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.

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

Edited by Anthony and Ben Holden 
Simon & Schuster, 310 pages, $25
© ImageZoo/Corbis
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.
The collection has its biases. Anthony Holden is a journalist and biographer, his son a writer and film producer, and the men included are mostly writers, academics, actors and filmmakers. Most of them are English, as the editors are, and consequently the poems are mostly British in provenance: W.H. Auden and Thomas Hardy are the favorites; Philip Larkin isn't far behind.
The vast majority of the poems reprinted here are not, as the title might suggest, mawkish or melodramatic. The best are haunting. The novelist Alexander McCall Smith names Auden's rather enigmatic lyric about unanswerable questions, "If I Could Tell You": "If we should weep when clowns put on their show, / If we should stumble when musicians play, / Time will say nothing but I told you so." But it quickly becomes clear that much of one's emotional response depends on the circumstances in which a poem is encountered. The actor Patrick Stewart's choice of Edna St. Vincent Millay's admittedly wonderful "God's World" has less to do with Millay's lines themselves, it seems, than with the way the poem reminds him of seeing a New England autumn for the first time ("Lord, I do fear / Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year").
A few of the poems are moving in their own right, with or without explanation. I had never read Robert Graves's "The Cool Web," submitted by the literary scholar John Sutherland, a near-perfect four-stanza meditation on the human need to explain away what scares or delights us: "There's a cool web of language winds us in, / Retreat from too much joy or too much fear: / We grow sea-green at last and coldly die / In brininess and volubility." If you have never read Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," chosen here by the poet Paul Muldoon, be prepared.
Shakespeare's Sonnet 30 ("When to the sessions of sweet silent thought"), chosen by the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, isn't so wrenching as Jarrell's poem, but Mr. Bragg's short explanation makes the sonnet pierce to the heart. Shakespeare's reflections on the long-ago death of a friend remind Mr. Bragg "of my first wife, who took her life more than forty years ago. I feel as responsible, as guilty, and as ashamed now as I was then."
I defy anyone not to enjoy the Holdens' book: It's plain fun. But it has evangelistic potential as well. Two centuries ago our celebrities were not actors or singers but poets. Poetry has now all but disappeared from public life, with the consequence that we are cut off from an entire mode of thought—not unlike losing math or philosophy. Can it be revived? I don't know, but if a book full of lachrymose men can help, I'm for it.
—Mr. Swaim is writing a book on political language and public life.