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Book Corner Sept 14, 2004

Spoon River Anthology
A Classic by Edgar Lee Masters, 1915

Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl

            Each year as I compile resources for my Funeral Proclamation course, which include literary works.  This year Masters' work is on the list.  Most of us remember this collection from a few poems that were listed in high school or college anthologies.  However, there are over 250 poems - self-reflective epitaphs - in the collection.   The voices of the young, the old, male, female, leaders and outcasts all speak.

            This work should be read at one sitting; allow about three hours. The poems in their totality create a community of the dead.  Many cross-reference various incidences but with totally different perspectives.  For example, the mother forced to raise her children on her own reflects with deep bitterness on that experience. The judge who sent her abusive husband away permanently reflects happily, however, on what fine children the mother raised.

            Masters made his living as both a lawyer and writer.  At one point he worked for the poor in Charles Darrow's law firm.  These poems register Masters' knowledge of those who live both in and outside the norms of society.  It is all here:  accurate small town satire, poetic insight, humor, betrayal, closeted sexuality, struggle and the full range of human anguish and ecstasy.  

The range of people represented is broad.  There is the young, Chinese immigrant who is killed in the schoolyard by the well-aimed fist of the pastor's son.  A man, who was sent to clean the town's water tower, falls in and dies.  One wealthy citizen, a woman who had fame and recognition in Europe, returns home to die ignored and forgotten.  The varied personages reflect on incidents, which caused them to die of abandonment, war, life abroad, heartbreak or rage.  An overall reading of this collection also reveals Spoon River's power structures: the people who led and those who deceived and manipulated with power and money.

            Reading these poems is akin to reflecting on the lives - sometimes very hidden - of those who make up our congregations. What kind of an anthology would each of us write? About others? about our own life?  These poems are quotable, touched with pain, reality, beauty and thoughts of God.