April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
- from The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot
The well-educated person, the sophisticate, the literary competent is supposed to love poetry. But I have to admit, I don't always. So much modern poetry seems so self-serving, so deliberately opaque, and so patronizing that it loses the impact it should have. It drains the joy or pathos that should exude from poetry. And I'll even admit the unforgivable sin of the reader of poetry: I think it should rhyme. (In my defense, Robert Frost, among the pantheon of American poets, agreed, saying, "Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.")
Yet, all poetry in my view can be great, can be powerful. The beauty and impact of poetry is that it conveys enormous meaning in few words. That is also why many scholars of poetry believe it to be the most difficult form of literature to write well. If I am writing prose, there is no word limit, no requirements of verse or stanza or rhythm. I can drone on and on forever until I am quite sure that my meaning is fully expressed. Philosophers write prose and their works so often go on for literally thousands of pages, as they try to drill down and ensure that they cannot be misunderstood. Even when they use such modern conventions as fiction to make their points, they somehow still manage to consume whole trees in a single tome. Try slogging through Ayn Rand.
For me, then, judging a poem's worth is getting a sense of its success at transmitting some large truth, some great meaning, in the small, unassuming package that is a poem.
Having said that, until recently, I took almost no notice of The Wasteland. "April is the cruellest month,..." seemed just silly, so inane in fact that I didn't even delve into it. April is, in fact, a wonderful month. Both of my sons were born in April. I first met my beloved mother - in the sense of taking conscious notice of her - in April. April brings the circus to town. Though March may truly bring the vernal equinox, spring really holds sway in April. And I love spring. Unless, I suppose, you reside in the south temperate zone, i.e. 'down under,' how could you possibly find April cruel?
Yet Eliot does. Why?
Even a cursory review of the literature interpreting The Wasteland leaves one with an almost infinite number of possible reasons. This is odd since Eliot weighed in himself but it is in the nature of art that its creator loses control of its meaning the instant he reveals it to the world. My best sense of its meaning - and this is widely held - is that Eliot found April cruel because it contrasted so severely with his inner life at the time of its composition. If one finds life cold and dark, devoid of joy or hope, filled with despair, winter is an empathetic companion. There is no dissonance, no disagreement between you and the outside world. Winter agrees with you.
Then along comes April and reverses all of that. Warmth tries to penetrate the soul. Life explodes in all of its glory. What seemed lost, what seemed to be forever, irrevocably dead, lives and gives life to everything around it. And the person in despair collapses as her heart loses that boon companion of winter. Spring contrasts with such a soul, dissents, disputes, condemns. Such a person is suddenly abandoned, bereft of even the comfort that company brings to misery.
Thankfully, I rarely feel such depression in the sense of a general malaise and never as a clinical ailment. The price of this is a detachment from a poem generally considered to be a modern masterpiece.
Still, all is not lost. When April arrived this year, the last of the snow melted, the robins - a bird my mother dearly loved and which I will always appreciate as a result - filled my yard, temperatures climbed into the 50s and 60s and even the occasional 70s. And I exulted in my love for spring. With relish, I anticipated family birthdays, the celebration of Easter, the many festivities that would soon begin, contemporaneous with a waning school year.
Then it happened. The April blizzard last week which buried all of spring's promise and plunged schools back into the 'weather call' season which was so intense and so long this last winter. Just when we thought it was over - and how do we convince ourselves each year that April blizzards are out of the question when experience tells us they are a normal part of the South Dakota clime? - it came howling back. Just when April's promise had settled into our hearts, had seemingly cast aside the cold and frost and miseries of winter, it takes one last (hopefully) painful swipe and, because it so contrasts with that promise, is all the more chilling.
For cruelty is only at its height when reality conflicts most starkly with expectation. Thus, Eliot's cruelty of winter's expiration is our cruelty of spring's suspension. Yes, as it turns out, April can be cruel indeed.