April is the Cruelest Month

So, it’s Poetry month, which means all the cool websites are posting poetry. . . which means all the small presses who publish poetry are oscillating between being happy about the free publicity and furious about the copyright violations.

Because Tiny Cat Pants is not a cool website (it’s the kind of website you catch drinking straight from the milk jug–totally not cool), I’m not quoting any poetry at length.

I am going to make two important points about poetry, though.

1. Poetry will get you extraordinary reactions. I got on a plane for the first time in my life a mere six years ago to fly from North Carolina to Boston because a gangly, awkward history student sent me an email containing only a snippet of a poem Lord Byron wrote about some woman’s boobs.

2. It’s far better for people who want to get laid to read poetry out loud than it is for the poet himself to read it out loud, usually (unless the poet wrote the poem to get laid, in which case, read away.). While in North Carolina, I had a class on modern poetry. The professor brought in a recording of T.S. Eliot reading “The Waste Land.”

For those of you who haven’t read it, “The Waste Land” is this trippy complicated epitome of modernist poetry. Modernism means, I guess, pulling in everything that’s ever inspired you and smashing it all together and thinking the end result means something. (Post-modernism means, I think, the same thing, except that the end result is you growing increasingly cynical.)

So, over the course of this poem, you have invoked the Grail cycles, Shakespeare, tarot, Buddhism, globalization, and on and on. And the poem starts like this:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

If just read it, it’s striking enough–that part about “mixing memory and desire” just gets to me. And, indeed, there is something really cruel about stirring up things in places we’ve come to accept as dead. But if you read it out loud, it’s extraordinary. You have all these soft gentle sounds–ls and ms and rs–breaking up against bs and ds and sts and sps.

The words sound like what they’re about–placidness being stirred up by spiky signs of life. It’s awesome.

But to hear my fellow Midwesterner (what’s with us running off to England and pretending we’re British? We can only hope Madonna reads this and deigns to answer) read this poem . . . Folks, it was hilarious and I still can’t look at the poem without thinking of him speaking it out loud.

It sounded like he was speaking to us from beyond the grave, like Beowulf had nailed Eliot’s good arm to the wall of some hall and so we had to hear the poem from the perspective of a mutilated zombie who wished he were Chaucer’s progenitor.

“Oaop rrruyl is tha krew uel eist mon-th,” he groaned, and though we were all supposed to be deeply touched by his moving recitation, I looked around the room and saw a bunch of other people who also were not sure if this was a joke, and I started to laugh.

Apparently, you are allowed to have all kinds of reactions to “difficult” modernist poetry, but, my friends, scholars who’ve spent their whole lives studying modernist poetry do not appreciate it when you laugh long and hard at Eliot. They also don’t appreciate it when you answer, in response to “What’s so funny?”, “I can’t take that seriously. No one from St. Louis sounds like that.”