Edgar Lee Masters published the Spoon River Anthology in 1915. It’s a collection of free-verse poems, but it’s meant to be read as a novel: each poem is in the voice of a different person who lived and died in Spoon River, Illinois, and now speaks from beyond the grave.
The anthology caused an instant sensation, and it’s easy to see why. The poems are unconventional in form, of course, and also in content, but there’s more: Masters goes out of his way to tear down the facade of small-town life (peaceful, prosperous, God-fearing, all-American) and to put daily realities in its place. We hear from the chaste wife who was eaten alive inside by lust; the deacon who was so busy running the bank and railroad that he had no time left for God or man; the farmer who, squeezed out of his farm, finally decided to shoot himself, but lacked the courage and died of old age. Not all the stories are grim (though many are): we hear of happy marriages, blossoming artists, fiery prophets. We hear from spinsters and children, a blacksmith and a Chinese man, a clerk and a fiddler, a police officer and a hobo, a Negro and the first love of Abraham Lincoln’s life. Everyone is represented, since death has catholic taste.
As the poems go on, it becomes more and more clear what Masters is about. First, he means to attack hypocrisy, especially religious hypocrisy (Christians come in for quite a bit of blame, whereas nature-lovers and Buddhists get a pat on the back), and second, he means to celebrate life. This seems initially a strange thing to do in a graveyard, but as time goes on, it seems more and more natural: who has a better perspective on the living than the dead? Those characters who loved life, and who loved other people, have little to regret. Those who grasped and hated and inflicted pain are still suffering. Many of the poems harken back to the Civil War. Since the book came out just as the first World War began, I kept thinking about that insistence on life and love through the medium (so to speak) of those dead voices. Masters is no Wilfred Owen, but it bears thinking about.
Most of the poems are more memorable for their overall impact as a novel than for their individual beauty as verse. They’re often told as an ongoing story, some of them referring to others, making a small cycle within the cycle (a wife, a husband, and a lover, for instance, or a father and several children.) A few, however, stand out, and could be read alone, out of context, as beautiful poems in their own right. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites.
Dippold the Optician
What do you see now?
Globes of red, yellow, purple.
Just a moment! And now?
My father and mother and sisters.
Yes! And now?
Knights at arms, beautiful women, kind faces.
A field of grain — a city.
Very good! And now?
A young woman with angels bending over her.
A heavier lens! And now?
Many women with bright eyes and open lips.
Just a goblet on a table.
Oh I see! Try this lens!
Just an open space — I see nothing in particular.
Pine trees, a lake, a summer sky.
That’s better. And now?
Read a page for me.
I can’t. My eyes are carried beyond the page.
Try this lens.
Depths of air.
Excellent! And now?
Light, just light, making everything below it a toy world.
Very well, we’ll make the glasses accordingly.