"April is the cruellest month . . ." begins the first line of The Waste Land, the signature modernist poem by T. S. Eliot. The 15th of April could easily be named the cruelest day of April, as it is the annual deadline for Americans to mail their tax returns, and checks, to the Internal Revenue Service. To mark National Poetry Month on past tax days, the Academy of American Poets and the American Poetry & Literacy Project distributed thousands of free copies of The Waste Land at selected post offices across the country to taxpayers rushing to make the deadline.
Eliot's poem, a landmark of twentieth century poetry, was published in 1922 to a fire-storm of reviews—some praising the work for capturing the confusion of the "modern" age following World War I and some cursing its difficult, discontinuous voice. The poem's disconnectedness is clearly deliberate, but Eliot supplied guideposts for the reader in his extensive notes that accompanied the long poem (434 lines). A clue from Eliot about the poem was embodied in its original title, which was "He do the Police in Different Voices." The advice Ezra Pound gave, while making numerous deletions and editorial changes to the body of the poem, was to use instead "The Waste Land" as the title.
Words and images in the first line and elsewhere in The Waste Land echo Walt Whitman's great poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Whitman's poem commemorates the death of Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated while lilacs were in bloom. The Waste Land also contains numerous allusions to the Holy Grail legend. Images of death and rebirth repeat throughout the poem, leading poets and critics to a continuing debate about whether this is a poem of despair or of salvation.