April 25, 2014

Stop all the clocks: which poems make grown men cry?


Crying man

Someone’s been at the Ben Johnson again. Image via Shutterstock

The title of a new poetry anthology, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, is very silly. I know one man who cried reading One Day, another who blubbered over Beckett and just last week I saw a man well up over an old episode of Sex and the City, proof that men will cry over anything these days, no longer afraid it will emasculate them and render them shameful.

But behind the anthology is a pretty neat repackaging idea (publishers of poetry must find ways to get people to keep buying the stuff): “100 men on the words that move them”. It’s also a lot of fun because they’ve asked real celebrities to contribute. Celebs like the man who taught England to love and laugh, Richard Curtis, the man who stole the nation’s hearts as Mr Darcy, Colin Firth, the man who has charmed and broken our hearts, Nick Cave, and the boy who… err had that really awkward kiss with Ginny Weasley in the Room of Requirement, Daniel Radcliffe.

Learning about what makes people cry, especially those who we know through their work rather than personally, is a pleasurable experience, however cruel that makes us. In his introduction to his choice of Ben Jonson’s “On my First Son”, John Carey admits that “I know, from experiment, that I cannot be sure to get any further than the last two words of the second line – “loved boy”.” A personal remark such as this one comes like an intimate aside to a friend, as though Carey is sitting next to you and pointing to the poem’s emotional crux even as he chokes up: a close reading made closer by the inevitability of tears.

Melvynn Bragg, in an effort to explain why Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XXX” resonates with him writes, “All great poems are about each one of us.” but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s more that, in this case, each poem is deemed important to a reader because it has or had a personal resonance. The shock of recognition in literature is made all the more powerful when that recognition is one of sadness.

But also: the song is only as sad as the listener. I don’t think it’s just laziness that made Radcliffe pick Tony Harrison’s “Long Distance I and II” or Tom Hiddleston chose Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love”, both poems taught at GCSE. Those teenage years, when emotions are running high, are one of the times when poetry can mean the most: reader, I too once cried at “Love After Love”.

In her review of the collection for The Telegraph, Wendy Cope notes that a good anthology is useful because “you are reminded of old friends and introduced to new ones”, and indeed it’s an interesting experience to be reminded of poems that once devastated you with their honesty (usually to be found in their last lines), to test your nerves with new ones and to wonder how some were omitted: Eleanor Farjeon’s “Easter Monday” has been known to quietly destroy me, but it doesn’t feature here.

Batting away criticism, the editors have now announced a sequel: “Poems That Make Grown Women Cry” which will continue this investigation into our inner disquiet. Still, the collection is a good measure of our national means of catharsis: John Clare, Heaney, Auden, Hardy and Dickinson.

Of course, Richard Curtis did settle the argument about our ultimate cathartic poet years ago, with the help of John Hannah. It’s disappointing that Curtis’ choice in this anthology wasn’t Auden’s “Stop All the Clocks” which arguably made his career, and Auden’s. Perhaps he thought the country had already shed enough tears over that one.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.