Sojourners Magazine

April is poetry month!
by Rose Marie Berger
April 12, 2006

In 1922 T.S. Eliot published his epic anti-war poem The Wasteland, which begins:

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

In these opening lines, Eliot implicitely calls to mind - for the post-World War I reader, those of the Lost Generation - the flowers of Flanders fields that bloomed as a result of the increased sunlight due to deforestation from warfare and the increased fertilizer of the decaying bodies of soldiers (see John McCrae's 1915 In Flanders Fields). Eliot, however, turns the image from the poppies of the killing fields of Flanders to the lilac. Eliot draws on Walt Whitman's 1865 elegy written after the death of Abraham Lincoln (who was killed on Good Friday, April 14, 1865) "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd":

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.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sire to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

The lilac is fast-growing and sweet-smelling and returns every year both in times of war and peace. In T.S. Eliot's context, this offers the reader a measure of solace and beauty in very ugly times.

This April - in our own very ugly times - the Beltway Poetry Quarterly asked 46 authors from the mid-Atlantic region to respond to the U.S. military's ongoing presence in Iraq. "When the politicians are compliant and the press is distracted by the next sparkly thing," wrote guest editor Sarah Browning, "the poets continue to believe, to speak out, and to say no to fear."

+ Read "The Wartime Issue" of Beltway Poetry Quarterly

Rose Marie Berger is poetry editor of Sojourners.