Bloodaxe, the independent poetry publishers, are excited. Their new anthology, Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, is, they claim, set to topple The Nation's Favourite Poems as the bestselling poetry book in the UK. This is good news for poetry publishing. The anthology of the nation's soon-to-be second-favourite poems was brought to us by the BBC, who need no further encouragement. For one thing they were responsible for Truly, Madly, Deeply, in which Alan Rickman plays a ghost who tries to help his widow (Juliet Stevenson) come to terms with his untimely death. One of the tricks he tries is to recite Pablo Neruda's 'Dead Woman' ('I shall stay alive,/because above all things you wanted me') - a fact advertised in an essay in the Bloodaxe anthology, the point being that you need such moving filmic moments to sell the poem concept to a public that contemporary poetry is supposed to have alienated. I'd erased that sequence from my memory, though I won't forget Rickman turning his cello round guitar-wise to launch into a homespun but immensely powerful rendition of the Walker Brothers' 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More' - a moment that had me in tears to rival Stevenson's each of the six times I watched it. Perhaps significantly, the original version of the song was playing in the Blind Beggar on the Whitechapel Road on the night in 1966 when Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell with a 9mm Mauser; a stray bullet caused the jukebox to get stuck in a groove and to keep repeating the chorus. Which must have been poignant. Some songs, abetted by the movies they appear in, have always managed to perform the feat of perfect timing (summing up the moment, seeming to say everything, helping you through unreal times etc). This has been convenient for the record industry: see, for instance, the Bee Gees' soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, a story of redemption through disco, which sold 70 million copies. The key to its success was surely the fact that the original version of 'Staying Alive' is played over its superlative opening sequence.
LRB 25 July 2002 | PDF Download