When The Family Business Is Ribald Wedding Poetry

I'm the guy who writes too-clever poems for special occasions. I come by it honestly. No, proudly.

From my dad’s side of the family I received an odd first name, a big crooked nose, and a compulsion to write and recite poetry at public gatherings. “Bad poetry,” my dad likes to point out. Weddings, birthdays, graduations, anniversary parties — if there’s an occasion worth commemorating, I’m obligated by blood to stand up, clear my throat, wait for quiet, then explain how I need everyone’s attention for a couple minutes while I ply the host or hostess with silly rhymes in tribute.

My great-grandfather did it, my grandfather did it, my father still does it. It’s always awkward, like bringing your accordion to work. Who writes poems anymore, let alone reads them out loud? Just as the crowd’s digging into their chicken and two vegetables, here I come, taking the floor to recite a page of quatrains. They're confused. Their expressions are muddled. It usually takes me a good three stanzas before they’re into it, and that’s assuming I haven’t lost them already.

My wife’s cousin got married recently. I’d ignored the calendar for weeks, trying to quiet my genetic inclinations. Because the family tradition also comes complete with additional rules: The poem must scan reasonably well — typically in iambic meter, with sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables — and the humor should be personalized, even lewd. For example, from my grandfather’s poem composed for a friend, “To Betty Hambleton on Her 39th Birthday,” date unknown,

Oh how graceful is her figure,

How curvaceous, soft and round.

And as slowly she gets bigger,

I cherish every pound.

Of course, there are plenty of wedding-suitable poems in the world, serious poems that don’t lionize a woman’s weight gain. People expect poetry at weddings these days, especially when so many ceremonies are nonreligious. Poetry adds depth. It contributes meaning. It moves you. On its website, Poetry magazine goes so far as to categorize its archives by occasion: funeral poems, graduation poems, “Gratitude & Apologies.” More than two dozen poems are suggested as appropriate for weddings, from E.E. Cummings to John Dunne. But those are solemn poems, the kind people expect to hear during the service, not the reception, and not in praise of the bride’s ass. Also by my grandfather, from “Aspirations”:

I shall not this tale embellish.

Still and all I’d be a chump,

If I did not view with relish

Mrs. Parker’s curvesome rump.

How the tradition began isn’t recorded — there’s no Poem Zero in our family. For my dad and me, it’s basically always been this way. We don’t know about my great-grandfather, but my grandfather wrote at least 100 tributes. My dad estimates he’s done 50. I’m around 20-plus. It takes about a week to get one right, after a couple weeks of puttering. Inevitably I rewrite the whole thing on the plane. The trick is to do it cleverly enough so you don’t need to wear a helmet at the after-party.

There is an academic term for the genre: occasional poetry. Goethe said something to the effect that occasional poetry is “the first and most genuine of all poetic genres.” Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is an example, same for Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day,” written for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Whereas “For Arthur Wood on the Occasion of His Departure for California,” by my grandfather, is less well known.

Robert Pinsky, the former U.S. poet laureate, once wrote in the Paris Review, “Occasional poetry is a reminder that poetry is related to speech a little bit in the way dance is related to walking: it is more playful, as well as more serious.”

The playful bit is our family’s specialty. We excel at it, we strive at it vainly. But the serious part is more complicated and troublesome.

My grandfather died in 2001, at 87, still acerbic, hyper-intelligent, hyper-educated. Until the end, the yearning soul of an artist trapped inside an accountant’s gloom.

My great-grandfather, I never knew. He was a textile salesman, a poet on the side. Said to be funny and likable, socially progressive, he helped to found Chicago’s Hull House, which at the time provided educational opportunities for working-class immigrants. He went to Yale, as did my grandfather, who seemed to inherit his talents and then surpass him, being able to add up columns of figures without a calculator, quote Virgil over dinner, and sing show tunes across a tray of martinis (there were many martinis).

My grandfather was a product of his time, and also not. Gradually he became part of high society in Chicago — a senior partner at the venerable Arthur Young & Co. who threw parties, ran charities, attended balls — but remained a staunchly liberal Democrat, who campaigned against anti-Semitism. He was the artistic type who hung out with bankers, a jumble of mischievous and straight-laced, funny and frustrated. In his lifetime he self-published several books of collected works, in leather-bound editions of a couple dozen. Volume I is lost to history, but we still have Volume II, The Prairie Years — my grandfather lived most of his life in Chicago — Volume III, The Poet Laureate of Public Accounting, and Volume IV, De Senectute et Ceteris (my rough translation: Of Age and Others). The variety contained is enormous. Odes, sonnets, “Lines Written on the New Haven Railroad.” For my parents’ wedding, he concocted a poem in Latin, and on the reverse side of the paper was the same exact poem, still scanning, in Greek.

Some of my favorites are poems composed for friends, like the opening stanza of “Riposte to Mr. Birkhold,” probably following an argument about grammar:

My face is red as Russian mural,

Red, in fact, as ripe tomata.

You are right, my friend. The plural

Always follows after “data.”

There are plays, songs with sheet music, odes to his younger brothers — one would become an architect, the other a renowned doctor, both similarly intelligent, creative, and odd — plus recipes he’d devised, tributes he wrote to chefs and waiters. He loved the public moment, with a voice like a bullhorn, a nose like a dorsal fin. I can easily picture a restaurant’s staff standing around bewildered after a 6-foot-4 businessman in horn-rimmed glasses stamped into the kitchen and started to declaim, having composed a poem at the table to pay them tribute.

He kept a trunk at home full of costumes and silly hats, for drunken evenings of charades. He wrote my mother a song before I was born, including a verse about the proboscis my face would grow someday:

And soon, you’ll bear

A son and heir

And loudly will you shout,

“My Rose’s nose

Beats Cyrano’s.

Oh, what a lovely snout!”

Your little son

Will give you fun.

I’m sure that all your days’ll

Be filled with joy

‘Cause your small boy

Will be so nicely nasal.

In addition to his own works, my grandfather published a book of his own father’s verse, my great-grandfather’s, some composed, some remembered from vaudeville acts or magazines. For instance, poems in the “Little Willie” series, a popular genre of humorous poetry from the ‘30s that used to appear in the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post:

Little Willie’s gone from us

We’ll see him never more

‘Cause what he thought was H20

Was H2SO4

Also included are lots of nursery rhymes:

Mary had a little lamb,

Its fleece as white as snow.

It followed her to Pittsburgh.

Now look at the damn thing.

As a child I adored my grandfather. My grandmother was fun and doting, but dementia was already taking hold, whereas my grandfather was the most clever, the wittiest. Always in jacket and tie, harrumphing around the house, singing nonsense, reading out loud Sherlock Holmes stories. By 12 or 13, I learned to be intimidated by him. He wasn’t violent, just dismissive. Then in college I was old enough to hear the sarcasm, the disdain. I didn’t know what he thought of me; still, I was his inheritor. By the time I was 18, poetry was my life.

All I wanted to do was to become a poet. Not a humorous poet, but a serious one, a Walt Whitman, a Wallace Stevens — which, by the mid-1990s, was a little like aspiring to become a chimney-sweep. Who the fuck were poets anymore? What did poets even look like? Was that something you could even do?

I started to wake up early, or stay up late, and try my best to write things that were honest and interesting, that hopefully weren’t shit. Mostly they were shit; I felt like a fraud. But I kept at it, and worked even harder to play the part. Got drunk, wore blazers, slept around. Read my way through the canon and fell for writers like Frank O’Hara and Emily Dickinson, for whom poetry seemed so vital. I was 20 and pompous, full of ambition. At one point, I started a correspondence with another aspiring writer through the campus mail system, each of us dueling to sound the more like world-weary authors, even if our letters traveled only 3 feet from box to box.

Had my grandfather been half as pretentious? As a poet, the best thing I wrote in four years was dashed off on a whim. It was more personal than normal, about my fear of alcoholism. The poem included a line about my grandmother pouring vodka over her breakfast cereal. As an image, I truthfully can’t say if it’s real or invented, but the professor called me in to his office, said the poem was the best thing I’d written, the truest thing and least clever. This, he said, was what I should be striving for every time. Less playful. More serious. More real.

Toward the end of my senior year, my grandfather sent me a fat envelope. Inside were 26 typed pages, headlined “The Art of Writing Beautiful Poetry.” It was all he’d learned about writing poetry. He knew I wanted to be a serious poet; maybe I could learn something from his efforts as “a prosaic businessman,” as he referred to himself. I stuffed it away, didn’t read it. And didn’t feel much shame about that fact. I was floating comfortably, in my early twenties, between contempt and grudging respect in our relationship. Which meant I mostly pretended he didn’t exist. Contempt for his opinions, his monstrous ego. Contempt for the asshole of a father he’d been to my dad. And then respect for his mind, which I knew outclassed mine and always would, nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t even finish a Saturday Times crossword at that point, which, in our family, was like admitting you can’t read.

Granted, I was too self-involved to have articulated any of that. A couple weeks after I received my grandfather’s envelope, I was in the basement of a fraternity house off campus, drunk on beer. I tottered upstairs in the dark, looking for a bathroom to take a piss. On a bulletin board in the kitchen, between Polaroids of dudes being drunk, there was a drawing, a small cartoon. I was stunned: It was me, no doubt about it. Poofy hair, skinny jacket, long scarf, clutching a book — an aspiring Dr. Who. A friend of mine, one of the fraternity brothers, walked by. I asked him what the hell was this. His face flushed. “We had a contest the other night,” he said. “What do you mean?” I said. “To see who could draw you the best.” “What the fuck? Why me?” “I don’t know,” he said. “Dude, don’t take it seriously. Hey, it was my drawing that won,” he added, as if that earned him something, then excused himself.

So not just a fraud, but a clown.

A few months later, I stopped writing poetry. Moved to New York City, landed a job as a copy editor, found a room to rent in Brooklyn. Undertook the process of shedding my past; I wanted to start fresh. Poetry didn’t matter. I still got up early to write, out of habit, but wrote very little. Mostly I just stared at my blank legal pads. What was the point? I reported to work, spent eight hours editing reports and briefs, then rode the subway home. One morning in the office, I was at my desk when I experienced my first panic attack. My body froze. I couldn’t move my fingers. It lasted a long 30 seconds, and the whole time I was thinking, from deep inside my head, What the hell am I doing with my life? A couple of weeks later, an idea occurred to me on the subway: I’d always loved reading novels, why not try writing one?

My grandfather died a year and a half later. He was unhappy, sick, tormented by loneliness. My grandmother, his wife, had died a couple of years earlier after a long, ugly battle with Alzheimer’s disease. My sister and I visited him one weekend, at a hospital outside of Chicago. His massive frame lay in a bed, hooked up to monitors. His big eyes, magnified by his glasses, had difficulty identifying us. I doubt he knew who we were. But we weren’t nurses — that was enough. He wanted to escape, straight away. He needed our help, he said, pulling himself up, we needed to go right then. I said something like, “Let me go get someone,” and he shouted, “No, help me! Get me out of here!” He seized up in the bed, raving, delirious. He ripped a needle out of his arm, struggled to swing his long legs off the bed. I was terrified. I ran to get a nurse, thinking, I’m betraying him. My sister tried to hold his hand. The nurse came in to subdue him, pushed hard against his chest, and he wouldn’t lie back; he was still so strong. The look in his eyes was very lucid at that moment, directed at me, even if he didn’t know it was me: How can you let this happen? It was a really shitty final moment, and I’ve tried my best to forget it ever happened. He died a few months later.

Years passed before I read his essay on writing poetry. It’s a long, mostly tongue-in-cheek defense of his more formal style against the rise of free verse, but also a sincere attack on the decline of American education: “The young people of today simply do not know enough English words (out of an estimated total 600,000) to devise the intricate and beautiful lines that are the essence of great poetry.” His heroes, he wrote, were humorists like Norman Levy and Ogden Nash, who knew the rules so well they were entitled to break them.

Drafting the wedding poem for Jamie, my wife's cousin, went badly. Themes occurred and flitted away. There was added pressure because Jamie actually had requested that I write a poem, and now I needed to make good. He and his fiancé both liked food. Maybe that was my theme? They loved baseball. How many not-cliché metaphors could I get out of baseball? How many rhymes from White Sox or Nats?

Days were dwindling. I was running out of ideas. I had a rough draft going nowhere. I called up my dad for help. My father’s more of a visual artist, less a writer, though many of his poems rival my grandfather’s best work. I asked him again why the hell we do this — wasn’t it all rather “look at me?” He reminded me of the family motto, coined by my great-grandfather: “Don’t wait to be asked; volunteer!” At one point in the conversation, Dad put down the phone, went to the bookcase, and pulled down one of my grandfather’s collections. He read a poem at random. Quite wittily, it compared my grandmother’s looks to a horse, though not very nicely. “God, he could be cruel,” my dad sighed. “But remember, he really was a frustrated writer. The Great Depression ripped him off.” When my grandfather was young, my dad reminded me, he’d had dreams of becoming a serious writer, too, then both of his parents got sick. Then the Depression struck. He was the only earner, he’d needed to support the family, to help get his younger brothers through school. There wasn’t much room for artistic dreams.

I’m still sorting through my inheritance from my grandfather — what I want to keep, what I want to discard. I owe him my love of words. I resent him other things. I hear his voice when I’m being arrogant. Then again, years ago, when my wife and I received the news that he’d died, I was thunderstruck. I hadn’t seen him since the hospital visit. I was sitting at our dining table in Brooklyn. I hung up the phone, stared out the window, didn’t say anything. Then broke down, in a way I’d never done before and haven’t done since, nearly vomiting, spasming, on my knees. So many unconscious realizations. I’d never get a chance to impress him. Never get the chance — unpleasant as this may sound — to beat him at something. Never have an hour to be adults together, drink a beer together, discover jointly how alike we were. Never get to hear him tell me who I am.

I took out my wedding poem and read it to my father over the phone; we often share drafts. His poems more closely emulate my grandfather’s style, though he’d one-upped him more than once. (From a 1976 birthday poem, from my dad to my grandfather: “So onwards shall I drag my muse, / To toast him in pentameter – / A word that he has yet to rhyme, / Score one this blatant amateur.”) He pointed out a few places where a line could be tightened, or a rhyme improved. “Remember, it’s best if you can have as much internal rhyme as possible. Dad did it effortlessly.”

The truth is, writing silly poems now gives me solace. My grandfather may be gone, forever enigmatic, but through poetry we connect. Beyond names, beyond noses, it’s the simplest way we’re related. None of my grandfather’s poetry was ever “bad,” as he sometimes called it. Good or bad is beside the point. It was entertainment for friends and relatives, full of fun, praise, and wit. Against more serious poetry, that might sound trivial, but you can’t say it’s not alive. Days later, the stanzas finally began to click. I kept at it on the plane, in the hotel. Not my best work, but not terrible. I practiced my delivery on the gravel pathway outside the wedding tent. When it came time, the DJ called me up and handed me the mic. I got the same looks I see every time: bemusement, curiosity, dread. And I explained, as I always do, that this is my inheritance, an obligation from beyond the veil. Weird as it may seem, it’s a tradition I’m truly honored to continue: making poetry the best way I know how.

Want to read more essays from Inheritance Week? Sarah Hagi wrote aboutpaying remittance. David Dobbs explained the genetic research industry’s exaggerated picture of genetic power. Susie Cagle wrote about the difficulty of selling her grandmother’s clothes and the worth of vintage. Syreeta McFadden reflected on what it’s like being brown in a world of white beauty. Sharon H. Chang wrote about society’s fixation with mixed-race beauty. Chelsea Fagan compiled lessons on love and money from our parents. And finally, AJ Jacobs wrote about planning the world’s largest family reunion.

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