Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Spoon River Anthology - a rivetting American classic, packed with great stories

I’ll admit to not having heard of Edgar Lee Masters or his 1915 book of poetry, Spoon River Anthology until an American lady with a nice voice read a poem from it at a gathering I attended about a year ago. I liked the fact that the sense was immediately graspable, that it was unsentimental but muscular and passionate, and that it captured– concisely – the essence of someone's life story in less than twenty lines.

Edgar Lee Masters
Spoon River Anthology is, it seems, a very big deal in the US, where everyone used to study it in school. And that isn’t surprising, given that, according to the critic with the splendid name of Ernest Earnest, what made it immediately popular "was the shock of recognition. Here for the first time in America was the whole of a society which people recognized - not only that part of it reflected in writers of the genteel tradition. Like Chaucer's pilgrims, the 244 characters who speak their epitaphs represent almost every walk of life… There are scoundrels, lechers, idealists, scientists, politicians, village doctors, atheists and believers, frustrated women and fulfilled women.  The individual epitaphs take on added meaning because of often complex interrelationships among the characters. Spoon River is a community, a microcosm, not a collection of individuals.”

I’m not sure how good it is as poetry, but it does represent great storytelling: narrative drive is furnished by Masters’ method of mentioning the same people in several poems, and of telling the same story from two sides in consecutive poems. For instance, here’s the schoolmistress, Emily Sparks:
Where is my boy, my boy
In what far part of the world?
The boy I loved best of all in the school?--
I, the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart,
Who made them all my children.
Did I know my boy aright,
Thinking of him as a spirit aflame,
Active, ever aspiring?
Oh, boy, boy, for whom I prayed and prayed
In many a watchful hour at night,
Do you remember the letter I wrote you
Of the beautiful love of Christ?
And whether you ever took it or not,
My, boy, wherever you are,
Work for your soul's sake,
That all the clay of you, all of the dross of you,
May yield to the fire of you,
Till the fire is nothing but light!...
Nothing but light!
And here’s the boy himself, Reuben Pantier:
Well, Emily Sparks, your prayers were not wasted,
Your love was not all in vain.
I owe whatever I was in life
To your hope that would not give me up,
To your love that saw me still as good.
Dear Emily Sparks, let me tell you the story.
I pass the effect of my father and mother;
The milliner's daughter made me trouble
And out I went in the world,
Where I passed through every peril known
Of wine and women and joy of life.
One night, in a room in the Rue de Rivoli,
I was drinking wine with a black-eyed cocotte,
And the tears swam into my eyes.
She though they were amorous tears and smiled
For thought of her conquest over me.
But my soul was three thousand miles away,
In the days when you taught me in Spoon River.
And just because you no more could love me,
Nor pray for me, nor write me letters,
The eternal silence of you spoke instead.
And the Black-eyed cocotte took the tears for hers,
As well as the deceiving kisses I gave her.
Somehow, from that hour, I had a new vision
Dear Emily Sparks!
That’s as sentimental as it gets. More typical are the poems narrated by Reuben’s parents. Benjamin has this to say: 
Together in this grave lie Benjamin Pantier, attorney at law,     
And Nig, his dog, constant companion, solace and friend.     
Down the gray road, friends, children, men and women,     
Passing one by one out of life, left me till I was alone     
With Nig for partner, bed-fellow, comrade in drink.     
In the morning of life I knew aspiration and saw glory.     
Then she, who survives me, snared my soul     
With a snare which bled me to death,     
Till I, once strong of will, lay broken, indifferent,     
Living with Nig in a room back of a dingy office.        
Under my jaw-bone is snuggled the bony nose of Nig—     
Our story is lost in silence. Go by, mad world!        
We then hear from his dead wife:
I know that he told that I snared his soul     
With a snare which bled him to death.     
And all the men loved him,     
And most of the women pitied him.     
But suppose you are really a lady, and have delicate tastes,              
And loathe the smell of whiskey and onions.     
And the rhythm of Wordsworth’s “Ode” runs in your ears,     
While he goes about from morning till night     
Repeating bits of that common thing;     
“Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”        
And then, suppose:     
You are a woman well endowed,     
And the only man with whom the law and morality     
Permit you to have the marital relation     
Is the very man that fills you with disgust        
Every time you think of it—while you think of it     
Every time you see him?     
That’s why I drove him away from home     
To live with his dog in a dingy room     
Back of his office.
It’s left to Trainor, the druggist to sum up the Pantiers:
Good in themselves, but evil toward each other:     
He oxygen, she hydrogen,     
Their son, a devastating fire.
Before he adds, of himself:
I Trainor, the druggist, a mixer of chemicals,     
Killed while making an experiment,     
Lived unwedded.
All human life really is here. There’s Dr Meyers, who performs an abortion that goes wrong (he’s apparently aborting his own baby):
…then one night, Minerva, the poetess,
Came to me in her trouble, crying.
I tried to help her out--she died--
They indicted me, the newspapers disgraced me,
My wife perished of a broken heart.
And pneumonia finished me.
It reminded me a bit of Grace Metalious’s 1956 megaselling novel, Peyton Place – a sort of early melodramatic bonkbuster - which contains a similar heady mix of murder, incest, abortion, infidelity and marital angst. But then I Googled both works and, of course, the similarity has been noted countless times before. Peyton Place was turned into a film and ended up as a long-running TV series. Spoon River Anthology has resulted in song cycles, books of photographs, country songs, stage and radio versions - there's even a version devised to be performed in a cemetery at night! - but I’m surprised it wasn’t adapted for the Big Screen in the 1950s, when there was a vogue for revealing the seething Freudian passions throbbing beneath the civilised veneer of small-town America (or something).

After all, a poem that contains anything as weird as the following lines, spoken by a young man of the woman who seduced him away from his adored sweetheart, deserves to be captured in carpet-chewing technicolour:
She was some kind of a crying thing
One takes in one's arms, and all at once
It slimes your face with its running nose,
And voids its essence all over you;
Then bites your hand and springs away.
And there you stand bleeding and smelling to heaven...
Crikey! Montgomery Clift could have carried that off, I reckon.

The critic, Charles E. Burgess, provides a useful insight into Masters' possible motive:  “In a larger sense, Masters - by 1915 an attorney of substantial reputation - was dealing in justice... He wanted to see that due praise was given to the sturdier spirits who had wrested the region from the wilderness of physical nature or who had, in later times, stood as bulwarks against the consequences of corrupt or weak human nature.”

I’m delighted to have finally made Spoon River Anthology’s acquaintance, and will be choosing a particularly juicy segment to read at the next Pass On a Poem event – there’s something earthy and muscular about some early 20th Century American poetry (this is particularly true of Robert Frost) which makes it a genuine pleasure to read aloud.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite sections. Hannah Armstrong was a real person, whose husband once challenged Abraham Lincoln to a wrestling match, after which the two men became firm friends:
Hannah Armstrong
I wrote him a letter asking him for old times, sake
To discharge my sick boy from the army;
But maybe he couldn't read it.
Then I went to town and had James Garber,
Who wrote beautifully, write him a letter.
But maybe that was lost in the mails.
So I traveled all the way to Washington.
I was more than an hour finding the White House.
And when I found it they turned me away,
Hiding their smiles.
Then I thought: "Oh, well, he ain't the same as when I boarded him
And he and my husband worked together
And all of us called him Abe, there in Menard."
As a last attempt I turned to a guard and said:
"Please say it's old Aunt Hannah Armstrong
From Illinois, come to see him about her sick boy
In the army."
Well, just in a moment they let me in!
And when he saw me he broke in a laugh,
And dropped his business as president,
And wrote in his own hand Doug's discharge,
Talking the while of the early days,
And telling stories.
A terrific story, superbly told in just 24 lines. 

I’ll end with the quiet, tragic, universal tale of Walter Simmons:
My parents thought that I would be
As great as Edison or greater:
For as a boy I made balloons
And wondrous kites and toys with clocks
And little engines with tracks to run on
And telephones of cans and thread.
I played the cornet and painted pictures,
Modeled in clay and took the part
Of the villain in the "Octoroon."
But then at twenty--one I married
And had to live, and so, to live
I learned the trade of making watches
And kept the jewelry store on the square,
Thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking,--
Not of business, but of the engine
I studied the calculus to build.
And all Spoon River watched and waited
To see it work, but it never worked.
And a few kind souls believed my genius
Was somehow hampered by the store.
It wasn't true.
The truth was this:
I did not have the brains.
Never mind, Walter – we all understand only too well.

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