By Damian Robin

Quick, pick a good book of poems and let your soul soar. Or clip in your ear buds and listen to words by the score. Or rack up some speakers and loudly let rhetoric roar — it’s April, it’s Poetry Month, let poems take the floor.

The first National Poetry Month was in April 1996. National Poetry Month is a U.S.-specific event and not celebrated in the rest of the world. However, nobody will hold that against them as it is called the National Poetry Month so there’s no attempt at hegemony like there may have been with the World Series in baseball.

We, in this snippet of the UK, can do the English thing and be deferential while holding to an inner knowledge of superiority. The history of English poems of the United Kingdom is longer than that of the U.S. — even though the language went through many changes and few people get far in the Middle English of Chaucer without a lexicon or plain English translation. This is not even going as far as Old English where there are different characters, like one letter for the sound th.

Of course, this applies to prose as well as poetry, but let’s stick with the short line stuff. For Example, April was chosen to be the U.S. National Poetry Month by poets, booksellers, librarians, and teachers as “a month when poetry could be celebrated with the highest level of participation,” according to poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets who promote the Month. “April seemed the best time within the year to turn attention toward the art of poetry—in an ultimate effort to encourage poetry readership year-round.”

So their reasoning has elements of Spring, the season of renewal, and where growth starts. Many poems begin with April and Spring’s transformative qualities. Take Chaucer as an example.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

So “bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury” by Geoffrey Chaucer. These lines can be translated as

When April with its sweet showers
has pierced the drought of March to its root
and bathed every vein in a liquor
whose virtue engendered is the flower

Chaucer goes on to give brief portraits of the pilgrims ready to set off to Canterbury from the Tabard Inn, near the Bell, in Southwark in today’s London. More than 500 years after Chaucer and after “the war to end all wars,” T.S. Eliot begins one of his major poems with a reversal of the ability of the natural positive nature of the month. The voice of “The Waste Land” starts the poem with

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

It is a direct reference to Chaucer’s poem. Indeed, 39% or 28% of the content of “The Waste Land,” depending how you measure it, is Eliot’s notes in which he references Chaucer. It’s as though he had little confidence in the poem standing on its own.

Eliot’s April deletes the cleansing and virtuous properties of Chaucer’s April making it feel smaller in size. “The Waste Land” is about desolation, disillusion, and futility — there are not lofty aspirations or humanly sustainable notions that can carry any hope of revival or lift the mind to higher ideals or beyond the base line of their loss.

At least Eliot is not reveling in a mechanical, globally conflicted, human-replacing culture as other literary and art movements of the early 1900s did. The Futurists and the Vorticists reduced humans to angular distortion or a speed mark of dynamism. He was reporting on the human void of the time not advocating it as a way forward.

Eliot collaborated with Ezra Pound on the editing of “The Waste Land,” published in 1922, and famously dedicated the poem “For Ezra Pound / il miglior fabbro” (usually translated as “the better craftsman”). Ezra Pound was a strong advocate of Vorticism and encouraged Eliot to see himself as an experimentalist and a figure within Modernism. A few years earlier, Eliot had dismissed Pound’s verse.

In the short poem “April”, Pound sees the month in turmoil:

Three spirits came to me
And drew me apart
To where the olive boughs
Lay stripped upon the ground:
Pale carnage beneath bright mist.

Another influential figure in Eliot’s poetic life, Edna St. Vincent Millay, also turns round the sense of unfolding in April. Her poem “Spring” begins: “To what purpose, April, do you return again?” and ends: “April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”

Although there are many ugly and negative views of Spring and April in Modern poetry, these are outweighed by the mass of older poems and those that are part of the revival of traditional poetry. For example, Betsy M. Hughes’ “April Earth” is a splendid example:

Beneath us sleeps a secret, patient world
Of fertile earth and plantings — bulbs and seeds
In moistened soil, safely tucked and curled,
Receiving rains sufficient to their needs.
The ground is soundless.  Underneath, the mood
Is active waiting, purposeful, and pure —
Anticipation cooled with quietude
Until a sure emergence is secure.
Then urgent stems must make their run to light,
They push through pathways in the loam, upswing —
Up!  Up!  —  toward a place where all is bright,
They burst into the warmth and fire of spring.
New shoots from tubers, bulging buds give scope
To subterranean harbingers of hope!

Let us take this uplifting April vision with us as we celebrate National Poetry Month. In the United Kingdom, we have Poetry Day – one day only, note, not a month. Perhaps us original English have less stamina for the rigors of its performance and less money in academic cloisters or entrepreneurs’ pockets for its propagation.

This year it’s on Thursday October 6th  for all four UK countries. The theme for National Poetry Day 2016 will be Messages. My message to you: Enjoy poetry all year around.

 

Information on Poetry Day in the United Kingdom

It’s free to run an event in England on October 6th  though you can charge for your event. You need to register with the Forward Arts Foundation. They are straightening out their calendar and will have a registration form up before too long.

And you can find other information from The Poetry Society.

In Northern Ireland the event is a poetry competition on the theme of Messages. The winning poems will be read in Stormont on October 6th. They are open for submissions.

 

Damian Robin is a poet living in the United Kingdom.

Featured Image: “Spring” by Frederick Walker

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One Response

  1. Damian Robin

    On Re-Reading Some of T.S.Eliot’s Verse

    To hear the words begin and end in air.
    To see their meanings rooted in their time.
    To read how tentatively sense is put
    (by Grand Master, Mister Eliot).

    To get the repetition and the rhyme
    together in the meaning like a scent
    together with the mimic beat in time
    forever in the tether of what’s meant.

    He helped reveal the end we’re falling to —
    the ash of human faith; divine destroyed;
    the moral hollowness of Waste and Void.

    Though not uplifting, what he wrote holds true.
    His best-known works hone beauty, bleak with care.
    His books, like gulls, wing spirals on bad air.

    Random Notes

    Besides The Waste Land, “Waste” appears many times in Chorus VII from The Rock, always attached to “void”: “Waste and void”.

    Pronunciation of Mr Eliot taken from Lines for ‘Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad Ali Beg’, the fifth and last part of ‘Five-Finger Exercises’. He rhymes his surname with ‘cut’, ‘But’, and ‘shut’.

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