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Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them
Ben Holden; Anthony Holden
Simon & Schuster, 2014
336 pp., 25.00

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Brett Foster

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

"What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage."

I might as well admit my skeptical first impression: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry? What kind of a title is that? Is this a threatening poetry anthology? The compilation of a playground bully who at his advanced age should know better by now? Next I placed the title within the framework of crass marketing—title as provocation ("we dare you, all you men, not to cry!"), and fitting all too conveniently in the growing subgenre of male-oriented literature, which of course should not be confused with the euphemism "men's magazines." (See, for example, Manthology, an excellent poetry collection of a few years ago, or the more recent The Book of Men: Eighty Writers on How to Be a Man.)

Then I enjoyed a few fanciful moments thinking of what actually would make a grown man cry; I was pretty sure, for most men, it wouldn't be a poem. Maybe that palpable letdown and viewer melancholy some men feel in the moments after the Super Bowl, especially a disappointing one like this year's lopsided affair, when men realize a big part of their lives will be on hold for several months. Or the ruthlessly manipulative treacle of the film Marley & Me—God help you if it catches you unawares. (I speak from experience of an awkward night watching the telly in a B&B in the Lake District; I'd rather not talk any more about this.) Or maybe it takes a sentence such as this one: "Honey, I just wanted to let you know that our daughter's/son's junior-high variety show, which let me remind you we are attending tonight, promises to be extra long this year." (Or, as one friend, who shall remain anonymous, once told his spouse, "If you're bringing me to any more of these, you're getting me an iPhone.")

So thank you, catchy poem-anthology title, for sending my mind racing ahead in various directions. In fairness, though, the book's subtitle provides a simple explanation: "100 Men on the Words That Move Them." We have here a collection of poems that have proven particularly moving to at least one man in the world. That sounds more promising, since I regularly check out anthologies of all sorts in hopes of finding just such meaningful, memorable inclusions, whether something new to me or something familiar that may become freshly moving in a new context. If you have interests as a reader that in any way closely resemble mine, then you will likely find much that it enjoyable and rewarding in Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, even if you never quite manage to get over the slightly annoying title.

The editors of this collection are an English father-son literary team, Anthony and Ben Holden. Its origins reside in two visits over a weekend in the mid-1990s. As the father, Anthony Holden, explains in a preface, he visited a friend enduring a domestic crisis, who at one point attempted to recite Thomas Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush" but was unable to get through it without being overcome by emotion. The bird of the title enjoys "Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware." Shortly afterward, Holden met with the eminent literary scholar Frank Kermode and asked him, "Is there any poem you can't recite without choking up?" Kermode said immediately: "Go get the Larkin." For the next several weeks, Holden asked "every male literary friend" (why only men, I wonder) the same question posed to Kermode, and he was amazed how many said yes and how swiftly they did so. So that is how this anthology began, and it really is a worthy showcase of poetry's emotional powers and their effects upon us.

True to its origins, it is a very British collection: W. H. Auden appears five times (Rowan Williams chose "Friday's Child"), while Hardy, Larkin, and A. E. Housman make three appearances. (Seamus Heaney's preface for his selection of Hardy's "The Voice" offers a charming explanation: "I can't honestly say that I break down when I read "The Voice," but when I get to the last four lines the tear ducts do congest a bit.") Yet the collection overall is more diverse than this suggests: men of twenty nationalities chose works by poets from eighteen countries. Interestingly, only a dozen poems by women appear; maybe there's a "bro thing" when men are selecting poems that move them? I dunno. Three-quarters of the selections were written in the 20th century, and the topics range from love and mortality to the more expressly elegiac—losses of various sorts, personal tragedies, but also the loss of political ideals.

Approaching the topic more broadly, the son, Ben Holden, remarks that humans are the only species that cries, tears being, as Charles Darwin wrote, a "special expression of man's." For the younger Holden, tears reflect our vulnerability but also an openness, a capacity really to feel our experiences—and to feel compassion for the experience of others. (Amnesty International is a partner in this project.) "Let's celebrate high emotion!" he writes (perhaps a bit too sincerely). "However grievous the times, let these pages console you, if upset; lift you, if down; I defy you not to be inspired by them."

Poems associated with parental grief are some of the most tender to be found here, beginning with Ben Jonson's Renaissance masterpiece "On My First Son": "Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy; / My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy." I have long admired Jonson's fifth line, "O, could I lose all father now!" Here is grief raised to such a pitch that it risks breaking the bonds of grammar and articulation. My admiration doubles when I consider that Jonson was an exacting, proudly precise classicist writer, and so in one sense he had to write against his penchant for poise (captured well by this poem's smooth, spot-on couplets), and his own literary character, to arrive at that powerfully emotive, somewhat sorrow-clumsy or at least unusually worded line.

Three contributors discuss in their prefaces the loss of a child, and these framing passages are tender, too. The actor Chris Cooper recalls his son, Jesse, who died in 2005. Jesse was nonverbal, but, as Cooper recalls, was "always able to speak to my heart's core," and his selected poem by Rabindranath Tagore begins on a strikingly fitting note: "Those who are near me do not know that you are nearer to me than they are / Those who speak to me do not know that my heart is full with your unspoken words." Similarly, James McManus' preface feels both tearful and firm as he remembers his son, James, who died in a mental-health facility. His selection of the ending of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, whose final words loop back to the challenging work's opening, evokes the Irish author's daughter, Lucia, and her mental-health struggles, as well as that "eternal-return seam" that sends McManus to his "own dreams of hugging my son, moananoaning, so bad do I still want to save him, carry him along on my shoulders, begin again."

Terrance Hayes' selection of Gwendolyn Brooks' "The Mother," with its painful confrontation with abortion, brings to this anthology a description of a mother's grief, while Brian Patten's "Armada" presents an opposite perspective, a poet revisiting the loss of his mother. And for a lighter, maternal note, the popular filmmaker J. J. Abrams presents Billy Collins' "The Lanyard," where the modest summer-camp creation of a little boy is exchanged for a vast treasury of a mother's love and mothering efforts. A mother, the poem makes clear, welcomes such an exchange as perfectly even. It is a touching poem, but if you encounter it for the first time here, you will likely find yourself laughing aloud.

And then there's Sebastian Faulks' choice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," whose speaker offers a kind of contrast—a reflective, deeply hopeful parental point of view. Readers will do well to read Coleridge's poem with the briefer, more parentally circumspect poem that Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid presents, Robin Robertson's "Keys to the Doors." At first its speaker-father is able to explain solemnly to a young daughter the workings of things such as moon and stars, photographs, gravity. "In true life? you would say, looking up / and I would nod, like some broken-hearted sage, / knowing there would be no answers soon / to all the big questions that were left, to cruelty and fear, / to age and grief and death, and no words either."

A few poems here are classics whose presence seems inevitable: Cavafy's "Ithaka," for instance, or Auden's grand elegy for Yeats, introduced here by Salman Rushdie: "Follow, poet, follow right / To the bottom of the night, / With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice." And speaking of grand, what a delight to hear Whitman's full voice in Stephen Fry's choice, "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances." Ezra Pound is a powerful presence here, too, in a selection from the Pisan Cantos: "What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee / What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage / Whose world or mine or theirs / or is it of one?"

In general, the presenters' short prefaces are forgettable, but not in every case. Tobias Wolff, presenting John M. Morris' "For Julia, in the Deep Water," explains that this poem takes him to that moment of "learning to stand back" as a child learns to swim, or takes the bus on the first day of school, or gets married. He recalls "that sense of my children needing help, needing me, that helplessness, that desolation of letting go, that joy in their courage, their hunger for all of life's possibilities and hazards." Joe Klein, journalist and author of the political novel Primary Colors, comments about Housman's "The Remorseful Day" becoming "a reminder of grief so pure that it can also cleanse."

A final, well-represented category comprises poems in honor of lost friends. Al Alvarez, in selecting John Berryman's "Dream Song 90: Op. post. no. 13," which focuses on the poet's friend and fellow writer Randall Jarrell, is taken back to his own Princeton days, when the critic R. P. Blackmur reigned, and when Alvarez "argued all night with Kenneth Burke." John Keats' sonnet "Bright Star" is the playwright Kenneth Lonergan's choice, not especially because a dead painter friend of his read it to him but "because of the miracle that enables another human being to carry me back in time and over the ocean with nothing more than a sequence of words."

This book does raise a few carps within me. Why is James Wright called "James Arlington Wright"? I have never seen him identified in this way. It had the effect of making me think I was about to read an obscure19th-century versifier, not the great Pulitzer Prize-winning poet of the American postwar. Another thing: the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer supplies an afterword. That sounds promising, but it turns out to be rather like a punt job: after a brief opening paragraph in which she defends the small number of women poets by focusing instead on the poems' emotional force, which is beyond gender and historical era, she lists "a few of the poems that moved me most." Those entries typically feature some selected lines, and then a gnomic summary. The first, Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy," earns the single sentence, or phrase, "The terrifying paradox of memory." Okey dokey, but it is not enough to justify inclusion in this anthology.

Then again, why focus on these small criticisms, when I did discover a poem that has proven deeply meaningful to me during the past few months? It was found during a summer when a good friend died from a heart attack. The poem is "For Andrew Wood," by the English poet James Fenton. David Remnick provides interesting background for his selection. He recalls how he caused himself a "foolish deprivation" by ceasing to attend poetry readings after attending them frequently when he was younger. Then, around 2000, he heard James Fenton read, or rather recite his poetry at Columbia University, where he "seemed to radiate that language, to exude it rather than read or perform it."

Most interestingly, Remnick then recalls attending Christopher Hitchens' memorial service in 2012. Many of those who were present shared ribald episodes or journalistic adventures. Then Fenton stepped to the microphone, "all business, but clearly shaken," Remnick remembers. This poem, "For Andrew Wood," was not written for Hitchens, "but it was revived and recited for him, the perfect lament for the lost friend." I am moved, paradoxically, by this recycling, which should seem distasteful or maybe a little rude—why not write a new elegy for Hitchens? Yet it speaks to the ways great poems outlive or continue to live beyond their first occasions, even the deeply personal occasion of an elegy written for a particular friend who died many years before. It is easy to imagine (or, if you prefer, search for it on YouTube) Fenton's poem hammering upon the hearts of Hitchens' mourners, no matter that it was not originally written for the one dead now. "For Andrew Wood" begins with an intense image of the dead, matched by an intense question for readers: "What would the dead want from us / Watching from their cave?" Two stanzas later, an answer is tentatively ventured: "I think the dead would want from us / To weep for what they have lost. / I think that our luck in continuing / Is what would affect them most."

As for the final stanza, well, judge it for yourself, readers:
And so the dead might cease to grieve
And we might make amends
And there might be a pact between
Dead friends and living friends.
What our dead friends would want from us
Would be such living friends.

"I couldn't be more grateful for a work of art," writes Remnick, and I sympathize with this reaction. Thus it seems myopic of me to focus on a few quibbles when such a poem of anguished but ennobling feeling has been discovered, during a season of grief of my own, much to my gratitude.

Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. His first book of poetry, The Garbage Eater, was published in 2011 by Northwestern University Press. A second collection, Fall Run Road, was awarded Finishing Line Press's 2011 Open Chapbook Prize, and appeared in 2012. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Anglican Theological Review, The New Criterion, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and Yale Review.

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