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
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."

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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?"

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