The poet Aaron Kramer first passed across my radar in the lyrics to a song, Prothalamium, sung by Judy Collins on her Whales and Nightingales album. I played the record over and over while lying by the forced air register in a house on Balboa Island. It was 1971.
Decades later, the poem showed up as the epigraph in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer.
Prothalamium by Aaron Kramer
Come, all you who are not satisfied
as ruler in a lone, wallpapered room
full of mute birds, and flowers that falsely bloom,
and closets choked with dreams that long ago died!
Come, let us sweep out the old streets – like a bride:
sweep out dead leaves with a relentless broom;
prepare for Spring, as though he were our groom
for whose light footstep eagerly we bide.
We’ll sweep out shadows, where the rats long fed;
sweep out our shame – and in its place we’ll make
a bower for love, a splendid marriage-bed
fragrant with flowers aquiver for the Spring.
And when he comes, our murdered dreams shall wake;
and when he comes, all the mute birds shall sing.
Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer is a favorite of mine. I used to reread it every spring. I picked it up again just a day ago, and when I read the epigraph, I heard again the song in my head. This reading prompted me to investigate the poem.
My curiosity led me first to the poet Aaron Kramer, about whom I knew nothing. Kramer (1921-1997) was a busy guy. Besides producing several books of poetry, he translated works by Rilke and others, and he pioneered the use of poetry as therapy. For more information, check out his page at www.aaronkramer.com.
A “prothalamium” or “prothalamion” is a poem or song written to celebrate a betrothal. One of the oldest ,or possibly the oldest, example is the poem by Edmund Spenser, written in 1596 to celebrate the betrothals of two sisters. Spenser invented the name for the form, based on the “epithalamium,” a wedding song or poem.
Here are the first lines of Spenser’s poem:
CALM was the day, and through the trembling air
Sweet breathing Zephyrus did softly play,
A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay
Hot Titan’s beams, which then did glister fair;
When I whose sullen care,
Through discontent of my long fruitless stay
In prince’s court, and expectation vain
Of idle hopes, which still do fly away
Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain,
Walked forth to ease my pain
Along the shore of silver streaming Thames,
Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems,
Was painted all with variable flowers,
And all the meads adorned with dainty gems,
Fit to deck maidens’ bowers,
And crown their paramours,
Against the bridal day, which is not long:
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
Returning to Kramer’s poem, I find its words relevant for our current times. We in the U.S. and much of the world, seem to be experiencing a reordering and growth. The pandemic forces us to acknowledge our interdependency and connectedness. The upheaval over systemic racism pushes forth a truth that demands recognition and change.
Here is the Judy Collins version of Kramer’s Prothalamium, music by Michael Sahl.