When journalists discuss poetry, they always bring up this nonsensical idea that poetry is unpopular. Just to be clear: they’re wrong. This assertion is based on a real misconception about how poetry works. They’re looking at sales figures and seeing that very few people buy poetry collections. But poetry collections are not the form in which the majority of people consume poetry – instead they tend to enjoy poems, not unnaturally, one poem at a time rather than in 64-page chunks.
A moderately successful poetry collection might sell a thousand copies, but that doesn’t mean the poems within it have only been enjoyed by a thousand people. In fact, a good poem within that collection might have reached hundreds of thousands: it may have appeared in a magazine first, and then been read at festivals, taught in schools or workshops, reproduced in a newspaper, broadcast on radio. Poems are stuck on fridges, copied into cards, read at funerals, shared on tumblr sites, tweeted, recited by heart: they circulate in all kinds of ways that have little to do with book sales. This is tough on poets financially – it makes it very hard to monetize poetry. But at the same time there is something lovely about the way individual poems have their own life.
One of the spaces in which many people enjoy poetry is at weddings. We live in a culture where poems are still called on to mark important occasions. I was at the wedding of my friends Ewan and Ash in Southend this weekend, where Ewan’s mum read Yeats’ ‘He Wishes for the Cloth of Heaven’ during the service (a beautiful choice) and I read a new piece at the (brilliant) party, after slightly too much pink fizz.
(Photo of the groom, Ewan, with his hog-roast, by Richard Henson)
I’m often asked by friends for suggestions about wedding poems, and I do think good ones are hard to find – the thing is, most of the great love poems (and most great poems full stop) are very specific. It is the particulars that bring them to life. But at a wedding you don’t want to hear about the unique loveliness of someone who is not the bride or groom. I’ve been told that my poem ‘Mission Beach’ has been used at weddings, which is incredibly flattering but also, given that’s it’s about skinny-dipping, made me feel a bit odd (was it read in the church? Did the congregation really need to know about my husband’s hairy chest or my nipples being the colour of conch shells??)
Wedding poems work best when they’re universal, and being universal without being bland or clichéd is intensely difficult. Still, some poems do pull this off – a few suggestions I’d offer are:
‘The Present’ by Michael Donaghy
‘Wedding’ by Alice Oswald
‘I carry your heart with me’ by e.e.cummings
‘Hinterhof’ by James Fenton (Matthew Hollis read this at my wedding, which was the first time I’d heard it – it somehow manages to stay the right side of sentimental whilst including rainbows)
Or for something a bit more fun and silly, ‘I Rely on You’ by Hovis Presley (a fellow Boltonian)
Do share any other suggestions… All these poems can be found if you google, though where I haven’t linked the sites don’t look like they have permission. Ideally, of course, people would buy the books if they’re going to read the poem, but I’ll leave it to your consciences! Whilst some poets condemn the posting of such poems as theft, I find it hard to get angry about people sharing words they love (especially as I spent my teenage years copying poems out of library books), and they do point to a passion for poetry out there which Bookscan simply doesn’t measure.
And, finally, here’s my attempt from this week – with love to the bride and groom
The Summer of Weddings
For Ewan and Ashleigh
I once had a summer of weddings,
which had its downsides, of course –
I had to bookmark the John Lewis website,
and that much church can make you feel dirty.
Also, there was a lot of bad poetry.
It was a summer of champagne,
of vol-au-vents, blinis, crostinis,
of little butternut-squash and goats cheese thingies,
of stiletto heels sinking into grass,
of the ding-ding of a fork on a glass,
of place-names and hog roasts and full-moons of cheese,
of speeches, first dances and fireworks
banging like excitable blood.
Please don’t get me wrong. Evil went on:
in boardrooms, in backstreets, abroad.
But still, how can a heart not fill
when the bride enters, barely breathing,
eyes wide and lit,
her father shaky with love?
And now every summer, I think of the weddings
in town halls, chapels, hotels and marquees:
how huge crowds whoop and applaud
the yes of a kiss.
How we stand up to toast in our thousands
tears rolling loose down our cheeks,
moved by this world that seems, for a moment,
almost too radiant,
almost too kind.