A father-and-son editing team has compiled a new anthology in which 100 prominent male figures reveal the lines that make them cry
The cover of a new collection of poetry should probably carry a sticker bearing Shakespeare's warning: "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry is an anthology of some of the most emotive lines in literature chosen by 100 famous and admired men, ranging from Daniel Radcliffe to Nick Cave, John le Carré and Jonathan Franzen. Published next month and edited by the journalist and biographer Anthony Holden and his film-producer son, Ben, the book is winning praise for introducing male readers to unfamiliar works – and emotions.
Contributor Simon Schama has tweeted enthusing about his choice, WH Auden's Lullaby, the poem that opens with the words "Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm." Auden turns out to be the overall winner in this unusual competition to bring men to tears with the power of a pen. He has been selected five times for different poems in the anthology.
In joint second place come Thomas Hardy, AE Housman and Philip Larkin.
Many of the poems are about the loss of a child or parent. Speaking last week on BBC Radio 4's Midweek programme, Professor John Carey revealed he found his own choice, Ben Jonson's farewell poem to his dead child, On My First Sonne, "impossible to read without breaking down at the early moment where the poet appears to turn to speak to his son with the words, "My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy."
Promoting the book for publisher Simon & Schuster, its father-and-son editing team have spoken of their occasional editorial disagreements. Should they include song lyrics, they wondered, when an astronaut asked to include the words of a song from a West End musical? Father said no. But when it came to including lines from James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness novel Finnegan's Wake, chosen by an American contributor, both editors were initially unsure, then gave in. Although the contributors to the anthology are all men, there are more than a dozen poems by women in the collection, as well as an essay by the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, who has said: "Everyone who reads this collection will be roused: disturbed by the pain, exalted in the zest for joy given by poets."
Carey has suggested that he may have become more susceptible to emotion with age, but Holden said he has always cried over the literature he loves, although this is no guarantee, he admits, that he is a nice person.
The book is designed to raise money for Amnesty International as well as to break down traditional ideas of "manhood" as an emotion-free zone. "Gender stereotyping is dangerous because it represses ability and ambition, encourages discrimination and upholds social inequalities that are often a root cause of violence," said Kate Allen, the British director of the charity. "We hope that this anthology will encourage boys, in particular, to know that crying – and poetry – isn't just for girls."
Holden has expressed surprise that his own favourites – the metaphysical poets, John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell – have not been picked by any of the contributors. He would have chosen Donne's romantic and philosophical reverie The Good Morrow, he said, that begins, "I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I Did till we loved … "
His son, who produced the film The Woman in Black and whose next horror film, The Quiet Ones, will be released on the same day as the poetry collection, would have chosen C Day Lewis's poignant words in Walking Away, a father's poem about the heavy act of letting one's child go out, unprotected, into the world.
The launch of the collection will be celebrated at the National Theatre on 29 April, when contributors including Melvyn Bragg, Ian McEwan and Simon Russell Beale will read their selected poems. Among those praising the idea of the book are former newspaper editor Harold Evans, actor Simon Callow and the novelist Maggie Gee, who said she was intrigued to hear that there might be a second volume in which women are invited to choose a moving poem.
"It would be something about the loss of the child for women, too, but also anything about self-sacrifice. I also wonder whether women might not choose novels over poems in preference. If I chose a poem, I would go for Philip Larkin's Dublinesque, with its final lines about the prostitutes at a funeral mourning the death of a woman called Kitty: "As they wend away/ A voice is heard singing/ Of Kitty, or Katy/ As if the name meant once/ All love, all beauty."