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Spoon River Anthology is a series of interwoven poems about a fictional cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois (a non-existent hamlet which somehow bears more than a passing resemblance to author Edgar Lee Masters’ home town of Lewistown, Illinois). While actual cemeteries are not especially chilling or haunting (other than for inducing thoughts about the very limited continuity of the things of this world), the fictional cemetery of Spoon River is a truly disquieting place. Masters utilizes the dark harrow of art to plough up flinty truths about human life–and these are the sorts of truths which are so honest as to be forbidden–unspeakable by anyone not already dead. It is one of the more haunting works of American fiction–an epic puzzle about how our lives are marred by our attempts to grasp our dreams and desires–and how the real arc of our destiny is hidden from us by the illusions, lies, and stratagems which come into being as other people strive to to grasp their dreams and desires.

The anthology features the voices of 212 characters speaking from beneath the hill about the true circumstances of their lives and deaths. They speak honestly about loneliness, need, and failure. They speak about belief, knowledge, and love. Although the anthology is entirely written in the unearthly voice of the departed, it is not a series of poem about the afterlife (indeed, I would be stunned if Edgar Lee Masters believed in any such thing), instead the poem is about adultery, ludicrous colonial wars, small-town politics, romance novels, addiction, sadness, and America’s siren song of success at any cost. Much of this involves the constant jostling for social ascendancy which (sigh) is the principle feature of human society. Perhaps it will shock, shock, shock you to learn that most of the wealthy and powerful elite of Spoon River obtained their high standing by standing on top of other people.

Spoon River Anthology was published in 1914–a date when America stood balanced between field and factory, between war and peace, and between innocence and disillusionment. You can (and should) read the whole thing for free anywhere on the internet. In many respects the poems work better today than when they were first written since they are non-linear networked pieces very much suited to hyperlinks and indexes.

Since you can easily read them yourself, I do not need to quote the poems extensively, but, it would be shame not to give you a taste to get you hooked. The metaphor for how to obtain success in the rat race of the capitalist world is to “build a better mousetrap” Here is the poem of Robert Fulton Tanner, one of several feverish inventors in Spoon River. It is a bit uncertain, but it seems like he died of sepsis after being bitten by a rat…

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room—that’s being born;
And then you must live—work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Prestige, place, or power in the world.
But there’s work to do and things to conquer—
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in—but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

Do you perhaps feel a pang of sympathy for the poor trapped rat?

I have made Spoon River Anthology sound monstrous…and it is. The poems do not hide national sins of racism (look what happens to the poor Chinese American student), sexism, oppression, and cruelty. The dark work of whitecapping the neighbors, propping up the rotten bank, and putting the fix in for the masters is all there, along with SO much hypocrisy.

Yet Spoon River Anthology is about life and so it is also about love and hope. Luminous transcendent ideals are always present in this work, even among the most debased of the dead. Many of the poems (or maybe most of them) are about loving an idea or another person so much that one’s self is annihilated. Spoon River is filled with places where it is always spring, or where the most transcendent song can be heard, or where someone first found the love of their life. Sometimes such ineffable stuff leads souls to lives of meaning and beauty–in other cases it is the bit of cheese on the spring catch mechanism.

I said cemeteries are not haunted–but I meant Greenwood and Cypress Hills–I might say different things about Pleasant Hill and Blue Knob. It is impossible to avoid the feeling that if the little cemetery in your hometown were properly cross-referenced and indexed it would be very much like Spoon River.

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