Peninsular Thinking

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Peninsular Poetry: “April is the cruelest month …”

April 2nd, 2011 by Chris Henry

April is National Poetry Month and has been since 1996. It is also National Financial Literacy Month, National Grilled Cheese month and probably a whole bunch of other national-this-or-that months.

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.”

or

“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.

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2 Responses to “Peninsular Poetry: “April is the cruelest month …””

  1. Sharon OHara Says:

    Here is one I like…

    “Under a spreading chestnut-tree
    The village smithy stands;
    The smith, a mighty man is he,
    With large and sinewy hands;
    And the muscles of his brawny arms
    Are strong as iron bands.

    His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
    His face is like the tan;
    His brow is wet with honest sweat,
    He earns whate’er he can,
    And looks the whole world in the face,
    For he owes not any man.

    Week in, week out, from morn till night,
    You can hear his bellows blow;
    You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
    With measured beat and slow,
    Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
    When the evening sun is low.

    And children coming home from school
    Look in at the open door;
    They love to see the flaming forge,
    And hear the bellows roar,
    And catch the burning sparks that fly
    Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

    He goes on Sunday to the church,
    And sits among his boys;
    He hears the parson pray and preach,
    He hears his daughter’s voice,
    Singing in the village choir,
    And it makes his heart rejoice.

    It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,
    Singing in Paradise!
    He needs must think of her once more,
    How in the grave she lies;
    And with his haul, rough hand he wipes
    A tear out of his eyes.

    Toiling,–rejoicing,–sorrowing,
    Onward through life he goes;
    Each morning sees some task begin,
    Each evening sees it close
    Something attempted, something done,
    Has earned a night’s repose.

    Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
    For the lesson thou hast taught!
    Thus at the flaming forge of life
    Our fortunes must be wrought;
    Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
    Each burning deed and thought.”

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – The Village Blacksmith

  2. Chris Henry Says:

    Sharon – Ah, yes, what a classic. I wonder how many schoolkids had to memorize this.

    Chris Henry, reporter

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