Sunday, October 14, 2007

Spoon River Anthology

One book I picked up in the U.S. this summer was Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. I found the book quite surprising: for some reason, I had always assumed that it was a collection of idyllic poems without a dark side, but that is completely wrong. Masters is almost entirely interested in the dark side of small-town life: the pettiness, the tyranny, all the things that make people want to run away to the big city.

Further, quotation of single poems from the book misrepresents it, no matter how good the individual poems may be. For it is in the tensions between pairs of poems (or among sets of poems) that the book really comes to life. Each poem is spoken by one dead person in the Spoon River cemetery, and when the speakers' stories contradict each other, things get exciting.

But instead of quoting several to show you what I mean, I'll just quote one that I like a few lines of—perhaps it's the musician in me that especially likes this one:

BLIND JACK

I had fiddled all day at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away. Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.
There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.

3 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

George S posted this comment on a different post of mine, but it clearly was meant to be here:

The Spoon River Anthology ought to be a very good book. It is certainly a marvellous idea and has some fine poems, but not that many. In fact, or so I suspect, rather few. It may be a case of the technique just growing dull with repetition. I think of it a little like an American Shropshire Lad without the singability.

greg rappleye said...

I love "Spoon River Anthology" without qualification. It is a great American book, evocative of time and place (the Midwest, circa 1915) and yet, timelessly American.

One of my favorites!

Paul Houle said...

You might be interested to know that a new online edition of Spoon River Anthology has been created. Integrating cross-references and comments, it opens a new dimension for 21st century readers.