A few months back, seemingly out of the blue, a friend asked what poems made me cry. I wondered where that had come from. I demurred, offered Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach as a poem that had moved me greatly, but not to tears. Off the top of my head: novels – yes (A farewell to arms); music for sure (Elgar’s Cello concerto, Bob Dylan’s Dream/Lord Franklin); plenty of films (even Russell Crow’s demise in Les Mis). But poetry, no: desolation maybe, bleakness, quiet revelation, beauty, compassion, contemplation, engagement, a glow; but I can’t recall more than the hint of a younger self-pitying sniffle (La belle dame sans merci).
That’s what some of the contributors to Poems that make grown men cry: 100 men on the words that move them (Simon & Schuster, 2014) admit too. The publicity surrounding its publication is where my friend’s query came from. Edited by père et fils Anthony and Ben Holden for Amnesty International, the book features 95 poems (5 were selected twice), 12 of which are written by women (2 of those from Elizabeth Bishop). Arranged chronologically, which brings a nice touch of serendipity to the proceedings, the twentieth century accounts for 75% of the poems. The majority of those doing the choosing are British, but there is a significant sprinkling from further afield. About 50% of the contributors are writers of one sort or another (including 17 poets, some Booker winners), while the linked worlds of theatre and cinema provide another quarter, aided and abetted for the rest by a few polymath celebs, a handful of human rights activists and the odd architect and archbishop. Not much pop culture spice: Nick Cave, Barry Humphries, Benjamin Zephaniah. It’s basically a posh variant of those charity celebrity recipe books.
What of the poems, then? On the back it claims to be “a collection unlike any other“; presumably because of all the “prominent figures” involved. They introduce the poems, give their reasons, some mercifully shorter than others (and, to be frank, I’m not sure I wanted to be invited into the personal grief – suicides, the death of children – involved in some of the choices). I first skimmed and, a fair amount of the time, in the best traditions of reverse snobbery, scorned it. Philip Larkin’s jibe in verse about Frank Kermode (rhymes with ‘toad’) – “just a jetset egghead, TLS toff” – rather hits the spot here, even if Kermode posthumously (it’s a long story) chose Larkin’s Unfinished poem (or one of them). But I did give the collection more time and consideration and, yes, there was some – undiscovered for me – not so obvious gold in them thar hills. Not that any made me lachrymosal, mind. Anyway, a few thoughts:
- Top of the pops is W.H.Auden, with 5 poems, and I’m not going to complain about that. Ex-ArchB of Cantab Rowan Williams’ choice of Friday’s child gave me pause; as reasonable a profession of faith as this atheist can understand. In my ignorance, I was surprised to discover that in a few month’s time I will have lived longer than the bearer of that iconic wrinkled old face – not so ancient after all at 1907-1973.
- Tie second with 3 poems each: A.E.Housman, Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin. While the first two strike me as somewhat sentimental choices (bunch of wusses – no, I jest) it’s the glow I get from that miserable old “sack of meal upon two sticks” that shocks. So thanks to Simon Russell Beale for Larkin’s I see a girl dragged by the wrists (no – it’s a good, fun, dragging): “Damn all explanatory rhymes! / To be that girl!“
- two (count ’em) of the best poems chosen have been featured on albums by late lamented singer-songwriter and poetry champion Jackie Leven. James A.Wright‘s A blessing is on Forbidden tales of the dying west, but you can also find his lovely accompanied recitation of it on YouTube. Robert Bly reads Antonio Machado‘s eco-hymn The wind, one brilliant day – also his selection here – to Jackie’s music on Defending ancient springs.
- Poems that make grown men (PTMGMC) cry follows the rule that any general anthology published in the last 20 years must include Adlestrop (Simon Winchester, émigré), and probably Dulce et decorum est (Christopher Hitchens); Benjamin Zephaniah surprises by contributing Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night, wishing his father could have been a worthy recipient of that sentiment
- Was it them in Men behaving badly who used to mock sneeze and say “Tosser” into their hands or handkerchiefs? I tired of some of these ‘prominent figures’ who either explained their choice at length and/or chose some of the longer works. So take a bow: Kenneth Branagh, who is allowed to get away with a four page sermon extracted from a verse translation of a play; and also, for messing with the ‘rules’, Craig Raine, who is allowed to offer two excerpts from different Pisan cantos (by Ezra Pound, writing in prison) in reverse order and bridged by reference to another couplet therefrom quoting Chaucer.
- Having moaned about length, I have to say one of the pieces that I was most grateful to PTMGMC for making the acquaintance of was Elizabeth Bishop‘s 6 pager, Crusoe in England, Robinson looking back, dealing with his legacy and the death of Friday from measles in England after the rescue, was the closest to a tear-jerker I found in these pages (and the lines were relatively short).
- Another poem that made me sit up was, by contrast, one of the shortest – Randall Jarrell‘s The death of a ball turret gunner:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
- Then there’s a strange poem by Gabriela Mistral (not her real name, I thought, and no, it’s not, but she’s a big deal – Chilean, first Nobel Prize for Literature from Latin America, and a career besides). God wills it is not exactly a title to win my godless sympathies, but nevertheless, as a profession of love is not “Earth will turn against you / If your soul betrays my soul / A shudder of anguish / will run through the waters” (and it gets far worse over 21½ pages) emotional blackmail in spades?
- I could go on, good and bad, but I won’t.
Ladies, if you’ll excuse such a dated mode of address, Poems that make grown men cry is not without its merit, but if you’ve a real hankering to put an anthology of the poetical kind in the Christmas stocking of the man or men in your life, might I suggest the splendid volume pictured here on your left. It’s been out a while now, but The rag and bone shop of the heart (Harper-Perennial, 1992) is a treasure trove not often found on the shelves of general bookstores. The splendid title is rescued from The circus animal’s desertion, by W.B.Yeats, who does not feature at all in PTMGMC save in Auden’s majestic In memory of W.B.Yeats; in his poem the actual line is, “In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
Typographical rant of a footnote: As a posh variant of those charity celebrity recipe books, it’s not so much the concept that makes me uneasy, but rather the page design that seems to follow, the clumsy way the poetry is belittled in the book’s layout. Never mind the choice of typeface – it’s printed throughout in a Bodoni style font (flat unbracketed serifs, extreme thicks and thins) that I think is rubbish for text, have a look at this sample double page, chosen for its conciseness. Poem title in biggest font size – fine – and smaller capitalised poet with his or her dates. Two asterisks. Then we get the larger capitalised selector, and their reasons for selecting that particular poem; good on Colin Firth for his brevity here (“I’m reluctant to talk across this poem“), because, as stated earlier, some of them do go on. Then we get the actual poem, looking almost like an afterthought, especially now that the title is repeated in bold on top of the poem with no line space between the title and the first line of the poem itself. Two asterisks. Then brief career resumé. Look, I know it’s for charity, but it’s a poetry anthology. Those personal statements should come after the poem, as reflection and explanation rather than the trumpet voluntary they are as it stands, and they should be distinguished typographically in some way too; give the poem room to stand by itself first, please. Typography matters. Not that impressed by the book jacket either, while we’re at it.