There’s no such thing as a good wed­ding poem

English pro­fes­sor Seth Per­low says the ob­vi­ous verses are vexed

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @seth_per­low Seth Per­low teaches English at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. His book “The Poem Elec­tric: Tech­nol­ogy and the Amer­i­can Lyric” will be pub­lished in De­cem­ber.

One of the few haz­ards of be­ing an English pro­fes­sor is that when a friend or rel­a­tive gets mar­ried, they might in­vite you to read a love poem at the wed­ding. It’s an honor to be asked, of course, but I’ve also found it sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult to choose the right poem. The prob­lem is that many of the great­est love po­ems are ill-suited to wed­dings. No won­der count­less best men, maids of honor and plain­clothes of­fi­ciants have found it so dif­fi­cult to pick some­thing good for the big day.

The need for po­ems at wed­dings is not new. In fact, there’s a spe­cial term for a wed­ding poem: ep­i­tha­la­mium. This genre reaches all the way back to an­cient Greece, but the most fa­mous ep­i­tha­la­mia do not work well at mod­ern wed­dings. The ear­li­est ex­am­ples, such as those by Sap­pho and Cat­ul­lus, make dis­tract­ing ref­er­ences to an­cient gods — in­clud­ing to Hy­men, the Greek god of mar­riage. Pro tip: Se­lect a poem that will not re­quire you to say “hy­men” aloud dur­ing the

cer­e­mony. Other notable ep­i­tha­la­mia, from Ed­mund Spenser to E. E. Cum­mings, are just too long and ob­tuse to do the trick. Spenser, writ­ing in 1594, be­gins with an ap­peal to the muses, whom he calls “Ye learned sis­ters,” and goes on for 365 lines. Cum­mings, in 1916, starts by de­scrib­ing the “quiv­er­ing con­tin­ual thighs” of “thou aged un­re­luc­tant earth,” which is just as weird.

Sex, as Cum­mings’s evoca­tive phras­ing sug­gests, is the most ob­vi­ous prob­lem. The great­est love po­ems are full of ex­cited, en­tan­gled bod­ies. But given the au­di­ence at most wed­dings, it’s best to avoid any­thing too ex­plicit. Keep­ing it strictly PG rules out lots of won­der­ful love po­ems. Some of my per­sonal fa­vorites get a cru­cial bit of spice from erotic de­tails. In “Re­cre­ation,” Au­dre Lorde writes beau­ti­fully of how “you cre­ate me against your thighs.” An­other fa­vorite of mine, Ber­nadette Mayer’s “First Turn to Me,” is even more openly, gor­geously erotic: “You ar­rive at night in­spired and drunk, / there is no rea­son for our clothes.” Po­ems like this speak deep truths about the phys­i­cal as­pects of love, but kinky is just the wrong tone for the par­ents get­ting weepy in the front row.

The next prob­lem is even trick­ier: While good po­ems tend to sing with the help of spe­cific, vivid de­tails, th­ese grace notes rarely match well with the cou­ple get­ting hitched. Maybe the woman in an oth­er­wise ideal poem is a blonde, but your friend the bride is a brunette. Maybe it’s a won­der­ful poem that hap­pens to men­tion God, which dis­qual­i­fies it for a sec­u­lar wed­ding. El­iz­a­beth Bar­rett Brown­ing’s fa­mous Son­net 43 be­gins “How do I love thee?” and an­swers with soar­ing claims of de­vo­tion: “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / my soul can reach,” which has a con­ve­niently generic res­o­nance. But it also says that her love will con­tinue in heaven “if God choose.” Al­ter­nately, per­haps the poem you like is a bit, well, het­ero for the two men about to take their vows.

Far less im­por­tant de­tails can still dis­tract. I was at a friend’s wed­ding years ago, and the men­tion of cig­a­rettes in “Res­ig­na­tion,” an ex­cel­lent poem by Nikki Gio­vanni, left me won­der­ing whether the groom had quit. Po­ten­tial wed­ding po­ems face the chal­lenge of in­clud­ing just enough de­tail but not too much. Some good ones about love in gen­eral, such as Rilke’s “The Lovers,” con­tain so few specifics that they might ap­ply to any cou­ple, but they of­ten sound rather vague for the same rea­son.

Some of the most fa­mous love po­ems have be­come hard to en­joy be­cause they treat women as mere sex ob­jects. Robert Her­rick be­gins one poem, “Dis­play thy breasts, my Ju­lia.” I will not cite more re­cent ex­am­ples, which are quite a bit more lewd, but de­scrip­tions of women also ap­pear in some of the very best love po­ems, in­clud­ing one of my all-time fa­vorites, Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman.” Even when a poem does not seem out­wardly sex­ist, it might sound lop­sided at a wed­ding be­cause it says a lot about the woman and al­most noth­ing about the man.

Many love po­ems seem per­fect for a wed­ding un­til you ac­tu­ally pay at­ten­tion to what they say. Po­ets like to get clever, so back­handed com­pli­ments abound. One of Shake­speare’s most fa­mous love son­nets, Num­ber 130, ba­si­cally de­clares, “She’s ugly and has bad breath, but I love her any­way.” Num­ber 18 — which be­gins, “Shall I com­pare thee to a sum­mer’s day?” — leads, in ef­fect, to the con­clu­sion, “You’re pretty, but you’re go­ing to die, and this poem will live for­ever.” Nei­ther will please an at­ten­tive bride. Dorothy Parker was the mod­ern mistress of ro­mance with a poi­son pill. Her “Grande Pas­sion” shame­lessly em­pha­sizes phys­i­cal beauty: “If you should break your beau­teous nose, / My love would per­ish, I sup­pose; / . . . But lose, my love, your soul and sense — / I should not know the dif­fer­ence.”

A re­lated, sur­pris­ingly com­mon prob­lem is that lots of good love po­ems end with a men­tion of death. The third of Adri­enne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Po­ems” would do nicely for those mar­ry­ing later in life, ex­cept it con­cludes by declar­ing that “each of us must help the other die.” Like­wise, “death” is the last word of the Brown­ing son­net men­tioned above. I think the stan­dard phrase “till death do us part” is more than enough talk of mor­tal­ity on the happy day. In class, I try to show stu­dents the re­wards of read­ing at­ten­tively. At the al­tar, a poem full of pretty phrases will back­fire if its deeper mean­ing is too grim.

The most in­ter­est­ing dif­fi­culty with wed­ding po­ems in­volves what aca­demics call “ad­dress,” a lyric’s abil­ity to con­struct an in­di­vid­ual to whom its mes­sage is di­rected. Of­ten a love poem feels most pow­er­ful when it speaks directly to “you,” the beloved. But that power can go awry in pub­lic set­tings. The tech­nique is very com­mon, ap­pear­ing in some of the old­est love po­ems — among them, Sap­pho’s Frag­ment 31, which para­dox­i­cally de­clares, in Anne Car­son’s trans­la­tion, “for when I look at you, even a mo­ment, no speak­ing is left in me.” If you’re writ­ing a poem to se­duce some­one, then call­ing to “you” in verse can re­mind the per­son that you wrote those lines just for them. (Trust me, it works bet­ter than flow­ers.) Even if you’re not a poet, when you read po­etry aloud you take the place of the “speaker,” the one ex­press­ing th­ese feel­ings. As the critic He­len Vendler puts it, a lyric poem gives “its reader a script to say.” When one reads a poet’s words, Vendler tells us, “one is to ut­ter them as one’s own words.”

This all works fine in pri­vate. When I read Frank O’Hara’s poignant “To the Har­bor­mas­ter” aloud to my part­ner, I get to be the speaker, and it’s ob­vi­ous whom I mean to ad­dress when I re­cite, “To / you I of­fer my hull and the tat­tered cordage / of my will.” My ad­dress to “you” sweeps us both up in the poem. At a wed­ding, how­ever, the ef­fects of ad­dress can get dan­ger­ously slip­pery. Frag­ment 31, for ex­am­ple, de­scribes a scene of ro­man­tic jeal­ousy, one in which the poet’s beloved is caught in di­a­logue with an­other man. Read the lines aloud, and you risk giv­ing the im­pres­sion that your own “tongue breaks and thin / fire is rac­ing un­der skin” for one mem­ber of the cou­ple or the other.

Or, say your best friend in­vites you to read a poem at her wed­ding, and you se­lect “Vari­a­tion on the Word Sleep,” a real gem by Mar­garet At­wood. On the big day, you be­gin read­ing: “I would like to watch you sleep­ing . . .” Now you’re a creep who wants to ob­serve the happy cou­ple in bed. Or maybe it’s your brother’s wed­ding, and thanks to Pablo Neruda you find your­self telling him, “I love you as one loves cer­tain ob­scure things, / se­cretly, be­tween the shadow and the soul.” No­body wants to hear about your se­cret love for your brother. Un­less you are the one get­ting mar­ried, you might want to skip po­ems that ad­dress a beloved “you.” Too of­ten this means avoid­ing those that speak in the ac­tual lan­guage of love, in­stead of just evok­ing cliches about the ab­stract idea of it.

As those who have tried to pick the right poem for a wed­ding can con­firm, th­ese are just a few of the dif­fi­cul­ties in­volved. Of course, if you re­ally can­not find the per­fect verse for the big day, you could al­ways try writ­ing your own. But be­lieve me, that’s not any eas­ier.

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