Booknotes: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

poems that make grown men cryAsk people to define what a poem is or even what it means to them, and, likely, you will get many different answers. For some, it is a form of emotional self-expression (by the poet or by oneself). For others, it is about imagery and word-painting or wordplay. Some think poems are about metaphysical messages. The Wikipedia entry says:

Poetry (from the Greek poiesis — ποίησις — meaning a “making”, seen also in such terms as “hemopoiesis”; more narrowly, the making of poetry) is a form of literary art which uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and meter—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.

Is it any wonder that the average layperson — regardless of gender — mostly steers clear of poetry? To make matters worse, reviews of poems or poetry books also tend to be full of obtuse-sounding labels and technical terms — both of which may be fine if the audience is other MFA writers, poets or academics, but absolutely off-putting for the rest of us. Let me clarify that I do believe that, as readers, we must make a bit of an effort to co-create and re-imagine poems through our own individualistic and close reading. The reward of such an active experience is in going beyond looking at the world through another consciousness to opening up our own and allowing in new possibilities, realities and ideas — it is a consciousness-altering practice, if you like. Yes, you may well chuckle, those of you who haven’t had a poem do what Emily Dickinson famously said: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” But, let’s not make that co-creation or collaborative effort more difficult through the high-minded intellectualization that some literary critics or academics seem to enjoy.

In one of the afterwords to this anthology, Amnesty International, who the editors partnered with, writes:

Poetry as an art form almost certainly predates literacy. Early poets must have performed their work using the power of its tight structure, rhythms and cadences to stir their listeners, but also to lodge words in their memories. Poetry still touches hearts and minds, even in our digital world.

So, a poem is, of course, all of these things: ideas, images, emotions and rhythms. In this, as Edward Hirsch has described in his ‘How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry’, poetry bears a close relationship to the musical and visual arts and engages both heart and mind. It is an emotional, aesthetic and intellectual experience. Where a poem goes further, though, is in its ability to contain and present complex, conflicting and ambiguous ideas simultaneously, in distillation (vs prose)  and in concrete (vs abstract) ways.

Yet, although the twentieth century brought us huge strides in poetry through the widespread acceptance of free verse, experimentation with the many forms to create new ones, and a welcome progression to include the rhythms of everyday conversation, poetry today is not enjoyed and appreciated as widely as it was prior to the twentieth century. Admittedly, there are many other distraction options demanding our attention in the twenty-first century. The problem is, more than our inability to be mindful with a poem in hand, almost a reverse snobbery and a general anti-elitism against those who have made poetry seem an elitist art, as mentioned above.

When it comes to poems related to grief, we encounter even more social and cultural aversion. Here’s Edward Hirsch on the subject:

We live in a superficial, media-driven culture that often seems uncomfortable with true depths of feeling. Indeed, it seems as if our culture has become increasingly intolerant of that acute sorrow, that intense mental anguish and deep remorse which may be defined as grief. We want to medicate such sorrow away. We want to divide it into recognizable stages so that grief can be labeled, tamed, and put behind us. But poets have always celebrated grief as one of the deepest human emotions. To grieve is to lament, to mourn, to let sorrow inhabit one’s very being.

Robert Frost liked to distinguish between grievances (complaints) and griefs (sorrows). He even suggested that grievances, which are propagandistic, should be restricted to prose, “leaving poetry free to go its way in tears.” Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish–to let others vanish–without leaving a verbal record. Poetry is a stubborn art. The poet is one who will not be reconciled, who is determined to leave a trace in words, to transform oceanic depths of feeling into the faithful nuances of art.

What all of this has done to those poets who wish to make a living from their writing is sad indeed — but, a debate for another time.

So, given all of the above, it is certainly a brave endeavor for the Holden father-son team of writers to edit a collection of ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry‘. Despite being up against the perpetual and widespread poetry “skepticemia”, they’ve pulled off two things with a certain earnestness and confidence. First, they’ve have managed to find a diverse enough group — outside of poets, academics and writers (although there are several of these) — to willingly offer up the one poem that greatly moves them. And, second, they have managed to keep out the above-mentioned elitist, academic language.

What motivated the Holdens to put this anthology together is quite simple. They wish to “stimulate debate about the emotional power of art and how it affects different people” and “to show that crying (and poetry) isn’t simply for girls”. The book has also been created in collaboration with Amnesty International, so issues such as freedom of speech and thought are in the foreground.

The men who have contributed their favorite poems are from various fields — poets, writers, movie and theater men, scientists, architects, sculptors, human rights activists, and so on. Here are some names to whet your appetite: Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Ford, Billy Collins, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hiddleston, J J Abrams, Mike Leigh, Salil Shetty, Jack Mapanje, Wuer Kaixi, Juan Mendez and so on. They represent twenty-some nationalities (though, heavily skewed to the British) and range in age from early-twenties to late-eighties.

A hundred poems, from some eighteen countries, are presented in chronological order of publication, beginning with Chidiock Tichborne’s sixteenth century ‘Elegy’ for himself and ending with Robin Robertson’s twenty-first century ‘Keys to the Doors’. Still, seventy-five percent of the poems are from the twentieth century.

The predominant theme is about the loss of a loved one — parent, child, lover, wife, a younger self. There are also poems about war, patriotism, nationalism, sadness about one’s own mortality, longing for home, longing for freedom, being overwhelmed by nature, etc. All are, as novelist, Richard Ford, describes in his notes, “big-ticket issues”.

It must be pointed out that only a dozen or so of these poems are by women, which is rather disheartening. There is some rumor that a similar anthology of poems selected by eminent women from different fields is being planned, but that is not going to address the ongoing, pernicious issue of writing by women not being read more widely by men. One could argue, as the book does towards the end, that, as the goal is to show that men are capable of feeling and expressing powerful emotions too, the selected poems being predominantly by men supports that thesis well. And, in this particular case, that is a valid suggestion, though it does not apply to the larger, universal gender problems in literature. But, for now, let’s get back to the poems.

W H Auden tops the list of most-repeated poet with five of his poems. Next, Housman, Hardy and Larkin follow with three poems each. The Brits top the charts here, as the preface cheerfully declares. Clearly, this has more to do with the overall demographic of poem selectors being skewed more to Britain, though the editors have used this to point out that it puts paid to the reputation of Brits as being buttoned-up, stiff-upper-lipped and emotionally-detached. So, alright, perhaps there’s some of that too.

Each poem is presented with the selector’s personal notes as to why the poem particularly moves them. And, at the end of each entry, there is a short biography about the selector, though, most of them are well-known personalities in their respective fields.

Not all of the men are moved to tears by the poems they select — some are simply moved to cry out in agreement, as author Nicholson Baker points out when presenting his selection, the very fine ‘End of Summer’ by Stanley Kunitz. Or, as poet, Billy Collins, says, “If a poem begins to show signs that it might have me that way, there’s no time for me to break down emotionally. I’m too busy trying to figure out how the poet is managing to pull it off.” — something that many poets and writer can surely identify with. Still, Collins does admit to coming unglued with a handful of poems, of which his selection, the anthemic ‘Bedecked’ by Victoria Redel, is one. I found myself particularly agreeing with film-maker, Richard Curtis’ assessment as he presented his choice of the marvelously unsentimental ‘A Call’ by Seamus Heaney’:

As my father grew older, I noticed that he rarely came close to shedding tears about the sad and serious things in our lives. But, if ever telling a tale of something good, some gracious or loving piece of behavior, tears would always come into his eyes. And, I feel myself going that way as I too get older. Sadness, somehow, I expect. Kindness and love take me by surprise.

Some of the notes are as short as “Near the bone. Strikes a chord. Takes me back. Hits a nerve. Brings a lump.” — by film-maker Mike Leigh, who was being tongue-in-cheek about Charles Bukowski’s wrenching ‘eulogy to a hell of a dame’. Or, Colin Firth’s, who is “reluctant to talk across this poem” when describing how Emily Zinnemann’s “Regarding the home of one’s childhood, one could:” moves him. [Interesting tidbit: Zinnemann is the daughter of actress and writer, Meg Tilly, with whom Firth has a son.]

Many of the men also describe how their selected poems continues to occupy a space in their lives. Some read the poems out loud to loved ones or at wakes or christenings. One particularly touching story is from author, Colum McCann, who asks his kids to memorize a particular poem as a Christmas gift to him. And, it is his favorite moment of the whole year when his children then recite these poems back to him. McCann’s selection is the witty ‘A Meeting’ by Wendell Berry.

Finally, there is a beautiful afterword by author and Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, where she describes some of the selections that particularly move her. And, she adds this:

But in the lives of the great Neruda and other poets harvested here — whoever you are, man, woman, or any other gender — you will discover in yourself, matchlessly conveyed, the exultation and devastation of human experience. No matter that, of the almost a hundred poets chosen by various individuals, only a dozen are women. Neither gender nor the historical era in which the poem was written makes out-of-date the emotions they divulge, even if the vocabulary, “thees” and “thous” is at times archaic. Passion of love and loss, morality of “just war”, the purposeful trajectory of life and its frustrations have been, are, for always.

With any such collection, there will always be the sense of “But, why did no one pick this or that?” It helps to remember that the goal was not to create THE definitive set of grief poems but to show us how poems can affect us emotionally. And, all the selections here do so unfailingly. So, this is a varied collection of poems with something for everyone. And, it is one of those rare books that, when I’d finished reading it, I went right back to the beginning and started again. My own favorites from the selections are far too many to list here. Although, we have featured, on Storyacious, the actor, Tom Hiddleston’s favorite, ‘Love After Love‘ by Derek Walcott.

[Side-note: That said, if you pressed me for my favorite poetry anthologies, I would admit to having a particular attachment to the Edward Hirsch mentioned above and to his ‘Poet’s Choice‘. Both of these give a wider selection of poetry from all over the world and throughout history and are more balanced in terms of genders, nationalities, themes, etc. Also, you can always check in with our own ‘Weekend Poem‘ series right here on Storyacious, where we aim for a similar balance and celebrate poetry as a synaesthetic experience.]

Yes, this book will make an ideal gift for the men in your life, particularly those who shudder at the very thought of reading poems. And, of course, as Nadine Gordimer’s and my personal examples prove, it can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of gender or nationality. After all, that is the power of poetry: how it can speak to each one of us individually and intimately.

As for the larger issue of books such as this one encouraging more people (not just more men) to read and appreciate poetry, sadly, that is not very likely. But, maybe, that’s why we need such continued efforts, even arbitrary celebrations like National Poetry Month, which is underway in the US right now — do look through their suggested ‘30 Ways to Celebrate‘.

That last is a good word choice: “celebrate”. What are poems for if not to celebrate our individual and collective humanity? And, in that objective, the poems in this anthology succeed entirely.

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2 thoughts on “Booknotes: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

    1. Thanks, Andy. Yes, please do check out the book. I would loan you my copy, but it was an advance review copy on Kindle so I don’t think it’s possible to share. Let me know what you think.

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