Over the last year several of my friends have been asked to find poems for other people’s weddings. It’s probably getting to a certain age, where weddings and their technicalities become more noticeable as you get invited to more of them, but I also wonder whether poetry is also a generational issue in this sense. The decrease in church weddings during my lifetime, and the expansion of places where you can have a civil ceremony, mean that the liturgies and Bible readings from which couples would once have picked are now no longer an option for many people. The rules on civil weddings explicitly outlaw Biblical readings, or indeed any readings which mention God, heaven, angels, and what is generally regarded as the paraphernalia of a “religious” service. It’s a historical irony that whilst theology and devotional writing has been moving away from the three-decker universe and a God surrounded by Eddie Izzard’s “little fat kids with wings”, this has become the legally enshrined territory of official religion upon which a civil ceremony cannot trespass. You could probably get an awful lot of post-1950s theological material past a registrar, not to mention the friend of a friend (a Biblical scholar) who had a passage of the Hebrew Bible read out in the original without anyone stopping them.
But I’m less interested here in snarking about what British society considers “religious” than in asking what the reading of poems implies. The idea that poetry is required for special occasions is deeply rooted in much Anglophone culture, from the Hallmark birthday card to the Presidential Inauguration and the various Poet Laureates. From one angle it asserts a confidence in the power of words themselves, and thus the need for those words to be right. The Coleridge quotation that poetry is “the best words in their best order”, which was used for the title of a GCSE anthology years ago, captures this feeling. It sounds prosaic enough, and a little surprising coming from a poet who was also wont to claim one of his finest works came from a combination of the best opium and the worst timing, but “best” potentially carries a high charge in this phrase. Given the Romantics’ belief in the power of poetry to renew humanity, to purify our political discourse and to connect people more truly to reality, that “best” is a long ambition. The potential of poetry to pin down and express diffuse feelings in a meaningful way lies behind a lot of the use of verse in situations like Valentine’s Day or a coronation. A wedding may have poetry as it has ribbons or flowers: to decorate and heighten the sense of occasion. It may also have poetry in the same way that it has vows: as a formalised expression of the feelings of the two people at the centre of it. It may even have poetry as it has a registrar’s book: as an utterance which performs a change in the identity of the people whom it is spoken over.
But a poem remains someone else’s words, which intrigues me. A Hallmark card was not written by the person sending it, an Inauguration poem may have been composed for the occasion, but is intended to express the feelings of many people who did not write it, and poems read at weddings have often been discovered by searching through anthologies. The appropriation of someone else’s words seems a very powerful part of the instinct which calls for poetry at a civil wedding. Poetry is a way to instantly frame what is going on as a particular event which demands to be recognised as part of a tradition. A poem is internally coherent: it has a pattern created via line breaks, rhyme, metre and rhythm, which brings both words and ideas together and presents them as a representation of something with a substantial reality and an internal logic to it. This couple’s love, this couple’s relationship, this couple’s experiences together which are contemplated as both leading up to and leading away from this day. But a poem also points beyond itself, by situating the moments of reading and writing within a broader set of conventions. Metres, rhymes and genres are systems within which – or against which – a poem shapes itself. It has an external coherence with the thousands of years of poetry which has made this utterance possible, and meaningful.
After all, this couple do not need wedding guests to work out that they’re in love. They don’t require witnesses to sign their assent to the proposition that they want to spend their lives together. These are part of a framework of recognition which a wedding enacts, in which a community gathers around the couple and formally takes notice of them. There may have been many smaller moments of recognition in the relationship: a change in Facebook status, the first use of “my boyfriend” in conversation, going to someone else’s wedding as a “+1”, having dinner with the parents. Part of what happens at a wedding is a more elaborate and powerful enactment of recognition. Nancy Frazer’s notion of “misrecognition” is aimed at moments when this goes wrong, when certain people are not only “thought ill of, looked down on, or devalued” but “denied the status of a full partner in social interaction”, through a “institutionalized patterns of interpretation and evaluation”. For Frazer, laws against gay marriage are a classic example of people being denied not simply individual rights but participation in a social institution which recognizes them, and in turn asks their participation in shaping social meaning. Gay marriage shifts the potential meanings of marriage itself, and asks long-marginalized people to share their experiences and visions as part of what marriage might mean.
Following her logic, marriage is not just an expression of two people’s feelings (which could happen anywhere and anyhow) but a celebration by other people, in the presence of witnesses, according to poetic and social conventions, of their relationship. Though many couples work hard for their wedding to be authentic and true to them, not wanting to assent to beliefs or embody meanings with which they are uncomfortable, it seems many do so because it is important that they only situate themselves within a tradition they can accept. A truly “individual” wedding, like an “individual” poem, would not be possible (though “individual” marriages, of course, are all around us.) It would not be recognisable to anyone outside it, and would thus be unable to carry out the communicative act which both witnesses and celebrates the moment. The act of reading a poem aloud in front of the couple and the guests seems to me to express this gathering of past and future, of particular moments and thousands of years, which insists on being recognised and valued as part of something beyond the words in which it happens. That’s why the search for poems for civil weddings intrigues me, as it denies that individualism and atomisation for which people in their twenties are so often criticised, and signals their demand for recognition within a social tradition symbolised by the form of poetry itself.