Thanks to the suavity and generosity of the upcoming bride and groom, the parents involved in this soon-to-be wedding have sat down to a meal together. It was a heady affair, at least for the older generation. We discovered paths where our lives crossed: groom’s mother and bride’s father both attended the March on Washington. Bride’s stepmother and stepfather discovered a fine yoga teacher in common who used to babysit the bride. And so on.
The wedding itself will be rather secretive–only one parent of the six involved will stand up with the couple. But not so the wedding dinner. We of the older generation will congregate again. Not that we’ll outnumber the kids, far from it. In fact, I expect the cousins and various offspring of the 0-5 generation to people the front of the stage. Lots of hands grabbing toddlers and restraining the wild “5’s.” We of the older generation may be pushed to the wings.
So why do I keep returning to the question of poetry? Why do I want to make a spectacle of myself by reciting some verse when the call comes to toast the happy couple? Though I don’t remember this, rumor has it that my husband, the current bride’s father, embarrassed the younger generation at our one other family wedding a few years ago by reciting something the couple considered way too sexy. It was probably e e cummings. (Try “i like my body when it is with your/ body…”) I’ve been warned by my own daughter not to bring “The Owl and the Pussycat”into this upcoming affair. “Oh, Pussy, my love,” you understand, has salacious undertones.
Think back, I tell myself. Remember how you felt about your own parents at each of your weddings! The first was very solemn: held at Riverside Church on Morningside Drive in New York City, a gothic gem near the Columbia University campus. I wore constraining white and trembled with the chill. The dinner afterwards passed in a haze. If anyone toasted us, I was either too blinkered or too cold to notice. The second wedding, thankfully, took place in May at the Presbyterian Homes in Roseville, Minnesota, where I taught a writing class for old ladies. They with their remembrance and enjoyment cut heavy peonies to decorate the chapel, sweet heavy swoon. Yes, poetry would have been welcome at that wedding. (e e cummings: “i like my body when it is with your/body”) Maybe it’s that wedding I want to commemorate with Keats’ “Bright Star.”
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel forever its soft fall and swell,
Awake forever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.
Which is more objectionable, eh? The “ripening breast” or “swoon to death?” Since Keats died a few years after writing this poem in 1819, the death may be literal, yet we don’t believe he meant literal death, but that swoon of satisfaction, the swoon of earthly bliss.
No, I probably won’t read “Bright Star,” though its lines keep sparkling through these last warm days like the late chrysanthemums blazing along the sidewalk. Or the absolutely clear evening star in the half-dark sky.
If I read anything poetic, it will probably be Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXVI, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds,” etc. Yet, yet, it is a cold poem with its argument thoroughly under control and its daring to bring time’s sickle into a poem of love and marriage. Or, maybe this sort of marriage is all of the mind, and very little of the body. That’s what chills me. Not to mention its ending with “doom.” I don’t count that tidy regular coda. Keats and Shakespeare both end their supposed love poems with mention of the grave’s chill. We are to be reminded to “gather ye rosebuds while we may.” I’m afraid we older generation bring too much of that reminder into the hallway of love. Though we may still propel ourselves forward, even skip once in a while, we do not bloom so naturally, nor sing in a clear, sweet voice.
Plus, our children truly abhor the idea of our bodies. Especially in any but the most chaste of love’s acts. “Ewww, Mother,” I can hear the daughter cry when she was a teen. Too ishy for words. Aversion personified. Hints of incest.
There, I’ve done it–grossed out myself. Nope, I won’t mention a word about love or coupling or, heaven forfend, breasts. I’ll just give you Shakespeare as a mental exercise, to admire the balanced lines, the measured rhyme, the various sedate metaphors.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet CXVI)
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.