Poetry Editor Charlie Bondhus reviews Poems that Make Grown Men Cry, a new anthology of poetry that will move even the toughest of guys.
In their introduction to Poems that Make Grown Men Cry (Simon & Schuster, 2014), father-son editorial team Anthony and Ben Holden comment that “weeping betrays not only vulnerability but also an openness that is contagious. Yet so often we try to hide our tears when caught out or in public, as if it is embarrassing to be around such raw tenderness.” This observation is applicable to poetry itself, as one of the many goals a poem might pursue is the artful expression of a “raw tenderness” which is “contagious,” the emotion contained within the page spreading to the reader’s mind, heart, and perhaps tear ducts.
And yes, such tenderness in a poem can be thought “embarrassing.” It’s too personal. It discomfits the reader. It’s painful, or perhaps just inconvenient. Better to read poetry that eschews emotion in favor of glib, acerbic irony.
However, I’m in agreement with David Karpel, who in his recent review of Cameron Conaway’s Until You Make the Shore, remarked that good poetry should “wake you the hell up.” And fortunately, the work compiled in Poems that Make Grown Men Cry certainly succeeds at this.
First, the basic layout. This is a compilation of 100 poems, each one identified by an individual man as a piece that “made him cry.” The men polled included writers—such as John Le Carré, Robert Bly, Colm Tóibín, Seamus Heaney, Javier Marías, Salman Rushdie, and Terrance Hayes; actors—like Sir Kenneth Branagh, Sir Patrick Stewart, James Earl Jones, and Daniel Radcliffe; and thinkers and scholars—such as Christopher Hitchens, Boris Akunin, John Carey, Rowan Williams, and Harold Bloom. Each poem is prefaced with a few brief comments from its selector and followed by a short bio of the selector.
The book is organized chronologically; the first poets are Chidiock Tichborne, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson and the last ones are Billy Collins, Emily Zinnemann, Craig Raine, and Robin Robertson. In the middle are such well-knowns as Wordsworth, Housman, Rilke, Graves, Millay, Auden, Larkin, Bishop, Kunitz, Neruda, Heaney, Walcott, and Rich. There were also a number of poets I was not familiar with until now, such as Gabriela Mistral, Rabindranath Tagore, Keith Douglas, Christopher Logue, and Mauricio Rosencof.
Most importantly, the poetic selections are terrific. They range in general topic from death, to lost love, to exile, to lament for one’s changing country, to personal regret, and beyond. The subject matter is even more diverse. Gwendolyn Brooks writes on an abortion in “The Mother”; Abioseh Nicol reflects on “The Meaning of Africa”; the horrors of war are on display in Randall Jarrell’s classic “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and others; Philip Larkin’s “Unfinished Poem” provides a quiet reflection on mortality; loss of a beloved is presented in many pieces, two standouts for me being Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” and Elisabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England.” I was also pleased to see that one of my personal all-time favorites, Constantine Cavafy’s meaning-of-life piece, “Ithaka” had been selected by Brazilian director Walter Salles.
As for the selectors, they generally give unobtrusive introductions to the poems; however, some stand out as particularly notable. Novelist Douglas Kennedy, for example, offers a compelling meditation on what he feels is “one of the more specious words in the modern lexicon: closure” in his preface to Emily Dickinson’s “After Great Pain,” making the provocative point that “lurking behind” one’s longing for closure “is the equally spurious belief that the horrors which life can wreak upon us…can be eventually placed in a box, put on a shelf, and shut away forever.”
Some of the more scholarly selectors offer a brief close reading of their poem, an approach which I, as a sometimes literary scholar, enjoyed. Colm Tóibín, for example, comments that in Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” “the dead will not come back, but the words will, and the words will be filled with sad wisdom as the woman who was so loved will move into eternity, or nothing much, or perhaps nothing at all,” which got me thinking about the relationship between language and life, thus enhancing my experience of the poem.
Even so, as a firm believer in reading every poem one encounters in a book a minimum of two times before moving on, I found that the best strategy was to initially skip the selector’s commentary in favor of doing a cold reading of the poem, and then to go back, read the blurb, and reread the poem. I recommend this approach to all readers of this anthology, as it offers the opportunity to approach the poem on one’s own terms and then to reencounter it through the lens of the selector’s commentary.
While I have nothing but praise for the diversity of the subject matter, my largest criticism of this book is the lack of diversity in contributors—both selectors and poets. I have tried to give a broad sample in this review, but the truth is that, out of 100 poems, only 11 are written by women. And although the anthologists clearly made an effort to include people of color and people of non-UK or USA nationality as selectors, a strong majority of the men polled were straight white guys from England, Ireland, or the United States.
I find this somewhat troubling, as the anthology was assembled in partnership with Amnesty International, and the editors’ stated goal was “to celebrate our shared compassion and common humanity.” For one thing, I feel that an organization like Amnesty should know better. And for another, it’s problematic to boldly trumpet a dedication to our “common humanity” and then to represent that humanity as predominantly male, white, heterosexual, and western. While I certainly do not think that the editors, publishers, sponsors, or contributors made a conscious decision to marginalize, there ought to have been broader representation.
Even so, there are moments which will surprise you. For me, one such moment was when I discovered Colin Firth’s selection—a short poem called “Regarding the Home of One’s Childhood, One Could” by Emily Zinnemann, which begins:
Forget the plum tree;
forget its black-skinned plums;
also the weight
of their leaning as they leaned
over starry hedges
Here is a fresh, unique voice; a poet I had never heard of but whose work I am eager to explore further. Though the anthology was strong, more surprising moments such as these, from lesser-known poets—rather than predominantly the western canon—would have been welcome.
While I wouldn’t say that this anthology is revolutionary—the actors, directors, producers, writers, and scholars who selected these poems can probably cry publicly with minimal social consequence—it is a good collection of solid, emotionally honest poems, most of which are easily accessible to the casual reader of poetry.
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