Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

"Poetry is a gender-free zone."
Ben Holden

In 2014, the father-and-son editing team Anthony and Ben Holden compiled an anthology of emotive poems chosen by 100 famous men - such as Nick Cave, Salman Rushdie, Colin Firth, Richard Dawkins, Kenneth Branagh, John le Carré, Stephen Fry and Daniel Radcliffe - introducing male readers to unfamiliar works ... and emotions. "Poems That Make Grown Men Cry" is a collection designed to raise money for Amnesty International by breaking down traditional ideas of so-called manhood defined as an "emotion-free zone"(via and via).

"Gender stereotyping is dangerous because it represses ability and ambition, encourages discrimination and upholds social inequalities that are often a root cause of violence. We hope that this anthology will encourage boys, in particular, to know that crying - and poetry - isn't just for girls."
Kate Allen, British director of the charity

But in this fascinating anthology, one hundred men - distinguished in literature and film, science and architecture, theatre and human rights - confess to being moved to tears by poems that 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."
Amnesty International

This month there was the follow-up: "Poems That Make Grown Women Cry".

While my son Ben and I were compiling our 2014 anthology, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, we already knew we wanted to follow it up with a sister volume for women. But how would the male book fare? Would any publisher be interested in a sequel? When it received the warmest of welcomes, even basking awhile in the bestseller lists, we knew we had liftoff.

It even seemed logical that, yes, a father-and-son team could co-edit a book by women about women for… no, not just women, but anyone to read. Anyone, that is, who is interested in the human condition as uniquely observed and distilled by poetry.

The male title had been deliberately provocative, if leavened (or so we liked to think) by a hint of self-satire. Clearly, it challenged the hoary stereotype that grown men don’t cry – or aren’t supposed to – whether in private or in public. Its built-in argument was that men should these days be much more open about their emotions than in the bygone, stiff-upper-lip days of empire. So we were delighted when this proved the main topic of discussion in numerous media and festival interviews, apparently finding approving echoes around the nation.

For all my alternative suggestions, Ben insisted that the female title had to repeat the same formula. I was more concerned about the currency of the phrase “grown women” than the dim, uncomprehending charges of sexism that had in some quarters greeted the first book – reeking, to me, of an all too familiar sense-of-humour failure.

“Good, it’s working!” thought Ben when some female commentators found the 2014 title at best gimmicky, at worst sexist. When one of our contributors, John Carey, mentioned our (then forthcoming) book while plugging his own on Radio 4’s Midweek, the presenter Libby Purves said she would “hurl a book with a title like that across the room”.

Reviewing the anthology in the Telegraph, the poet Wendy Cope was also annoyed by its title, which “seems to imply that it takes a really special poem to make a man weep, whereas women will shed tears over any old rubbish”. My assertion in the Observer that we were planning a female version looked, she said, like “a defensive move”. If we were really planning such a book, she wrote, she hoped we would ask her to be in it. Which, of course, we have; she has chosen Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade.

While I was making approaches for contributions, however, the old stereotypes were again turned upside down. Many more women than men told me they didn’t weep at anything; I received more polite refusals from eminent women than from their male counterparts. The vast majority who did respond, however, have made a wonderful variety of choices – far indeed from “any old rubbish” – striking notes sometimes interestingly similar to the men’s, sometimes intriguingly different. Collectively, they again meet my definition of the aspiration of both anthologies: to introduce new readers to the wonders of poetry while surprising the cognoscenti with less familiar marvels. (...)

“This project would not only allow us to explore this symmetry but also – we hoped – prompt people to read poetry. We wanted to provoke, with the help of inspirational contributors, some complex conversations: about freedom of expression, literacy, emotion and – of course – gender identity.”

The fundamental truth, of course, is that men and women respond to poetry in exactly the same way – as complex human beings. As Sebastian Faulks explains in his afterword (Nadine Gordimer, since you ask, had the last word in the male book): “Poetry speaks to a vestigial part of the mind that was more active at the time Homo sapiens was becoming what she/he is… When we respond to poetry we engage a part of our being that is more primitive and in some way purer than the consciousness available minute-by-minute to our busy left-side brain.” (...)

Anthony Holden

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A selection:

::: Introduction by Anthony and Ben Holden: LISTEN/WATCH
::: Richard Dawkins reads A. E. Housman: LISTEN/WATCH
::: Vanessa Redgrave reads Wilfred Owen: LISTEN/WATCH

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photographs of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and Edward James "Ted" Hughes (1930-1998) via and via


  1. Replies
    1. An impressive project. Many thanks for passing by and commenting, Derek!