SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY
EDGAR LEE MASTERS
(“The earliest Angry Man in American Poetry”, suggests the author of his book’s introduction, May Swenson, “though born 17 years before Ezra Pound.”)
Did I miss this or was the public school English Lit impact on my child’s brain so small~~ because the thoughts were so large.
Because I had no ability to reference a life lived as full as it would ever be. Hearing these post-mortem declarations, of lives halted for real and imagined citizens of
Masters had “fled…determined not to submit, as his father had submitted, to the hypocrisy and deadly existence of the small town.” (From the unclaimed preface to the 1962 Collier Books edition). SPOON RIVER was a bestseller– following his 11 published books of plays, verse and essays which brought him little attention.
If you missed it too like me, or like me forgot, go on, will you? Read this now?
“Willie Metcalf “
“I was Willie Metcalf.
They used to call me “Doctor Meyers”
Because, they said, I looked like him.
And he was my father, according to Jack McGuire.
I lived in the livery stable,
Sleeping on the floor
Side by side with Roger Baughman’s bulldog,
Or sometimes in a stall.
I could crawl between the legs of the wildest horses
Without getting kicked — we knew each other.
On spring days I tramped through the country
To get the feeling, which I sometimes lost,
That I was not a separate thing from the earth.
I used to lose myself, as if in sleep,
By lying with eyes half-open in the woods.
Sometimes I talked with animals — even toads and snakes —
Anything that had an eye to look into.
Once I saw a stone in the sunshine
Trying to turn into jelly.
In April days in this cemetery
The dead people gathered all about me,
And grew still, like a congregation in a silent prayer.
I never knew whether I was part of the earth
With flowers growing in me, or whether I walked —
Now I know.” *
This bit read now, today, by me, this morning, made me gasp and cry and whimper. I read another ten entries before closing the slim paperback of its 318 papers, turning to it’s final back cover stamp identifying the volume’s earlier home: Martin Luther King High School, 635 B Street, PO Box 38, Davis, CA95616. I confess I suffered an impulse to mail it back, (though it was likely not through purloining found this day in the library of my friend who is an honest, long suffering teacher of children), lest some one child miss this.
“Mr Kessler, you know, was in the army,
And he drew six dollars a month as a pension,
And stood on the corner talking politics,
Or sat at home reading Grant’s Memoirs,
And I supported the family by washing,
Learning all the secrets of all the people
From their curtains, counterpanes, shirts and skirts.
For things that are new grow old at length,
People are prospering or falling back.
And rents and patches widen with time;
No thread or needle can pace decay,
And there are stains that baffle soap,
And there are colors that run in spite of you,
Blamed though you are for spoiling a dress.
Handkerchiefs, napery, have their secrets —
The laundress, Life, knows all about it.
And I, who went to all the funerals
Held in Spoon River, swear I never
Saw a dead face without thinking it looked
Like something washed and ironed. “
“Masters said he wrote under a spell of such intensity’ that he lost all sense of time and was pulled back to the real world only by the coming of twilight at the end of each day.”*
“We stand about this place — we, the memories;
And shade our eyes because we dread to read:
‘June 17th, 1884, aged 21 years and 3 days.’
And all things are changed.
And we — we, the memories, stand hee for ourselves alone,
For no eye marks us, or would know why we are here.
Your husband is dead, your sister lives far away, your father is bent with age;
He has forgotten you, he scarcely leaves the house
No one remembers your exquisite face,
Your lyric voice!
How you sang, even on the morning you were stricken,
With piercing sweetness, with thrilling sorow,
Before the advent of the child who died with you.
It is all forgotten, save by us, the memories,
Who are forgotten by the world.
All is changed, save the river and the hill–
Even they are changed.”
Maybe it’s too sad for childhood. Because there’s too much information. About what’s ahead of an earthly existence before any of us blindly launch off with a living things courage swaddled in ignorance. Thank God for that.
But read it now.
And here’s the thing: Go live a life you alone might say: Good job. Okay. Well done. Au Revoir.
*In quotes–Excerpted from 1962 Macmillan Publishing Company paperback edition. Spoon River Anthology made more money for the author and his publisher than any other previous volume of American poetry.
Sparhawk self portrait; Sparhawk clothesline