Spoon River Anthology
February 19, 2012 9:34 AM   Subscribe

From June 2, 1957, CBS Radio Workshop presents Epitaphs, [online listening link, higher quality mp3 link click to listen, right-click to download] a half-hour of readings from 1915's Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems by Clarence Darrow's former law partner which depict the inhabitants of a graveyard in a fictional small town in Illinois.

Spoon River Anthology is a collection of 244 free form poems, each a carved epitaph to a life lived in the small town. Each taken alone is only a tiny slice of humanity; read in sequence, the personalities and social entanglements of the town take on life as the gravestone writings interrelate, contradict, and ultimately give full dimensionality to the imagined inhabitants of Spoon River's history.

The book can be read online [click "next" in the upper or lower right to progress through the poems], can be explored in greater detail (including Original Order view [columns read down, not across] and a daily epitaph RSS feed (the book was originally published in serial form), even a daily epitaph email for those who desire).

In addition, the book is available for download in PDF format, or in various other formats via Project Gutenberg.
posted by hippybear (30 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Poem 1 "The Hill", the introduction to the Anthology:
Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife-
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?--
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

One died in shameful child-birth,
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in the search for heart's desire;
One after life in far-away London and Paris
Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag--
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,
And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked With venerable men of the revolution?--
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying--
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
Where is Old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary's Grove,
Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield.
posted by hippybear at 9:35 AM on February 19, 2012

Richard Buckner has created an excellent musical adaptation of a number of the poems from Spoon River Anthology.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:29 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Dammit, TheWhiteSkull, you beat me to it.
posted by notsnot at 10:31 AM on February 19, 2012

Spoon River Anthology is such an amazing work of art. How odd that Edward Arlington Robinson is better remembered today for his connection with Clarence Darrow.

This one is timeless--how many of this guy do we see on the Internet every single day?

Miniver Cheevy

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:33 AM on February 19, 2012

How odd that Edward Arlington Robinson is better remembered today for his connection with Clarence Darrow.

I find it more peculiar that you've confused Edward Arlington Robinson with Edgar Lee Masters.
posted by hippybear at 10:40 AM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

*Edwin Arlington Robinson, even
posted by hippybear at 10:41 AM on February 19, 2012

Jesus Christ, hippybear, what the heck is wrong with me today? Thanks, sweetheart. I blame the cough syrup.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:52 AM on February 19, 2012

Ignore my earlier brain freeze, and here is my actual favorite poem from the actual Spoon River Anthology by the actual Edgar Lee Masters.

"Indignation" Jones

You would not believe, would you,
That I came from good Welsh stock?
That I was purer blooded than the white trash here?
And of more direct lineage than the New Englanders
And Virginians of Spoon River?
You would not believe that I had been to school
And read some books.
You saw me only as a run-down man,
With matted hair and beard
And ragged clothes.
Sometimes a man’s life turns into a cancer
From being bruised and continually bruised,
And swells into a purplish mass,
Like growths on stalks of corn.
Here was I, a carpenter, mired in a bog of life
Into which I walked, thinking it was a meadow,
With a slattern for a wife, and poor Minerva, my daughter,
Whom you tormented and drove to death.
So I crept, crept, like a snail through the days
Of my life.
No more you hear my footsteps in the morning,
Resounding on the hollow sidewalk,
Going to the grocery store for a little corn meal
And a nickel’s worth of bacon.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:56 AM on February 19, 2012

Sidhedevil: Hard to post that poem without also posting the companion piece:
Minerva Jones

I AM Minerva, the village poetess,
Hooted at, jeered at by the Yahoos of the street
For my heavy body, cock-eye, and rolling walk,
And all the more when "Butch" Weldy
Captured me after a brutal hunt.
He left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers;
And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up,
Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice.
Will some one go to the village newspaper,
And gather into a book the verses I wrote?--
I thirsted so for love
I hungered so for life!
And then of course, that leads one to
Doctor Meyers

No other man, unless it was Doc Hill,
Did more for people in this town than l.
And all the weak, the halt, the improvident
And those who could not pay flocked to me.
I was good-hearted, easy Doctor Meyers.
I was healthy, happy, in comfortable fortune,
Blest with a congenial mate, my children raised,
All wedded, doing well in the world.
And then one night, Minerva, the poetess,
Came to me in her trouble, crying.
I tried to help her out--she died--
They indicted me, the newspapers disgraced me,
My wife perished of a broken heart.
And pneumonia finished me.
and additionally
Mrs. Meyers

HE protested all his life long
The newspapers lied about him villainously;
That he was not at fault for Minerva's fall,
But only tried to help her.
Poor soul so sunk in sin he could not see
That even trying to help her, as he called it,
He had broken the law human and divine.
Passers by, an ancient admonition to you:
If your ways would be ways of pleasantness,
And all your pathways peace,
Love God and keep his commandments.
...and I'll stop here. Just a tiny microcosm of why I love SRA so much.
posted by hippybear at 11:05 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Butch" Weldy eventually got his comeuppance for his rapey ways, though:

"Butch" Weldy

AFTER I got religion and steadied down
They gave me a job in the canning works,
And every morning I had to fill
The tank in the yard with gasoline,
That fed the blow-fires in the sheds
To heat the soldering irons.
And I mounted a rickety ladder to do it,
Carrying buckets full of the stuff.
One morning, as I stood there pouring,
The air grew still and seemed to heave,
And I shot up as the tank exploded,
And down I came with both legs broken,
And my eyes burned crisp as a couple of eggs.
For someone left a blow-fire going,
And something sucked the flame in the tank.
The Circuit Judge said whoever did it
Was a fellow-servant of mine, and so
Old Rhodes’ son didn’t have to pay me.
And I sat on the witness stand as blind
As Jack the Fiddler, saying over and over,
“I didn’t know him at all.”
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:09 AM on February 19, 2012

Which then leads to Old Rhodes, and his son....

Why this book isn't more well known and lauded is beyond me. It's genius.
posted by hippybear at 11:20 AM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

You find a million of this book in used book stores--apparently, a best-seller. When I teach it in surveys or in Realism & Naturalism classes, pretty much nobody, ever, has read it before.

One of the problems with him is that aside from picking the relationships apart, and talking about the politics and vision of America and humanity, there's really very little cryptic there. Someone like Sherwood Anderson has always been easier to teach and easier to write about, though harder to read, and no more perceptive about the world.
posted by LucretiusJones at 11:25 AM on February 19, 2012

Just as an illustration of how completely doped-up my brain is today, I was trying to find "'Indignation' Jones" without being able to remember the character's name, and I was muttering to myself "'White trash,' 'cancer', 'bacon'" and my husband was all "White trash cancer bacon? What are you doing over there?"
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:35 AM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I teach it in surveys or in Realism & Naturalism classes, pretty much nobody, ever, has read it before.

I grew up in Peoria, and so being so close to the actual Spoon River we read excerpts in high school English class.
posted by sbutler at 1:24 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

If everyone posted their favourite lives from Spoon River here, I would be totally okay with that.
posted by ovvl at 1:55 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

We read it in high school English too back in the 1970s. Maybe it's just gone out of style.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:04 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I flagged my own accidental derail upthread--maybe if others did it too, my moment of utter ineptitude would be forever erased the mods would take note and declutter the thread.

I can only imagine Masters's take on that:

Sidhedevil, doped on codeine
Confused me with E.A. Robinson
Her college and graduate schools
Are coming to repossess her education

posted by Sidhedevil at 2:21 PM on February 19, 2012

My two favorite lines are a tie between Elizabeth Childer's And eyeless Nature that makes you drink / From the cup of Love, though you know it’s poisoned; and Johnny Sayre's The remorseless wheel of the engine / Sink into the crying flesh of my leg. But my favorite poem in toto is Reuben Pantier, a great reminder of those who pushed us on to bigger and better things than our little towns would allow. Especially those who handed us their personal, well-worn copy of Spoon River when we got the part to play the Stage Manager in "Our Town." (Thanks, again, Mrs. Thames.)

Also: Richard Buckner! Because it must be repeated.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 2:26 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read it first in undergrad -- At Western Illinois University, in the early 90s. Where the professor lamented the lack of attention it got. I assumed that was at least partly because of regional appeal. I teach chunks of it whenever I get the chance, but it really works best en-mass. With a few epitaph-poems from the Greek Anthology as a nice side-text.

Here's a favorite -- I like too many of 'em to have a single one.

Abel Melveny

I BOUGHT every kind of machine that's known--
Grinders, shellers, planters, mowers,
Mills and rakes and ploughs and threshers--
And all of them stood in the rain and sun,
Getting rusted, warped and battered,
For I had no sheds to store them in,
And no use for most of them.
And toward the last, when I thought it over,
There by my window, growing clearer
About myself, as my pulse slowed down,
And looked at one of the mills I bought--
Which I didn't have the slightest need of,
As things turned out, and I never ran--
A fine machine, once brightly varnished,
And eager to do its work,
Now with its paint washed off--
I saw myself as a good machine
That Life had never used.
posted by LucretiusJones at 2:27 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I teach it in surveys or in Realism & Naturalism classes, pretty much nobody, ever, has read it before.

Ah, I read it first as a translation in Italian, and it was on my to read list in the original language, just waiting for better fluency. Usually I positively hate translations, but this one was very well done, probably due to the free verse structure and the pithiness. (one of the very few works satisfactory in either language)

This one is SPA for me.
posted by francesca too at 3:52 PM on February 19, 2012

Ah, I read it first as a translation in Italian, and it was on my to read list in the original language, just waiting for better fluency.

That's funny. I've often thought of SPA as a foreshadow of some of Italo Calvino's non-linear work, like Invisible Cities. I've only ever read Calvino in translation, but his work is quite effective nonetheless.

Glad to hear SPA works in translation as well.
posted by hippybear at 5:12 PM on February 19, 2012

ovvl: "If everyone posted their favourite lives from Spoon River here, I would be totally okay with that."

When we got married, my now-wife and I wrote our own vows. It seemed better to use a quotation from someone better able to express what I wanted to say. I went with the following:

There is something about Death
Like love itself!
If with some one with whom you have known passion,
And the glow of youthful love,
You also, after years of life
Together, feel the sinking of the fire,
And thus fade away together,
Gradually, faintly, delicately,
As it were in each other’s arms,
Passing from the familiar room—
That is a power of unison between souls
Like love itself!

Also, fuck yes Richard Buckner. Plus, if you go see him live, he looks disturbingly like DFW.
posted by stet at 5:20 PM on February 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

SPA? Really? SRA is what I meant.
posted by hippybear at 5:29 PM on February 19, 2012

Davis Matlock

Well, I say to live it out like a god
Sure of immortal life, though you are in doubt,
Is the way to live it.
If that doesn’t make God proud of you
Then God is nothing but gravitation,
Or sleep is the golden goal.
posted by Senator at 6:41 PM on February 19, 2012

And I dare someone to listen to the opening of the mp3 and not hear the voice of John Facenda, longtime voice of NFL Films. But, upon researching, it turns out to be the voice of Jake and the Fatman's William Conrad.
posted by Senator at 6:46 PM on February 19, 2012

sbutler, hardly anyone in Central Illinois teaches it anymore. It's a crying shame, it's a true American classic. I make sure to bitch about it on a yearly basis.

Miniver Cheevy is GOLD. I think Benjamin Painter and his wife are the saddest pair, have thought so since high school. Anyway, I'm particularly fond of Judge Selah Lively:
SUPPOSE you stood just five feet two,
And had worked your way as a grocery clerk,
Studying law by candle light
Until you became an attorney at law?
And then suppose through your diligence,
And regular church attendance,
You became attorney for Thomas Rhodes,
Collecting notes and mortgages,
And representing all the widows
In the Probate Court? And through it all
They jeered at your size, and laughed at your clothes
And your polished boots? And then suppose
You became the County Judge?
And Jefferson Howard and Kinsey Keene,
And Harmon Whitney, and all the giants
Who had sneered at you, were forced to stand
Before the bar and say "Your Honor"-
Well, don't you think it was natural
That I made it hard for them?
Should also note that it's at least partly about Lewiston, Illinois, his hometown. And that it was scandalous when it first came out, airing all of the "dirty secrets" you'd find in any small town but which were never spoken of.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:30 PM on February 19, 2012

Miniver Cheevy is GOLD.

It's also by a completely different poet.

posted by hippybear at 8:00 PM on February 19, 2012

See, this is why I flagged my own post! Don't get lured into my drug-addled conflation of all American poets with three names, Eyebrows McGee!

this is just to say
that my candle burns at both ends
by the shores of Gitchee Gumee
under a Southron sky
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:15 PM on February 19, 2012

In high school, the drama group did a play very similar to Spoon River, though I can't for the life of me remember the name of it. It was in two acts, which were split by a massive flood that radically altered the town between the first and second acts. It was a pretty amazing play, very much in the mood of Spoon River.

As for the flood of used copies of Spoon River, even if it's not mandated now, it was a pretty standard summer reading list entry while I was in school (early nineties).
posted by Ghidorah at 8:25 PM on February 19, 2012

I saw this performed in an old cemetery one summer. Actors would walk up, stand by a grave and say their poem and then stand and listen to the next one tell their story. The graveyard kind of came alive around us. It was pretty amazing.
posted by BoscosMom at 10:35 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

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