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Serepta Mason (from Spoon River Anthology)

September 3, 2017

My life’s blossom might have bloomed on all sides
Save for a bitter wind which stunted my petals
On the side of me which you in the village could see.
From the dust I lift a voice of protest:
My flowering side you never saw.
Living ones, ye are fools indeed
Who do not know the ways of the wind
And the unseen forces
That govern the processes of life.

–Edgar Lee Masters, 1915

COMMENTARY: Edgar Lee Masters was a lawyer by by profession, a defense attorney, who (however often he may have defended the innocent) certainly defended the guilty enough to understand the psychology of guilt–the mental maneuvers (denial, self-justification, blame-shifting) by which those who feel ashamed often put a veil between internal humiliation and external judgement. The best poems in Spoon River Anthology, a collection of short poems pretended to be written on the tombstones of a fictitious town (though there is debate as to how fictitious ‘Spoon River’ is and which of the poems are based on real people) read like alibis from the defense box, capturing, with some sympathy, the knotty unease that comes from the effort of trying to hide self from conscience and conscience from society.

Master’s psychological insight is one possible explanation why Spoon River Anthology has become as big a best-seller as poetry every becomes–going through dozens of editions and adaptations–despite the fact that the poems are often clunky and unpolished. Rhymeless, meterless, often awkwardly combining the loftily elevated (“From the dust I lift a voice in protest”) with the stiffly prosaic (“the unseen forces that govern the processes of life), Masters poems are worth reading as monologues that seem all the more honest the more the speakers try to lie. When Serepta Mason says, “My flowering side you never saw,” (a nice line) “Ye living ones, ye are fools indeed/ who do not know the ways of the wind,” is it an honest lament of the way a person’s inner being is hidden by all sorts of masks and prejudices–remaining, for many people, the invisible and unsharable beauty of themselves–or is she simply making excuses for her failures and blaming others? Or both? The psychological questions that poems like this provoke explain why Spoon River Anthology is often used as a standard text in theater training, providing skilled actors with many opportunities to explore nuances of tone, and allowing for the kind of thought-provoking ambiguity which is at the center of memorable dramatic characters.

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