When a dear friend asks you to read a poem at her wedding, the “Of course!” response is full of glee and honor, but also pressure and panic – at least, for me. This is because each time this has been asked of me, I’ve been given the task of not only reading the poem, but choosing it too (or, in some cases, writing it). In other words, I am to create a moment within the small amount of moments dedicated to an entirely special day in the lives of people I love and care for. And since I am “the poet friend,” there’s a certain amount of expertise expected from my fulfilling of this role. I assume that the poem I choose will not only say something about the nearly wedded couple in question, but also something about me – about what I value in poetry, about what is “good” poetry, about my wealth of poetry knowledge, etc. (And yes, I realize this perhaps silly anxiety may not be shared by any of you, readers. And yes, I also understand that this wedding is not about me. But, well, this was my thought process. And, well, this is me being honest about it.)
As a result of all this silly anxiety, I made a few decisions right off the bat: 1) The poem should not come from any sort of “wedding poem” internet search. 2) The poem will be contemporary, which rules out possible “typical” wedding go-tos, like Keats or Shakespeare or Neruda. 3) If possible, the poem will come from my own collection of hard copy poetry books.
The combination of these decisions provided me with the rare opportunity to sit in my living room for an entire Saturday surrounded by piles of books. (And now my PhD student self is laughing so hard that I lost my train of thought.)
I really had a great time with this— Through this process of pulling books from shelves, flipping through them, and moving them from pile to pile, I recalled some worthwhile observations/made some worthwhile discoveries, such as:
1) I own 2 copies of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.
2) My copy of Lolita is right next to my copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran, which sprung the idea to write a poem called “Reading Lolita in the Laundromat,” which happened and was really awkward.
3) The layout of the Table of Contents page is a truly important decision that affects the aesthetic experience of the reader.
4) I do not differentiate between my composition pedagogy books and my creative writing pedagogy books on the shelf because I believe in their highly valuable crossover.
5) I used to read a lot of Tom Robbins.
6) Library of America editions of collected poems are overwhelming and Bible-y.
7) I just need to get Watt, and my Samuel Beckett collection will be complete.
8) I am not entirely drawn to [own] poetry that celebrates or is cheerful. I dig the melancholy, the dark, the kinds of wedding poems that are only wedding poems because they reveal the realities of human interaction and the messiness of the human condition.
Nevertheless, I broke a rule or two and narrowed down my search to four poems: Frank O’Hara’s “To You,” T.S. Eliot’s “A Dedication To My Wife,” Jeffrey McDaniel’s “The Archipelago of Kisses,” and David Lehman’s “When a Woman Loves a Man.” I read them all aloud to my betrothed friend. After each poem, she smiled and did the “poetry reading mmm,” so I knew I was on the right track. We decided on Jeffrey McDaniel’s poem for its entertaining and performative appeal, its teary-eyed sweet ending, and the fact that I’ll read it right before their vows (and therefore, their I do kiss).
The Archipelago of Kisses [by Jeffrey McDaniel]
We live in a modern society. Husbands and wives don't grow
on trees, like in the old days. So where
does one find love? When you're sixteen it's easy—like being
unleashed with a credit card
in a department store of kisses. There's the first kiss.
The sloppy kiss. The peck.
The sympathy kiss. The backseat smooch. The we shouldn't
be doing this kiss. The but your lips
taste so good kiss. The bury me in an avalanche of tingles kiss.
The I wish you'd quit smoking kiss.
The I accept your apology, but you make me really mad
sometimes kiss. The I know
your tongue like the back of my hand kiss. As you get older,
kisses become scarce. You'll be driving
home and see a damaged kiss on the side of the road,
with its purple thumb out. Now if you
were younger, you'd pull over, slide open the mouth's ruby door
just to see how it fits. Oh where
does one find love? If you rub two glances together, you get
a smile; rub two smiles, you get
a spark; rub two sparks together and you have a kiss. Now
what? Don't invite the kiss
to your house and answer the door in your underwear. It'll get
suspicious and stare at your toes.
Don't water the kiss with whisky. It'll turn bright pink and explode
into a thousand luscious splinters,
but in the morning it'll be ashamed and sneak out of your body
without saying good-bye,
and you'll remember that kiss forever by all the little cuts it left
on the inside of your mouth. You must
nurture the kiss. Dim the lights, notice how it illuminates
the room. Clutch it to your chest,
wonder if the sand inside every hourglass comes from a special
beach. Place it on the tongue's pillow,
then look up the first recorded French kiss in history: beneath
a Babylonian olive tree in 1300 B.C.
But one kiss levitates above all the others. The intersection
of function and desire. The I do kiss.
The I'll love you through a brick wall kiss. Even when
I'm dead, I'll swim through the earth
like a mermaid of the soil, just to be next to your bones.
Yesterday, the Poetry Foundation/POETRY Magazine posted on Facebook an article from their website that compiles poems appropriate for weddings – only 36 hours or so after my raucous living room bookshelf disruption. That post urged me to write this one, to wonder the implications of being the-one-who-reads-the-poem at a wedding, to ask who else might want more from their wedding poem web searches. The Foundation’s list, however, is a great one. There are certainly some gems on it I wouldn’t have considered before (Kenneth Koch’s “To You,” Dora Malech’s “Love Poem,” C.D. Wright’s “Everything Good Between Men and Women”), while also incorporating some of those staples (Neruda, Keats). It’s a nice little list.
After all this, maybe this means I should create my own list, my own database. Maybe I should buy more poetry books. Maybe I should just cool it when I’m asked to choose a poem as a representation of something wildly important. Or maybe it’s good to care so much.