READ IT AND WEEP
IAM not a weeper. I’ve never seen a male friend cry (aside from an unseasonable coincidence of ‘‘pollen in the air’’ after a screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Australian men get the crying dried out early. We’re told to ‘‘suck it up’’. Tears are mocked. And this is why the excellent Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by father-and-son British writers Anthony and Ben Holden, is so important.
Here, world-class male writers, actors, directors and thinkers write candidly about the poems that bring them to tears. From the literary world, there are selections by Salman Rushdie, Clive James, Ian McEwan, Seamus Heaney and Christopher Hitchens. From intelligentsia, Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins. From drama, Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Fry, JJ Abrams, Colin Firth, Daniel Radcliffe and James Earl Jones. And that’s just the start.
So what makes Darth Vader and Harry Potter cry? Injustice, nature, children’s lullabies — but mainly death, and its amplification of love.
Les Murray’s The Widower in the Country ‘‘brings on the waterworks’’ for Nick Cave. There, grief radiates from a farmer’s ‘‘Christmas paddocks aching in the heat,/ The windless trees, the nettles in the yard’’ and his pointless day of work. For McEwan, it’s another Australian poet, Peter Porter, contemplating suicide in An Exequy, a lament for his late wife: When your slim shape from photographs Stands at my door and gently asks If I have any work to do Or will I come to bed with you.
Critic John Carey and actor Chris Cooper speak of the stunning pain of losing a child. For Carey Ben Jonson’s On My First Son is still ‘‘unsafe — to try to read aloud’’: Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy; My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy … Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, ‘‘Here doth
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.’’
Losing a parent moves Radcliffe and poet Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them Edited by Anthony Holden and Ben Holden Simon & Schuster, 336pp, $32.99 Benjamin Zephaniah. Radcliffe chooses Tony Harrison’s Long Distance I and II: If that poem ‘‘doesn’t bring you up short’’, Radcliffe writes, ‘‘you have a heart the size of a snow pea!’’ Zephaniah cites Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, a poem of smashing, railing grief. It’s ‘‘the desperation in his ‘voice’ as he is willing his father to live … that moves me to tears’’.
Men aren’t good at telling their mates they love them (sober, anyway). Nick Laird’s choice, WS Graham’s Dear Bryan Winter, speaks to this. Graham starts jokily: This is only a note To say how sorry I am You died. You will realize What a position it puts Me in. Are you still somewhere With your long legs And twitching smile under Your blue hat walking Though my mother was already two years
dead Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas, put hot water bottles her side of the bed and still went to renew her transport pass. And you, my father, there on that sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears,
I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. But later Graham’s banter breaks down as he questions whether anything of his friend and walking companion remains: Across a place? … I find It difficult to go Beside Housman’s star Lit fences without you. And nobody will laugh At my jokes like you.
War makes Hugh Bonneville, Hitchens, Barry Humphries and James cry. The editors move from the naive beauty of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier (‘‘If I should die, think only this of me ...’’) to Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen’s satire on the Horatian proverb, ‘‘it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country’’: If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted
lungs … My friend, you would not tell with such
high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori. In Humphries’s selection, Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang, we have ‘‘a picture of … soldiers in a moment of emotional release’’: Everyone suddenly burst out singing; And I was filled with such delight As prisoned birds must find in freedom, Winging wildly across the white …
James’s choice is a poignant meditation on imminent death. In Canoe, Keith Douglas floats on an Oxford river with his love before leaving for World War II: Well, I am thinking this may be my last summer, but cannot lose even a part of pleasure in the old-fashioned art of idleness. ‘‘The moment that melts my eyes,’’ writes James, who is seriously ill, ‘‘is towards the end, when the young woman in the canoe is pictured as making her journey alone’’: Whistle and I will hear and come again another evening, when
this boat travels with you alone toward Iffley: as you lie looking up for thunder again, this cool touch does not betoken rain; it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly. Douglas uses nature for emotive force: summer’s day reflects the couple’s love, the rainswept river elegises their separation in death.
Sebastian Faulks’s choice, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, uses nature for a different elegiac purpose. Coleridge sits by a ‘‘low-burnt fire’’, watching frost ‘‘perform … its secret ministry’’ as his ‘‘cradled infant slumbers’’. The peace of winter midnight brings him to consider, via symbolic landscape, how the