Just What the Doctor Ordered – Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

New Anthology Causing a Lot of Tears!

This New Anthology Is Causing a Lot of Tears!


If I break my leg, I’ll go to a doctor, If I break my heart or of the world breaks my spirit, I will go to a poet.

Jeanette Winterson, The Times, January 2007

It has an attention grabber title: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. And happily for readers the title lives up to its billing on the inside of this anthology of poems chosen by men solely for their tear-inducing qualities. Just released in early April, this collection is already garnering a lot of attention and rave reviews including an interview with the collection’s father and son team Anthony and Ben Holden on CBC radio’s Tapestry program.

For those of us who consider poetry a vital ingredient for an emotionally robust and healthy life it is not a surprise what an impact these poems make. How important they are. But for others this book might be a life-enriching revelation.

Yes, there are some, dare I say, “old chestnuts” in this collection but none unworthy of this attention I am glad to say! But the delightful surprise is the unfamiliar (at least to me) new chestnuts” chosen by the eclectic list of luminaries (largely writers, actors and others in the movie biz) invited to submit their pick for these “salt water” distinction awards!

The poem that really surprised me in this collection was picked by British actor Colin Firth. In a collection dominated by male poets I am happy to say it’s by a young woman, Emily Zinnemann. I had never heard of her before and from what I can see on-line she has not yet published a book. I hope the inclusion of her poem in this volume will change that! Here’s her exquisitely crafted poem:

Regarding the Home of One’s Childhood, One Could:
forget the plum tree;
forget its black-skinned plums;

           also the weight
           of their leaning as they leaned

                      over starry hedges:
                                  also the hedges,
                                  the dew that turned them starry;
                                               the wet-bellied pups who slunk there

                                               trailing ludicrous pedigrees;
                                                            even the eyes

                                                            of birds


                                                            in the branches;
                                                            even the branches

Emily Zinnemann from
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden, Simon & Shuster, 2014

On the salt-water scale this poem is not as obviously gut-wrenching as many in this collection but for its subtle tone and the masterful use of the ambiguous “one could” it conjures its own heart-break – how one could, and many of us do, forget the sights that thrilled our childhood eyes, our beginner’s eyes – eyes that in adulthood grow too accustomed to the world’s wonder, its beauty.

But this poem grabs me for another less obvious reason; a reason that makes this collection a stand out. It is the brief commentary each poem picker makes on their selection. These, more often than not, deeply personal and poignant comments makes this book so much more than a typical anthology. The obvious impact of the poem on its picker is like gasoline thrown on a fire – it makes the fire leap higher and the heat hotter inside each poem. The high profile of each of the picker’s doesn’t hurt either.

Which brings me back to Colin Firth. Ironically, his comments are less emotionally revealing than many of the others and it’s what he doesn’t say that adds such poignancy for me. Firth doesn’t say who Emily is. But her poem was no random pick as I discovered when I searched for her on-line.

Zinnemann is the oldest daughter of Canadian American actress Meg Tilly. And Firth lived with Tilly in a log cabin outside Vancouver for almost five years and they had a son together – Will, Emily’s half brother. I wonder, is Emily referring to memories when Firth lived with her mother? But whether or not this is the case I so appreciate Firth taking the risk to share Emily’s poem regardless of the personal connection. It stands up as an equal in great company with the likes of Auden, Larkin, Tagore, Heaney, Hardy, Bishop, Dickenson, Owen, Oliver, Walcott, Collins and many other greats. No mean feat.

It is not surprising based on the title that all the poem pickers in the volume are men. More surprising is that almost all of their picks were poems by male poets. The lack of poems by women in the collection is being noted in reviews and one reviewer was quick to point out a similar volume is being prepared with poems by women!

I need to confess I am not the crying type when it comes to poems but I sure can get chills up and down my spine when reading them. I could add many picks of my own by women and men that give me the chills! Three by favorite women poets that would stand out for me would be, Fear of Snakes by Canadian poet Lorna Crozier, Manners, Rwanda by American poet Jane Hirschfield and When My Brother Was an Aztec, by American poet Natalie Diaz. Standouts by men would include three poems by the late American poet, Jack Gilbert: Finding Something, Michiko Dead and Married.

Reader advisory: make no mistake: this anthology is no mere intellectual exercise: the book short-circuits elaborate intellectual defences and allows beleaguered feelings to go free. Which of course is one of the great gifts of poetry. So often by feeling the feelings inside a great poem we can acknowledge our own. The American poet Gregory Orr says it so well in his classic book Poetry as Survival:

Whenever I read a poem that moves me, I know I’m not alone in the world. I feel a connection to the person who wrote it, knowing that he or she has gone through something similar to what I’ve experienced, or felt something like what I have felt…. The gift of their poem enters deeply into me and helps me live and believe in living.

And the acclaimed British writer Jeanette Winterson whose trenchant quote introduces this blog goes even further in another quote on the healing impact of art: The healing power of art is not a rhetorical fantasy… I know of no pain that art cannot assuage. For some, music, for some, pictures, for me, primarily, poetry…..cuts through noise and hurt, opens the wound to heal it, and then gradually teaches it to heal itself. For proof of this one needs to go any further than the pages of Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.

I was not familiar with Sir Richard Rogers the British architect whose firm is renowned for legacy buildings such as the Centres Georges Pompidou in Paris. His son died suddenly and Rogers and his wife Ruthie went to Venice during the winter on what would have been their son’s 28th birthday. A highlight during this time was an afternoon spent with their friend the British poet Craig Raine and his wife. Out of that time Raine wrote a poem for Ruthie. A poem that Rogers says, without apology, makes me cry.

For Ruthie Rogers in Venice

Shoulders to cry on,
there mooring posts,
trios leaning together
supporting each other:
in grief and inconsolable.

Mooring post tapering to blunt black
like a child’s lost crayons

The endless wash
of salt water
See-through, threadbare, worn,

These great fogs like ghosts
in slow flight from another slaughter.

The horse cries of fog horns,
lost in their loss,
with no way back,
and the world gone white
in a single night.

Craig Raine from Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, ibid.

There are many salt-water gems in this book. It deserves a wide reading. Prepare to have your heart broken and in that breaking, have it heal. When I read the poems here that deal with war, injustice, joy, death and grief I can only echo part of the last line of a poem by the British poet Robin Robinson, chosen by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid:

and this is it: true life.


  1. Posted April 29, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this Richard! I remember an exchange of letters between Emily Zinneman and Meg Tilly a couple of years ago on Huffington Post. Meg was concerned that she moved her daughter around a lot as a child and Emily was saying everything was just fine and not to worry. (At least that’s my memory of it as I’ve had the same concerns about upheaval in my children’s lives and like to think everything is just fine.)

  2. Richard
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Thanks back at you M-A. I saw that exchange between Emily and Meg on-line. Strange how the net can bring us, at times, intimacies of others as a gift not an over-share. In all this these celebrities become more human and fragile like the rest of us. Firth supporting his former partner’s daughter. Something sweet about that! Best, R

  3. Rosemary
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Oh, yes. There have been so many well deserved reviews of this book, but this is the one from a place of heart and spirit.
    Thank you.

  4. Richard
    Posted April 30, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Dear Rosemary: Deep down thanks! The poetry that matters always engages the heart and spirit. At least that’s my take on it! Best, Richard

  5. Liz
    Posted May 19, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of the session I did at Skagit with Haas, Rose and Austen; “how poetry helps us live our lives”. How could we live our lives well without it? I especially thank you for the Raine poem for Rogers – you know the reason why.

  6. Richard
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Don’t think I could live my life well without it! ANd I do know the reason why. Blessings to you.

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