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Looking for the Perfect Wedding Poem

By Camille Dungy

My friends are having a public marriage ceremony soon, and they’ve asked for help choosing a poem for their special day. I’ve put forward several options already, but I’m curious what suggestions the Harriet community might have.


The couple married in a small civil ceremony on June 17th, during the short window before the passage of Prop 8. The forthcoming event will be their public, religious ceremony, a chance for friends and family to witness their vows. Given the mixture of solemnity and celebration such an occasion will foster, we all think poetry can play a special role.
One poem I’ve suggested is “Crossing Over” by William Meredith. The poem begins:
That’s what love is like. The whole river
is melting. We skim along in great peril,
having to move faster than ice goes under
and still find foothold in the soft flow.
We are one another’s flow. Each displaces the weight
of his own need…
Another possibility is “To Be in Love” by Gwendolyn Brooks. I can’t get this program to honor Brooks’ formatting, but poem begins with these words:
To be in love
Is to touch things with a lighter hand.
In yourself you stretch, you are well.
You look at things
Through his eyes.
A Cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
You know you are tasting together
The winter, or light spring weather…
Each of these poems speaks to the highs and lows of a life lived in love. The poems are hopeful and romantic, but not hopelessly romantic. They are realistic, and so reflect the realism of a couple who’ve been together nearly 10 years and whose commitment is under legal and cultural fire every day.
I’ve also recommended sections of Mark McMorris’ long epithalamion , “The Blaze of Poui”:
Tell me in short, Love, what is a wedding?
A wedding is at once a crowded place
and a private room, packed with trusts
and empty of all but the heart’s letters…
A wedding is earth and water
and a species of irreducible light
and the flat belly of a harbor
and a mango about to ripen and fall into gravity’s caress
and the waves subsiding
and resuming their concerto in a minor key
and the rush hour canceled by the stun of auspicious beginnings…
It appears that McMorris enjoyed writing this poem. It’s full of exciting variety in terms of tone and tempo, the texture of its language, detail. The poem’s variety speaks to the exciting changes a couple can look forward to experiencing during their lives together.
I’ve enjoyed asking my poet friends what they would have read if they were planning their weddings again. Patrick Donnelly suggested another William Meredith poem, “Accidents of Birth,” as well as Jack Gilbert’s “What Is There To Say?” Dan Bellm, suggested “Looking at Each Other” from Muriel Rukeyser’s book Breaking Open.
Now, I’m curious to know what you would suggest.

Comments (26)

  • On March 5, 2009 at 7:16 am Mairead wrote:

    This poem may have one too many specifics (the country, June) for general use, but it’s one of my favorites, so I thought I’d share regardless:
    [As if I craved error, as if love was ahistorical]
    Claudia Rankine
    As if I craved error, as if love was ahistorical,
    I came to live in a country not at first my own
    and here came to love a man not stopped by reticence.
    And because it seemed right
    love of this man would look like freedom,
    the lone expanse of his back
    would be found land, I turned,
    as a brown field turns, suddenly grown green,
    for this was the marriage waited for: the man
    desiring as I, movement toward mindful and yet.
    It was June, brilliant. The sun higher than God.
    *
    I ditto the Jack Gilbert recommendation, though, & thanks for sharing your own suggestions! I hadn’t read them before & they’re lovely.

  • On March 5, 2009 at 7:23 am Andrew wrote:

    hi camille–i found a great one on the poetry foundation’s poetry tool by gary snyder called “a maul for bill and cindy’s wedding.” it’s really lovely, and a well-wishing poem. also, reginald shephard’s “you, therefore” is almost a little bit distant but towards the end really shines immensely.

  • On March 5, 2009 at 8:03 am C. Dale wrote:

    My partner and I had our religious ceremony at a vineyard in Sonoma a few years ago. The poems in our ceremony included Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke With You” and this poem, “Tree Marriage,” by William Meredith:
    TREE MARRIAGE
    In Chota Nagpur and Bengal
    the betrothed are tied with threads to
    mango trees, they marry the trees
    as well as one another, and
    the two trees marry each other.
    Could we do that some time with oaks
    or beeches? This gossamer we
    hold each other with, this web
    of love and habit is not enough.
    In mistrust of heavier ties,
    I would like tree-siblings for us,
    standing together somewhere, two
    trees married with us, lightly, their
    fingers barely touching in sleep,
    our threads invisible but holding.

  • On March 5, 2009 at 9:12 am Jordan wrote:

    Gregory Corso’s poem is ok for a certain kind of wedding.
    I read selections from George Herbert’s collection of proverbs at my sister’s reception. It seemed to go well.
    I’ve never heard of anyone reading Spenser’s Epithalamion at a ceremony, reception, or anywhere else, actually.
    If you want to destroy the event and cast the future of the couple in gloom, Marianne Moore’s poem “Marriage” is just the thing. (Oops!)

  • On March 5, 2009 at 9:47 am Don Share wrote:

    “In Love Made Visible” by May Swenson
    Sonnet XVII by Neruda, trans. Stephen Mitchell

  • On March 5, 2009 at 10:50 am james stotts wrote:

    ‘on st. valentine’s’
    by some ungenerous guess i took you for perfect
    when i took you for better or worse
    and the nature i so readily accepted
    in february’s shapeshifting rains
    i still somehow neglected—
    that you should yourself be like those floating seeds
    drifting toward the spring
    falling earthward as you gather dew
    but the consequence was plain
    that i should also be enlightened when i married you

  • On March 5, 2009 at 11:16 am Sandra Beasley wrote:

    For a giddier, less formal wedding I recommend this poem by Jeffrey McDaniel, from his book THE SPLINTER FACTORY:
    The Archipelago Of Kisses
    We live in a modern society. Husbands and wives don’t
    grow on trees, like in the old days. So where
    does one find love? When you’re sixteen it’s easy,
    like being unleashed with a credit card
    in a department store of kisses. There’s the first kiss.
    The sloppy kiss. The peck.
    The sympathy kiss. The backseat smooch. The we
    shouldn’t be doing this kiss. The but your lips
    taste so good kiss. The bury me in an avalanche of tingles kiss.
    The I wish you’d quit smoking kiss.
    The I accept your apology, but you make me really mad
    sometimes kiss. The I know
    your tongue like the back of my hand kiss. As you get
    older, kisses become scarce. You’ll be driving
    home and see a damaged kiss on the side of the road,
    with its purple thumb out. If you
    were younger, you’d pull over, slide open the mouth’s
    red door just to see how it fits. Oh where
    does one find love? If you rub two glances, you get a smile.
    Rub two smiles, you get a warm feeling.
    Rub two warm feelings and presto-you have a kiss.
    Now what? Don’t invite the kiss over
    and answer the door in your underwear. It’ll get suspicious
    and stare at your toes. Don’t water the kiss with whiskey.
    It’ll turn bright pink and explode into a thousand luscious splinters,
    but in the morning it’ll be ashamed and sneak out of
    your body without saying good-bye,
    and you’ll remember that kiss forever by all the little cuts it left
    on the inside of your mouth. You must
    nurture the kiss. Turn out the lights. Notice how it
    illuminates the room. Hold it to your chest
    and wonder if the sand inside hourglasses comes from a
    special beach. Place it on the tongue’s pillow,
    then look up the first recorded kiss in an encyclopedia: beneath
    a Babylonian olive tree in 1200 B.C.
    But one kiss levitates above all the others. The
    intersection of function and desire. The I do kiss.
    The I’ll love you through a brick wall kiss.
    Even when I’m dead, I’ll swim through the Earth,
    like a mermaid of the soil, just to be next to your bones.
    –Jeffrey McDaniel
    …He’d probably kill me for labeling this a “wedding poem,” but so it goes!
    Cheers,
    Sandra Beasley
    Washington, DC

  • On March 5, 2009 at 11:46 am Don Share wrote:

    Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the handy list of Poetry Tool wedding poems!

  • On March 5, 2009 at 12:09 pm Jana wrote:

    If you’d like a touch of formal verse, this lovely poem by Christina Rossetti might do:
    “I wish I could remember that first day”
    BY CHRISTINA ROSSETTI
    Era gia l’ora che volge il desio. – Dante
    Ricorro al tempo ch’io vi vidi prima. – Petrarca
    I wish I could remember that first day,
    First hour, first moment of your meeting me,
    If bright or dim the season, it might be
    Summer or Winter for aught I can say;
    So unrecorded did it slip away,
    So blind was I to see and to foresee,
    So dull to mark the budding of my tree
    That would not blossom yet for many a May.
    If only I could recollect it, such
    A day of days! I let it come and go
    As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;
    It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;
    If only now I could recall that touch,
    First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!

  • On March 5, 2009 at 12:56 pm Matt T. wrote:

    Hi Camille,
    Lots of great suggestions here. I would also suggest a classic no one’s mentioned yet, Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose.” The meaning is timeless, and the “bonny lass” bit could be subtley reworded, if necessary (I can’t tell from your post whether your friends are women or men).
    And to echo Don’s suggestion, I read Neruda’s “Sonnet XVII” at a friend’s wedding and it went over very well.
    The anthology “Into the Garden,” edited by Robert Hass and Stephen Mitchell, is a good place to look for wedding poems.
    With best wishes for the happy couple,
    Matthew Thorburn

  • On March 5, 2009 at 3:36 pm Paul wrote:

    “Double Happiness Helix” by Paul Squires.

  • On March 5, 2009 at 7:01 pm Rob Taylor wrote:

    My pick – in the short and somewhat sweet category – would be another Rukeyser poem, “Islands”: “O for God’s sake / they are connected / underneath”. I was married last summer and planned to print it on our bulletins for the church service, but didn’t have the room…

  • On March 5, 2009 at 7:46 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Camille, as an extension of my last post, I was thinking about doing a reading of an occasional poem by George Johnston. (I believe Annie was curious about seeing one of his occasional poems.) I have a feeling, though, I’ll probably just read one of Johnston’s non-occasional poems instead, since there’s one poem I’ve been thinking about for awhile, but here are the last two verse paragraphs of Johnston’s “A Marriage Poem for Peg and John”. Perhaps the title’s specificity reduces the poem’s utility, but the end is still lovely:
    Married life is what
    one makes it; there is luck,
    blissful times – and not,
    thin and thick,
    just sitting it out;
    all part of the life.
    May you make the lot.
    May Content alight,
    that sly comer
    whose look bemuses pain;
    may he preen his wing
    and sing
    and sing again,
    and as the years narrow
    against oncoming night,
    his golden, late note.
    Alas, Harriet messes up the indentation (lines 3-6 from the first vp and lines 2-3 and 7-8 from the 2nd vp all share an indented margin).

  • On March 6, 2009 at 10:25 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    Camille, I tried to post my poem “Let’s Marae!” but I guess Harriet doesn’t want to post it -whatever- but if you click on my name below, it’s a link to the poem, which I wrote last summer when everyone was getting married in CA.

  • On March 6, 2009 at 10:59 am aimee nezhukumatathil wrote:

    Hi Camille–Not sure if your friends are writers or not, but my husband and I used this one in our wedding program, by Linda Pastan:
    Love Poem
    I want to write you
    a love poem as headlong
    as our creek
    after thaw
    when we stand
    on its dangerous
    banks and watch it carry
    with it every twig
    every dry leaf and branch
    in its path
    every scruple
    when we see it
    so swollen
    with runoff
    that even as we watch
    we must grab
    each other
    and step back
    we must grab each
    other or
    get our shoes
    soaked we must
    grab each other
    Linda Pastan

  • On March 6, 2009 at 11:18 am Annie FInch wrote:

    Fun question! Glen and I used John Donne”s “Good Morrow” at our wedding, but altered the final lines to include a passage from “On His Mistress Going to Bed.” Since then, I’ve written “A Wedding on Earth,” in CALENDARS, which I would use now if we were going to be married again (who knows, we might!!) Hope it’s a great occasion, Camille!

  • On March 6, 2009 at 12:58 pm Zachariah Wells wrote:

    I tried to post “Barbed Wire,” a poem by the late Richard Outram, but it seems to have been deemed unacceptable.
    Here’s the url for the poem, along with a brief essay I wrote about it:
    http://www.arcpoetry.ca/howpoemswork/features/2006_10_wells.php

  • On March 6, 2009 at 2:15 pm thomas brady wrote:

    I do think the Jefrey McDaniel poem is a “wedding poem,” the way he elevates the ‘I Do kiss’ at the end.
    Love the Christina Rossetti!!
    There’s an anthology called ‘To Woo and to Wed’ by the poet Michael Blumenthal. Anybody seen that? It was published about 20 years ago.

  • On March 6, 2009 at 2:59 pm Martha wrote:

    I’ve always loved this one:
    A Birthday
    W.S. Merwin

    Something continues and     I don't know what to call it
    though the language is full of suggestions
    in the way of language
    but they are all anonymous
    and it's almost your birthday     music next to my bones
    these nights we hear the horses     running in the rain
    it stops and the moon comes out     and we are still here
    the leaks in the roof go on dripping     after the rain has passed
    smell of ginger flowers     slips through the dark house
    down near the sea     the slow heart of the beacon flashes
    the long way to you is still tied to me     but it brought me to you
    I keep wanting to give you     what is already yours
    it is the morning     of the mornings together
    breath of summer     oh my found one
    the sleep in the same current     and each waking to you
    when I open my eyes     you are what I wanted to see.
  • On March 6, 2009 at 6:24 pm Camille Dungy wrote:

    Wow! I’ve enjoyed being introduced to several poems I didn’t know and to see several I love. I’ve always adored that Pastan poem Aimee suggested, for instance. And my dear read me the Rossetti poem this morning thanks to Jana’s post. It’s never a bad thing to have a familiar love poem read to you while you’re scrambling the morning eggs.
    What a great outpouring of suggestions. Keep them coming! I’m sure there are plenty of people who would be interested in hearing even more of the Harriet community favorites.

  • On March 7, 2009 at 11:49 am john wrote:

    Friends of mine were getting married and asked me to sing at the ceremony.
    “What would you like me to sing?”
    “Anything you want.”
    Gulp.
    I’d always wanted to set this Dickinson poem to music, and their invitation gave me inspiration. I am very pleased to be able to say that it seemed to fit the ceremony. I love love love how Dickinson never names what “this” is.
    It’s all I have to bring today –
    This, and my heart beside –
    This, and my heart, and all the fields –
    And all the meadows wide –
    Be sure you count — should I forget
    Some one the sum could tell –
    This, and my heart, and all the Bees
    Which in the Clover dwell.

  • On March 7, 2009 at 6:51 pm Mary Ann wrote:

    Another Jack Gilbert poem, which a friend used at his wedding, is “The Abnormal Is Not Courage.”

  • On March 10, 2009 at 5:42 am Sarah Browning wrote:

    Here are ones I’ve recommended to friends in the past, below. Read the Swenson at one ceremony and it was a big hit. Fun project!
    Love Is
    a rain of diamonds
    in the mind
    the soul’s fruit
    sliced in two
    a dark spring
    loosed at the lips of light
    under-earth waters
    unlocked from their lurking
    to sparkle in a crevice
    parted by the sun
    a temple
    not of stone but cloud
    beyond the heart’s roar
    and all violence
    outside the anvil-stunned domain
    unfrenzied space
    between the grains of change
    blue permanence
    one short step
    to the good ground
    the bite into bread again
    – May Swenson
    Variations on the Word Sleep
    I would like to watch you sleeping.
    I would like to watch you,
    sleeping. I would like to sleep
    with you, to enter
    your sleep as its smooth dark wave
    slides over my head
    and walk with you through that lucent
    wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
    with its watery sun & three moons
    towards the cave where you must descend,
    towards your worst fear
    I would like to give you the silver
    branch, the small white flower, the one
    word that will protect you
    from the grief at the center
    of your dream, from the grief
    at the center. I would like to follow
    you up the long stairway
    again & become
    the boat that would row you back
    carefully, a flame
    in two cupped hands
    to where your body lies
    beside me, and you enter
    it as easily as breathing in
    I would like to be the air
    that inhabits you for a moment
    only. I would like to be that unnoticed
    & that necessary.
    – Margaret Atwood
    To Drink
    I want to gather your darkness
    in my hands, to cup it like water
    and drink.
    I want this in the same way
    as I want to touch your cheek –
    it is the same –
    the way a moth will come
    to the bedroom window in late September,
    beating and beating its wings against cold glass;
    the way a horse will lower
    his long head to water, and drink,
    and pause to lift his head and look,
    and drink again,
    taking everything in with the water,
    everything.
    – Jane Hirshfield
    Love Should Grow Up Like a Wild Iris in the Fields
    Love should grow up like a wild iris in the fields,
    unexpected, after a terrible storm, opening a purple
    mouth to the rain, with not a thought to the future,
    ignorant of the grass and the graveyard of leaves
    around, forgetting its own beginning. Love should
    grow like a wild iris
    but does not.
    Love more often is to be found in kitchens at the dinner hour,
    tired out and hungry, lingers over tables in houses where
    the walls record movements, while the cook is probably angry,
    and the ingredients of the meal are budgeted, while
    a child cries feed me now and her mother not quite
    hysterical says over and over, wait just a bit, just a bit,
    love should grow up in the fields like a wild iris
    but never does
    really startle anyone, was to be expected, was to be
    predicted, is almost absurd, goes on from day to day, not quite
    blindly, gets taken to the cleaners every fall, sings old
    songs over and over, and falls on the same piece of rug that
    never gets tacked down, gives up, wants to hide, is not
    brave, knows too much, is not like an
    iris growing wild but more like
    staring into space
    in the street
    not quite sure
    which door it was, annoyed about the sidewalk being
    slippery, trying all the doors, thinking
    if love wished the world to be well, it would be well.
    Love should
    grow up like a wild iris, but doesn’t, it comes from
    the midst of everything else, sees like the iris
    of an eye, when the light is right,
    feels in blindness and when there is nothing else is
    tender, blinks, and opens face up to the skies.
    – Susan Griffin
    Love Sonnet LXXXIX
    When I die, I want your hands on my eyes:
    I want the light and the wheat of your beloved hands
    to pass their freshness over me once more:
    I want to feel the softness that changed my destiny.
    I want you to live while I wait for you, asleep.
    I want your ears still to hear the wind, I want you
    to sniff the sea’s aroma that we loved together,
    to continue to walk on the sand we walk on.
    I want what I love to continue to live,
    and you whom I love and sang above everything else
    to continue to flourish, full-flowered:
    so that you can reach everything my love directs you to,
    so that my shadow can travel along in your hair,
    so that everything can learn the reason for my song.
    – Pablo Neruda
    Sonnet XVII
    I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
    or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
    I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
    in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
    I love you as the plant that never blooms
    but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
    thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
    risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
    I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
    I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
    so I love you because I know no other way
    than this: where I does not exist, or you,
    so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
    so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
    – Pablo Neruda

  • On March 12, 2009 at 9:21 am Wyn Cooper wrote:

    My wife and I used an untitled Philip Larkin poem. Part of the fun of using it was telling people we were going to use a Larkin poem, and when they asked which one, I would answer “This Be the Verse.” Which, of course, is what they were afraid of.
    Is it for now or for always,
    The world hangs on a stalk?
    Is it a trick or a trysting-place,
    The woods we have found to walk?
    Is it a mirage or a miracle,
    Your lips that lift at mine:
    And the suns like a juggler’s juggling-balls,
    Are they a sham or a sign?
    Shine out, my sudden angel,
    Break fear with breast and brow,
    I take you now and for always,
    For always is always now.

  • On March 12, 2009 at 4:19 pm Diane K. Martin wrote:

    This is what my husband (godfather) read at our niece’s wedding:
    The Master Speed
    Robert Frost
    No speed of wind or water rushing by
    But you have speed far greater. You can climb
    Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
    And back through history up the stream of time.
    And you were given this swiftness, not for haste,
    Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
    But in the rush of everything to waste,
    That you may have the power of standing still —
    Off any still or moving thing you say.
    Two such as you with such a master speed
    Cannot be parted nor be swept away
    From one another once you are agreed
    That life is only life forevermore
    Together wing to wing and oar to oar.
    We also liked Roethe’s:
    The Manifestation
    Many arrivals make us live: the tree becoming
    Green, a bird tipping the topmost bough,
    A seed pushing itself beyond itself,
    The mole making its way through darkest ground,
    The worm, intrepid scholar of the soil—
    Do these analogies perplex? A sky with clouds,
    The motion of the moon, and waves at play,
    A sea-wind pausing in a summer tree.
    What does what it should do needs nothing more.
    The body moves, though slowly, toward desire.
    We come to something without knowing why.
    And Atwood’s:
    Habitation
    Marriage is not
    a house or even a tent
    it is before that, and colder:
    The edge of the forest, the edge
    of the desert
    the unpainted stairs
    at the back where we squat
    outside, eating popcorn
    where painfully and with wonder
    at having survived even
    this far
    we are learning to make fire

  • On March 13, 2009 at 12:01 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Sarah Browning,
    You chose poems redolent with metaphor, overwhelmed with them, I’d say, so that I don’t believe any of them. The “love” is too intense in all of them, so that they almost sound like stalker poems. Has this something to do with the nature of metaphor? We know that Shakespeare famously mocked the use of metaphor (my mistress is not like any of those things at all).
    Please don’t take this the wrong way, Sarah; I’m just speculating on my own feelings and how aesthetics might be affecting them; for some reason when I read a lot of metaphor I’m hyper aware that the poet is lying–and not necessarily in a good way; maybe it’s because of my reading of Shakespeare, I’m not sure…
    The use of meter and rhyme by the Frost and Larkin which come after is more to my liking. I trust brevity and meter and rhyme more than I do ambitious metaphor.
    I certainly don’t want to rain on a happy wedding thread, but I couldn’t help but make this observation. Love is not love if it is not true, etc
    I hope you’ll forgive me, Sarah.
    Thomas


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, March 5th, 2009 by Camille Dungy.