Medical Tuesday Blog
The Bookshelf By Barton Swaim, WSJ
Book Review: ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry,’ edited by Anthony and Ben Holden
You don’t need a degree in creative writing to be brought to tears by verse.
Terry George, the Irish screenwriter and director, chokes up whenever he reads Seamus Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies.” The sonnet is an acutely condensed retelling of the 1798 Irish rebellion, a series of battles in which an army of mostly peasants—”the pockets of our greatcoats full of barley”—tried to throw off British rule. He’s right; the last three lines, recalling the rebellion’s final battle on June 21, catch in the throat:
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave,
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August . . . the barley grew up out of our grave.
Mr. George is one of the 100 men Anthony and Ben Holden queried for their anthology of “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.” The editors aren’t trying to make the case for poetry—perhaps a hopeless task in our time—but the book does it anyway. Poetry, so easily assumed to be merely weird self-expression since the death of rhyme and meter, isn’t that at all: It’s the arrangement of language into rhythmical structures to make it say what it can’t say otherwise. The Holdens remind us that you don’t have to be an academic or a postgraduate in creative writing to be moved by verse. Or, indeed, brought to tears by it.
The editor Harold Evans couldn’t fight them back reading Wordsworth’s “Character of the Happy Warrior” at a colleague’s funeral. The critic Clive James sheds them for his parents at “Canoe” by Keith Douglas. The novelist Sebastian Faulks cries over Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” (a marvelous poem—though not, I would have thought, one likely to induce tears). Despite the slight hokeyness of the whole idea, the overall effect is to make excellent poetry seem like what it is: a wholly accessible language with its own range of expression and its own pleasures. . .
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