The need for poems at weddings is not new. Picture: Pixabay

Washington - One of the few hazards of being an English professor is that when a friend or relative gets married, they might invite you to read a love poem at the wedding.

It's an honour to be asked, of course - but I've also found it surprisingly difficult to choose the right poem. The problem is that many of the greatest love poems make bad material for weddings. No wonder countless best men, maids of honor and plainclothes officiants have found it so difficult to pick something good for the big day.

The need for poems at weddings is not new. In fact, there's a special term for a wedding poem: epithalamium. This genre reaches all the way back to ancient Greece, but the most famous epithalamia do not work well at modern weddings. 

The earliest examples, such as those by Sappho and Catullus, make distracting references to ancient gods - including to Hymen, the Greek god of marriage. (Pro tip: Select a poem that will not require you to say "hymen" aloud during the ceremony.)

Other notable epithalamia, from Edmund Spenser to E. E. Cummings, are just too long and obtuse to do the trick. Spenser, writing in 1594, begins with an appeal to the muses, whom he calls "Ye learned sisters," and goes on for 365 lines. Cummings, in 1916, starts by describing the "quivering continual thighs" of "thou aged unreluctant earth," which is just as weird.

Sex, as Cummings' evocative phrasing suggests, is the most obvious problem. The greatest love poems are full of excited, entangled bodies. But given the audience at most weddings, it's best to avoid anything too explicit. 

Keeping it strictly PG rules out lots of wonderful love poems. Some of my personal favorites get a crucial bit of spice from erotic details. In Recreation,Audre Lorde writes beautifully of how "you create me against your thighs." 

Another favourite of mine, Bernadette Mayer's First Turn to Me, is even more openly, gorgeously erotic: "You arrive at night inspired and drunk, / there is no reason for our clothes." Poems like this speak deep truths about the physical aspects of love, but kinky is just the wrong tone for the parents getting weepy in the front row.

The next problem is even trickier: Though good poems tend to sing with the help of specific, vivid details, these grace notes rarely match well with the couple getting hitched. 

Far less important details can still distract. I was at a friend's wedding years ago, and the mention of cigarettes in Resignation, an excellent poem by Nikki Giovanni, left me wondering whether the groom had quit. 

Potential wedding poems face the challenge of including just enough detail but not too much. Some good ones about love in general, such as Rilke's The Lovers, contain so few specifics that they might apply to any couple, but for the same reason they often sound rather vague.

If you really cannot find the perfect verse for the big day, of course, you could always try writing your own. But believe me, that's no easier.

The Washington Post