It's National Poetry Month, which looks like a simple lark at first glance. But April is about right for our bittersweet national mood, if you believe what poets have written over the ages.
Oh April, are you the cruelest month? T.S. Eliot says so in the famed first line of The Wasteland, accusing you of:
mixing / Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
To keep things fresh, I might add a near government shutdown sent shivers down as the town clock struck midnight Friday night, April 8th, in Washington. We were afraid of lights going out out all over the land, starting with the Capitol dome lantern going dark. A cruel scenario, to be sure. [Read Schlesinger: The Numbers Behind the Budget Deal]
So, if not completely cruel, are you hopelessly romantic, April? A lot of first kisses happen on your poetry watch: an April morn, beside the thorn, that kind of thing.
In fact, many mainstream media (male) pundits took a sudden blushing fancy to Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, he of the baby blue eyes and all the budget answers, the courage and charm to cut up Medicare as we know it and axe the winning Clinton tax code for all time. [Vote now: Should Ryan's budget plan become law?]
Or, April, are you the muse of history? You know, like the midnight ride of Paul Revere:
on the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
who remembers that famous day and year.
Just think, it was midnight then in 1775 in Massachusetts, and now this April, midnight in America all over again. George Santayana would be so proud.
Searching for clarity, I took a stroll through some great poetry and saw April clearly holds a special corner in poets' hearts and sonnets. The first full month of Spring inspires much more than just dances with the daffodils.
April starts popping up early—in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in 1387 as "Aprill with his shoures." Kind of a Middle English weather report, not a lot different from what we see in D.C. this mercurial month.
Skipping ahead to Elizabethan England—the Bard waxes lyrical in The Merry Wives of Windsor: "He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth, he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May." Shakespeare's comedy, As You Like It, also notes: "Men are April when they woo, December when they wed."
Ain't that the truth, Barack Obama, in defining the difference between campaigning and governing? We the people and you—well, we're just not in love anymore. Ryan's place in the national narrative is like Lancelot at King Arthur's court. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]
About 1845, the romantic poet Robert Browning found April brought longing and homesickness—"Oh, to be in England now that April's there"—if one were abroad. But in Washington, we adore our cherry blossoms more than Albion's shores in spring.
On our side of the pond, two 19th century classics captured April's American revolutionary spirit. The tale of Paul Revere for children to hear, noted above, was composed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived in Cambridge in a charming yellow house. In the same myth-making vein, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote hymn verses to honor the patriots of Concord, the idyllic town where he lived in a dignified white house:
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard 'round the world.
Revolutions are unspooling all over in a breeze they call the Arab spring. That's great, but aren't taxes due today?
Then I entered the gates of 20th century literature. The poet I saw next in my quest was Robert Frost. Standing on his land, he gave me his farmer's take on April:
The sun was warm but the wind was chill
You know how it is with an April day.
Robert, we know exactly how it is. But I could not tarry long.
In a more intriguing passage, Sara Teasdale poured a drought of death and stirred it with defiant whimsy in I Shall Not Care:
When I am dead and over me bright April;
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair;
Though you should lean above me brokenhearted
I shall not care.
This scene seems to foreshadow the fight over the debt ceiling limit that's coming to Congress, a perfect storm which the whole world will be watching. King Arthur will have to show Lancelot what's what and who's who, then and there. [Follow the money in Congress.]
Finally, three floating lines from ee cummings in 1926 are the perfect contrast to Eliot's "cruelest" cut:
lady through whose profound and fragile lips
the sweet small clumsy feet of April came;
into the ragged meadow of my soul.
Those are the last lines of a poem called if I have made, my lady, intricate. Sorry, Tom, or T.S. Eliot, so much for for your brilliant dark vision.
Just for now, let romantics carry the day, going away, on April. That's all I have to say. Happy National Poetry Month, everybody.