Poems that Make Men Cry
I was invited this Saturday as a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme to discuss issues around the theme of poetry, emotions and masculinity. My fellow guest, Anthony Holden, is one of a father-and-son team of editors of a new anthology, ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry’ (Simon & Schuster), in which 100 well-known men each introduce a poem that moves them to tears. On the radio, we only had 5 minutes right at the end of the show, so I thought I put my ideas down more fully here.
Poetry is, says George Barker, incantatory. By which he means that, like spell or chant or prayer (perhaps its ancient origins), poetry is meant, by the act of its recital, to move us into a new and different mental state. Thus, when asked to read something that moves me to tears, I chose a bit from Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze’s ‘ordinary mawning’, in which the speaker lists all the reasons which are not (or at least not solely) responsible for her breaking down in tears at “de ordinary sight of / mi own frock / heng up pon line / wid some clothespin” on one ordinary morning. Each verse reads like a emergent sob until that final moment when you too are transported to tears, equally by the rhythm of the poem as by each individual stress or difficulty in the life of the ‘ordinary’, single-mum Jamaican woma.
Yet it is not alone in producing tears that poetry may be ‘emotional’. The Romantics, who took poetry out of its courtly, aristocratic Augustan home and put it out into the fields where shepherds piped its melodies, did poetry a liberatory service by democratising its production, yet they are to blame for the fact that we now tend see a poet as someone who wanders lonely as a cloud reaching deep inside [usually] his soul to express his emotions and then to burn those transitory expressions of inspiration in the morning.
In the popular imagination, poetry has become something either intellectual, academic and obscure or something soppy and effete. But it is not irrational to be moved by poetry. It is a rational response to the world to be moved by love or sadness or humour or anger. Psychologists and other scientists of the mind have finally accepted, it seems, that there is no difference between ‘cognitive and affective processes’ – i.e. intellect and emotion (see Thomas Dixon in Aeon). An emotion is a ‘mental state’ and thus an intellectual position too. I woke up on the morning of the radio show with this line in my head from that most odd-one-out of Romantic poets, William Blake: “For a Tear is an intellectual thing / And a Sigh is the sword of an Angel-King”.
In most parts of the world and for almost all of time, poetry has been an oral art form, spoken out loud to live audiences. Meant to be a communal experience. And poetry, like life itself, moves us in many ways. Political, coded messages were passed in memorable rhyme, such as this from England’s 300 year (or more) struggle against enclosure.
When Christopher Logue’s rich neighbour gets the council to have Logue’s tree cut down, I am moved with the poet’s anger at the injustice and his humour at both his situation and himself:
“It took … more than 30 years to rear my tree
But only fifteen dental seconds flat
for that fat, jelly-baby-faced,
pornocrat to have it stapped.”
I am stirred by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s urge towards the collective struggle, and the celebration of people’s power:
“It is no mistri
we mekin histri
it is no mistri
we winnin victri”
I agree with Stevie Smith, whose ‘Major Macroo’ tells the cycle of an emotionally abusive relationship and ends with this condemnatory moral:
Such men as these such selfish cruel men
hurting what most they love what most love them,
never make a mistake when it comes to choosing a woman
to love them and be neglected and not think it inhuman.
Yeats said, “painters and poets are continually making and unmaking mankind”, although more people remember Auden’s response that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Yeats says that art actually makes emotion or, at the very least, makes it perceptible to us. Good poetry makes us see what we have already seen but never knew we had seen.
But in order to recognise that the poem’s emotion is an emotion I have also known, I must agree with what I have read. i.e. I must think it true. And so we are intellectually moved – changed in mental state. Thus, I am with the Holdens in thinking it surprising that people did not choose for their 100-poem anthology any of the metaphysical poets, whose oeuvre was about the rationalising and intellectualising of such mental states as love, lust, jealousy, anger.
John Donne in ‘Loves Growth’ decides love is not some alchemy of ‘pure’, unchanging golden feelings. He realises that he has not become more in love with his girl, just more aware of how much he loves her. He then ends, naughtily, with the idea that if time has caused him to love her a little bit more than he used to, then
“As princes do in times of action
get new taxes and remit them not in peace
no winter shall abate the spring’s increase.”
i.e. he is able intellectually to perform alchemy – turn the base metal of never decreasing taxes into the gold of never decreasing love. By doing so, he tells us (intellectually) what love is, we feel love’s triumph (emotionally) and we laugh contemptuously at the cynical world of politics, placed in opposition to the mutual and natural blossoming of love. All at the same time.
Of course, all of this discussion cannot escape the gendering of emotion. It is a curse of Western thought, not just that we divide the two, but also that we see ‘emotions’ as feminine and ‘rationality’ masculine. Like other identity constructs, boys are trapped by masculinity. As I tried to say on the radio, essentially, much of masculinity as an identity is the desire not to be described as feminine or gay. And being emotional is feminine or gay. Thus, much of hetero-male interaction is carried out in jokes and humour and perhaps tends towards being insensitive and impersonal. Hard men, I hear anecdotally, end up crying out that repressed emotion privately on long-suffering girlfriends. In teenage years with sexuality still forming, masculinity is at its most oppressive. Boys in my English class hear that Romeo kills himself for love of Juliet and are appalled: ‘why would you kill yourself over a girl? That’s gay!’ – i.e. Romeo is not straight (or masculine) for being so much in love with a girl. I enjoy confusing them by pointing out the logical flaw.
Literature allows us to look at human interaction with a level of objectivity that is impossible from the inside. Lennie’s death at the end of ‘Of Mice and Men’ moves tough, working-class teenagers to tears, yet in real life, how sympathetic are we to people with learning difficulties? How much more likely is it that we would be one of the mob out to lynch him than the one friend who stands by him? Marvell’s line about death: “yonder all before us lie deserts of vast eternity” has sparked sensitive and deep discussions in English classes, brought up personal stories and left certain alpha-male boys quite moved by the thought of eternal nothingness. Literature does, as Ben Holden says in the anthology’s introduction, help us become aware of “our shared compassion and common humanity”.
However, the problem with celebrating male emotions is that it doesn’t correct gender imbalance. When boys cry, we admire them for their bravery, or we are moved by how serious it must been to set them off weeping. Yet when girls cry, it is a mark of their weakness and their emotional natures, which we all knew were inherent anyway, and so they must not be taken seriously. Of course boys cry at the funerals of loved ones, at the birth of their new child – at rationally emotional moments – or even over football matches and this is encouraged and acceptable. Boys do not cry in meetings at work when they are over-tired, stressed and feel like their voice isn’t being listened to. Yet, girls who do so are humiliated by the process.
To be sensitive in this world is a hard thing to do. From the age of about 9 upwards, I, like most other boys, taught myself to repress the release of tears. As I get older I am learning again to shed a tear (and I haven’t found a way to be streaming tears yet – either in joy, laughter or pain). Art helps me do so, particularly those forms that are literally moving – films and poetry where the rhythm of the tragic moment in relation to the whole makes my eyes water in sympathy.