Monday 11 November 2019

Bookworm: Poems to bring a tear to your eye – or not

WH Auden
WH Auden

John Boland

Should poetry make you burst into tears? Or should it not, as Wordsworth felt, be emotion recollected in tranquillity and triggering a similar response in the reader?

Well, not if journalist and Princess Diana biographer Anthony Holden has his say with a new anthology of verse dreamt up by himself and his film producer son Ben. Poems That Make Grown Men Cry is its title and in it he reproduces poems selected by 100 famous males, ranging from songwriter Nick Cave and Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe to novelists John le Carré and Jonathan Franzen.

Seemingly, historian Simon Schama's eyes well up whenever he reads WH Auden's "Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm". Indeed, five contributors opt for poems by Auden, who has always struck me as far too elegantly controlled to write a tearjerker, while also popular are Thomas Hardy, AE Housman and Philip Larkin.

No one loves these last three poets more than myself, though I must say that throughout decades of reading them I've never felt like sobbing – not even at Hardy's heart-wrenching poems in memory of his first wife. But then I've never thought it the function of poetry (good poetry, anyway) to make me all weepy.

Still, the anthology, due next month from Simon & Schuster, is in a good cause – the beneficiary of any money it makes will be Amnesty International, an admirable organisation confronting injustices and atrocities that should make anyone cry.

*****

It was "the shock of motherhood" that inspired the novel, according to its author Emma Donoghue. Writing in the Guardian, she says that as a parent of young children herself, she wondered about the imprisoned and abused Elizabeth Fritzel: "How did she do that? How did she manage to mother – and mother well – in a locked room?"

And so, quoting Touchstone in As You Like It, she set herself the task of conveying "a great reckoning in a little room" – a task she managed rather well, as millions of readers can testify.

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