An upstairs room in a north London public library. I was teaching ‘Introduction to Contemporary Poetry’ to a class of twelve adults, and we’d been going for about twenty minutes. They were all new to poetry, no one wanted to talk, and the atmosphere was sticky. I thumbed Staying Alive – real poems for unreal times, the anthology I use as a set text, and it fell open at Seamus Heaney’s ‘Postscript’. I asked if anyone would like to read it aloud. Doreen mustered her confidence, cleared her throat, and kindly volunteered.
Doreen announced that she had recently got rid of her husband and could now devote all her time to her real interest in life – cows. She was interested in reading poems about cows or that mentioned cows, writing poems about cows and painting portraits of cows, and even though this poem by Mr Heaney didn’t appear to mention a cow she was prepared to read it aloud because no one else had offered.
I immediately dropped Heaney and turned to the section in the anthology called ‘Man and Beast’. There was Selima Hill’s poem ‘Cow’. As Doreen negotiated the opening lines –
I want to be a cow
and not my mother’s daughter.
I want to be a cow
and not in love with you
– her confidence grew, the class warmed, and palpable connections were made.
I’d been teaching poetry for several years, and learned early that masterly swerves like the one above don’t happen without the right set text. I bought Staying Alive when it was first published in 2002. It caused a bit of a hoo-ha in poetry circles because celebrity endorsements appeared on the jacket alongside those from distinguished poets. The actress Mia Farrow’s ‘Truly startling and powerful poems’ rubbed shoulders with Andrew Motion’s ‘Everyone who cares about poetry should own this book.’
Neil Astley – the book’s editor, founder of the poetry publisher Bloodaxe
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