Jen's Reviews > Spoon River Anthology

Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters
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's review
Jun 01, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: poetry
Read in May, 2011

This is a conceptually intriguing book in which the residents (represented by over 200 poems) of a small town cemetery speak from the grave about the truth as they see it, being free from social pressure or potential retribution to present themselves or others in a good light.

I think it's important to remember that Masters was a lawyer by profession, a person who had heard people's testimonies about incidents and different people and had seen how judges and juries dealt with them. This book isn't simply about a small town, it's about humanity and justice, sometimes in the legal sense and sometimes in the larger sense. It's also about how people perceive themselves and others. We get more than one perspective on different characters or events that come up as the individuals speak.

This is a book-length work that was written in sections that appeared serially before being collected into a single volume. As many people note, the poems at the beginning of the book are almost unremittingly depressing. They're largely about people who experienced injustice or floundered in the face of events they couldn't control. This lets up in the last third of the book, though not necessarily to good effect. I felt that Masters continued the project after it's vital energy had waned.

Women may be a little dissatisfied with the book because so few women are represented, 50 out of 244, and often in stereotypical ways. This isn't surprising considering that most of these poems appeared before women had even been granted the right to vote. Though the lack of representation is still a disappointment, it's worth acknowledging that he did give women a voice and laid bare some injustices toward them and community attitudes toward stereotypes represented that were unjust. He doesn't let things be simple.

The copy I read had a had an introduction by John Hollander and footnotes clarifying the many historical and literary allusions in the poems. I highly recommend people get a volume with the footnotes.

Much has been written about this work. In fact, it's the only book of poetry I've ever heard of that has its own website (, essentially a fan site. It's worth reading and rereading. By the end, I the many people/poems had become a blur and I'm not able to say which were my favorites. The next time through I'll mark them. And there will definitely be a next time through. Not all of the poems were great but many of them were superb and I'd like to find them again.

I don't think this book is for everyone but it struck me as a good book to have students read and discuss at the high school level because if offers so much to talk about, whether matters of poetics or history or justice. I intend to give a copy to my brother, who is a lawyer and would appreciate the many perspectives that turn up in the book. I also think any serious student of poetry should read it as an example of a big project. In our formal education, we so rarely presented with even remotely contemporary examples of book-length poems or projects. I was quite miffed to be left clueless about this book until running into it at my local library.

I want to warn the readers of this review that Spoon River Anthology is generally considered the only work of Masters worth preserving. As John Hollander put it, a "quite uninspired poet, who in the unique format, and under imaginative pressures, excelled himself by producing a masterpiece." His other poetry is very conventional rhymed verse and only in throwing off convention in middle age was he able to speak in a variety of voices and from a variety of perspectives to produce this fascinating work.
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