Judi Dench, Yoko Ono, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Elena Ferrante: all incredibly strong women, and all with a shared ability – like most of us – to be moved to tears by a line of poetry.
These four women, along with 96 inspirational others, have shared the private stories behind the poems that get under their skin in a beautiful new book, Poems that Make Grown Women Cry, published in paperback today.
The perfect antidote to a long day in the office, that niggling feeling left over from an argument, or simply a quiet moment of solitude, the book is a unique collection of 100 poems that are alternately heartbreaking, inspiring, moving and powerful. It features works by Syliva Plath, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll and more, selected by incredible women including Olivia Colman, Germaine Greer, Annie Lennox and Vanessa Redgrave.
Here, Stylist.co.uk picks five of the most powerful poems, introduced by the women who never fail to be moved when they read them.
So, we’ll go no more a roving by Lord Byron
Selected by Judi Dench:
“My late husband Michael Williams and I used to do a lot of recitals, many of them with Robert Spencer. Halfway through the recital, Robert would recite this poem, and it always reduced me to tears, so much so that I was incapable of continuing the recital if it was my turn next. As a result, we changed the order so that Michael followed this particular piece and I had time to compose myself.”
Judi Dench is an acclaimed actress who has been hailed for both her work onstage and on screen. She has won an Academy Award, 10 BAFTAs and a record six Olivier Awards.
I took my Power in my Hand by Emily Dickinson
Selected by Elena Ferrante:
“At times I’ve read these lines as a reflection on women’s writing, at times as a symbol of any female venture. The first painful fact is that Dickinson has no models of her own sex to refer to, nothing, anyway, that has the aura of David. This is the source of the inevitable comparison with the male figure from the Bible. His hand is bigger, the Power at his disposal is bigger. As a result, Dickinson, in order to make an equivalent gesture, needs twice the boldness.
But what’s the use of being bolder? The woman who takes aim and throws her stone does not confront simply the Goliath of the youth with the slingshot: her Goliath is the entire world. Thus that throw can only be ineffectual, its sole victim the thrower.
And so we arrive at the wonderful last two lines. Is the Goliath of the audacious Emily ‘too large’ or is it that she is ‘too small’? That adjective, followed by the question mark, moves me. I wish all Emilys not to be small by nature, I wish they would just try, and try again, and so become large.”
Translation by Ann Goldstein
True to her belief that “books, once written, have no need of their authors”, the Naples-born writer Elena Ferrante has stayed resolutely out of public view.
I am by John Clare
Selected by Helen Pankhurst:
“I learnt this poem by heart as a young teenager, and it has stayed with me ever since, pulling at my heart strings like no other. One of the alternative titles to the poem is Written in a Northampton County Asylum. Despite the undertone of madness, it is one of the most lucid poems about sadness and loneliness I have ever come across. It also belies simplistic judgments about mental illness.
I love the imagery swirling around in the poem, often continued over several lines such as the ‘living sea of waking dreams’ which then becomes the ‘shipwreck of my life’s esteems’; the poignancy of some lines: ‘e’en (even) the dearest – that I loved the best / Are strange – nay, rather, stranger than the rest’. Then, after all the noise, the pain and angst, the last peaceful evocation – the poet is lying down and looking up: ‘the grass below; above, the vaulted sky’, a ‘vaulted sky’… just beautiful.”
Helen Pankhurst is a women’s rights activist and senior advisor to CARE International, based in UK and Ethiopia. She is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Syliva Pankhurst, leaders of the British suffragette movement.
When you Are Old by W.B. Yeats
Selected by Mariella Frostrup:
“Once upon a time my interest in poetry was spurred entirely by my heartbeat. Unrequited passions and illicit desires were the heightened emotions that sped me toward poets who I felt could say precisely and concisely what I was feeling but failing to articulate. Back then, in the days when the prospect of a grey hair, let alone a headful, was both abhorrent and unimaginable, Yeats’s poem was a curiosity, a glimpse into a world as alien to me as the planets silently spinning in the cosmos.
Now, many decades later, he speaks directly to my secret soul, the dignity of his enduring emotion stirring romantic impulses buried deep. Some of us are slow learners when it comes to recognising love that is nourishing and good, that smooths life’s path instead of making it more tumultuous. I looked in all the wrong places for all the wrong things for a very long time, and then one day I stumbled on someone who brought Yeats’s poem to life.
I wish I could spare my own daughter my circuitous route to romantic fulfilment. If I could pass on one thing, it would simply be to find a partner who she can imagine quoting these few short lines to her and meaning them.”
Mariella Frostrup is a Norwegian-born broadcaster and journalist who hosts BBC Radio 4’s Open Book and has penned her Observer agony column for more than a decade.
Facing West from California’s Shores by Walt Whitman
Selected by Irma Kurtz:
“Wanderlust is a serious affliction of the soul which was transported to America by the early settlers. As the condition of Wanderlust was passed down through the generations it became weaker; however when I was at university in the 1950s the travel bug was still up and kicking, sailing and hitch-hiking, if not yet flying absolutely everywhere. It so happens, mine was the same university attended by Jack Kerouac and others who were attacked by Wanderlust. To hit the road can appease the condition only as long as the journey lasts, for to this day no matter how alluring born travellers imagine their unknown destination to be, it is the journey itself that drives them.
When I read Walt Whitman’s poetry as a teenager, I did not know how close to my bone his music struck, not until a day in my early thirties when I found myself standing on a beach north of San Diego. Wanderlust, which used to send most Americans westward across their vast and varied land, had a decade earlier sent this young Yank perversely eastward, first all around Europe, settling briefly there and finally here, until in due course I journeyed to central and eastern Asia and then from Australia across the Pacific in what Americans would even now consider an eccentric route for one born on the east coast of their homeland to get herself to California for the very first time.
There in the fireworks of a Pacific sunset I took a paperback copy of selections from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass out of my bag; it fell open to the poem Facing West from California’s Shores. I wept to read it then. And it brings tears to my eyes whenever I read it now that I am drawing close to the end of the journey.”
Irma Kurtz has been the agony aunt of Cosmopolitan since 1973 and has written three self-help manuals, three travel books, two novels and a memoir.