“T. S. Eliot’s line `April is the cruelest month’ is often quoted approvingly but I resoundingly disagree,” writes baseball author and jazz journalist Lee Lowenfish in his latest blog. “After all, how can any month that begins with the return of the baseball season be cruel? And lately April has also been designated Jazz Appreciation Month, perhaps because two of the giants of the music, Duke Ellington and bassist/composer Charles Mingus, were April birthday boys…”
Many of us taxpayers, though, respond to Eliot’s opening line of his poem of 1922, “The Waste Land,“ not with approval but with angst and even anger. As April 15 looms, we, Republicans and Democrats alike, are reminded of the cruelties and inequities of our state and federal and systems of taxation.
The Academy of American Poets and the American Poetry & Literacy Project understand this (poets tend to be sensitive creatures) and in recent years have taken the initiative to distribute free copies of “The Waste Land” at various post offices throughout the country as taxpayers flock to file their returns on time.
So let’s remember that April is also National Poetry Month. And here is our dilemma: April is a month of birdsong and, hereabouts, nature’s most prolific display of flowers. It’s a time when many a writer’s thoughts turn to poetry. It’s a time when hopes rise in the heart of the baseball fan – every team’s in first place as Opening Day dawns.
Yet smack in the middle of the month the IRS deadline reminds of the deep and angry divisions in our country. Tax reform is sorely needed, the regulations being so convoluted that an IRS agent once confided that he “could get anyone if he wanted to,” given that one hundred percent compliance is humanly impossible.
Later in The Waste Land, Eliot writes:
What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Is it crazy to fear that Washington, D.C., could be headed for Eliot’s list of fallen cities of past glories? Our politicians cannot even agree on how to debate – witness the Senate’s current fight over the filibuster – let alone get down to the actual business of governance.
Ever since Eliot’s poem appeared, critics have debated its meaning and its message. Written in the aftermath of World War I, it has to be a poem of despair. And yet the full stanza of Eliot’s opening lines reads:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
I see in the poem a cry to awaken and a caution of what history teaches and a celebration of the fourth month of the year. It’s a poignant reminder that indeed the lilacs – and the roses and daffodils – have once again bloomed, though the fresh greens of spring will fade to autumn browns, and the earth sleep through winter. The joys of the present are always connected with the pain of the past. Ninety-one years later Eliot’s words still resonate, if only we will listen.
Would that our politicians took an afternoon to grab a book of poetry, go sit under a tree, and ponder the anguished truths in Eliot’s poem.
Come to think of it, that’s good advice. What better month than April to visit Lido Village Books, Martha’s Bookstore on Balboa Island, Barnes & Noble in Fashion Island, or the newly re-opened Newport Beach Public Library and choose a slim (poetry books always tend to be slender) volume to read in your favorite shady spot for an hour.