Is April the Cruelest Month?

Lilacs On a warm day in April, we play ball in T-shirts, get out the bikes and in-line skates, and believe that summer vacation is just around the corner. But the next day, snow covers the playing fields, the sidewalks are icy, and winter seems closer than summer will ever be.

What is it about April—this month that stirs us to look forward, and then yanks us back into the harsh chill of winter, that makes it a particularly appealing subject for poets, as well as readers of poetry? Poet T.S. Eliot wrote "April is the cruellest month," and many seem to agree. What is so intriguing about April?

Perhaps it is no coincidence that April is National Poetry Month. We have selected four American poets Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Mary Oliver who have written about April. Though they differ in tone and mood, style, and focus, they share a theme that seems to come from a heightened tension of opposing natural forces; something that is particularly noticeable in this month of awakenings and climactic extremes.

About Reading Poems
Helen Vendler, a renowned scholar of poetry, offers some very good advice about reading poetry in her book, Poems, Poets and Poetry:

When you come across a new poem, look at the way it displays itself on the page. Is it a skinny poem or a wide poem? A short poem or a long one? Are all the lines the same length, or are some shorter than others? Does it rhyme? Does it have stanzas?

Think of the look of the poem as its body. Is it a symmetrical body or a ragged body? A solid-looking body or an emaciated one?

As you read it aloud and listen to its rhythms, feel what it is telling you. Is it serious or even ponderous? Or does it move with a lilt and a skip? Does it change its manner of walking from indolent to hurried? Does it manifest leisure or anxiety in its rhythms?

Do the formal features of the poem align with the sentiments and emotions it expresses? It is always worthwhile to pay attention to the technical work the poet has done on the external form of the poem; it is, after all, the body the poet has chosen to live in for a determined period.

April Stirs the Poetic Imagination
In northern climates, April is often known as the beginning of the "mud season." Robert Frost, often referred to as America's favorite poet, was inspired by the particularities of seasonal change on his New Hampshire farm. In his poem, "Two Tramps in Mud Time" he wrote:

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

  • Does this sound familiar? If you live in a similar climate, perhaps you recognize the crazy, unpredictable weather Frost describes.
  • What else do you notice about the poem? Is there a rhyming pattern? How would you describe it?
  • Read the poem out loud (the only way to read a poem). Does your voice flow in a rhythmic manner? Is there a tone, or an attitude you can attribute to the voice of the poet?

  • How would you identify Frost's tone? (Check as many as apply.)

indifferent angry humorous
puzzled matter-of-fact other __________________

This is not the entire poem. The featured stanza is one of nine, and each one has exactly eight lines and follows the same rhyme scheme. Although there is a definite, formal structure in the poem, Frost's manner is rather casual. Which words or phrases contribute to this feeling? To whom is the poet speaking?

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was best known for his use of colloquial language, familiar rhythms, and symbols taken from common life. He was an ardent naturalist. Though he was born in San Francisco and died in Boston, he is most remembered for his acute observations of the details of rural New England life, and for his casual, conversational style written in a carefully constructed form.

Walt Whitman's poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," carries images of beauty in early spring, symbolized by lilacs, that contrast starkly with the subject of this famous 16-stanza poem. He introduces his theme in the first stanza:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

  • Whitman often uses repetition to emphasize a point. Can you guess at what he means by 'the great star'?

In fact, Whitman was writing an elegy to the recently assassinated President Lincoln. In this expansive, 16-stanza poem, Whitman hints at the vision of the train carrying Lincoln's body across the country from Washington to his home in Illinois, passing mourners, as well as signs of early spring all along the route.

  • Whitman is also known for his revolutionary use of free verse, which freed him from the constraints of conventional poetry. How does the rhythm and the structure of these lines differ from Frost's poem?
Whitman
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was a journalist, essayist, and poet whose style of writing revolutionized American literature. The time he spent walking and observing people in New York City and Long Island became the inspiration for his celebration of what it is to be American. In his famous collection, Leaves of Grass, he urged U.S. citizens, whom he referred to as a "new race of races nurtured in political liberty," to be large and generous in spirit. The grand excitement of his poetry was somewhat altered after the Civil War (during which he cared for both Union and Confederate soldiers) and the death of his beloved president, Abraham Lincoln.

Whitman was one of the inventors of free verse--a style of poetry that doesn't rhyme in any regular way, and which uses varying line widths. Whitman saw it as a primitive form, enjoying the freedom from conventional rhyme and rhythm he was schooled in. Though it does appear to leave more to chance, the line breaks are very consciously chosen.

Edna St. Vincent Millay brings an unusual attitude (or tone) to her poem, "Spring." Read it aloud twice before responding to the questions.

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redress of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The Sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.

Life in itself
Is nothing
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs,
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
  • Who do you think is speaking in this poem, and to whom? If you were saying these words, how would they sound? (Check as many as apply.)

sweet bitter carefree
sarcastic humorous sad

  • Look at the line lengths and where the words break. Reread the first two lines. How does this set up help you to consider the speaker's tone?
Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in 1892 in Rockland, Maine. After college, she lived in Greenwich Village, New York, and Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she was an actress and playwright. She received the Pulitzer prize in 1924. Her traditionally romantic style often contained unconventional and, for her time, shocking ideas. (Most of her writing was published between 1920 and 1942). She died in 1950.

Mary Oliver wrote "Blossom" with deliberate incremental indentations. How does this concrete set up of the lines on the page, or the form, help us to picture the images? Is there a pattern? Any repetition? How is this poem similar to, and different from the other poems? Think about theme, tone, and form.

Blossom poem

In addition to employing a concrete form to emphasize her ideas, Oliver also presents startling contrasts. Are there words that seem at first to be out of place? For the most part she has chosen simple words. Yet there is power in the imagery. How does the poet achieve this?

Oliver
Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. At one time she was a secretary for Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, and there is some evidence of Millay's influence in Oliver's early poetry. Her writing has few human subjects, but she draws us into her humanity through her acute focus on nature and her precision with language. Oliver won a Pulitzer Prize for her volume, American Primitive (1983), from which "Blossom" was taken. She is Catharine Osgood Foster Professor at Bennington College.

Poetic Terms
Reading and discussing poems is more meaningful when you understand the following poetry-related terms:

  • Form: the external pattern, or shape, of a poem, without reference to its content
  • Free verse: poetry in which the words are arranged in lines, and may be more or less rhythmical, but which have no fixed metrical pattern
  • Meter: regularized rhythm: arrangement of words in which the accents occur at fairly equal intervals
  • Repetition: the repetition of words, phrases or ideas
  • Rhyme scheme (also rime scheme): any fixed pattern of rhymes in a whole poem or its stanzas
  • Rhythm: any wavelike recurrence of sound or motion
  • Stanza:a group of lines whose metrical pattern (and usually its rime scheme as well) is repeated throughout a poem
  • Structure: the internal organization of a poem's content
  • Theme: the central idea
  • Tone: the writer's attitude toward his/her subject, audience, or self; the emotional meaning

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