Book Review: "Poems That Make Grown Men Cry" edited by Anthony Holden and Ben Holden

Monday, March 31, 2014

Title: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them
Author: Edited by Anthony Holden, Ben Holden
Genres: Collection / Poetry
Release Date: April 1, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Source: NetGalley/Publisher
Buy: Amazon | Local Bookstore

Grown men don’t cry.

But in this fascinating anthology, one hundred men—distinguished in literature and film, science and architecture, theater and human rights—confess to being moved to tears by poems that continue to haunt them. Representing twenty nationalities and ranging in age from their early 20s to their late 80s, the majority are public figures not prone to crying. Here they admit to breaking down when ambushed by great art, often in words as powerful as the poems themselves.

Their selections include classics by visionaries such as Walt Whitman, W.H Auden, and Philip Larkin, as well as contemporary works by masters including Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, and poets who span the globe from Pablo Neruda to Rabindranath Tagore.

Seventy-five percent of the selected poems were written in the twentieth century, with more than a dozen by women including Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Their themes range from love in its many guises, through mortality and loss, to the beauty and variety of nature. Three men have suffered the pain of losing a child; others are moved to tears by the exquisite way a poet captures, in Alexander Pope’s famous phrase, “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.

From J.J. Abrams to John le Carré, Salman Rushdie to Jonathan Franzen, Daniel Radcliffe to Nick Cave, Billy Collins to Stephen Fry, Stanley Tucci to Colin Firth, and Seamus Heaney to Christopher Hitchens, this collection delivers private insight into the souls of men whose writing, acting, and thinking are admired around the world.

Poetry is an amazing thing – it has the power to move you, uplift you, destroy you. It’s helped me through treacherous break-ups, the end of friendships, grieving a loss. Poetry has also been there for me when I’ve fallen breathlessly in love, whether it’s with a person, a landscape, a country.  So I was thrilled to read this collection of poems which meant something special to a variety of powerful people.

From Auden (my newly-discovered favorite, thanks to this collection) to more than a dozen poems written by women, including Gwendolyn Brooks and Emily Dickinson, each poem has inspired tears or great emotion from the contributors featured. 

Auden was the highest featured poet, with five contributions, with poets Larkin and Hardy following close behind. I was thrilled by the inclusion of Hardy, who is better known as a novelist - but whose poetry, particularly those about the loss of his wife, is incredibly moving by any standard.

I most enjoyed the brief introduction each contributor gave their selected poem. The stories behind the poems that moved them to tears were often just as emotional and passionate. However, not all of the poems were introduced with heart-warming stories - some felt disjointed, or oddly enough, unemotional. 

Honestly, at the end I wondered why women had been excluded from this collection, contributor-wise. Especially since this was written hand-in-hand with Amnesty International, one of my favorite organizations. I was pleased to see that they'd included a note in the book regarding allegations of sexism:
This anthology might be accused of sexism because it deliberately excludes women contributors. Others may mock the very idea of men crying over poetry. But this is another reason why we at Amnesty are interested in it. It directly addresses the assumption bordering on cliche that women are more emotional - weaker - than men. Yet the contributions are all written by successful, influential men (some with very tough images) who admit to crying...Their emotional honesty is a healthy contrast to the behavior that most societies expect of men...Wee know that bottling up emotions can lead to aggression. More than this, gender stereotyping is dangerous because it repress ability and ambition, it encourages discrimination and it upholds social inequalities that are a root cause of violence. (Quote from galley subject to change in final edition)
While not all of the poems were hits for me, I discovered many more that I had absolutely loved. I would recommend this as a gift to the poetry-lover in your life - whether they're a man or a woman. On a side note - I found the cover rather boring. I would have liked to see something a little more punchy, but otherwise this is a four-star book.

Four stars.

100 Best Loved Poems by Philip Smith