Picking Wedding Poetry

Ruth Graham considers the challenge:

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.

So who is today’s go-to poet?

[Kahlil] Gibran has fallen out of fashion, it seems, and been replaced by E. E. Cummings, whose “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in / my heart” recurs over and over in anthologies, anecdotes, and online lists of suggested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. … 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.

Previous Dish on wedding readings here.