‘October, the cruellest month…’

‘April is the cruellest month…’, the opening line of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, is one of the most famous phrases in Twentieth Century poetry. It’s famous enough that it often escapes poetry’s sequestered colonnades and turns up in the popular culture. But for those of us in the southern hemisphere, the phenomenon Eliot was referring to is something we experience in October (‘if at all’) as a sort of seasonal affectivity, a dark irony rooted in the burgeoning Spring.

(There’s a similar seasonal reversal required for Ted Hughes’ ‘October Dawn’, another poem I’ve had a long attachment to (it’s mastery of half-rhyme), though it’s hard to find a correlative for Hughes’ ‘premonition of ice’ in the Australian autumn or winter.)

Michael Austin reflects on Eliot’s phrase, particularly in a time of pandemic, in a blog post from April this year, entitled: ‘Why is April ‘the Cruelest Month’? TS Eliot’s Masterpiece of Pandemic Poetry.’ Austin writes: ‘Eliot wrote his famous poem in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world. He and his wife caught the Spanish Flu in December of 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery.’

He goes on: ‘In the Waste Land, nothing can be crueler than hope, since it can only lead to disappointment […] The more I have read the opening lines of Eliot’s great poem, the more I have realized just what a dangerous emotion the great theological virtue of hope can be. Cynicism and irony are safe. To hope, one must open the door to disappointment, rejection, and disbelief.

It’s a timely thought for those of us in our own ‘cruellest month’, as the beginning of the southern Spring this year coincides with the lifting of Australia’s most stringent lockdown. The attached video footage captures some essence of an October evening in Adelaide, a welcome relief after a particularly subdued winter. Look at all that glorious cruelty.

Book launches in the time of COVID, part I

It’s been a difficult year for launching books. And it was an enormous relief, especially in hindsight, that Aidan Coleman and I managed to jointly-launch our books of poems a few short weeks before the COVID-19 restrictions clamped down in South Australia.

It was very welcome, then, to be able to attend the launch of Juan Garrido-Salgado’s Hope Blossoming in Their Ink in Adelaide last week, the first launch I’ve attended in person in many months. It was the sort of lively event we’ve felt the lack of amid our ‘Covid-winter’, even in a city and state that’s weathered the pandemic better than most. Touch wood.

It’s also been very welcome, and a small compensation of the pandemic, to be able to attend events and launches interstate, albeit as an online ‘attendance’. It’s a regrettable compromise for the poets and publishers concerned – a writer sending a book into the world (particularly a first book) deserves all the love and fuss that can be mustered – but, for those of us further afield, it’s been nice to ‘attend’ in some small way, even foregoing the customary signings, and conversations.

To the point, it was so enjoyable to attend the launch of Ella Jeffery’s book of poems Dead Bolt, launched by Lisa Gorton this evening, even if the setting, from my end at least, was my lounge room in Adelaide. Congratulations to Juan and Ella, and all best wishes for the success of your books, particularly in this challenging time. Hope Blossoming in Their Ink and Dead Bolt are both excellent, and available from Puncher & Wattmann.

Recommended: Poetry for Troubled Times

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‘Poetry for Troubled Times’, the latest episode of The ABR Podcast, features readings of 18 poems that speak to our present malady, even as news of the coronavirus (Corvid-19) pandemic worsens by the hour. As ABR’s editor Peter Rose says in his introduction, ‘These are such rattling and ominous times, as we all hunker down hoping for a cure, some cessation. Perhaps only poetry really offers true insight and consolation, if we lean on it, as we’ve always done in past crises.’

Among the 18 poems featured in the podcast, we find Sarah Holland-Batt reading Geoffrey Hill, Stephen Edgar reading Seamus Heaney, Peter Goldsworthy reading Jane Hirschfield, JM Coetzee reading Zbigniew Herbert, John Kinsella reading Christopher Brennan, David McCooey reading Tomas Tranströmer, and Peter Rose reading Wallace Stevens. A full list of the readers, poets and poems is published on the podcast’s webpage.

Perhaps the most resonant poems for me were Rose’s reading of Stevens’ ‘The Plain Sense of Things’ (‘It is difficult to choose the adjective / For this blank cold, this sadness without cause. / The great structure has become a minor house…’) and McCooey’s reading of Tranströmer’s ‘December Evening 1972’ (‘Here I come, the invisible man, perhaps employed / by a Great Memory to live right now. And I am driving past // the locked-up white church…’).

As for me, in a moment like this I might recommend Stephen Dunn’s ‘Sweetness’ (‘Often a sweetness comes / as if on loan, stays just long enough / to make sense of what it means to be alive…’), or Adam Zagajewski’s ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World’ (‘You should praise the mutilated world. / Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered…’).

New episodes of the podcast are released by ABR (Australian Book Review) fortnightly on Wednesdays. iTunes Google Spotify