Non-Traditional Wedding Readings for a Memorable Ceremony
Finding the Perfect Poem or Passage About Marriage
Being asked to do a reading at a wedding is a great honor, but is often followed by fear or panic when you have to actually figure out what you are going to read. There are so many options out there, and so many different angles to take.
When I was asked to do a reading for a friend, I knew I wanted to find something that was really meaningful, that would reflect the seriousness and depth of the commitment that they were making to each other. This is my own bias, having seen both of my parents be married a number of times. I know some people really enjoy having fun and silly readings at their weddings, but for me, I want something that captures the seriousness of marriage, while also being hopeful, beautiful, and creative.
I also wanted it to be short enough that people wouldn't tune out, and original enough that people wouldn't start rolling their eyes the second they heard the first line. But I also didn't want it to be so out there that it wouldn't make sense to anyone—I don't believe in being unique just for the sake of being unique.
If I had the skills, I would have loved to write them something original, and my brother did just that for my wedding and it was amazing. But I did not feel up to the task, so I did a lot of searching and thinking about what would work for my friends' ceremony. I thought I would share the product of my labors, and the five readings that I narrowed down to before making my final choice. Hopefully this will help others in a similar situation.
Poems and Passages That Were Disqualified for Being Too Common
There are a number of readings about marriage that people think are original, but they really aren't. They are beautiful, and I'm not trying to diminish any of them. I just think they are more common than most people think, and if you are really trying to come up with something that a lot of people won't have heard before, you have to dig deeper than these options.
Readings I eliminated because I think they are used too commonly, even though they are absolutely beautiful:
- Anything from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran—absolutely beautiful, but I think this is the first thing that people go to when they think "non-traditional," so odds are a lot of people will have heard it already
- "Marriage" by Gregory Corso—also an amazing poem, but very long, and another go-to choice for people trying to be unique and original.
- Excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (begins "For one human being to love another...")—beautiful readings, on the shorter side, but I have heard it a number of times. I did include another option from Rilke that I think is less common.
- Passages from children's books (Velveteen Rabbit being the most common)—I completely understand the sweetness of using something from a children's book, but I really wanted something that also captured the gravity of making a commitment to someone for a lifetime, and I didn't feel a passage from a children's book could do that.
"If You Forget Me" by Pablo Neruda
Part of me still wishes I had the nerve to have someone read this poem at my wedding. I think it comes off at first as a very odd choice for a wedding, but I love the way it ends, and I love the overall point of it—to me, it's about love coming from a place of choice, not desperation. Poems that talk about how one person will love another no matter if they abandon them or mistreat them or forget them have never resonated with me.
The sort of devious side of me also just loves the idea of someone reading the line: "if little by little you stop loving me I shall stop loving you little by little" at a wedding ceremony. But in the end, we ended up having my brother and a friend pick out their own readings, and that worked out really well. I still think this would be a fabulous poem to read at a wedding, and even better if someone could read it in English as well as the original Spanish.
"If You Forget Me" by Pablo Neruda:
I want you to know
You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.
If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.
if each day,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.
From "First Poems" by Rainer Maria Rilke
This one I think is the best choice if you are going for something short. It's simply beautiful without being trite or cheesy. I just love it.
From "First Poems" by Rainer Maria Rilke
Understand, I'll slip quietly
Away from the noisy crowd
When I see the pale
Stars rising, blooming over the oaks.
I'll pursue solitary pathways
Through the pale twilit meadows,
With only this one dream:
You come too.
From "The Essential Rumi" Translated by Coleman Barks
Part of me fears that Rumi is a little too common for non-traditional wedding readings, but this passage/poem is just so amazing and has so much too it, and I don't actually recall having heard it at any of the many weddings I've been to. I seriously considered reading this one at my friends' wedding, and if ever asked to do a reading again, this would probably be the first one I would suggest.
From "The Essential Rumi" translated by Coleman Barks
When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you're not here, I can't go to sleep.
Praise God for these two insomnias!
And the difference between them.
The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They're in each other all along.
We are the mirror as well as the face in it.
We are tasting the taste this minute
of eternity. We are pain
and what cures pain, both. We are
the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.
I want to hold you close like a lute, so we can cry out with loving.
You would rather throw stones at a mirror?
I am your mirror, and here are the stones.
"Marked Playing Cards" by Charles Simic
I have always loved this poem. I am not a huge poetry fan, but I had to rip this one out of the New Yorker when I read it in there many years ago. To me, it's about the beautiful hopefulness of love. It can seem an odd choice for a wedding ceremony because it's about a man who hasn't met the woman he dreams of yet, but I think it's gorgeous in that it captures the dream of love, and that is part of what a wedding ceremony is about—having found that dream and trying to hold on to it.
Marked Playing Cards by Charles Simic
I took my TV and bass fiddle to the pawnshop.
Then I had my car stolen and everything in it.
This morning I’m down to a windbreaker and house slippers,
But I feel cheerful, even though it’s snowing.
This proves she loves me, I said to the crowd
Waiting for the bus. They were afraid to look my way.
I let myself be reduced to rags, I explained.
I marked playing cards to cheat against myself.
All my life I kept raising the stakes, knowing
That each new loss assured me of her complete love.
(The bus was late, so they had to hear the rest.)
I told them that I never met her, but that I was certain
She had a premonition of my existence,
As I do of hers. Perhaps this is the moment
She comes along and recognizes me standing here?
Because my mind was busy with our first kiss,
I didn’t hear the bus arrive and leave.
High over the roofs, the sky was already clearing.
I still had the greasy cards in my pocket.
With my bad luck, I surmised, she was due by nightfall.
Shuffling through the snow and shivering,
I was ready to bet the rest of my clothes on her.
My Choice for the Best Non Traditional Wedding Reading
This is the passage that I ended up choosing to read at my friends' wedding. It seemed to be well received and most people commented that they really liked it but hadn't ever heard it before, which was my hope. I love that it captures the seriousness of marriage, and also that it's an ongoing process, and is actually not necessarily a limitation, but helping us become the best people we can become. I try to remember this reading for my own marriage.
From "The Irrational Season" by Madeleine L'Engle:
But ultimately there comes a moment when a decision must be made. Ultimately two people who love each other must ask themselves how much they hope for as their love grows and deepens, and how much risk they are willing to take…It is indeed a fearful gamble…Because it is the nature of love to create, a marriage itself is something which has to be created, so that, together we become a new creature.
To marry is the biggest risk in human relations that a person can take…If we commit ourselves to one person for life this is not, as many people think, a rejection of freedom; rather it demands the courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession, but participation…It takes a lifetime to learn another person…When love is not possession, but participation, then it is part of that co-creation which is our human calling...
Some Other Great Sources for Non-Traditional Reading Ideas
- Awesome wedding readings for bad-ass couples | Offbeat Bride
A fantastic list of off-beat readings from modern literature, songs, etc that are a little edgier and more current than the traditional. I particularly love "The Invitation."