Poems That Make You Cry

Poems That Make Grown Men CryI cannot read Dylan Thomas’ poem,Do not go gentle into that good night‘ without a lump in my throat. I read it at my father’s funeral, several years ago, so for me it has a personal context that retains its emotional impact. Many poems move me or touch my heartstrings, however, that have no such personal context, although I cannot recall the last time one moved me to tears.

When I got Anthony and Ben Holden’s book, “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them,” I expected to be deeply and powerfully moved by the poems in it. Yet for the most part, I wasn’t. I read through it, then put the book down. I thought, perhaps it was my mood at the time. This week I re-read it. The result was the same: much of the poetry had little or no emotional effect for me.

Most of it, I thought, was very good poetry: skillfully written, beautifully crafted, stuff that made me pause and think. But not cry. In fact, most of it elicited an intellectual rather than an emotional reaction. That isn’t a bad thing, just not what I expected from a book with that title. I want poetry to slip past my thinking brain and tweak the organs that send a chemical rush of emotions through me. I want to feel a poem raise the hairs on my arm or a lump in my throat before I start to analyse the words.

The Holdens begin each poem with a piece by the man (or in a few cases where more than one chose the same piece, men) who explains why he chose the particular poem. Then the chapter ends with a brief biography of the chooser(s), so the reader can frame his or her appreciation of the poem in some context. This really helps in some cases, but not all. (As for why just men: read their introduction).

For example, the Japanese hokku (a brief poem, later renamed as haiku) by Fukuda Chiyo-Ni and chose for the collection by Boris Akunin:

Dragonfly catcher
Where today
have you gone?

As Akunin writes, it seems either mysterious or banal, but once you learn that the author wrote it after she lost her little son, it becomes deeply poignant. You can read more of her work here.

But as David Orr wrote in his book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, poetry – and books about poetry  – has a limited audience today:

…the potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

To be fair, although I have a dozen or more poetry anthologies in my collection, as well as many single-author collections, none is a perfect selection for my own tastes. I always find some piece I want included, or some piece I feel shouldn’t be in it. In the Grown Men anthology, I felt there was more of the latter (some have political or historical significance to their choosers, which left me unemotional).

Harold Bloom’s massive anthology, The Best Poems of the English Language, as a different example, starts at Chaucer and ends with Hart Crane, thus leaving out anyone born after 1899 or before about 1343. No Allen Ginsburg, Leonard Cohen, Sylvia Plath, Gary Snyder, Ted Hughes… For Lewis Carroll he includes the full Hunting of the Snark and the Walrus and the Carpenter, but omits the shorter and (to my mind) more brilliant Jabberwocky. And for William Carlos Williams, he omits the brief yet stunning piece in its Zen-like clarity, The Red Wheelbarrow. I could go on, but you get the drift here.

Not only that, but while I respect Bloom’s work from afar, on close reading he’s a grumpy old pedant who opens the collection with a rambling, egocentric 29-page essay, The Art of Reading Poetry, in which he manages to suck all the joy from poetry by elevating it to some academic stratosphere where it dies from lack of oxygen. He prefaces each writer with a biography and critique which somewhat redeems him by giving us context, but even in these he has a penchant for meandering into arid intellectualizing (sometimes to the point where there is more Bloom than poet presented to the reader).

To really have a good and broad collection of poetry in your own library, you need several titles, such as the Norton Anthology of Poetry and its companion volume of Contemporary Poetry, The 500 Top Poems (ed. William Harmon), World Poetry (ed. Washburn, Major, Fadiman) and the like. Sure there will be overlaps, but each editor will select poems and poets the other overlooks. Harmon, by the way, graces each poet with a very brief introduction and each poem with an equally brief critique. And World Poetry helps us break free our our cultural straitjacket by offering pieces translated from other languages.

Poetry, or rather our response to it, is very personal, of course. As it is to art, photography, film and music. What might move me, what might ring the emotional bells and bring me to tears, may simply slough off you like water from the proverbial duck’s back. That’s because it’s all about context: each person’s life experiences, emotional and social activities, reading, thought, friendships, education, family – everything that makes up you plays into how we respond.

Sometimes our response is conditioned. We’re taught to think of some writers as “great” (and poetry as “intellectual”) therefore whatever words are displayed, they must have meaning and depth, even if we don’t understand them. But that’s too Pavlovian. When you come across, say, Shakespeare’s  Sonnet XXX in the collection, you get to read why Melvyn Bragg selected that piece (a reminder of his late first wife and her suicide), rather than automatically putting it in some internal “it’s Shakespeare therefore it must be good stuff” category. That helps the reader considerably (although I have to admit that, on reading this, I wondered why there were not more sonnets chosen. They are a rich mine of emotional content).

Thinking about poetry in my own life, I recall when I first read Ezra Pound/s translation of Li Po’s poem, The River Merchant’s Wife A Letter, I was deeply moved by it. I still am, and re-reading it as I wrote this post, I was caught by the exquisite sentiment of the lines:

The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.

I have other translations of the same poem, including one by Arthur Waley. None of the others affect me similarly. Pound just had the knack to word his in a way that resonated with me. In his version, I can see the young girl, feel her joy and sorrow, her loneliness.*

That last line reminds me of the closing lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XII:

And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Good poetry should do that to you: make you connect the poet’s words with those of others, to travel the network of linked emotions and words. Reading one should make you hungry to read others, like salted peanuts for the mind. Or perhaps a better analogy would be the sympathetic strings of a sitar; strings that vibrate untouched when others of the same note are played.

(Pound, by the way, appears briefly in Bloom’s anthology (but not this poem), and two short excerpts from his lengthy Cantos are in the Holdens’ collection; and while it is a translation, not originally an English work, this poem appears in Harmon’s anthology). Pound holds a special place for me because it was through him I learned more about Li Po and his work, in the 1970s. I still find may of Li Po’s poems strike a deep emotional chord. For example, Taking Leave of a Friend:

Blue mountains lie beyond the north wall;
Round the city’s eastern side flows the white water.
Here we part, friend, once forever.
You go ten thousand miles, drifting away
Like an unrooted water-grass.
Oh, the floating clouds and the thoughts of a wanderer!
Oh, the sunset and the longing of an old friend!
We ride away from each other, waving our hands,
While our horses neigh softly, softly . . . .

From Li Po I went on to Wang Wei, Tu Fu and other classical Chinese writers, then to the Japanese poets and haiku, translators like Kenneth Rexroth… books I still have on my shelves some 35-40 years later and which I still take down and read. The power of Pound’s translation started me on an exploratory journey to discover more, to soak up more of that intensity and emotion, to try and cross the cultural gulf. And for me, that’s what poetry is: an exploration into a landscape of emotion and sensation, one dotted with mirages and fantastic beasts.

Around that same time I discovered Wallace Stevens (who isn’t one of the poets in the book I started writing about above, but some selections are found in Bloom). I bought a copy of The Palm at the End of the Mind, a paperback anthology of Stevens’ poetry, at the Banff Book & Art Den in the late 1960s or early 70s. It, too, is upstairs, pages yellowed and spine cracked from reading so many times. What  struck me, on first browsing through the poems, was the opening of The Man With the Blue Guitar:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

A shearsman of sorts. You do not play things as they are. As a guitarist (now a ukulele-ist), and someone who likes to both write music for myself and to re-interpret pieces by others, I understood that imagery immediately. I had to buy the book once I read those words. (A few years ago, Susan bought me a blue guitar – a Takamine – which reflected my still-strong attraction to that poem.)

Then there was the opening of his piece, Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction that speaks to friendship, love and shared space:

And for what, except for you, do I feel love?
Do I press the extremest book of the wisest man
Close to me, hidden in me day and night?
In the uncertain light of single, certain truth,
Equal in living changingness to the light
In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest,
For a moment in the central of our being,
The vivid transparence that you bring is peace.

Stuff that still gives me shivers. I was reminded of those lines quite recently while reading the essays of Michel de Montaigne. Biographies of him stressed his close friendship with Etienne de la Boetie, who died long before Montaigne. I could imagine a modern Montaigne writing those words. But then, sitting in the living room with Susan, both of us with cats on our laps, books open, reading quietly in the afternoon, comfortable with the shared silence, I can look up and feel the same sentiment.

Just before the election, I re-read Tennyson’s Ulysses, which opens:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

Although I read that first when I was in high school and saw it as a historical portrait, today, that poem has a different meaning for me, both because I am older with an “aged wife,” but also because I can find in it echoes of my own political experiences in those words. Like I said, context is everything. Similarly, I was reminded of W.B. Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming, as I read the election results earlier this month:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

When I was growing up as a child, I spent a lot of time haunting the Royal Ontario Museum, often spending wholes days there by myself. On a wall in the mineralogy gallery was a piece from Oscar Wilde’s play,Salome, formatted as a prose poem. While not poetry, it is the stuff of magic and imagination and I never failed to stop and read it every time I visited. In fact, I even copied it down in my notebook when I was 12 or so. I’ve tried to format it as I remember it, here:

I have jewels hidden in this place—jewels that your mother even has never seen; jewels that are marvellous.
I have a collar of pearls, set in four rows. They are like unto moons chained with rays of silver. They are like fifty moons caught in a golden net. On the ivory of her breast a queen has worn it. Thou shalt be as fair as a queen when thou wearest it.
I have amethysts of two kinds, one that is black like wine, and one that is red like wine which has been coloured with water.
I have topazes, yellow as are the eyes of tigers, and topazes that are pink as the eyes of a wood-pigeon, and green topazes that are as the eyes of cats.
I have opals that burn always, with an icelike flame, opals that make sad men’s minds, and are fearful of the shadows.
I have onyxes like the eyeballs of a dead woman.
I have moonstones that change when the moon changes, and are wan when they see the sun. I have sapphires big like eggs, and as blue as blue flowers. The sea wanders within them and the moon comes never to trouble the blue of their waves.
I have chrysolites and beryls and chrysoprases and rubies.
I have sardonyx and hyacinth stones, and stones of chalcedony, and I will give them all to you, all, and other things will I add to them.

That still gives me goosebumps to read, fifty-plus years since I first read it. Opals that make sad men’s minds. Moons chained with rays of silver. I have since read the whole play, and it is marvellous in its entirety. But somehow this particular speech captivates me as no other part of it can do. It remains locked in in my memory with the sense of awe and wonder I felt as I slowly shuffled from display case to display case in the low light of the gallery.

Thomas Stearns Eliot’s poetry has also long captivated me. His Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock opens so beautifully yet oddly disquieting:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

I’ve always been haunted by those last two lines: “… the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.” But it has so many rich images it’s hard to separate them. And like other poems, reading it today, my age filters the words in a way it didn’t when I first read it in my 20s. The emotional tides that tug at Prufrock, the insecurities of custom and aging, the banalities of modern living, the questions about commitment, yet still the little signs of magic and imagination that peek through his clouds of self doubt:

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

That sad, last line. The realization of adulthood, the loss of childhood. I grow old, I grow old… it moves me the way a lingering sunset does, the way the first snow that covers the ground does, the way the memory of a dead friend does.

So for me, Grown Men doesn’t live up to its title. Few of the poems moved me emotionally (notable exceptions being pieces by Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Randall Jarrell and Christina Rossetti). Nonetheless, I am glad to add it to my collection of anthologies because it introduces me to other writers and poems, but for sheer heartstring-tugging, Shakespeare’s sonnets have far more power for me.


* To me, Pound captured the essence of the poem more faithfully than the more literal or linguistically accurate translations. As poet himself, he understood that there was more to the poem than mere words. Poetry and song are much more difficult to translate than prose. Pound’s version has come under attack by those who demand a more literal interpretation

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  1. Let me add that poetry also represents a shared experience. When we read a poem about someone else’s life, about their loves and losses, about their troubles and achievements, we are bonded through those words to another human’s experiences.

    A similar thing happens with song, but too much pop music puts the sound ahead of the lyrics and thus drowns out any emotional bonding. Not to mention that the vast majority of pop music is merely commercial pap. However, we do have great songwriters like Leonard Cohen whose lyrics can pack an amazing emotional punch.

  2. Pingback: Musings on Poets and Poetry – Scripturient

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