Being almost never at a loss for words, I am chastened to report that when I was asked to read a poem at the wedding of my oldest friend’s daughter, I leapt at the invitation. But what they say about marriage— marry in haste, repent at leisure— turned out to be true of the invitation to read a marriage poem.
Other than a youthful indiscretion when I temporarily believed I was channeling Dylan Thomas (alcoholic beverages were involved), I have never written a poem. Calliope was not the girl for me. But in the interest of full disclosure I should say that I read poetry for pleasure, and it was this eccentric habit that resulted in my being selected. There were to be three bits of entertainment on the wedding bill of fare— something from Corinthians, a cellist and me.
I began my search for an appropriate verse by running the gamut of poets from A to Z— or, rather, A to Y. I started with Auden but could not find a Z so I stopped with Yeats. Poetry, as the man said, does not make anything happen. That was W.H. Auden, great poet, and he was writing about William Butler Yeats, also a great poet. (Neither made the cut.)
Before I dismissed “light verse,” I turned to that old warhorse Ogden Nash— a great Baltimorean. Alas, upon examination I found that Brother Nash’s stuff was painfully dated. References to women were archaic. And the marriages he seemed to be speaking of, the war between the sexes, to borrow from E.B. White, were out of James Thurber drawings.
Next, I anguished over William Shakespeare. He is, of course, William Shakespeare, unless you believe he was someone else, but we don’t have time for that here. He wrote a lot of sonnets. Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds … and all that. But when I dared to read a possible contender, my wife sighed and shook her head. “Too predictable,” she said. “Sounds like the Bible.”
What’s wrong with that? Well, there was already a bit from Corinthians on the menu.
As the month went on, I cast over roughly a thousand poems, from alexandrines to haikus to ballads to villanelles. I scoured the countryside. I even considered Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the New England bard of my childhood. (“Paul Revere’s Ride” did not seem right for a wedding.) I thought about Cavafy (wonderful poet, but plainly writing about being in love with young men), T.S. Eliot (“The Four Quartets” made the finals) and Wallace Stevens (ditto, major finalist). Elizabeth Bishop, too. Stephen Spender, Paddy Kavanaugh, Ruben Dario. All my favorites.
Some droll folks suggested Edgar Guest (“It takes a heap of living to make a house a home …”). This is the “bad is good” theory that is very arch, very post-modern. I recommend against it. An old hippie I know went with Richard Brautigan, inspirer of pale girls with flat chests who sigh. I passed on him, too.
I began to see that the selection of a poem says rather more about someone than one might wish to reveal. Like eating peas with a knife. You hear the words Kahlil Gibran and that’s all you know and all you need to know, if I may paraphrase John Keats. I ruled him out, too.
Many of the poems suggested to me were wildly inappropriate. Bilious friends insisted on Philip Larkin, a fine and funny modern English poet, but a really nasty piece of work. You can’t read stuff like that at a wedding. And that was part of the problem. Everyone I spoke with who was married and had been married for a long, long time knew only too well the joys of conjugal bliss and so their recommendations were jaundiced, if not actually bitter.
My wife arrived home one evening to advise that a commuter companion of hers subscribed to an Internet poetry service! Zounds! Can such things be? He would find a poem for me. That turned out to be a bad idea. One of his suggestions was a prose poem that was 4,000 words long. No, thanks.
Friends were no help, even those who are poets. One sent a ridiculous haiku that made no sense at all.
It was an anxious time. I began to see why poets go mad. Drink. Stick their heads in ovens. Jump off bridges. Use opium. Overdose on laudanum. Where the hell can you get laudanum these days?
This was the longest month of my life.
In the end, I found a lovely poem. It was short (sonnet length) and easy to understand. I memorized it and delivered it without a hitch. Many listeners remarked what a fine poem it was. The wedding was a great success. But if you think I’m going to tell you which poem I read, you are sadly mistaken. Find your own.