For centuries past, the poets, of whom we now seem to have few, kept returning to the theme of April as the fateful month, and with good reason. No other season brings so heightened a sense of the old giving way to the new, of sudden life and death, hope and fear. This annual turn of the globe through which we're passing proves no exception.

Washington has its own special memories of the place this month holds in the grand scheme of events. As the political consultant Horace W. Busby has been reminding his clients, for decades the arrival of April caused a collective crossing of the fingers in the capital.

Over the years a myth took form that led residents to think of April, Busby says, "as a jinxed month, a time when very bad things were likely to happen."

The myth has been reinforced by reality.

Too often here, April has been the real-life equivalent of T. S. Eliot's the cruelest month:

Lincoln's assassination in 1865 . . . America's entry into World War I in 1917 . . . Franklin D. Roosevelt's death in 1945 . . . the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961 . . . Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder igniting bloody riots in 1968 . . . banner headlines trumpeting dramatic daily disclosures that marked the disintegration of Nixon's presidency during Watergate in 1973 . . . scenes of charred American bodies and burning American wreckage lying on the desert sands in the wake of the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission in 1980--all are part of the events that have made April a time of apprehension.

So, again, the omens of April.

For old-fashioned melodrama few events in recent years have matched the twin dramas now unfolding at home and abroad.

Somewhere in the South Atlantic a British fleet plunges through a leaden sea en route to a rendezvous of worldwide consequences. Either war or peace hangs in the balance.

Somewhere in the capital, senators and representatives, Democrats and Republicans alike, await more calls from the White House telling them to be ready in 15 minutes to be picked up by unmarked cars that will speed them to an unknown destination for the latest in a series of fateful rendezvous. Either economic well-being or weakness, and not only for the United States, hangs in the balance.

In each case, the public watches and waits as the respective drama nears its climax. Will reason and moderation win out over anger and miscalculation? Can compromises be reached? Stay tuned.

And each case provides a reminder of continuing disturbing failures, internationally and domestically, of failure abroad to fashion an effective world force capable of resolving conflicts and keeping the peace, of failure at home to create a system that brings bring order out of the chaotic short-term way in which we provide for the nation's economic future.

Yet despite the high stakes involved in these episodes, an air of frivolity surrounds both. As the showdown over the Falklands approaches this weekend, there, at least, the jokes about its Gilbert and Sullivan quality happily seem to have ceased. The potential collision is recognized for what it represents: a genuine world crisis.

That cannot be said of the other crisis now confronting the politicians and policymakers of Washington.

Despite all the attention given attempts to reach agreement on reducing the massive budget deficits facing the nation, many citizens do not appear to understand the seriousness of that situation. Nor do they seem to realize the consequences of failing to cut the deficits drastically.

I say that on the basis of having recently visited North Carolina, Oklahoma and Chicago. To many, the budget crisis comes over as a made-in-Washington drama. It will quickly pass. It is "just politics."

Part of this is a problem of the press, and part of the political process.

The press, especially in the age of television, with its inherently limited attention span, tends to treat the issue as a daily drama. To be judged significant enough to command an audience, the "contest" must have clear political winners and losers. To be worthy of continued public attention, there must be dramatic moments, deadlines, at which the "Battle of the Budget" will enter its final, crucial stages.

When the "game" ends, the news drama shifts to unrelated acts and scenes. Another "Battle of Something" takes center stage.

The political process stumbles from day to day, too. In this era of one-term presidents, rapid turnover both of administrations and members of Congress, and further erosion of party loyalties and disciplines, it becomes ever harder to fashion long-term policies necessary to deal effectively with the nation's economic future.

Compounding the present problem is the behavior of the president. He has been isolated from the process of trying to reach agreement on change. He has given repeated assurances that all is well. He has indicated he believes only a few adjustments are needed to set things right. He has sent forth the signal of general unconcern to the nation. He has contributed to the feeling of a lack of urgency that one encounters outside Washington.

At this point the public does not seem to have grasped the idea that the best current estimate of next year's deficit has doubled from $91 billion to $185 billion in less than two months.

Neither do people, including some in Congress, appear to appreciate a truly frightening prospect. Unless drastic action is taken, in only a few years another trillion dollars worth of national debt could be laid on top of the cumulative trillion mark built up throughout all of American history and reached just last year.

Oh well, not to worry. It's April.