T. S. Eliot: Still Undefeated


The prompt for this week was T. S. Eliot’s famous first line—“April is the cruelest month, breeding”—minus the word “breeding.” Participants were asked to imagine an invisible “because” and to provide a second line, an alternative to Eliot’s “Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing.”

It must be said that T. S. Eliot remains the true victor in the competition. In fact his opening sentence, stretched out over four lines—

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

—is itself exemplary of free verse at its craftiest. Just look at the work those participles (“breeding,” “mixing,” and “stirring”) do to propel the reader onward while at the same time forcing a trembling pause at the end of each line. The pause at the end of line one, for example, isolates a word of tremendous importance in Eliot’s vision of modern life—a vision in which, except for saints and saintly fools, most of us are breeders, and love is not a requisite for copulation.

Speaking participles and the work they do, I liked Beth Gylys’s

April is the cruelest month,
pollen-gagged, marching into May

best of the entries because of the double meaning of “marching”—and the suggestion that time is of the speedy essence, marching past April as past an unimportant parenthesis on the way to May and true spring.

Aya Dela Pena’s entry

April is the cruelest month, because
A scribe’s worthier temptress than a promise of applause.

may not work as verse, but as prose it is as fascinating as it is grammatically implausible. The metaphors—scribe, temptress, applause—suggest a power-packed allegory of sensuality and performance. I hope the writer elaborates the line into a short poem.

Angela Ball’s

April is the cruelest month because
Of the new: rills, pails of lilacs, pairs.

offers what seems to me the strongest second line from the point of view of sheer metrical dexterity—the way the accents are distributed among the syllables, the preponderance of which consists of monosyllables. The only word with more than one syllable is “lilacs”—a clever and subtle allusion to the second line of “The Waste Land.”

Honorable mention: Eduardo Ramos Ruiz

April is the cruelest month,
Its march unveils rot and rust

For next week, why don’t we undertake to write a one-line poem—or a one-sentence prose poem—under the title “Lace Curtain” (or “Behind the Lace Curtain”)? I am thinking of the name of a once-popular drink that consisted half of vodka and half of gin. That is one direction to which the title points, but there can be many others, no?

Deadline: Sunday, April 17, at 5:00 PM.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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