April is the cruelest month according to the first line of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Eliot was an odd duck, who left America for England as a young man and lived out his life as a British citizen. He dedicated the poem to Ezra Pound, also a poet but remembered more for being a pro-Nazi anti-Semite charged with treason and confined for many years in a mental institution. I’ve never understood Pound’s poems and gave up trying long ago.
Robert Frost is another matter entirely. Ever since high school I’ve liked poetry. Frost became my favorite poet back then, and he still is. Frost lived for many years in New Hampshire, but that’s not why I like him. I just like how his poems sound, and I like how they rhyme. “Whose woods these are I think I know, his house is in the village though.” At sixteen I had no idea what he was talking about, and when I learned, in college, whose house it was, I thought, “Oh, it’s His house!”
Last summer we saw “This Verse Business” at the Peterborough Players. Gordon Clapp, whom I remember as Detective Medavoy on the television show NYPD Blue, became Robert Frost right in front of my eyes. It turns out he had a head start. Clapp grew up in North Conway and read Frost in school, just as we did in Claremont.
I even like the Frost poems that don’t rhyme, New Hampshire for example. “She’s one of the two best states in the Union,” and “She’s … a most restful state.” The only disconcerting part is the last line: “At present I am living in Vermont” (the other best state).
Frost was also odd, in his own way, although “irascible” is the more accurate word. Long before Sinatra, he was doing it “his way” – Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by.” And he had a dark side: “I have been one acquainted with the night … I have outwalked the furthest city light.”
If you like Frost, you might also like Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, where he speaks of the “evening spread out against the sky,” and regrets having “measured out my life with coffee spoons.” The poem’s introspective speaker regrets a life half-lived, “deferential … politic, cautious, and meticulous … Almost, at times, the Fool.” He then says, “I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Those of us who have reached a certain age can appreciate those lines.
Not Frost! He may have had “a lover’s quarrel with the world,” but he could put despair aside and return to love and hope. He never stopped always putting up a fight:
Ah, when to the heart of man, Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things, To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end, Of a love or a season?
Speaking of seasons, I don’t know whether T. S. Eliot ever set foot in New Hampshire, but I think he got it wrong. April isn’t the cruelest month, it’s March!