Peninsular Poetry: “April is the cruelest month …”April 2nd, 2011 by Chris Henry
I’m all for financial literacy and grilled cheese, but I’m going to focus on the celebration of poetry.
I’d forgotten how much I like poetry ’til I started poking around for this and upcoming posts that you’ll see every now and then throughout April. Even if I don’t entirely understand the meaning or intent — as with T.S. Eliot‘s The Waste Land, whence the “cruelest month” phrase emanates — I like to see words pushed outside their comfort zones or used just for the pure fun of they way they sound. And I like that poems can say something different to different people and still be valid all around.
Carl Sandburg (1878-1976) defines poetry as, “a pack-sack of invisible keepsakes. Poetry is a sky dark with a wild-duck migration. Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment.”
Over the next month, I hope to share with you a random sampling of poems (well-known and obscure, old, really old and contemporary). I invite commentary, and if you’re a poet yourself, feel free to post your work in the comment section. If it doesn’t fit there, e-mail it to me and I’ll consider it for inclusion in a blog post.
One note: Because this blog is a part of the Kitsap Sun, we probably ought to agree to keep it all PG13, which is why a poem like James Dickey’s Cherry Log Road (one of my all time favorites, I must confess) might fly, while a poem on the order of “a 340 dollar horse and a hundred dollar whore” by Charles Bukowski may be considered outside the pale of good taste. I’ll refrain from linking to it, but I did get a kick out of reading it. Likewise Bukowski’s “I wanted to overthrow the government, but all I brought down was somebody’s wife.”
So, about The Wasteland, it probably rates right up there with Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as one of the most studied and yet stubbornly obscure poems an undergrad literature major, as I was, is bound to encounter. I studied Eliot in more than one class, and I still don’t know what the heck either poem means. But they speak to me somehow.
The Wasteland begins:
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
Well, I’m down with that. Spring is not my favorite time of year. It’s such a big tease.
The poem doesn’t get any cheerier.
“Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”
There are parts that are sad, yet humorous, and oh so human. Like a discussion in a pub on which Eliot seems to eavesdrop:
“When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.”
And then, I’m a sucker for vivid description, like:
“The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank.”
“A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank …”
The Wasteland is a fairly lengthy poem. If you want a shorter example of T.S. Eliot, try “Aunt Helen.” It’s much shorter, but also takes a wry view of death.