No, wait. That can’t be right. “April is the cruellest month,” according to T.S. Eliot, with “cruelest” misspelled.
Or maybe it’s a case of Brit-spell, which we fought a war over. I still remember the peace treaty at Yorktown, where George Washington proclaimed that, heretofore, “colour” would be spelled “color.” Huzzah (and all that)! Strike up “Yankee Doodle” and let’s get some lunch.
But back to Eliot. It’s a great line about April (which debuts today). A humdinger of a line. One everyone remembers, even people who consider poetry as foreign as Neptune. To stretch it out a bit, the first four lines of “The Waste Land” go like so:
The line works especially well in New England, where new life can be coaxed out of the earth only to be slammed with a late-season frost or a “whoops” snowstorm. Cruel.
The bigger point here, though, is great lines. All of us write them (by “us” I mean poets not quite as well-known as old Thomas Stearns Eliot), it’s just the company they keep. That is, when we create an awesome line that makes us proud, we have trouble drumming up players to go out on the field or court with it.
Poetry, you see, is a team sport outfitted with players called words and lines and stanzas. Given that, a great line cannot stand alone. It is not an orchestra unto itself. It requires other lines to help it resonate, make sense, fill the room with music. You can put a star on a basketball team, for instance, but if the other four players are mediocre at best, good luck.
Some poetry “how-to” books advise a collection of your best lines, shoehorning them into one poem. To me, that’s a cheat sure to fail.
What? My best lines from five poems forced to play together, even if they treat on different subjects? Just imagine the egos of five superstars on that basketball court with no practice as a cohesive unit. Ball hogs. Hot doggers. Ma, look-at-me’s.
No, no, no. That will not do. That would be cruelly unkind and one mess of a poem.
Think of that next time you try to devise ways to make one of your favorite lines famous. I recommend starting from scratch. Build a team around your great line. It’s not easy, but whoever said poetry was? Not this guy. So pass the crullers, poor a coffee, and get to work.