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Essay

Nuptial Matters

How did poetry become an essential part of American wedding ceremonies—and why is it so hard to choose a poem of one’s own?
Bill Hartmann

One of the problems with planning a wedding in the Pinterest era is that originality is so highly prized it is paradoxically almost impossible to produce. I found this out for myself when my fiancé and I began to plan our own wedding in 2011. Like just about every other betrothed couple in America, we wanted our wedding to be “personal.” The aesthetics of such a wedding, at least for couples of a certain age and posture, are practically set in stone: indie pop music, mason jars, white Christmas lights, wildflowers.

And poetry. The practice of including a poem in a wedding ceremony is so widespread and mainstream that it’s enthusiastically enforced by wedding websites and magazines, planners and experts. (A 2006 Poetry Foundation survey found that more than 90 percent of Americans had been exposed to poetry at a private ceremony such as a wedding or a funeral.) It’s a fitting modern tradition; as the poet Adam O’Riordan wrote a few years ago, “Both the act of reading a poem and the act of marriage are in essence a decision to take certain words seriously.”

But which poems to choose? The advice to be had was bad or nonexistent. Googling brought up near-identical lists of suggested readings (Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Wedding Prayer,” Frost’s “The Master Speed”). The wildly popular “Apache Wedding Blessing” turned out to come from the 1950 Western Broken Arrow. And the 560-page spring 2011 issue of The Knot had no mention of the ceremony, let alone poetry, at all. Anyway, we didn’t want a poem recommended by The Knot, or a website, or our parents, or our friends. Just like everyone else, we wanted one that was ours.

But forging ahead on our own was thorny. A wedding poem can’t be too irreverent, too abstract, too weird, too long, or too sexual. It must speak to a private relationship in a public setting. (The poet’s own private lives mustn’t be too distasteful, either: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath are out.) Your grandmother should enjoy it, but so should your friends. Like the baby names favored by couples who have wildflower-and-mason-jar weddings, the poem must somehow be classic and unusual at the same time. It must summarize your love: the stories you tell about its past, its abundance in the present moment, and your deepest hopes for its future. How did reading poetry become an essential part of so many American wedding ceremonies—and why is it still so hard to choose a wedding poem of one’s own?

***

Although the custom of couples choosing a special poem or two to be read before their vows is quite new, the broader notion of a wedding poem is not. Greeks and Romans composed epithalamia, songs or poems recited to bless the marrying couple; Sappho, Catullus, and Theocritus wrote versions, as did Donne, Jonson, and Sidney later. In Spenser’s version, the groom petitions vultures and frogs to keep quiet on the wedding night. Others wrote parodies, such as Sir John Suckling’s 17th-century “A Ballad upon a Wedding,” which ends with the candle out and the couple finally doing “all that they had not done.”

Weddings have always been about sex, but only recently have they been about romance, too. For most of history, marriages were arranged by elders for practical or political purposes (the attainment of property, for example, or the annexation of entire countries). Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, who co-edited an anthology of wedding poetry and prose nearly 20 years ago, told me by email that he was initially surprised by the lack of historical wedding poetry. “I thought there would be a rich hoard or rich veins of poetry in various agricultural, mythic, religious traditions of sacred marriage,” he wrote. “It was easier to find folk songs in which the bride laments leaving home than to find songs celebrating the marriage rituals.” Love poems are commonplace, of course, but Hass realized in assembling his anthology that the premise of many of them is absence and longing; a wedding, by contrast, is all about love present and attained.

For the first several centuries of American history, hearing secular poetry read at a wedding ceremony would have been unusual, if it happened at all. Psalms and other Biblical poetry were proper (careful with Song of Songs!), but love poetry was not. The Catholic Church still officially forbids couples from including secular readings in the ceremony; Orthodox Jewish ceremonies, too, allow only for set religious readings. Sometimes poems sneak in by way of music: the wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011 was a formal Anglican ceremony with little room for personal touches (although if anyone can claim formality as an authentic expression of personality, it’s the British royal family), but the third hymn sung by the elite congregation was “Jerusalem,” based on the poem by William Blake.

It was around the early 1960s that some Protestant denominations began loosening the strictures of approved readings and music, according to Paula Treckel, a historian at Allegheny College who has written about the history of American weddings. The usual suspects were first to acquiesce: Unitarians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, responding to counterculture couples who wanted to make their wedding ceremonies their own. Suddenly, weddings were taking place in parks, and couples were writing their own vows. As the journalist Rebecca Mead writes in her 2007 book about contemporary weddings, One Perfect Day, the modern idea is that “a wedding ceremony, like a wedding reception, ought to be an expression of the character of the couple who are getting married, rather than an expression of the character of the institution marrying them.”

The first poet embraced by backyard brides and grooms was Kahlil Gibran, the best-selling poet and symbol of a vague, mystic, sentimental sort of personal freedom. “Gibran was the big discovery of people in the 1960s, and that got woven into practically every marriage ceremony from then on,” Treckel says. Her own sister, married outside in 1976, used a passage from “The Prophet” in her ceremony, despite some pushback from the officiant. “Love one another, but make not a bond of love / Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls” became part of a new unofficial liturgy embraced by men and women who wanted to create a different, perhaps looser “bond of love” than their parents had made. A 1972 essay in the New York Times lamented the popularity of the “candy metaphysician” among the young: “Of all the limp, mucid hooey now being sold without a prescription, ‘The Prophet’ is the most blatant and outrageous.”

Even if you’re able to avoid similarly “limp, mucid hooey,” coming up with something original can be a tricky task, even for those who fancy themselves literary types. When I solicited stories from friends and acquaintances last month, several names came up with regularity: I heard about weddings incorporating poems by Emily Dickinson, Garrison Keillor, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Others used E. B. White’s “To My American Gardener, with Love,” Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You,” and Langston Hughes’s “Fulfillment.” A friend in L.A. once heard Warren Beatty read an excerpt from Leaves of Grass at a wedding (the verdict: “distracting”). Other popular picks include Rumi and Rilke, Bradstreet and Browning, with newer entrants such as Craig Arnold, Seamus Heaney, and Nikki Giovanni.  Some asked friends or relatives to write their own occasional poetry, with decidedly mixed results. You can even find “poetry vendors” online who will write you a personalized wedding poem.

Gibran has fallen out of fashion, it seems, and been replaced by E. E. Cummings, whose “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in / my heart” recurs over and over in anthologies, anecdotes, and online lists of suggested readings. Search “I carry your heart” on Pinterest and you’ll find jewelry, “ring-bearer bowls,” tiered white cakes with the poem emblazoned on the sides in icing, and many, many tattoos. The poem was recited by Cameron Diaz on-screen in the 2005 romantic comedy In Her Shoes, and she read it again, US Weekly reported, at Drew Barrymore’s backyard wedding last year.

You could look at Cummings as a favorite son for our era, because he enjoys a popular reputation as an experimental poet even though much of his work makes perfect conventional sense. “I carry your heart with me” is not exactly an indecipherable sentiment, but its punctuation and meter give it a frisson of sophistication.

My first reaction to this is a snobbish one: Cummings as cliché. But it’s not such a bad thing, or even an embarrassing one, that modern brides and grooms gravitate to the same poems over and over. Despite our best attempts at uniqueness, we have generated a canon (as people do). And so what if the canon shifts over time (as canons do)? If, in 30 or 40 years, Cummings brands an early-21st-century wedding as indelibly as Gibran brands a 1970s wedding, well, so be it. Marriage means stepping into an ancient institution marked by hundreds of temporal particulars—everything from the cut of the bride’s dress to who is legally allowed to marry. We hope the marriage lasts forever, but we have to expect the wedding itself will age. Maybe we’ll all look back on our wedding poetry the same way we’ll look back on our wedding photos: with a fondness for those young, goofy people who had no idea how their tastes would change, or what was to happen to them.

***

As for my own wedding, my fiancé suggested “Language Lesson 1976,” a poem by Heather McHugh. It begins:

When Americans say a man
takes liberties, they mean

he’s gone too far.

We asked an old friend to read this at our wedding; I liked that it was about the puzzles of love and language. But rereading it now, I see that it’s also about clichés, and how they can become meaningful despite their overuse. Weddings, too, give life to well-worn territories. When my husband and I said our vows on a cool Saturday in June, we were happily re-enacting a ritual that had been performed countless times before; thousands of other couples were probably doing the very same thing at the very same hour on the very same day. After we were pronounced husband and wife, we danced to indie pop music until nightfall, under white Christmas lights, surrounded by wildflowers in mason jars. Clichés, all, but what can you do? The night felt like ours alone. We carry it in our hearts.

 

Correction, May 24: The title of Rebecca Mead's book is One Perfect Day, not One True Day, as the article originally stated.

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