A Misplaced Landmark in Modernist Poetry Part 3

Were you surprised or puzzled when I introduced this series on the Spoon River Anthology  by comparing it to the later bleak Modernist landmark “The Waste Land?”  I would have been. Not only is it often (usually?) left out of recent timelines of significant events in Modernist poetry’s emergence, the single epitaphs I recalled from it, the book’s “greatest hits,” were more similar to the ones I’ve presented so far here than to the bulk of Spoon River.  My first two Spoon River  posts: “Cooney Potter”  and “Fiddler Jones”  are ostensibly wistful, and while Cooney’s notice of the driving of his family and himself to increase his wealth and holdings has darker undertones, he’s telling this in the context of regret and guilt. He might even be exaggerating his faults.

Other unrepresentative Spoon River  “greatest hits” include the glowing and mildly tragic elegy for the putative love of the young Abe Lincoln’s life “Anne Rutledge,”  and “Lucinda Matlock*”  the stoic toting up of a full life by a pioneering settler who tells us she outlived (in a dual sense of the word) her troubles. The book’s opening introductory poem, “The Hill”  in its death-comes-to-us all catalog of outcomes remains elegiac. We might expect bittersweet with a strong flavor of nostalgia in the whole book. That’s how I’d cataloged Spoon River  informally in my mind.

SpoonRiverAnthology_cover

File under horror, not reminiscence

 

Reading the Spoon River Anthology this month has changed my understanding of it. Overall, the view of life and values in it is far more bitter than sweet. Many epitaphs are accounts of cruelty or unmitigated evil. Most relationships can be summed up (and are) as a grudge of one sort or another. It’s a harrowing read in its entirety if you are paying attention all the way through. With only a hint of the supernatural in it, it’s a horror story,  the mitigating moments and elements only relief before another crime or creep comes around the corner.

Today’s piece is perhaps the most chilling one in the entire book, as cold as a lynching poem—** and with gender replacing race, that’s approximately what it is. As I said when introducing last April’s sections of “The Waste Land”   this is not material for everyone.  It’s not poetry that soothes, reassures, or delights its attentive reader.  Masters is going to tell the story in first person, a somewhat unusual choice, and the narrator is going to fiercely understate in but 12 lines. Here’s a link to the text of “Minerva Jones” to follow along with.

As I said when introducing last April’s sections of “The Waste Land”   this is not material for everyone.  It’s not poetry that soothes, reassures, or delights its attentive reader.

We learn that Minerva Jones*** thinks of herself as the village poetess, and that some part of the village loves to taunt her, perhaps for her pretension, perhaps for lack of conventional femininity, perhaps just because she stands out as not conforming. Her father in his separate epitaph says he’s taunted for being Welsh and poor, so add that to her “crimes.”

And then she’s attacked by a village ne’re-do-well “Butch” Weldy, motivated by and/or knowing he’ll be excused by the village because of the above supposed transgressions of Minerva’s. We are given absolutely no details of the attack, another authorial choice. Many, and I, read this attack as rape. I think Masters intends that assumption. The choice to include no details of the attack itself could be discussed at length. It could be revealing of the speaker’s shame or decorum. It could be mental shock transcending even death. It could even be a level of what could be published at that time. Does that choice add or detract from the power of the poem? I suspect that varies from reader to reader. Think here of one of the core practices of Imagism:**** that one leaves out the core ineffable thing so that it may still be invoked by what is included.

Minerva tells us her attacker “left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers.” Here the story-telling gets more fractured and confusing, as this telling alone indicates that she sought medical treatment after the attack ends. However, in the context of other Spoon River poems that touch on this incident, the most likely reading is that a pregnancy resulted from this rape and her visit to Dr. Meyers was weeks later and for the purpose of seeking an illegal abortion.

At this point I’m more willing to say that Masters has made a narrative error, or at least disassociated one of the most powerful images in the entire book from its vivid context. Only by reading the other epitaphs dealing with this episode would it be clear to the reader that when Minerva Jones says in her sparse account: “And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up/Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice” that Masters has her acutely describing the feelings of a body undergoing hemorrhagic shock as she bleeds out in Dr. Meyers office. If one can distance oneself from the empathetic horror we may feel of the incident Masters is describing, these two lines are also Imagist: immediate, not mere decoration:

Anything that follows such a cruel situation and powerful lines must trail away. The next two lines have the power of pathos, posed as a question, not a command, and then the final two lines break with Imagist rules by stating emotions directly. After all the elision of the poem, many will forgive Masters for the value of these lines’ contrast with the cold account.

What happens next? Does Masters resolve this story? As they used to say in the days before binge referred to media consumption: stay tuned.

I too made a curious choice in performing “Minerva Jones.”  I could have gone with a big orchestral sound, something I’ve been exploring this summer. Then I’ve been thinking I’m missing the element here of loud “rawk” with guitars and band. And synthesizer/electronic sounds are almost a stereotypical way to express horror. Even solo acoustic guitar would be a conventional choice—many traditional ballads are as cold and bleak in their description of violence.

Totally out of the blue, and perhaps not correctly, I chose to instead use something out of my not-quite-jazz side. Dampened drums in a solid backbeat, always a good signifier of fate, a fretless bass line in a rolling walk, a chord progression sketched on piano that subtly violates expected cadences and harmonies, and then the guitar top line emphasizes the G-flat that adds stress to the harmonic structure. Like Masters, I fiercely understated. Did it work? The player is below.

 

 

 

 

*Rutledge is one of a handful of real people with real names included in the Anthology, but a great many others are thinly disguised real people from Masters hometowns or Chicago (some of whom weren’t dead, and recognized themselves), Matlock for example is his paternal grandmother at whose farm Masters spent time at in his childhood.

**Several times here I’ve considered poems about American lynchings for presentation. I’ve so far pulled back, and the why of that is complex. Dealing with the emotions brought forward in the Minerva Jones story walloped me, and I had to step away unable to continue work on this for a while.

***Is she related to Fiddler Jones I asked last time? Possibly, but I can’t recall that being established in the book, while Minerva’s connection to other epitaphs is made explicit. If she is, then there’s possibly a comment on how poetry is treated by the town (and presented by Masters) and music. Music is a recognized good, poetry something between an oddity or a fault. Two professions are probably overrepresented in the small town of Spoon River, mirroring Masters’ own life: poets (there are at least three) and lawyers and judges (I lost track, but there are many).

****While writing the Spoon River  poems, Masters once called his work “Imagiste” indicating that he thought the term fitting. Pound’s A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”  along with F. S. Flint’s short report on “Imagisme  was published in Chicago-based Poetry in the spring of 1913 as Masters was thinking about how to shape his Illinois material; and though this has been less remembered later on, Chicago colleague Carl Sandburg was committed to using Imagist principles.

I’m indebted for some of this detail about Masters’ process to the only full-length Edgar Lee Masters biography extant: Herbert K. Russell’s 2005 book.

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