Poems to Read at Gay and Lesbian Weddings
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, June 26th 2015. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, poems for gay and lesbian weddings. Today, the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in the US. For gay men and women wanting to get married in states where it hadn’t been legal, this is obviously a welcome change. But it presents an urgent problem; what poems should be read at a same sex ceremony? Well, we’ve got this covered. Two years ago, right after the Supreme Court struck down the Defence of Marriage Act, I interviewed Andrea Lawlor, a poet and novelist living in Western Massachusetts. For our website, she had put together a list of possible poems for gay and lesbian weddings. I spoke to her in 2013. Andrea, gay and lesbian weddings are new relatively, and the conventions of weddings are inevitably from heterosexual ceremonies. So for gay and lesbian couples getting hitched, do you think they should do some things a little differently? Like, choose a poem that a heterosexual couple wouldn’t necessarily choose? Should it be slightly queered?
Andrea Lawlor: Well, I think people should determine for themselves what feels right. If they want to have a very traditional ceremony and wedding and use a very traditional poem, thats great. I think there are probably queer people, lesbian or gay people, who would prefer to have a more queer poem in their ceremony.
Curtis Fox: You chose Part 15, the last section of “Song of the Open Road”. Why do you think this is appropriate for a gay commitment ceremony or wedding.
Andrea Lawlor: For me, this is the perfect poem for a queer ceremony because I think Whitman had same sex lovers or attractions, and is so open and ecstatic in his poetry. In this particular poem, and especially in the last section of the poem, he’s really saying our love is the most important thing.
Curtis Fox: Would you read that section of the poem for us, section 15 of “Song of the Open Road”.
Andrea Lawlor: Absolutely, okay.
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
Curtis Fox: That was part 15 of Whitmans “Song of the Open Road”. I have to say the best and the worst of Whitman seems to be here right in this short section. He begins every section virtually with “allons!”, the French word, and that seems a little hoaky now. So does “camerado”. The language seems a little off to me, but his simple colloquial phrasing is just so moving. Especially at the end; “Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”. I love how that’s a question, and it’s a persuasive question rather than a solemn pledge. That strikes me as really appropriate for marriage. What in particular makes it seem appropriate to you for, I guess a gay marriage since he says “Camerado”.
Andrea Lawlor: Well, I think we can not get so hung up on gender. For me, this is really a beautiful poem for any kind of a marriage in which the people committing their lives to each other feel strongly that marriage isn’t the end. Whitman’s idea of relationship is so expansive, and to me the beginning; the way people call graduation “commencement” to signify this is the beginning of something, not the end of it. This is a way in a queer marriage to say, we are going on a road trip together. We don’t know what we’re going to encounter, we’re a journey. “Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?” And yes, it is a question. That openness I think is really freeing, that feeling of freedom to keep choosing to be together I think is the spirit that I would want in that kind of a ceremony. We’re going to change, this is the beginning of our travels together.
Curtis Fox: Rhetorically, the poem is asking the beloved to put their relationship first and foremost before any professional or worldly occupations.
Andrea Lawlor: And I do think there’s something about that, “I give you my love more precious than money, I give you myself before preaching or law;” It gets at all of it. Legal structures, the state, religion, capitalism, our love is more important than any of that.
Curtis Fox: I would like to tell Walt Whitman that it all changes when you have children, because then those professional obligations and the making of money become terribly important. Now, for a more traditional ceremony you listed poem not only by Whitman, but also by Emily Dickinson, by Shakespeare and Hart Crane, and you also listed “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti. Rossetti is one of the very few female Victorian poet that anybody bothers to read anymore. Is there a same sex dynamic in the work that I’m not aware of?
Andrea Lawlor: I think that people have talked about “Goblin Market” as containing an eroticism between the two sisters. Is it a lesbian eroticism? Are they symbolic in some way? She’s somebody who’s really known for writing about female sexuality.
Curtis Fox: I want to get you to read “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti, but one note about this poem. It mentions “vair” which I had to look up. It’s a blueish gray and white fur of a squirrel.
Andrea Lawlor: I know, I had to look that up too. I thought oh no, poor squirrel.
Curtis Fox: “Vair”, and it’s a fur that was used often in Medieval heraldic ornamentation. Can you give “A Birthday” a read?
Andrea Lawlor: Absolutely, here we go.
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.
Curtis Fox: That’s “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti. It’s basically saying that her love has a life of it’s own, which deserves to be commemorated. I think that’s the rhetorical point of it, am I right?
Andrea Lawlor: I absolutely think so. One of the things I love about this poem is not only the very ecstatic, I’m very drawn to that, the imagery is very lush in the first stanza.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, it’s all about the natural world in the first stanza.
Andrea Lawlor: The natural world and also related to fertility. “Nest in a water’d shoot”, “boughs are bent with thickset fruit”; these are images of fecundity and fertility. I find that very moving in a queer context to invoke the procreative in a way that doesn’t have to be literal. Our love is creative, our love is fecund and fertile, whether or not that means that we’re then going to through some particular means have a baby, that’s not necessary. The love can give birth to a shared life or creative works. The bird is singing, the apple tree is producing fruit.
Curtis Fox: And the second part is all about creating this fantastically beautiful day with Medieval like carving and hangers. There’s no mention of nature. What’s she doing in the second stanza?
Andrea Lawlor: Well, for me the through line is the idea of creativity, from the natural or procreative moment to the more artistic or crafted human moment. To say our love is something that we are going to create a monument to, create art around. We’re going to make this beautiful thing together. I think the secret truth of my selections is that they are probably for queer poets and artists, but anyone that has that kind of artistic spirit.
Curtis Fox: On a completely different note, you’ve listed a fairly explicit poem by Essex Hemphill, the gay African American poet who died of AIDS in 1995. I’m going to save you the awkwardness of reading it yourself because we have a recording of Essex Hemphill reading it. Is there anything you’d like to say about this poem before we hear it?
Andrea Lawlor: One of the reasons I included this poem … I included it in a separate section of non-traditional. It may not be the kind of poem you want to have recited at your wedding in front of your grandparents. But one of the things that I find really moving about this poem is how political it is. I’d want to offer a little context. The poem is called “American Wedding”. In the early 90s, poets and writers and gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people, queers, were not particularly concerned on the whole with gay marriage. This was maybe the height of the AIDS crisis in the States. As you said, Essex Hemphill died in 1995 of complications related to AIDS. He was an activist, and a powerful figure in the movement. I think it’s really important to read this as a pome written in the context of a generation of gay men dying.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, a generation of gay men really under siege by the both the disease and by the larger culture.
Andrea Lawlor: In a culture of violence, there was much physical violence to be feared. Not only disease.
Curtis Fox: Let’s give it a listen. Listeners should be warned that some of you might find it offensive. Here’s Essex Hemphill reading “American Wedding”.
I place my ring
on your cock
where it belongs.
no soldiers of doom
will swoop in
and sweep us apart.
They’re too busy
looting the land
to watch us.
They don’t know
we need each other
They expect us to call in sick,
watch television all night,
die by our own hands.
They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.
What the rose whispers
I vow to you.
I give you my heart,
a safe house.
I give you promises other than
milk, honey, liberty.
I assume you will always
be a free man with a dream.
place your ring
on my cock
where it belongs.
Long may we live
to free this dream.
Curtis Fox: I don’t know about you, but I’d like to attend a wedding where that poem was read. That would liven things up a bit, don’t you think?
Andrea Lawlor: I think that’d be a really fun wedding. And it could happen. I’m sure people have read that poem at a wedding.
Curtis Fox: I love it’s blunt carnality. Carnality is often etherealized at weddings, with high blown rhetorical about love. This is also rhetoric about love, but it’s carnal and defiant and it’s in your face.
Andrea Lawlor: The ring becomes very functional.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) Very functional. For all it’s anger, the language and imagery is actually fairly conventional. “I give you my heart” he says, and then he adds “a safe house”. “I give you my heart, a safe house” as if he’s rescuing his lover from a brutal society.
Andrea Lawlor: Over the last century of queer identify, queer culture, I think people have found solace and refuge and safety in relationships, whether they’re monogamous relationships, polyamorous relationships, friend relationships with other gay people, the community. There is that refuge and that love. To me, this harkens back to Whitman in that “I give you promise other than milk, honey, liberty. I assume you will always be a free man with a dream”. To me, that’s that same moment of we’re two free people.
Curtis Fox: A safe house also evokes escape from slavery. Essex Hemphill was a black man, and I think that dual identity of being both African American and gay played a lot into his work.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.
Curtis Fox: It’s remarkable to me how much that new world is already here in certain states at least. Does it strike you as remarkable how different a poem Essex Hemphill probably would write today than in the early 90s?
Andrea Lawlor: It does, and having encountered this as a young queer person in the early 90s, and having found it so meaningful. That was the time of queer nation kiss-ins, it was a very different time. To encounter this poem now when it seems almost normal —
Curtis Fox: Almost.
Andrea Lawlor: (LAUGHING) Almost normal. It seems like right, the new world is in many places here. But certainly not for everyone. There’s still so many queer people, trans youth, queer youth, who are struggling, who experience violence, who are not in this new world. This poem may speak to those people more powerfully than some of the other more traditional poems.
Curtis Fox: Andrea, thanks so much.
Andrea Lawlor: Sure, thank you for having me. It was such a pleasure to mine The Poetry Foundation’s amazing archive to find these poems. I would also say to listeners that there are many, many more great poems. There’s a queer love poems sampler on the website, and there’s a wedding poem finder as well. There’s lots of great stuff in The Poetry Foundation Archives.
Curtis Fox: Andrea Lawlor is at work on a novel and a book of poems called Position Papers. Let us know what you think of this program, email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.