Day 163-- Spoon River Anthology

When released in 1915, the Spoon River Anthology was enormously successful; the first edition made more money for Edgar Lee Masters and his publisher than any previous poetry collection in America. But while Masters remained a prolific poet, novelist and biographer his entire life, the Anthology is often the only work for which he is remembered.

The Spoon River Anthology was--and is, in many ways--a unique work. It's a collection of 244 free-verse poems, all told from the perspective of the inhabitants of the Spoon River cemetery. In other words, the poems are the epitaphs from the point of view of dead. Many of the characters are based off of real people, much like Spoon River is a fictional representation of several Midwest towns. Many of the characters are connected; for instance, the three poems of Tom Merritt, Mrs. Merritt and Elmar Karr all show their points of view in Karr's love affair with Mrs. Merritt, eventually resulting in the murder of Tom. The poems are sometimes about the deaths of the narrators, or ruminations on their lives; some are filled with lament, some joy, some indifference.

The frank subject matter and satirical content caused a fair amount of controversy at the time, but the poems about cheating spouses and slovenly public officials are balanced nicely by the poems that celebrate life, faith and love. Masters was no fan of any sort of organized religion, government or business, but he doesn't paint in broad strokes in his poems; as much as he lampoons the behavior of some Christians, he equally leans toward kind, tender verse. Elmar Karr, for instance, finds Christ and the forgiveness of a church congregation at the end of his poem.

Still, the Anthology is far from perfect. Some poems run on too long, some are too short, and in the end there are just too many of them. And some are clumsy in execution. To make it worse, the collection is capped off with the Spooniad--part of an epic poem written by the town's poet--and a bloated, play-like Epilogue. Even the praising introduction to my volume admits that Masters went a little too far.

But it's ambitious, and in addition to the volume's historical significance, many of the poems stand well on their own. One of the best ways to experience the collection is aurally--folk musician Richard Buckner did an album called the Hill, a major abridgement that condenses the work into a single 30-minute track set to music.

The Spoon River Project
The Spoon River Anthology Online
Review of Buckner's the Hill

posted, with grace and poise, by Jason @ 2/15/2007 08:24:00 AM,


At 3:42 PM, Blogger Elizabeth said...

Claudia Schmidt has a song inspired by the Spoon River Anthology on her first album/CD.


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