SPOON RIVER: LAND OF THE LOST

 

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For SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY to be depressing would actually be an improvement. It’s full of reports of cruelty, injustice, vengeance, sadness; overwhelming unfairness and loneliness – both above and below ground. There’s no peace in most of these souls. Being merely depressing would hover refreshingly lightly above its pages.

The dead of Spoon River did “not go gentle into that good night.” They “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Judges whose position brought them no glory, criminals whose only crime was to be desperate: did “not go gentle into that good night.”
Women who wanted more for themselves than others wanted for them, girls whose lives were indentured because they had no one to stand for them “rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Young men who went to war, young women who waited – they are waiting still – did “not go gentle into that good night.”
The accident victims, the murder victims, even the beaten in body and bones – “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
The wise whose wisdom did not comfort, the innocents who believed until the end, the faithful broken and unbroken; the philosophers, the fools, the found, and the fallen:
All did “not go gentle into that good night.”
All “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
 
…and that was just the first dozen pages…

 

So… the whole book is like that. And you look for some photon of hope, some atom of relief from the 16-ton anvil of misery that is this incredible collection of personalities. The blurb is informative, but a bit short-sighted. Yes, there are over two hundred personalities/poems in this book, but after about page 25, you start seeing the same themes come up again and again. Still, it’s a work of such blazing confidence that deserves to be a classic. It’s a huge job. Kind of like, oh, I dunno…memorizing a story like The Iliad or The Odyssey. Or even illustrating the Bible on the ceiling of a church. Yeah, kind of like that.

I bet Edgar Lee Masters was a real ray of sunshine! Poets are not known for sailing smooth seas of emotion. They are a lot like actors: their emotions are a layer of epidermis, whereas for the rest of us, they are more of an internal organ. I have to say, on reading poem after poem of crushed dreams, crushed spirits, cruel ignorance and the usual seven deadly sins, there are, once in a while, people who are at peace and ready to go. This, of course, constitutes a minute minority.

Why should anyone read this steaming pile of desolate wretchedness?

Because each poem is excellently crafted. Because each poem is a human being.

Because you are in the book. Because everyone you know is in the book.

Because if you’re not careful, you’ve seen what happens to the people who made the same mistakes you did.

Because it takes guts to write poetry. Guts to put it out to the public. Guts to defend it.

One thing I was curious about. Why do most of the women in SRA die ugly, miserable deaths? Hmmm? Here I am all defending Edgar Lee Masters, and it looks like he hates women – or feels sorry for them. It’s hard to tell. Good, kind women cut down in the flower of their youth. Girls forced by circumstance to tie themselves to brutal beasts beating the life out of them. I know this really happened, but did it happen so much, or did it color his life so much that almost every female in SPA is a testament to his (a) powers of observation, (b) powers of exploitation, or (c) powers of indignation?

You will probably read this book if you take American Lit in college.  You should read it for the poetry and the artistry and its unique design.  As poetry goes you will more likely pick up this slim tome before you spend a second glance for Pound or Wordsworth.

However, can I just say, (and Nick Hornby agrees with this) who made up the rule that great literature has to be depressing?  Just because writing is about miserable people wallowing in miserable misery, it might last, but the Camus’, the Eliots, the Kafkas and Masters’ of this world forget that the opposite is also true.  There’s beauty, simplicity, generosity, civility and grace in this world.  It’s like trees in a forest.  You may not see them, but you know they’re there. 

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