Archive for September, 2012

On Wedding Poems

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.


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I’ve just come back from two weeks in Jordan.  It’s a great time to go – there are cheap Easyjet flights and the fact it borders onto Iraq, Syria and Israel means there’s hardly any tourists there at the moment, despite it being a stable, safe country.  You can get from one end to the other in five hours, and there was no hassling or haggling (Rich nicknamed it the ‘Middle Easy’).  Every day there was a history lesson – Nabataean and Ottoman ruins, Byzantine mosaics, Roman cities, Crusader castles, Bedouin customs, Palestinian restaurants…

I always think a trip is improved by taking along complimentary literature, and it was a bit tougher this holiday – there are hardly any novels about Jordan, and the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide suggestions were uninspiring.  However, I found the right books in the end.  If you’re thinking of going to the Middle East I’d really recommend Marina Warner’s wonderful Stranger Magic – it’s about the Arabian Nights, and includes beautiful retellings of some of the stories, as well as digressions on everything from translation to Borges to the Arab Spring to King Solomon.  There’s a chapter on the importance of carpets to nomadic people – both as portable art and a way of marking out the borders of home in the wilderness – which really added to the experience of camping out in Wadi Rum with our Bedouin guide, whilst the first thing you see on your walk into Petra are ‘Djinn blocks’, huge stones thought to hold spirits, which Warner’s section on genies brought to brilliant life.

I also read Herodotus’ Histories for the first time, in Robin Waterfield’s translation.  By this point I was at the Red Sea, only a few miles from the Saudi border and gazing across at Eliat and Egypt, and really relished his gossipy stories and myths about the east: lotus-eating recipes, phoenixes, cannibalism, women who piss standing up, frankincense trees defended by flying snakes… There are amazing descriptions of the mummification process (‘extract the brain by passing a hooked iron instrument through the nostrils…’), poetic riddles from the Delphic oracles, and a massive, genuinely exciting battle between east and west at the end as the Persians attack Greece at Thermopylae (as in the film 300).

Other highlights of my trip: drinking mint tea in a tent at the view-point above Petra’s monastery; snorkeling and seeing a big, blinky octopus; playing scrabble with Arabic coffee and a shisha pipe every evening; bobbing in the fiercely saline Dead Sea; walking past tamarisk and sunbirds to the sultry River Jordan to see Christ’s baptism spot and watching Rich eat a goat’s head (in case you’re wondering, he didn’t go for the full Indiana Jones thing and chew the eyeball.)

Anyway, home now – which means Peckham, and a house full of boxes to unpack and walls to strip.  The garden is feral, full of buddleia and blackberries. I’m getting that back-to-school feeling, and quite looking forward to settling in, getting out my jumpers, watching the leaves turn and making a crumble.

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