Monday, December 28, 2009

On reading Spoon River Anthology as a sixty-something

Photo courtesy of Spencer Fields, spencer0413, from publicity for a Spoon River Anthology performance.

There's no decent resale value to a copy of Spoon River Anthology that I acquired, so I'm putting it in my Goodwill box. But before I do that to any literary work, I have to crack it open and give it some attention. Perhaps I will want to add it to my own collection -- although in this case the copy in question is a tired-looking mass market paperback so it's not likely even if I really love the poems. I spend so much time book-hunting that I can afford to be pickier about the aesthetics of the books I put on my own shelves. Another copy of any book I fancy is pretty much guaranteed to come along, and in better condition, once I start looking.

Spoon River Anthology is seriously a downer! I did not remember that from my youthful reading of it. The voices that speak from the Spoon River cemetery are venal, hypocritical, bitter, and nasty for the most part, at least the ones in the first third of the book. Masters' characters remind me, oddly enough, of Stephen King's, in their extremely flawed humanity. And while you expect that in horror fiction, it's a bit of a shock in poetry.
This one's funny.

Roger Heston

- by Edgar Lee Masters (from Spoon River Anthology)

Oh many times did Ernest Hyde and I
Argue about the freedom of the will.
My favorite metaphor was Prickett's cow
Roped out to grass, and free you know as far
As the length of the rope.
One day while arguing so, watching the cow
Pull at the rope to get beyond the circle
Which she had eaten bare,
Out came the stake, and tossing up her head,
She ran for us.
"What's that, free-will or what?" said Ernest, running.
I fell just as she gored me to my death.

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