Poems That Make Grown Men Cry
Preface ANTHONY HOLDEN
Late one afternoon in the mid-1990s a close friend of long standing called to tell me of a sudden domestic crisis. My wife and I went straight round to join him for the evening, during which he began to quote a Thomas Hardy poem, “The Darkling Thrush.” Upon reaching what might be called the punch line—“Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware”—our friend choked up, unable to get the words out. This was understandable; he was still upset by the day’s events. We ourselves were much moved.
That weekend we happened to be visiting the scholar and critic Frank Kermode. Frank knew the friend involved, and was also touched by his Hardy moment. “Is there any poem you can’t recite without choking up?” I asked him. Never an emotionally demonstrative man, Frank said immediately: “Go and get the Larkin.”
In front of his half-dozen guests he then began to read aloud “Unfinished Poem,” about death treading its remorseless way up the stairs, only to turn out to be a pretty young girl with bare feet, moving the stunned narrator to exclaim: “What summer have you broken from?” It was this startling last line that rendered Frank speechless; with a forlorn waft of the hand, he held the book out for someone else to finish the poem.
Also there that day was another professor of English, Tony
Tanner, so it was not surprising that this topic of conversation lasted all afternoon, ranging far and wide, not just over other candidates for this distinct brand of poetic immortality but the power of poetry over prose to move, the difference between true sentiment and mere mawkishness, and, of course, the pros and cons of men weeping, whether in private or in public.
For the next few weeks I asked every male literary friend I saw to name a poem he couldn’t read or recite without breaking up. It was amazing how many immediately said yes, this one, and embarked on its first few lines. With Frank’s encouragement, I began to contemplate an anthology called Poems that Make Strong Men Cry.
Then I remembered I had another book to finish, and set the project aside. But it remained a topic of paradoxically happy conversation between Frank and myself until his death in the summer of 2010, at the age of ninety. I duly steeled myself to reading “Unfinished Poem” at his funeral service and managed it—just—without choking up.
In 2007, reviewing A. E. Housman’s letters for the London Review of Books, Kermode had discussed the controversy caused in Cambridge in 1933 by a Housman lecture entitled “On the Name and Nature of Poetry.” After recalling the brouhaha provoked at the time by Housman’s emphasis on the emotional power of poetry, with F. R. Leavis saying it would “take years to remedy the damage the lecture must have inflicted on his students,” Frank continued—with, he told me, our recurrently lachrymose conversation very much in mind:
What everybody remembers best are the passages about the emotional aspects of poetry. Housman included a number of surprisingly personal comments on this topic. Milton’s “Nymphs and shepherds, dance no more,” he said, can “draw tears . . . to the eyes of more readers than one.” And tears are only one
symptom. A line of poetry can make his beard bristle as he shaves, or cause a shiver down his spine, or “a constriction of the throat” as well as “a precipitation of water to the eyes.” For so reticent a man it was a surprising performance. It possibly upset his health, and he came to regard the date of the lecture, May 1933, as an ominous moment in his life.
Housman and Hardy have emerged as two of the most tear-provoking poets in this collection—to which I was urged to return, in the wake of Frank’s death, by my son Ben (if with a somewhat less macho title). With three entries each, they are equaled by Philip Larkin and bested only by W. H. Auden, with five. So four of us supposedly buttoned-up Brits top the charts of almost one hundred poems from eighteen countries, a dozen of them written by women, chosen by men of more than twenty nationalities ranging in age from early twenties to late eighties. Five pairs of contributors happen to have chosen the same poem, for intriguingly different reasons.
Larkin himself could have proved a prototype contributor. “Wordsworth was nearly the price of me once,” he told the [London] Observer in 1979. “I was driving down the M1 on a Saturday morning: they had this poetry slot on the radio . . . and someone suddenly started reading the Immortality Ode, and I couldn’t see for tears. And when you’re driving down the middle lane at seventy miles an hour . . .”
Early in our task, we were encouraged by a note from Professor John Carey, with whom I discussed our work-in-progress over a dinner at Merton College, Oxford, where Ben and I both studied English thirty years apart: “It will bring some good poems to public notice, and it will stimulate debate about the emotional power of art and how it affects different people.” Thanks to our partnership with Amnesty International, we can add such cross-border issues as freedom of
speech and thought, as in the contribution from one of the leaders of the 1989 human rights protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
After deciding to arrange the poems in chronological order, we calculated that some 75 percent of them were written in the twentieth century—inevitable, perhaps, so early in the twenty-first. The most common themes, apart from intimations of mortality, range from pain and loss via social and political ideals to the beauty and variety of Nature—as well as love, in all its many guises. Three of our contributors have suffered the ultimate pain of losing a child; others are moved to tears by the sheer beauty of the way a poet captures, in Alexander Pope’s famous phrase, “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.” The same might be said of our contributors’ candid explanations of their choices, many of which rival the poems themselves in stirring the reader’s emotions.
Some of those who declined to take part did so for almost poetic reasons. Wrote the pianist Alfred Brendel: “I easily shed tears when I listen to music, experience a Shakespeare play, or encounter a great performance. Literature doesn’t have the same effect on me, so it seems. I cannot tell you why, as reading has been an important part of my life.” Said the actor-magician Ricky Jay: “Right now, I find it hard to think of a poem that doesn’t make me cry. I’m the kinda guy that weeps at reruns of Happy Days.” And the playwright Patrick Marber: “You bet I’ve got one, but I’m not going to share it with anyone else!”
A sudden shock of emotion naturally overcomes different people in different ways. Vladimir Nabokov wrote that the proper reader responds to a poem not with his brain or his heart, but with his back, waiting for “the telltale tingle between the shoulder-blades.” To our contributors, a moist eye seems the natural if involuntary response to a particular phrase or line, thought or image; the vast majority are public figures not prone to tears, as is supposedly the manly way, but here prepared to admit to caving in when ambushed by great art.
The youngest of my three sons, now himself a father, Ben is a grown man to whom tears do not come readily; I myself, as he has enjoyed telling all inquirers, am prone to weep all too easily, at prose as much as poetry, movies as much as music. We’ve had a great deal of fun, and not a few vigorous disagreements, while compiling this anthology together.
It was only after intense negotiation, for instance, that we agreed to stretch most definitions of poetry by including an extract from a verse play, and another from a “prose-poem” of a novel, then another, while drawing the line at song lyrics—some of which are fine poetry, for sure, but (in my view) indistinguishable in their power to move from the music to which they are set. We agreed to admit one traditional lullaby; but this policy otherwise cost us, alas, a distinguished writer intent on a touching French chanson, and an astronaut who wanted the lyrics of a song from a Broadway musical.
On which note, I am pleased to hand over to Ben for an expert explanation of the physical mechanics of tears, especially male tears, and to distill perfectly on both our behalves the purpose, as we see it, of this book.
Cecil Day-Lewis once said that he did not write poetry to be understood, but to understand. This quest, to understand, takes many routes but is common to us all. Tears also unite us as humans: we are the only species that cries. Charles Darwin himself was at a loss to explain this uniquely human trait, describing it as that “special expression of man’s.”
One scientific explanation is that the act of crying is evolution’s mechanism for draining excess chemicals released into the blood
when we experience extreme stress or high emotion: the chin’s mentalis muscle wobbles; a lump rises in our throat, as the autonomic nervous system expands the glottis to aid our oxygen intake; the lachrymal glands flood the fornix conjunctiva of the upper eyelid; and, as teardrops break their ducts and run down our cheeks, our blood is cleansed of the secreted prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormones.
Put another way: we have “a good cry” and feel better.
An alternative theory is that crying is an advancement of a mammalian distress signal. After all, tears provide a clear and immediate cry for help that is tricky to fake. And just as it is tough to counterfeit, crying can also be catching, like yawning. One person’s tears often set off another’s.
In these ways, 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 is perhaps especially true for those of us who are men.
Despite the male tear duct being larger than the female, studies have consistently shown that from around the age of ten a divergence occurs and thereafter boys cry far less than girls. Whether that is down to cultural or biological reasons (or, as is likely the case, both), the sad truth is that the male of our species has not always been allowed to cry. Tears may have been venerated in European cultures during the nineteenth century as a sign of high moral character but, these days, they are all too hastily wiped away.
We want to put paid to that with this anthology. We hope that readers may set each other off as they read these verses aloud to one another. Let’s celebrate high emotion! Together let’s express our shared humanity, whatever your gender, background, or circumstances. However grievous at times, let these pages console you, if upset; lift you, if down; I defy you not to be inspired by them.
To borrow from Samuel Beckett, our contributors’ “words are
their tears.” Some of their introductions are profoundly moving and many describe devastating ordeals. These woes are framed in personal contexts but will be familiar to many readers. During its compilation, contributor Billy Collins jokingly asked how any of us will make it through the book without succumbing to a complete emotional breakdown. Yet our intent with this collection is to celebrate our shared compassion and common humanity, all in keeping with the creed of our partners at Amnesty International.
We hope as you read these pages that your own corneas may at times flood. Crying expresses our very inability to articulate emotion, after all, and so what could be more human, honest, or pure than tears?
Perhaps the only response is that other “special expression” of ours: poetry.