Yankee doddle went to town
Riding on a heater
Turned it up to 90 degrees
And burnt his little weiner.
No, that’s not a good poem.
Nor does it make us cry.
But it does make us laugh.
In the mid-1990s, a conversation took place one afternoon among a literary-minded group—the biographer and journalist Anthony Holden, scholar and critic Frank Kermode, and several other companions. Prompted by a friend‘s troubles and his subsequent powerful, choked-up response in the midst of reciting a poem, the topic was the particular works of verse that reliably moved the different members of the group to tears.
“For the next few weeks I asked every male literary friend I saw to name a poem he couldn’t read or recite without breaking up,” writes Holden in the preface to Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words that Move Them (Simon & Schuster, $17). “It was amazing how many immediately said yes, this one, and embarked on its first few lines.”
What eventually resulted from those brief discussions is this luminously stirring collection, a survey of one hundred men of letters and the arts—authors, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, actors, musicians, directors. Men with a deep appreciation for sentiment, to be sure, but not known for their displays of emotion. These contributors have each shared a poem—drawn from all over the globe, from the 16th century to the 21st—ranging from works that cause their eyes to moisten to others that provoke all-out bawling, and a few words about the choice.
The actor Sir Patrick Stewart describes how “he broke down helplessly weeping with the never-before-seen beauty and grandeur of it all” on a walk through the New England autumn, to introduce his selection, God‘s World, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Ashbery notes “a line which still elicits a vagrant tear after all these years” in Elizabeth Bishop’s Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance. And before his death last year, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney wrote of the Thomas Hardy poem, “I can‘t honestly say that I break down when I read The Voice, but when I get to the last four lines the tear ducts do congest a bit. What renders the music of the poem so moving is the drag in the voice, as if there were sinkers on many of the lines.”
Other contributors include John le Carré, Stephen Fry, Kenneth Branagh, Christopher Buckley, Harold Bloom, Alexander McCall Smith, Stanley Tucci, Daniel Radcliffe, Nick, Ian, James Earl Jones, Robert Bly, Jeremy Irons, Clive James, Jonathan Franzen, Mike Leigh, Tom Hiddleston, Billy Collins, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and Christopher Hitchens, who submitted his selection, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, five days before his death.
Whoever you are, in the lines collected in this book, “you will discover in yourself matchlessly conveyed the exultation and devastation of human experience,” writes Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer in her afterword. Here is one arena—poetry—where people regardless of their sex or age or occupation may be fully opened to all modes of expression and feeling without shame or fear, and the poems included here are a testament to the form‘s capacity for simultaneously capturing and transcending our common humanity. “We hope,” writes Ben Holden, “as you read these pages that your own corneas may at times flood. Crying expresses our very inability to articulate emotion, after all, and so what could be more human, honest, or pure than that?”
Here’s one of my faves, penned by Lucille Clifton. It’s not a poem, but it’s the reason for the love: I think that we’re beginning to remember that the first poets didn’t come out of a classroom, that poetry began when somebody walked off of a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, ‘Ahhh.’
Yankee doddle went to town