Apr 6, 2018
Those of us on the east coast are starting April with snow and wind and rain, the stuff of deep winter. We lie in wait. So it was a particularly beautiful provocation to read this excerpt and commentary by Matthew Zapruder in his new book, Why Poetry on T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. I’m thinking not just about the work of poetry but the promise usually associated with our current spot on the calendar:
Before the beginning of The Waste Land there is a short epigraph in both Latin and Greek, a quote about an ancient Greek oracle known as the Sybil, from The Satyricon by Petronius. Despite what we might have been told by scholars and teachers, our ultimate understanding of the poem does not depend upon this immediate demand for erudition. Yes this demand can be so intimidating and destabilizing that it establishes a certain mentality about reading poetry, such that when the poem itself begins, we might not notice that it is written in plain English that anyone can read:
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.
Think for a moment if this were written in prose. Would you find it confusing? Maybe a bit elusive—what is the point, why is he telling us this?—but not mystifying. There is not a single complicated word in the passage.
The poem begins with an odd, subjective assertion: “April is the cruellest month.” Why? Things are starting to come alive again. Our expectations are low in winter: we are just trying to survive. In spring, big things start to happen, “Memory and desire.” The “Dull roots” are starting to come to life again, because of the spring rain. The poem talks about the month like it’s a person, asserting that it is somehow responsible for “breeding” these flowers—lilacs—out of the dead land. The elements of time–April and winter—are personified, and switch their usual roles, April becoming something cruel and terrible, because it starts to make us aware of some things we might have forgotten: memory and desire.
The brief close reading I just demonstrated of that passage above required no special knowledge, only attention. The meaning of the poem resides on the page, and is available to an attentive reader.
Could there also be a symbolic significance to some of the elements in the passage above? Yes, absolutely. Do we NEED to research April, lilacs, dull roots, spring rain, to “get” the poem? I don’t think so.