It’s a book that has grown with me through the years and I know that different poems will take on a new meaning and significance as I get older. Whatever situation I may experience in life – good or otherwise – I will find something in this book that will help me make sense of it, or at the very least feel less alone with it.
“While there are plenty of household names included to give a comforting sense of the familiar – Sylvia Plath, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Ted Hughes and TS Eliot to name just a few – this is certainly no ‘Nation’s Favourite’ style collection and many of the poems I now hold most dear were brand-new discoveries for me at the time. I would challenge anyone not to laugh out loud at the seemingly courteous but deliciously catty Bitcherel by Eleanor Brown or be moved by a moment of compassion from an apparently merciless man to his ageing and sick horse in Weakness by Alden Nowlan or enjoy a quiet moment of contemplation and innocence in Raymond Carver’s Happiness.
“I don’t think it’s a collection that you must read cover to cover. In fact, with nearly 500 poems included in it, there may still be some hidden gems that I am yet to discover. For me, it has now become more like a trusted old friend that I dip in and out of as the need arises. There are times in my life when I may not pick it up for months, but there are others like recently when, like so many people, I have experienced such a sense of dislocation from my life that this book feels so vital that I want to keep it under my pillow and feel reassured just knowing it’s always within my reach.”
All West Sussex Libraries are closed until further notice, but they’ve introduced a virtual hub of the library’s services all accessible from home: https://arena.westsussex.gov.uk/web/arena/currentoffer
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