spoon river

it’s almost exam season, so hilary has gone to the poetry anthologies to scrounge up some end-of-semester verse. one of those anthologies i stole from my tenth grade english class, and i still have it on the shelf, with the names of my favorite poets (e. e. cummings, edna st. vincent millay, marianne moore) underlined in red magic marker. i was amoral back then and would have courted any risk to possess some poetry. sorry, mr. byrne, i shoulda turned it back in. if my disdain for capitalization bugs you, you can blame the poets for that too. william carlos williams in particular. he was a jersey guy through and through. he liked to see what fences he could hop.

here’s something i forgot: i forgot how much i liked edgar lee masters. the spoon river anthology is a collection of two hundred short poems, each one narrated by a different dead person in a small town cemetery. the poems are stupendous on their own, but to really understand the anthology, you kind of have to swallow the whole thing. many of the narrators knew each other in life, and refer to each other in their epitaphs — it would have made a great hypertext document. some of the stories are contradictory, and some deliberately undercut others; for instance, the local politician praises his mother for teaching him his strength of character, and then we find out in a different poem that his parents stole him from a german immigrant. now i’m making spoon river anthology sound like a lifetime channel movie, and it isn’t that at all. it’s an attempt to engage with the midwest, and rural america, by examining the struggles of ordinary people and then asking the reader to assemble a folk orchestra from a riot of individual pipes and fiddles.

i wrote (bad) poetry in tenth grade, because of course i did, and i found myself wondering if, someday, i could illuminate my little quadrant of the universe as nicely as edgar lee masters represented his. i put those ambitions on hold in the nineties while i was learning how to play and sing, and i think spoon river got lost behind the kinks and randy newman and other pop miniaturists and social satirists i was eager to imitate. but it now occurs to me that the original draft plan for tris mccall album number two was something so similar to the spoon river anthology that it had to have been a direct influence on it. i made up a street on the border between union city and jersey city heights, and imagined the people who lived there, and then wrote songs from the perspective of each of those characters. i came up with a whole quasitheatrical stage show based around this, and dragged some of the new jack trippers into my fiendish plot. as it happened, the company that promised to back the project pulled out, and that, i thought, put an end to that. but jay braun rescued most of the flotsam and we made it into shootout at the sugar factory, which is way better than what i’d been planning, so all’s well that ended well. several of the characters did survive the crash and found a path to shootout: tim berg, the frightened stockbroker of “the night bus,” hector the code inspector, frank the overeducated toll collector of “scatter my ashes on the new jersey turnpike,” etc.  we buried edgar lee masters in the mix behind david byrne and nick rhodes, but if you listen carefully, you can hear him strumming.

now that i am writing and recording again, i discover to my amazement that i am still trying to do a spoon river anthology. edgar lee masters is ultra-lucid and i am anything but, but i remain committed by the idea of a cycle of individual stories told by separate narrators on a common theme that only becomes apparent when the listener experiences the stories together. these thirty-five songs i’ve written for this project are each single narrations from the mouths of american characters who i’ve conjured up and know much more about than i can fit in a pop song. if i could draw, i’d draw a picture of each one. maybe i could write a story about each one. maybe they should be presented, spoon river style, in sequence somehow. some of the narrations are so general that there’d be no way for a casual listener to pick up on any of the backstory i’ve developed — or even connect the character to the city he’s meant to represent — but maybe that’s my task. maybe i have to frame these stories so that the spoon river nature of the project is always apparent. and even as i type all this i am realizing my unbearable inadequacy to the source material. but it’s a literary grail i’m after, i guess. if i’m ever asked about my influences, and i don’t mention edgar lee masters, please refer me back to this post. and then to my poetry anthology.