It was precisely when your English instructor introduced you (assuming they did) to T.S. Eliot’s most famous phrase, “April is the cruelest month,” that it was determined whether your sense of paradox and irony might have any utility for you in adulthood. I say utility because, well, paradox has its uses from physics to haute cuisine, but irony does you little good later in life unless you’re a litterateur of some kind or a failed novelist, say, not unlike myself (oh, I am aware). What may be termed cheap irony might find some second-rate cleverness in other fields of writing, such as sports, film, television, fashion, advertising, or celebrity periodicals
Roughly every year or so I revise my interpretation of Eliot’s stark and ostensibly confusing sentence. Back around high school (freshman year or sophomore, maybe) it was pretty much this: Life at its best contains at its heart something ineluctable and rotten. This continued to serve me well through the next decade or more as I did a kind of philosophical minuet between Existentialism and its opposite; that is, anything that smacked of mystery, the mystic — anything even darkly transcendent — to counter the seeming ubiquitous scumbag factor at every turn through this business called life.
Getting back to Eliot and his April (oh, and he just starts there; possibly an Eliot calendar should be considered to accommodate everything from Friday the 13th to bad hair days), the next evolution in my interpretation of Eliot’s irreverent zinger was something like this, at roughly age 16: Every good thing, beautiful and fine (like, the month of April) holds within its destiny the corrupt — unintended, maybe, but, if not, nonetheless the tragic or pathetic. This was pretty much my Weltanschauung in my 20s, when I read Schopenhauer (used words like Weltanschauung) and devoured Robert Crumb as if his works were the Talmud.
I’ve brought it to my own attention that I’ve often begun these columns as weather reports, as if trying to divine something or other about the human heart (or at least my own), from highs and lows and cumulus or stratus configurations of something — anything at all — out of thin air. And that brings me back around to poetry. My ex-wife, a Berkeley undergrad majoring in works of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats, found me in a back alley in North Beach, San Francisco (I was actually booked in a club there with my band for that weekend — we were moving equipment) playing Johnny Watson riffs with one hand and reading from a volume of Lawrence Ferlinghetti with the other. The book was A Coney Island of the Mind, and while she nodded some conditional approval at the material, she seemed far more moved by Johnny W’s riffs. I put a few blues runs between recitations of Ferlinghetti’s “Johnny Nolan’s Got a Patch on His Ass.” I was 18, fresh from Chicago. We were seated on wine crates. She feigned (I’m sure) interest in the poetry, but her fascination with the 12-bar voodoo was unconcealable.
Of course, I will flesh this out later in the memoirs, but for the time being, shall we say, while that meeting was not the first with T.S. Eliot’s champion, it was within two short years of that North Beach reading/concert for two that she had me reading Chaucer, more and more Eliot, and Yeats, William Blake, Huxley, Orwell, Hesse, Maugham, etc. I got her reading William S. Burroughs and New Wave speculative writers such as J.G. Ballard and Tom Disch.
A long way ’round, mayhap, from April’s perceived cruelty. But only to me, with a word-count limitation and a history — and a major unpaid debt. In 1969 I was reading indiscriminately — the above-mentioned stuff, plus Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land Heinlein, from Jerzy Kosinski to The Story of O, and from The Happy Hooker to Gravity’s Rainbow. The better stuff, courtesy of the woman who was on the road with us, from NCO clubs out West during the Vietnam War to Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre. She was, in fact, the seamstress for the band while working on her post-grad stuff and lifting four not-unintelligent-men from the occasional marijuana haze about Black Oak Arkansas to a discussion of John Barth, Norman Mailer, or Joyce Carol Oates. Fond moments of those Aprils, those springs from 1965 to 1975.