Saturday, April 7, 2012

Poetry, Cruelty and April

April is National Poetry Month. I enjoy reading poetry year-round (I get a poem in my inbox every day, thanks to, but this time of year I especially enjoy revisiting some of my favorites. One that comes to mind every April is T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. It famously begins...
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
From there, it goes on for another 430 lines, plus several pages of footnotes. I have read it many times. Once, years ago, I thought I understood it. Now, I'm not so sure. I get confused by all of the characters. Is the archduke's cousin Marie the same as the hyacinth girl? Is she also the woman who "smoothes her hair with automatic hand, And puts a record on the gramophone?" And what about Madame Sosostris, Albert and Lil, Mrs. Porter and her daughter...?

Whether I understand it or not, I still enjoy reading The Waste Land. It reminds me of the first time I read it, years ago in Professor Novak's modern poetry class. If Professor Novak ever explained its meaning, I don't remember it. Come to think of it, I don't remember Professor Novak ever explaining the meaning of a poem. "A poem should not mean but be," he would often say, quoting Archibald MacLeish.

Professor Novak's method of teaching poetry was to read a poem aloud or have a student read it, give it a few moments to sink in, then start asking lots of "why" questions, like, "Why is April the cruelest month?" (I had no idea. As someone who grew up experiencing northern Indiana winters, I would have gone with January or February—maybe March.)
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent
"Why 'Shakespeherian'?" Novak asked. None of us had an answer. Then he sang the words in a jazzy, syncopated rhythm. Suddenly, "Shakespeherian" made sense. The lines were meant to parody a popular song of the era. By making us look at the lines in a slightly different way—as a song—Professor Novak helped us better understand them.

I guess poems like The Waste Land are the reason that some people don't like poetry. They find it too difficult. That's unfortunate. Poetry is like life. ("Life distilled," Gwendolyn Brooks called it.) Like life, poetry can be difficult. It can also be beautiful, challenging, enlightening, and sometimes—like April—it can be cruel.

Sometimes, it can even seem meaningless.

But there is meaning. Try looking at it in a slightly different way, and maybe—just maybe—it will make sense.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
 Happy National Poetry Month!

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