Saturday 17 March 2018

Books: The words that move tough guys to tears

Book review: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, Edited by Anthony and Ben Holden

The weather is a constant theme in the poetry of Seamus Heaney
The weather is a constant theme in the poetry of Seamus Heaney
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

Brian Lynch

'Grown men aren't supposed to cry but in this fascinating anthology, 100 men – distinguished in literature and film, science and architecture, theatre and human rights – confess to being moved to tears by poems that haunt them." The quote comes from the blurb to the book, and for once the blurb is believable. It really is a fascinating anthology. But it's also a small bit peculiar.

Four of the seven Irish contributors are novelists: Colm Tóibín, Colum McCann, Joseph O'Neill and Nick Laird. Laird is also a poet, as are contributors Paul Muldoon and the late lamented Seamus Heaney.

In fact the only Irish poet chosen by contributors is Heaney. Pieces by him are picked by the film makers Richard Curtis, who directed Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Terry George, the Belfastman who directed Some Mother's Son. Part of the reason Heaney appealed to them, I guess, is that his poems are often highly visual, and they pack big stories into tight spaces. Certainly, the poem Heaney himself chose, The Voice by Thomas Hardy, is as dense as a novel (see panel).

The seventh Irishman is the actor Kenneth Branagh. His choice is a speech from Peer Gynt, the Ibsen play. Strictly speaking, the speech, though it's in verse, is not a poem. Who cares?

Well, consider another contributor, James McManus. He's an American and has written a very entertaining book about playing poker in Las Vegas. He chooses an extract from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. Very good it is too. But the Joyce piece is not a poem. Who cares?

The editors do. They say they let it in "only after intense negotiation." If you think that that's a joke, you're mistaken. Under no circumstances, for instance, would they allow song lyrics. They excluded a "distinguished writer" because what made him cry was a French song. And they rejected an astronaut – a man who has been in outer space for heaven's sake – because he wanted a song from a Broadway musical.

Also a mite peculiar is Amnesty International's involvement with the book. What the editors call their "enthusiastic partnership" suggests the human rights organisation put a few bob towards the cost of it. But in an afterword Kate Allen, the Director of Amnesty, says the organisation is "profoundly grateful to all the contributors," which sounds like the contributors did their bit for free. She then thanks the editors "for their generosity in sharing this project with us," which sounds like the profits are being shared. It's puzzling.

I'm also puzzled by Kate Allen saying: "This anthology might be accused of sexism because it deliberately excludes women contributors." What does "deliberately" mean? The editors could hardly have done it by accident.

Amnesty was founded to help prisoners of conscience. Has male weeping got something to do with that? Kate Allen says the notion that some people "may mock the very idea of men crying over poetry ... is another reason why we at Amnesty are interested" in the anthology. That's because the contributors' "emotional honesty is a healthy contrast to the behaviour that most societies expect of men. We know that bottling up emotions can lead to aggression."

But do we know that? Adolf Hitler, for instance, wasn't famous for the stiffness of his upper lip? Hitler brings to mind what WH Auden said in his Epitaph for a Tyrant: "When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,/ And when he cried the little children died in the streets."

The reason I mention Auden is that amongst these 100 men he is the most popular poet. Six contributors choose him, twice as many as the second favourites, Philip Larkin and Thomas Hardy. Shakespeare gets one vote (from Melvyn Bragg). Nobody weeps with WB Yeats.

Finding out what makes particular men emotional is intriguing. The sobbers here are various. They include John Le Carré, Stephen Fry, Bob Fisk, the late Christopher Hitchens, Jeremy Irons (an honorary Irishman), Salman Rushdie, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe, the songwriter Nick Cave, and the sculptor Anish Kapoor.

Only 12 of the 100 men pick poems by women poets. Is that an accidental sign of sexism – or could it be deliberate? Would women choose more male poets or fewer? I look forward not just to a second fascinating installment – Poems that Make Grown Women Cry – but to further guidance from Amnesty.

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