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The poems that make grown men cry

Today we're part of the launch of a new poetry anthology, in whose publication Amnesty has been closely involved.

The title - Poems that make grown men cry - sums it up, really. A hundred men, all very successful in their fields, have each nominated a poem that brings them to tears. And then they say why it has this effect. A simple concept that reveals unexpectedly personal feelings. And there are lots of reasons for Amnesty’s involvement.

The power of poetry

Poetry as an art form almost certainly predates literacy. Early poets must have performed their work - using the power of its tight structure, rhythms and cadences to stir their listeners, but also to lodge words in their memories. Poetry still touches hearts and minds, even in our digital world.

Poets rely on the human right to freedom of expression, but throughout history they have been amongst the first targeted by repressive governments - presumably because of their power to stir emotions and liberate ideas.

In fact, one of Amnesty’s first prisoners of conscience was the Angolan poet Dr Agostinho Neto. He suffered terrible brutality at the hands of the ruling Portuguese authorities before becoming the first President of Angola.

Jailed poets

But you can’t jail minds and being in prison isn’t much of a poetry deterrent. By contrast, many prisoners turn to it for comfort in their darkest of times.

Guantanamo detainees inscribed poems on polystyrene cups in the days before they were allowed paper. Malawian Jack Mapanje used his malaria tablets to write poems on the floor of his cell.

Soviet prisoner poet Irena Ratuschinskaya scratched verses onto bars of soap with a pin or the burnt end of a matchstick, memorised them and then washed them off. Realising Irina was desperate for paper, her husband wrote her abusive letters that he knew would be delivered, concentrating his messages into a small square that left a large blank margin for her to write.

‘All great poems are about each one of us’
Melvyn Bragg

Perhaps more than other writers, poets tend to pay minutely close attention to their subject matter. By using intimate details to express universal truths, they make us feel ‘that could be me’. The poet’s insights are transmitted to the reader. It’s a two-way creative process that liberates and enlightens both parties and it lies at the crux of why our human right to freedom of expression is so important.

Poetry and equality

Poems that Make Grown Men Cry might be accused of sexism because it deliberately excludes women contributors (apart from Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, who wrote the afterword). Others may mock the very idea of men crying over poetry. But this is another reason why we at Amnesty are interested in it.

The underlying concept addresses head-on the cliché that women are more emotional (or weaker) than men. The contributions are all written by successful, influential men who admit to crying. Many share deeply personal insights and experiences, all provoked by poetry. Their emotional honesty is a healthy contrast to the behaviour that most societies expect of men. We know that bottling up emotions can lead to aggression.

Gender stereotyping is dangerous because it represses ability and ambition, it encourages discrimination and it upholds social inequalities that are a root cause of violence. We hope that this anthology will encourage boys, in particular, to know that crying (and poetry) isn’t just for girls.

Writing poetry—or responding to it—happens because people care.

And it’s our capacity for caring that underpins our human rights. Individuals who care have real power to make a difference. Poems that Make Grown Men Cry is emblematic of the human struggle to make a difference. 

You can see for the poems for yourself by getting a copy of the book, out today, from the Amnesty shop.

We brought together a host of eminent men to read poems from our new book. Watch Poems That Make Grown Men Cry at the National Theatre.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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