Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Spoon River Elegies

Reviewed by Jeanne

I grew up in the country, where small family and community graveyards were the norm.  There were two near me, the larger and older of which featured the old granite headstones with carved lambs or photos of the deceased along with the simpler lichen-covered stones. We played there, trying to be respectful while petting the lambs and looking for teaberry leaves. I wondered about the people buried there, none of whom I had known: that section of land was pretty much filled by the time I came along.

In high school I discovered an answer of sorts in Edgar Lee Masters’ wonderful Spoon River Anthology.  The setting is a graveyard, where Masters has written a life- story for each of the headstones.  What sets these poems apart is that they are not the public obituaries but the innermost thoughts of the dead.  Many intertwine with others: Mrs. Williams, the milliner, is accused of having an affair with another woman’s husband, for instance, and of course there are spouses, parents, children, partners, friends, lovers, and rivals.  Part of the pleasure is reading one and then checking out anyone else mentioned. Sometimes there is a different view entirely, or—just as telling—the incident so important to one has no meaning for the other. 

Perhaps the best known of the poems is the one for Anne Rutledge, allegedly Abraham Lincoln’s first true love. In fact, when a new marker was placed on the burial site, Masters’ poem was engraved on the monument.

The poems evoke a wide range of emotions, from empathy to disgust, amusement to contemplation.  Several are chilling and there’s a good bit of irony thrown in. There’s the story of Chase Henry, the town drunk, who has more dignity in death than he ever had in life; from an arrogant judge who can’t understand why his greatness seems no longer acknowledged; from a woman who died in childbirth to a poet to the town marshal. 

My personal favorites have to be the ones from the Purkapiles.  Husband Roscoe ran away from home for a year, returning to a joyous welcome from his wife to whom he told a tale of pirates on Lake Michigan.  You have to read her poem for “the rest of the story.”  I find it as delightful now as I did then.

Mostly I have to say that I enjoy these poems for their accessibility.  People who think they don’t like poetry can relate to these because they give a glimpse into people’s lives, into their darkest secrets. However, I wouldn't suggest that you sit down and read the poems straight through; instead, just dip into them a few at a time.  I like to pick one at random, and then follow up on any people mentioned in connection with that person.

I highly recommend a visit with the residents of Spoon River.

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