The realm of poetry is to Thomas R. Smith what the ocean is to the Great Blue Whale. Thomas lives inside poetry. He knows its depths and life-giving nourishment. Poetry is not a mere product, nor just a process for him. I have known Thomas for thirty-six years, and for him, the realm of poetry is an entire environment—alive, luminescent, nurturing and natural. I value Thomas R. Smith’s recommendations more than anyone else’s. When he suggests a book, I heed his words. You should, too. – Timothy Young
“Give Back Your Heart to Itself”: Poetry and Men’s Tears
One of Robert Bly’s milestones as an anthologist is the great “men’s poetry” gathering The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, edited in collaboration with James Hillman and Michael Meade during the peak of their work together leading men’s conferences around the United States and abroad in the early 1990s.
Working as Bly’s personal assistant, I was privileged to witness close-up that book’s editing process. For weeks by mail and in marathon face-to-face sessions, the three men high-spiritedly wrangled and forged out of sometimes challengingly varied tastes the monumental collection that has rightly become a veritable poetry canon for men attending “mythopoetic” men’s retreats and conferences since the 1990s. Exhaustive lists and sheafs of photocopied poems shunted back and forth by mail for weeks, to which I even contributed a few myself.
Most of us know the virtues of that inexhaustible treasury. My purpose here is to praise a fine and more recent collection of poems focused on men.
To back up a few years: I remember the day, not so long ago as time’s arrow flies, when Robert somewhat dubiously agreed to contribute to a new poetry collection being put together in England. This anthology, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry (Simon & Schuster, 2014), edited by a British father and son team, Anthony and Ben Holden, would showcase poems chosen by one hundred men, well-known primarily in the arts and mass media, which had moved them to tears.
Robert Bly receives many such requests; many he simply turns down. This one, though, gave him some hesitation and could not be readily dismissed; after brief deliberation, he dictated his email agreeing to take part. Maybe the premise itself was irresistible to him personally: Bly has always championed the health of grieving deeply and fully, and something in the Holdens’ project seemed worthy enough to override possible reservations (such as the fear that this might seem, on the face of it, a light-weight celebrity affair). Bly has often approvingly quoted the English poet Andrew Marvell’s “Eyes and Tears”:
Yet happy they whom grief doth bless,
That weep the more, and see the less:
And, to preserve their sight more true,
Bathe still their eyes in their own dew.
I had pretty much forgotten about this when last year a bookseller friend handed me a volume from his used section, saying, “Here, why don’t you take this. I think you’ll like it.” I accepted the sturdily handsome white-jacketed hardcover, pleased with the gift, yet suspecting I’d probably find the poems over-familiar or cliché-ridden.
An initial thumb-through established that it was that anthology, which perusal also disabused me of my reflexive skepticism, persuading me to give the book a fair chance.
I’m happy to report that Poems That Make Grown Men Cry is a stellar collection, solidly grounded in its premise yet satisfyingly varied. As they usually are, Robert’s instincts were good; the book richly delivers on its promise of poems capable of stirring men to tears not only of sadness but of other powerful emotions, including the one Stevie Wonder has memorably described as “joy inside my tears.”
Co-editor Anthony Holden, a journalist and biographer, recalls a conversation with the late literary critic Frank Kermode that sparked the idea for Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. After sharing poems that each of them couldn’t read aloud without weeping, Holden decided to poll others for poems that literally made them cry. He comments on the responses he gathered:
“To our contributors, a moist eye seems the natural if involuntary response to a particular phrase or line, thought or image; the vast majority are public figures not prone to tears, as is supposedly the manly way, but here prepared to admit to caving in when ambushed by great art.”
One might think that thirty-five years after Iron John and all that good work by Bly, Hillman, Meade, and many others, we’d have gotten past the old masculine stereotype of the stiff-upper-lipped “man’s man” who never cries. Sadly — perhaps a cause for tears in itself — we have not. When I say “we” I refer to the Anglo and American men whose selections comprise the bulk of Poems That Make Grown Men Cry; I can’t speak for other cultures in which men may enjoy easier access to fundamental emotions.
Some of the better known names contributing and commenting on their favorite tear-inducing poems include the actor Kenneth Branagh, the poet Seamus Heaney, the investigative reporter Carl Bernstein, the literary critic Harold Bloom, the actor James Earl Jones and of course Bly himself, who chooses his own translation of Antonio Machado’s poem of regret, “The Wind, One Brilliant Day”:
The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”
“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”
“Well then, I’ll take the waters of the fountains,
and the withered petals and the yellow leaves.”
The wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”
Some Star Wars fans may be intrigued to learn that J. J. Abrams, director of the current installment, picks Billy Collins’s ruefully touching tribute to his mother, “The Lanyard,” while Joe Klein, tough-minded political commentator for Time and Woody Guthrie biographer, is moved by “The Remorseful Day” by A. E. Housman. Barry Humphries, the British actor who plays the tartly witty comic character Dame Edna Everage, interestingly favors “Everyone Sang,” a WWI poem from 1919 by Siegfried Sassoon that could describe a Doug von Koss session at one of our men’s conferences:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on—on—and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun;
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away… O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
Of course this whole matter of “what makes grown men cry” is highly personal. The editors have wisely chosen not to emphasize grief as a single touchstone of these poems at the expense of other emotions. I have struggled to get through a public reading of a poem simply because the depth of human feeling in it — whether of grief or happiness — so beautifully affirmed our common humanity. A wide array of other elements — such as the truth we feel in a poem or its spirit of generosity — may also affect us that way.
Although I’d already encountered several of these poems, many more were new to me, including the passionate love poem “God Wills It” by the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, a somberly magnificent apocalyptic poem, “The Horses,” by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, and William Matthews’s open-hearted account of bringing poetry to military cadets, “A Poetry Reading at West Point.”
Peter Porter’s poem for his wife, “An Exequy,” will shock any man in a committed long-term relationship, with its recognition of love’s inevitabilities:
I owe a death to you — one day
The time will come for me to pay
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.
James Fenton’s elegy “For Andrew Wood” fills the heart to bursting with its compassion toward both the dead and the living:
I think the dead would want us
To weep for what they have lost.
I think our luck in continuing
Is what would affect them most.
But time would find them generous
And less self-engrossed.
While a good many of the poems touch on death in one way or another, not all do. Can a return to oneself after becoming lost in a love affair bring tears? In the right mood, I invite you to try keeping that lump out of your throat while reading aloud Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love”:
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart….
Whether or not they are specifically grounded in Bly’s grief work (and I strongly suspect that some are), these men have chosen well. The poems are overall excellent and reflect a sensitivity and intelligence on the part of the selectors. Sometimes the commentary rivals the poem in usefulness. The Irish novelist Colum McCann, for example, offers this piece of parental wisdom:
I have developed a favorite thing at Christmastime, where I ask my kids to learn a poem off by heart and “give” it to me rather than a pair of socks or yet another scarf. It’s my favorite moment of the whole year. I give them a poem and they learn it. Sometimes the poems are wildly different…[the poems] will always be theirs, and therefore mine.
These thoughtful, literate men seem to recognize poetry not as an ornament of the cultured life, but as a necessity, integral to the health of what Bly has called “the emotional body.” That many hail from the UK and other quarters of the former British Empire gives this book an appealingly transatlantic flavor. These are men whose social conscience and emotional intelligence can make us proud, or at least not ashamed, of being men. I should mention that a side benefit of buying Poems That Make Grown Men Cry is that a share of the proceeds go to Amnesty International, partner in this book’s publication.
Robert Bly and Thomas R. Smith (photo by Renee Jones Schneider)
Recently President Obama, in announcing an executive action on stricter regulation of gun sales, unashamedly violated the American masculine prohibition against weeping in public, after which he was mocked by FOX News announcer Andrea Tantaros, who suggested a hidden onion on the President’s podium. Robert Bly’s comment on a Dewar’s ad in his Paris Review interview in Spring 2000 could be appropriately applied here: “It’s a tiny indication of the ammunition aimed at men who try to learn to talk or to feel.” Personally, I’d love to hear the President’s choice of a poem that brings tears. Maybe there needs to be second volume of Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.
Claire Forlani / Dewar’s advertisement
To briefly return to The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: That spectacularly international banquet remains the perfect entry point, unrivaled in its range and scope, for men who want to fold poetry into their emotional and spiritual lives. In fact, Bly’s long-time editor at HarperCollins, Hugh Van Dusen, has called Rag and Bone one of the best books he shepherded into print during his career. But Poems That Make Grown Men Cry can further expand men’s access to deep and nourishing poems, especially those by poets from across the Atlantic who might be largely unknown to American readers. For fans of traditional poetry, it’s also gratifying to see contemporaries showing the love to older poets; Shakespeare, Goethe, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Rilke, Hardy, and Lawrence are a handful of the classic poets represented in the chronologically-ordered pages of Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.
Men mourning a fresh grief may find the gravitas of this anthology especially validating. The poems here can help, in Derek Walcott’s phrase, to “give back the heart to itself” after the wrenching dislocations of loss. Poems That Make Grown Men Cry deserves a place on the shelf beside Rag and Bone and adoption as a resource by men’s groups throughout the English-speaking world. I’ll give closing words to a poem I did not know before encountering this collection, chosen by the American film actor Chris Cooper. Here is “Those Who Are Near Me Do Not Know” by Rabindranath Tagore, on whose translations of Kabir Robert Bly based his “versions”:
Those who are near me do not know that you are nearer to me than they are
Those who speak to me do not know that my heart is full with your unspoken words
Those who crowd in my path do not know that I am walking alone with you
They who love me do not know that their love brings you to my heart.
Note: Part of the fun of this kind of anthology is weighing contributors’ choices against your own. I would add the Native American poet Adrian C. Louis’s “Good-Hearted Woman,” the Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen’s “Room 301” (in Roger Greenwald’s translation) and the Irish poet Paula Meehan’s “Child Burial” for starters. I also recommend a very current poem about the European refugee crisis, “Home” by the Somali poet Warsan Shire excerpted below.
– Thomas R. Smith
Virga at Lake Balaton (photo by Danube)
HOME by Warsan Shire
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey….
The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart