Most of us, at some point in our lives, have encountered a piece of writing that made us cry. Sometimes, writing can produce tears of joy; other times, words can express something altogether heartbreaking. Father and son pair Anthony and Ben Holden know this, and set out to anthologize some of the greatest poetic tearjerkers. Those poems are now collected in Poems That Make Grown Men Cry and, more recently, Poems That Make Grown Women Cry. Here, father and son share some of the interesting patterns they noticed in compiling these two volumes.
There we were, father and son, the only men in a cramped dressing room backstage at the National Theater in London otherwise full of distinguished women-of-letters—among them Vanessa Redgrave, Elif Shafak, and Edna O’Brien—all about to tread the boards of an august stage.
How did we get here?! What had brought us two guys together with these many brilliant women?
Well, each of these women had admitted to us that there is a poem that they can’t read without weeping, and in the name of poetry and Amnesty International, they agreed to contribute to our most recent collection of poetry, Poems That Make Grown Women Cry. That night, they were going to read selections of the book to celebrate its launch in the UK.
Back in 2012, we canvassed 100 eminent men—from JJ Abrams to Colin Firth, Salman Rushdie to Seamus Heaney, James Earl Jones to Jonathan Franzen—to choose a poem that moved them to tears, framing their choice with a short explanation of why it had done so.
Starting with men felt logical to us. Statistically boys cry less than girls after the age of about ten. In many societies, it is still simply unacceptable—forbidden even—for men to cry. We wanted to do something to change that perception.
We knew from the get-go that we would want to follow Grown Men with a sister anthology. But would there be a market for such a sequel? When the first book received the warmest of welcomes, even basking awhile on the UK bestseller lists, we knew we had to try.
As we went about confirming choices with 100 female contributors, a few intriguing patterns soon developed—where their selections dovetailed with those of their male counterparts but also, interestingly, how they differed.
Many men had turned us down—from playwright Patrick Marber of Closer fame, who refused to share his favorite (“You bet I’ve got one but I’m not going to share it with anyone else!”) to the Nobel Laureate poet who just doesn’t cry at poetry. This time, contrary to popular preconceived notions on gender, just as many women replied to say that they didn’t cry at poetry, either. But others did. And of those who did offer us a poem, two trends developed.
First, while the poetry in both volumes crosses centuries and multiple borders, our female contributors’ choices not only pre-dated the men’s (Grown Women starts with Natascha McElhone choosing “Donal Og” from the 8th century—the earliest male selection was dated 1586) but post-dated them, too. Overall, their picks skewed much more modern.
Secondly, women chose more female poets, perhaps unsurprisingly (more than double the men). Emily Dickinson was picked more than any other poet—by contributors Elena Ferrante, Joyce DiDonato, and Siri Hustvedt (who selected the same poem, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” as Douglas Kennedy had in Grown Men). Philip Larkin led the men’s choices, with five; in the women’s, he earned only one. The other two favorites from the previous collection, Thomas Hardy and A.E. Housman, are conspicuous in their absence in this one. On the other hand, W. B. Yeats, curiously missing from the first volume, was chosen by three women in this one, including Britain’s Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.
Many happy overlaps between the books also emerged (for instance, Derek Walcott was selected by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as well as Mark Haddon and Tom Hiddleston). Various very moving serendipities also appeared. Two mothers chose poems written by their daughters, including Claire Tomalin, who proudly made public a heart-rending poem by her 22-year-old daughter Susanna which prefigured her own death just months after its composition. That selection brought us both to tears when we first received it.
Suffragette director Sarah Gavron chose a poem by Sharon Olds that reminds her of the final moments spent with her dad—while, in turn, Olds herself coincidentally chose a poem (by Robert Hayden) that also heartbreakingly relates the love between a father and child. As a father and son team, we were very touched by those choices too.
A husband and wife have now both chosen poems—Harold Evans (William Wordsworth) and Tina Brown (John Updike). Similarly, and very poignantly, Antonia Fraser and Yoko Ono both picked the last poem their eminent husbands wrote for them before their deaths. In testament to the power of Harold Pinter’s love poetry, playwright Neil LaBute had selected a different poem the late Nobel Laureate dedicated to his wife Antonia—much to her delight.
Indeed we have had various such moving reactions from the contributors themselves. Many of the men have written to us about the new volume. Sebastian Faulks (who chose “Frost at Midnight” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as did Helen Macdonald) admitted to crying so much while reading it that “my family thought I was concealing some terrible news.” Meanwhile, contributor Clive James was similarly moved (though not to tears, we confess) upon discovering that his recent poem “Sentenced to Life” closes the new volume—as chosen by his friend Germaine Greer.
Perhaps that scene in the National Theatre’s dressing room is not so incongruous, then. After all, this book of poems selected by 100 women, co-edited by us guys, was always intended for everyone and anyone. Anyone, that is, who is interested in the human condition as uniquely observed and distilled by poetry. It speaks truth to power like no other art form, cutting to the quick of our deepest emotions (just like tears) whatever our color, ethnicity, age, nationality, or—yes, you guessed it—gender.
Anthony Holden is an award-winning journalist and biographer who has published more than thirty books, including lives of Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, and Laurence Olivier. He is also the author of three autobiographical books about poker, as well as translations of opera and ancient Greek plays and poetry.
Ben Holden is a writer and film producer. Like his father, he lives in London and studied English at Merton College, Oxford.