The Marriage Equation

Two rings
Muhammad Ashiq/Flickr

The theme: a sentence culled from John Updike’s novel, Couples, which is essential for understanding the 1960s and the effect that easy access to birth control had on conventional, middle-class marital morality. Referring to one couples in a small New England community, Updike says that “every couple tends to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant.”

The sentence annoyed some egalitarian idealists, but there is an insight here into what might be called the equation of marriage: the peculiar balance that makes a partnership work. This (and the anachronistic language of feudal Europe) commended the passage to me, and I tossed it out there as a potential point of departure for a poem, not only because it is provocative but, more important, because it might trigger a quick meditation. And it might also be said that a quick meditation is the precise definition of a certain kind of brief lyric poem.

“A Common Enemy,” Millicent Caliban’s title, immediately caught my eye. Can the marriage of true or untrue minds resemble the diplomatic endeavors of nations acting on the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Here is Millicent’s poem:

To be a couple is a kind of play.
Each spouse performs a part with assigned role
although the script demands improvisation.
Together actors must work out the plot,
each one attuned to read the other’s cues.
The one who takes the lead to rule the roost
provokes a partner who is there to serve,
though not without resentment underneath.
The one who is allowed to rant and rave
forces calm and reason on the other
unless that one insists on going crazy.
Which one can play the fool or lunatic?
Ideally each of us yearns to be free
while also in control: there are constraints.
The cost of being two is to obey
the passions and the lust of someone else.
The benefit is being not alone
when facing the indignities of time.

Unsatisfied with her attempts to write a poem based on the Updike quote, Josie Cannella wrote that the assignment “was tough for me,” because “I’m what one might call ‘between marriages’ very literally, as I am divorcing a woman and soon marrying a man.” As soon as I read that sentence, I wrote, “That’s a first line for you!” And Josie responded with her heartfelt, joyous “Epithalamion after Separation”—an oxymoronic title:

Divorcing a woman and marrying a man,
I’m undoing the undoing that was my undoing.
For twenty-five years, I played the peasant to
her false fiefdom.
Supremely subjugated,
my ambitions abbreviated
and my creativity confiscated
by conversations unelevated,
I was deliberately devastated.
Now the life for which I’ve waited
a lifetime or two is celebrated.

I recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece “How to be a Big-League Critic” for The American Scholar, warning against ubiquitous terms like “iconic,” and advising the use of words that no one uses or will bother to look up, such as “eidetic.” Acknowledging that she “could not have written this without your professional hints,” Patricia Smith submitted “A Lofty Verse Essay on the Role of Partners in a Marriage”:

According to John Updike
“Every marriage tends to consist
of an aristocrat and a peasant.”
Today’s iconic couples no longer
consist necessarily of a male and a female
traditionally the aristocrat and peasant
according to the expensive research
of noted Professor O. B. Livious [et al.]
who have concluded that roles
change regardless of and in spite of the players.

If my eidetic memory serves me correctly,
that may or may not be true
as some of the renowned Professor’s [et al.]
research lacked authenticity
and may have been incorrectly
interpreted so you may go ahead
and conclude what you will.

I liked the way Ricky Ray’s “Cohabitation” begins with a reflexive rejection but then lets the mind have its way:

The book said: “Every marriage tends
to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant.”
And we thought, “good thing aristocrats
have six feet of earth waiting for them
in ours.” But then we looked at each other
and went to bed, a little quieter than usual.
Happy in our peasantry, divas when it came
to flavor, literature, the ways a politician
should hang on the end of a hook. I’m annoying.
You’re impatient. We both turn up our noses
at each other’s books. I’m sensitive. You’re
forgiving. One of us likes to cuddle. One to save
birds who flap on the ground in need of help.
The wind turns the page and there we are,
reading at different speeds, laughing
at different lines, a dog where our habits
overlap, my hand on her leg, yours on mine.

Herbert McDunnough’s “From Words of Sand” originally ended with a dying fall; a simple revision produced this fine poem:

If, as Sand said, peasants are born kings
of the earth far more truly
than those who possess it only
from having bought it,

then peasants are born kings
of the heart,
and also lords of love.

Michael C. Rush said he had little feeling for the Updike quote but submitted “Sing” as his word on the subject of love:

When you love, you try everything,
even the impossible.

It is an expression of the processing,
a revelation of the algorithm.

As if someone had said, let everyone suffer
to leave behind one glorious thing.

This is the thing that defines,
that defines things.

I’m writing the words I need to write
to get to the words you need to read.

I take away the name from every thing
and bid them sing.

To everyone who didn’t see me,
I leave nothing, nothing, less than nothing

“The Peasant Revolt,” Elizabeth Solsburg’s brilliant sonnet, reverses the usual order of stanzas to excellent effect. The two three-line stanzas precede two four-line stanzas, as if the structure of the poem could reinforce its argument:

Every marriage tends to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant. —John Updike

Is it true that every marriage is a miniature fiefdom?
One aristocrat, monarch, benevolent despot
and one peasant to do all the heavy lifting.

The aristocrat knows how the kingdom
works, how its currency is love frugally spent—
the power goes to the one who is hoarding.

The peasant is the one who talked first about love,
revealed a weakness the monarch exploits.
So only the peasant tills in the field,
only the peasant cares for the soil.

But one day the kingdom becomes the trope
of a heavy burden pressed too hard,
leading to the cliched peasant revolt—
and the whole damn fiefdom falls apart.

In “Human Trends,” Diana Ferraro’s adapts Updike’s assertion to suit the case of “happy, unfair marriages / Where people tend never to complain”:

When wisdom marries humility
Queens and kings tend to be loved
When freedom marries smugness
Former serfs become despicable
The ups and downs of classes
Never tell what needs to be told
The loved and their lovers match
Masters and serfs in the likeness
Of happy, unfair marriages
Where people tend never to complain.

I especially like the way line three repeats the structure of line one—and the subtlety of thought that informs the writing.

There are other poems worthy of perpetuation, but space is finite. A salute to all.

Implicit in the most arresting poems was the idea that the relationship of “aristocrat” to “peasant” can be more complex than the words themselves imply. I was glad not to encounter many poems that immediately got huffy and denounced the famous novelist. The best poem on the inequality inevitable in any human coupling is W. H. Auden’s “The More Loving One.” Consider: “If equal affection cannot be, / let the more loving one be me.” This is a poem I loved teaching in my “Great Poems” course in NYU’s freshman honors program. I asked the students who would you rather be, the more loving one or the more loved one? If you haven’t read the poem, please do. You’re in for a treat.

A new prompt goes up next Tuesday, July 16th. Stay tuned.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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