“Spoon River Anthology”

Perhaps Edgar Lee Masters was a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was, SRA being one of the most idiosyncratic (one might say even accidental) masterpieces in any country’s literature. I believe I first came across it on a summer reading list sent to me by my high school and  it immediately became one of my go to books which I read on a least an annual basis.

It seems Masters (a lawyer by trade who once worked with Clarence Darrow but who had already had several books published at the beginning of a very prolific literary career), had just finished reading the Greek Anthology, a collection of some 4500 Greek poems written between about 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D., many of which took the form of epigrams-laconic sayings that may or may not harbor  a kernel of truth, while others were expressed as confessional epitaphs, in which the dead commented on their lives from beyond the grave. Shortly after reading it, Masters, experimenting with free verse, penned some of his own using them as a model and sent them off to Editor Reedy of “Reedy’s Mirror”, a literary magazine published in St. Louis, mostly as a lark, and Reedy liked them so much he asked for more. The poems were serialized there in 1914 under the pseudonym Webster Ford for fear of damaging Masters’s law practice, his real identity being revealed later that year by Reedy.

When Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915, it shattered the myth of small-town America as the bastion of American virtue. Meant to be read as a novel, the reader is required to piece together narratives from single lines and fragments contained in 244 individual poems. In his thinly veiled fictional town of Spoon River, situated in central Illinois near Lewistown, where Masters grew up, the honest, hardworking, chaste, and churchgoing live amidst corrupt bankers, abusive husbands, unfulfilled wives, sexual deviants, and failed dreamers, freed from the shackles of life by death, who “sleep beneath these weeds” confess their deepest secrets, disappointments, frustrations, joys, and warnings to the living in the form of brutally honest free verse poems. The poems are remarkable for the breadth of personalities and the honesty with which they speak. When his book first came out, Masters’ own mother, who was on the library board, voted to ban it. He was exposing family secrets; people were much more private then, and they didn’t want everybody to know their business even though in a small town everybody already knew it. Dubbed a sort of “Peyton Place” of its time, it was unofficially banned for over a half-century in his hometown. It wasn’t that people weren’t reading it- they most certainly were, they just wouldn’t admit or dare talk about it.

Championed early on by Ezra Pound (who wrote “At last the American West has produced a poet . . . ” ) and fellow Illinoisian Carl Sandburg, it was an international best-seller, reported to have sold 80,000 copies in four years, unheard of for a book of poetry. “No volume of poetry since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had attempted so much or had been so original,” says John Hallwas, who edited and annotated the 1993 version published by the University of Illinois Press, which I highly recommend, but only after you have familiarized yourself with the book.

The book went on to influence American masterpieces like Sherwood Anderson’s book of interlocking short stories about a small town, Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’ novels Main Street and Babbitt, and the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The work continues to stay relevant for its treatment of the human condition Hallwas also says. Although unknown by the general public, and certainly not taught in schools, it has never been out of print, has been adapted for stage and screen, taught in acting classes, translated into numerous languages, and phrases from one of the poems entitled “Alexander Throckmorton” were quoted by Pope Francis during his recent visit to America.

In contemporary culture another fellow Illinoisian, the late folksinger songwriter Steve Goodman (“City of New Orleans” being his most well known song) has a song on his first album entitled “Spoon River,” obviously influenced by the book, though set in the Civil War time period, and more nostalgic; Richard Buckner, another admired folksinger songwriter made an entire album using some of the poems set to music, entitled appropriately, “The Hill” (after the prefatory poem), both well worth checking out.

I leave you with this,  spoken by my favorite Spoon River denizen, Fiddler Jones:

“Fiddler Jones

THE EARTH keeps some vibration going

There in your heart, and that is you.

And if the people find you can fiddle,

Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.

What do you see, a harvest of clover?

Or a meadow to walk through to the river?

The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands

For beeves hereafter ready for market;

Or else you hear the rustle of skirts

Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.

To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust

Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;

They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy

Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”

How could I till my forty acres

Not to speak of getting more,

With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos

Stirred in my brain by crows and robins

And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?

And I never started to plow in my life

That some one did not stop in the road

And take me away to a dance or picnic.

I ended up with forty acres;

I ended up with a broken fiddle—

And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,

And not a single regret”.



“Thank You, Robert Walser”/ A story by Tom Evans

Bad start to the day today, 4 train was running on the 6 train track and like the mole I can be I didn’t look closer at the train number as I’d never had reason to before, the commute had become so routine, Metro North to GCS, catch the aforementioned 6 train uptown, but I’d forgotten that just when you thought you had it down pat things could change, emergencies, contingencies and such could happen at a moment’s notice, and then, literally, where were you? Further, the normal station stop announcements were being made right up until my stop at Astor Place, but in the meantime trying to decide whether something was amiss and whether to get off at the stop before it, 14th Street and Union Square, as people usually did when they knew something I didn’t (experienced travelers they were), but I didn’t see anyone rush out the doors en masse like you normally would in these situations, and when I heard the canned “the next stop is Astor Place” announcement very clearly even though the neon crawler was saying something different I felt somewhat relieved except that when it reached Astor Place it went right on by and I felt the usual sinking feeling I got whenever this happened, cursing my commute this time audibly not in the silent way I did on a daily basis, as even on a good day I doubted the train was going where it said because I’d been duped too many times before.

You had to be vigilant at all times and I assure you most times I was, even hypervigilant, but this particular time I wasn’t and it cost me. As a consequence I finally ended up at the end of the line for this particular train, which was the City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge Station, somewhere I’d never been before and wouldn’t have ever gone if I’d been in my right mind. After several missteps in which I walked the wrong way on the wrong platform and, as it turned out, the wrong side of the tracks, I turned around, only reversing my course when I saw it was ending. Again, as I normally would I watched to see in which direction people were going but the track was mainly deserted yet despite that I felt fairly confident that if I continued in the opposite direction I would eventually find my way, and, sure enough, I came to a passageway that said both “Exit” and “6” and figured the 6 must be going uptown on the other side of the tracks so I took the ramp then the stairs and ended up finally on the right platform, although I wouldn’t be sure until I saw the actual train pull into the station.

I finally caught the Bronx bound (which meant nothing to me) 6 train when it arrived, already late for work, when a young woman got on the train and took out a sheaf of papers which she began perusing. I was sitting directly across the aisle from her and something about her or what she was doing, or the fact that she had a sheaf of paper in her hands instead of the omnipresent iphone everyone her age seemingly was glued to 24/7, piqued my interest. She was by turns frowning, smiling, and crossing things out as she read. I happen to be adept at reading upside down, in fact practiced it many times not thinking it would ever do me any good, so I took a chance to see if I could do it this time and realized, with the help of the bolded title, she was reading my very own story, one I had submitted not long ago to a literary journal located in Brooklyn, a story I thought was my one of my better ones called “A Quick Death,” but having had it rejected 42 times wasn’t so certain. I couldn’t believe my eyes of course, the first thing I thought was the same thing I thought each time I sent a story out, that it only takes one journal to like it and why not this one, which then coalesced into how dare she cross something out and why was she frowning, and what she thought was funny as I hadn’t intended any humor, then I wanted to jump up and ask her what she thought and tell her that I was the author but decided I’d better not or rather that I could never do that. Besides, I really didn’t want to know anyway, I could wait until I got the usual rejection via email.

She was an attractive young woman in her late twenties, perhaps from the Middle East, with long straight black hair, knee-length black boots, brown eyes with heavy lashes and crimson lips, slender and well-dressed. The fact that she was heading uptown made me think she was going to work but I wondered why at this hour until I remembered so was I, and thought momentarily about following her, not that I’m in any way a stalker or at all aggressive, but how many times do you get this opportunity, there are no longer any more slush piles after all, no way to get your foot in the door, so to speak, and maybe I could somehow ingratiate myself to her if I played it carefully. I’d always thought your work should speak for itself but that’s not the way it works, or so I’m told, although we’re supposed to pretend everything is on the up and up, professional, objective etc. And I’d always thought the hardest thing would be the writing part but have discovered that’s only the tip of the iceberg, that it’s oftentimes your query letter that opens the door, so how naïve was I, and how unsuited to traverse that gauntlet? But there was work and other obligations to meet, and I certainly didn’t want to get lost in the unfamiliar territory she was headed toward, and ultimately I was too shy to go through with it anyhow. When it was apparent she was going past my stop I quickly decided what the heck I had to try, when else would I ever get a chance like this. After some time had passed we reached Grand Central and she got off as did I and caught another Bronx-bound 4 train as did I, which we stayed on for quite a while until she got up, jammed my story back into her purse, and got off at a stop I didn’t even notice the name of. I did too, following her at a circumspect distance unlikely to arouse suspicion, thinking all the while what to say to her: perhaps how long and hard I’d toiled over the story, what the real life events behind it were, the emotional toll it took on me, what hopes I had for becoming a published author: you know, the human interest angle.

She was walking at a leisurely pace on the as usual annoyingly crowded sidewalks, but with her weaving in and out among fellow pedestrians as well as being in unfamiliar territory I had all I could do to keep up, and almost lost her several times. Panicking when I did I just kept going straight, hoping she had too and hadn’t turned down a side street to grab a bite or get some coffee, and eventually I’d spot her again. The weather on the late fall day was turning from bright sunshine to increasingly overcast which didn’t help my mood and I began to worry about missing work and my life in general, especially how this monolithic city could eat you alive with stone cold imperviousness. I noticed we’d reached an area surrounded by many tall buildings, most of which, if the names emblazoned on the front of them were any indication, were apartment buildings. As the street I was on didn’t seem to lead much further I deduced that she must live in one of them and, sure enough, I spotted her just as she was entering one of them. As I was deciding what to do next I noticed a wooded area had suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere and my gaze was drawn to the black and gold sign affixed to a huge oak standing sentinel to the park entrance that read POE PARK. Poe Park I thought to myself, I’d been meaning to see it (well Poe Cottage actually) since I first arrived here, it was the only thing I’d wanted to see in the city but as usual had put it off and now here it was right in front of me! Poe Poe Poe Poe, the archetypal artist in all his inebriated, possibly illegitimate, incestuous, insane glory, one of the most misunderstood, polarizing, and unfortunate figures in all of literature. The cottage, with the no longer rural aspect on the edge of the city where they’d been sent in the hopes of a cure for his Virginia, where she’d died, and her Eddy grieved her ever after in two great poems written there, had been restored at great cost and, while I was somewhat grateful for that and upon entering hoped I would find that it felt like holy ground, instead could not help but be bitter that instead it felt like a mausoleum, missing only the life-size wax replicas of its three former denizens, calling to mind Fortunato’s fate in the story Poe might have written there (foretelling his own?) and a futile gesture no doubt intended to atone for the utter misery and neglect he’d suffered in his brief lifetime.

I got out of there as fast as I could, still feeling somewhat under its spell once outside, where the weather had turned even gloomier. I suddenly thought of the story I had written, the story whose fate might be in the young girls’ hands at that very moment, and wished I could run inside her apartment and snatch it from her, realizing it was a paltry effort, that it had no import whatsoever, that that was what it was lacking, and maybe I could re-write it, realizing what I hadn’t realized before entering Poe’s cottage, at least making it satisfactory in my eyes even though it might never again see the light of day. But I did nothing, knowing I had enough to think about just trying to find my way out of this godforsaken city before darkness fell, and thankfully I did.



©Tom Evans, 2016



“Angel & Avatar” (short story) / by Tom Evans

As promised in a post (“Avatar”) 10 months ago I finally completed my story. But is it ever really finished I ask myself? Probably not this one, but I’m putting it out there for anyone who wishes to read it. I’d love any kind of feedback you’d like to give. Well, here goes.

“Angel & Avatar”

He purposely lived in the worst part of the largest city in the country because he knew that’s what Jesus would do.  He slept under a particular bridge near Harlem in good weather and wherever he could in bad. Lest you think he was some kind of superhero, dilettante, or saint that was not the case. It was where he wanted to be, where he’d aspired to be since he could remember. You see he actually believed the words he had heard in church as a child, had read deeply in the poets, philosophers, and scriptures of many countries and religions as he grew older, finding everything he first heard in the Bible corroborated throughout, which made his belief even stronger.

He kept body and soul together by begging or doing odd jobs when he could get them, as everyone else in the neighborhood did. Strangers who saw him undoubtedly thought poor man, he’s deranged, bereft because of some awful misfortune in his life, which, again, was not the case.

He had long auburn hair and a beard, favored blue jeans and white work shirts, brown sandals in summer and black boots in winter, and always managed somehow to look clean and healthy. As with most wise men people were drawn to him; they wanted to find out who he was, often offering him jobs for which he was hardly qualified, inviting him to their homes, even to their beds.

He often did things for others less fortunate than he, modest perhaps, nothing earthshaking, some food, money when he had it, a kind word, a clean blanket, a sponge bath as it were, even just checking in on people he knew were in dire straits, little niceties rarely seen these days but greatly appreciated by all he helped.

Then one day he became terribly ill. It seemed like he was not long for this world, which was a pity as he was only in his mid-thirties. He managed to drag himself to a laundromat where he often washed his clothes, hoping to find some spare change lying around in the machines and the pay phone, even better hoping he would meet someone kind, someone he could relate to, someone who wanted nothing from him, who himself was so giving.

But mostly he wanted to feel better. It was a weekend so he hadn’t seen the usual professional people he knew down on the Bowery, doctors and lawyers and such, and he didn’t feel much like walking or searching someone out. Let that person come to him was his thought, he’d recognize them instantly. It had been this way his whole life, he giving all he could, living a meagre existence, and up until now, thriving to his way of thinking. But now, sick, weak, finding himself more vulnerable than he had ever been, it was time for someone to step up and help him out, someone preferably with a medical background, but he realized he couldn’t be that fussy, then wait a minute, yes he could, he deserved someone just right, a person he had been waiting for all his life. That wasn’t asking too much was it? Wracking his brains through all the ancient lore he’d taken to heart he couldn’t think of any worldly reason why not.

Then suddenly the door opened and a statuesque woman with black hair dressed to the nines entered. The first thing he noticed and thought odd was that she didn’t seemed to have any laundry. Since the laundromat was empty he couldn’t imagine why she’d even come in but his question was answered when she walked right up to him and introduced herself as thou. He shook her hand but said nothing, just gazed intently at her. You seem to be about the same age as my son and you don’t look well, she said, that’s why I came in here, I spotted you immediately and since my husband is a doctor thought I’d see what was wrong.

For some reason after she said that he became like a child, something he’d never felt he’d been before, even when he was one. He melted when usually he was so reserved, and then she held her arms out and clasped him to herself and he held on for dear life, taking in her scent, the contours of her body, already feeling much better. He’d never felt these feelings before because he’d never had- needed- anyone until that very moment. And he truly did need her.

She was so warm, smelled so good, and seemed genuine to him though obviously wealthy. This was different from anything he’d ever experienced; all the people he’d helped or met in his life prior to this were strangers at best, one-night stands if you will. When they finished their embrace he wondered what would happen next but didn’t have to wait long as she asked him if he wanted to come to her hotel room. The spell was instantly broken and he didn’t know what to say; the woman grew flustered and he didn’t help her, remaining mute. He thought she might change her mind and withdraw the offer, until she repeated it and he immediately assented. She led him outside, where the rain had let up and the sun was struggling to peek through the clouds. It isn’t far she said, pulling him with an urgency that surprised him but which he thought he understood. She doesn’t want me to change my mind, he thought, and picked up the pace until he was abreast of her.

When they reached the hotel, the Lafayette on 5th Avenue, they went up the elevator to her room on the second floor. Sit anywhere you’d like, she said, I’m going to refresh myself. He sat on a blue divan, relieved to be alone, even if only for a brief moment. Looking at himself he was ashamed of his worn outer clothing and realized he’d like to get freshened up also. To that end he went into her bedroom and stripped, leaving his clothes on the floor where he kicked them aside. He headed for the bathroom and knocked softly on the door. Come in, she said, and join me, the waters’ fine. He did as he was told, not hesitating a moment, sliding the shower curtain open ever so gently, amazed as he behold her naked body, bronzed and fit, and, as I said before, statuesque.

Let me bathe you, she said; and I you, he replied. They washed each other very gently, thoroughly, starting with the soles of their feet and working their way up, then commingling under the streaming water for what seemed like a blissful eternity. When it was over she said, I’ll get out first before I turn into a prune. He parted the curtain for her and she stepped out and draped herself in a thirsty towel. He continued to wash himself thoroughly, then stood under the water for quite a while, letting the steam absorb into his pores, knowing he might not have another shower for a while.

When he was finished he turned off the shower and listened, but heard no sound. He wrapped a towel around himself but when he went into her bedroom saw that she was gone. He quickly went into the outer room and looked around but there was no sign of her, she was definitely gone. When he went back into the bedroom to put on his clothes he saw they were no longer there and in their place was what looked to be a note. He picked it up and read the note written on plain hotel stationary, I’ve sent out for some new clothes for you, I hope you don’t mind. I hope you feel better. He folded the note carefully and placed it on the nightstand then lay down on the bed while waiting for his clothes to arrive and fell asleep.

He awoke when the clothes were delivered, completely refreshed, as if he’d never been sick at all. He opened the paper-wrapped package and found two pairs of levis, a white and a blue work shirt, a couple of bandanas, two bags containing underwear (briefs) and undershirts, some socks, a sturdy pair of brand-new Wolverines, and lastly a knapsack to put his things in. Everything fit perfectly and as he closed the door behind him he felt like a new man. God bless her he said as he walked down the stairs, and now I must be about my business. Stepping out onto the familiar street he put his hand in the pocket of his new jeans and pulled out a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. He stared at it a minute, nodded his head, folded it into a miniscule triangle, then put it back in his pocket. He began to set out on his errand of mercy just as he always had before but his legs immediately felt so weak he thought he would collapse. He sank to his knees, then to the sidewalk, where he sat with his back against the wall of a building. He pulled out one of the bandanas and mopped his perspiring face. Maybe I’m getting sick again, he thought, but I can’t afford to, I have to be on my way, too many people are counting on me and I’ve disappointed them enough already. He tried to recall what day it was, how much time he’d lost but he couldn’t. For the first time he felt the absence of hope, something he’d never experienced before; he’d never questioned his purpose, it had never even occurred to him to do so, he just did what he was called to do. But now that he was questioning it he was scared, also for the first time in his life and didn’t know what to do about it.

Suddenly he remembered there was a park nearby. There was bound to be someone there who knew him, and, if not, he’d make new friends in that familiar bower, surely he would. It had always been a place of respite, of contemplation for him; he’d even sometimes spent nights there in good weather with the other denizens. The weather being only so-so (it was on the cusp of autumn) he wasn’t sure where he would go next, he’d just see what happened. As he neared the park and went through the iron gates surrounding it the park seemed deserted. Wait, there was a policeman, he said to himself. I’d better steer clear of him, there’d been trouble at many of the parks throughout the city. It seemed the latest succession of mayors had been trying (unsuccessfully) to rid the park of people such as himself: bums, vagrants, hobos, drug addicts, and just plain homeless, who really had nowhere else to go. He needn’t worry, though, the police never bothered him as he could often pass as normal, especially since his most recent thorough cleansing and spiffy new clothes. Gathering strength, he thought of his recent encounter with the woman (he never got her name); it seemed so long ago; he couldn’t help wondering why it had happened, what it meant, not sure how he even felt about it.              On that particular day, however, he noticed the policeman watching him, and wondered why. He kept going, hoping to encounter Pete, Larry, Frank or Joe, whom he was close to, buddies almost but not quite, seeking them out in their usual haunts underneath the stone bridge, in the public toilets, or the gazebo by the arboretum, but saw no trace of them. Strange, he thought, he hoped they weren’t among the ones rounded up in the last sweep of the park the police had carried out, which wasn’t long ago if he remembered correctly. Suddenly he thought of Sadie, his favorite, whom he hadn’t seen in a while. He’d known her the longest of any of the myriad unfortunates he’d encountered on the streets. She was a diminutive pale woman but deceptively strong in body as well as mind. She’d shown him the ropes his first few days in the city, even offered him her abode under the bridge that was now his home base that first night. She left shortly afterward, going back to one of her old spots, saying to him, Got to shake the dust off, keep moving, don’t know why, I just do. If you don’t keep moving you’re finished. But I reckon you’ll do just fine; look for me when you can, and I’ll do likewise. Gotta look out for one another, we do, it’s all we have.

He thought of shouting out for all of them, his voice would surely echo over the deserted park, but decided against it, remembering the policeman at the gate. Just then he approached the huge locust bush Sadie could usually be found, often setting up camp in the heavy undergrowth behind it. He paused for a minute as he thought he heard a noise, a faint cry for help perhaps. He listened closely trying to make it out and gradually he heard the voice say help me, help me please. He quickly parted the dense branches of the locust bush and saw Sadie lying on the ground, bleeding profusely from a deep gash on her forehead. Sadie, he said, it’s me, and bent down to cradle her head in the crook of his arm. She looked up at where the voice was coming from, unseeing, and mumbled something unintelligible over and over again. He gently shushed her and told her softly not to talk. He could tell she was hurt badly and wanted to go get someone to help but didn’t want to leave her side.

He looked around in desperation and saw the policeman coming toward him, relieved that help was on the way yet a bit unsettled because it seemed he’d been followed. Still, he had to do something, he thought, and got to his feet. The policeman took the long way around the bush and when he got there told him to step away from the woman, which he was unwilling to do. He could see the wheels turning in the policeman’s head as he assessed the situation. I’m going to have to ask you again to step away, and answer some questions, the policeman said authoritatively, his hand feeling for his nightstick as he didn’t want to take his eyes off him. When he finally had it secured he ordered him to get up slowly and put his hands in the air.

Do you know this person, the policeman asked him. He could see where this was going but answered anyway, Yes I do, and she needs help right away. I‘ll call it in but I’m also going to have to take you in for questioning, the police officer said. He heard an ambulance wail and saw it enter the park, larger than life, incongruously straddling the macadam walking path. The EMTs lifted Sadie gently onto a stretcher, inserted her in the ambulance, and sped off, siren screaming. Immediately replacing the ambulance was a police cruiser, its red light flashing but thankfully no siren.

He was then unceremoniously cuffed and stuffed into the back of the police car. He was outraged at the injustice of it all; why the police had probably done it themselves, he thought as the car began a U-turn to exit the park, but he decided to suffer in silence. Just as they were making the turn he wrenched his neck around when he thought he saw some movement behind the locust bush. He could barely make out the face that popped up over the bushes but thought it could very well be Pete, Larry, Frank or Joe. As the police car exited the park he somehow knew he’d never see them or Sadie again. Regardless of what happened next he was glad they’d been spared; now all that was left to do was pray for Sadie’s recovery. That wasn’t asking for too much, after all, was it?

©Tom Evans, 2016




The Dream Songs / John Berryman

A scholar and professor as well as a poet, John Berryman graduated from Columbia in 1936, then went to study at Cambridge University for two years on a scholarship. Early on he wrote a critical biography of the American writer Stephen Crane, and first achieved national attention for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), a dense, brilliant book-length dialogue with the seventeenth century poet Anne Bradstreet. Berryman taught at Harvard and Princeton, among other places, finally taking a position at the University of Minnesota, where he remained until his death. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and was considered a key figure in the Confessional school of poetry. He taught many well-known future poets , one of whom (Philip Levine) characterized him as brilliant, mesmerizing, difficult, and demanding, but the best teacher he ever had.

But it is The Dream Songs that made him famous and on which his literary reputation will rest. The book is listed on the American Academy of Poets website as one of their Groundbreaking Books of the 20th Century, and was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. There are 385 of them, composed in a form consisting of three stanzas divided into six lines per stanza, in free verse with irregular rhyme schemes. The songs are all numbered but some of them also have individual titles. The poems teem with allusions to past and present events (capturing the Fifties and Sixties decades very well) and to literary figures, many of which are elegies for Berryman’s recently deceased poet friends, including Delmore Schwartz,  Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke. It is a veritable literary Spoon River Anthology with its many paeans to the great writers throughout history he felt connected to.

Its main protagonist is named Henry, a white American in early middle age who sometimes makes up in blackface as a minstrel.  An unnamed friend who speaks in several of the poems calls him “Mr. Bones” and he then often refers to himself as that in future poems. Although Berryman insists Henry is not him, the dream songs portray many experiences of his life, like his troubles with women and his obsession with death and suicide, mainly his father’s suicide. He compares Henry to Tolstoy’s treatment of Anna Karenina, in that, as Tolstoy did with his heroine, Berryman took Henry further than any normal life could take us.

The best summation of these poems I’ve read is by Kevin Young, an African-American poet  who edited The Selected Poems for the Library of America edition who states in his introduction to that volume “The voice shifts from high to low, from archaic language to slang, slant rhyme to full, attempting to render something of jazz or, more accurately, the blues—devil’s music. What emerges and succeeds is something of a sonnet plus some—a devil’s sonnet, say (the three sixes stanzas too obvious to be ignored). Berryman’s heresy is against the polite modernism that preceded him. That the poem can let in all sorts of Americanisms—… and not as signs of culture’s decay, but of its American vitality, is fearless and liberating.”

Among my favorite ones are Numbers 1, 4, 14, 28, 29, 40, 145, 149, 155, 187, 206, 224, 265, 301, 312, 324, & 347 – so many good ones I’d like to quote them in full but I’ll let you discover them on your own. The frankness of Berryman’s work influenced his friend Robert Lowell and other Confessional poets like Anne Sexton. Despite the grim subject matter of some they are often hilarious,  but can also bring you to tears.  Some of it is tough going and its not for the faint-hearted, but the improvident beauty studding every poem is well worth the effort.











A Sorrow Beyond Dreams / Peter Handke

I’m not sure how I stumbled onto this book but when I did so in the early 80’s it instantly became one of my very favorite books. The title for one thing- I even love the German title Wunschloses Unglück for some reason, probably because I love the book so much in general. It being out of print and difficult just to get the book from a library back in those days,  I hate to admit that (being a librarian and all, and very cognizant of copyright infringement), after reading and falling in love with it and not knowing if I’d ever be able to get it back again, and wanting to have it with me at all times, instead of stealing it (I draw the line at that) I photocopied the 65 page hardcover copy I had in my hot little hands, justifying it to myself by promising that it ever did come back in print I’d be the first to know and the first one in line to get it, and that in the meantime I’d be telling as many people about it as I could.

I was in the throes of deciding whether I really wanted to be a writer at that time (not realizing you either were or you weren’t), and was reading all kinds of literary theory, including that of the Nouveau Roman movement when I came across this book, which has some of the aspects of that theory in it, particularly in its rigorous demonstration of the failure of language to express the horror of existence, and in its questioning of whether fiction with its artifice can even approximate the nature of existence. He believed less is much more, that you had to do the best you could to tell the truth, and layers upon layers of fiction’s apparatus didn’t solve the problem, rather further obfuscated things.

The book’s story line is a difficult one, that of coming to terms with his mother’s suicide in the most objective possible way. He realizes the task he has set himself and all the way through questions whether he is succeeding in any way in conveying what he is trying to convey. He uses capitals throughout the book for emotive terms he applies to his mother’s life, signalling his futility in trying to capture her reality, and italics for the cliches he purposefully sprinkles throughout, cliches often used (albeit in a well-meaning way) to come to terms with such a tragedy.

Just the facts, ma’am are how he begins, her life having been profoundly impacted by her coming of age in Hitler’s Germany, her son the product of a wartime romance with a much older man, making her an unwed mother in one of the most horrific times in modern history, after which she marries a gruff alcoholic German Army sergeant who never could understand her, meanwhile still carrying the torch for her son’s real father which she would for the rest of her life. Eventually she begins discovering the world and living her life through her son, educating herself by reading the books her son shares with her from the university he is attending, books by Hamsun, Gorky, Kafka, Dostoevsky, then Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. She then becomes depressed by her experience with this great literature, which she often takes literally, and her son feels responsible. Gradually Handke becomes a success as a writer and, busy living his life, lessens his contact with his mother. No longer having this connection with her son, she loses interest in life and kills herself.

Handke doesn’t feel the relief he thought he’d feel writing the book, nor does he realize much of anything concerning his mother’s suicide. With one of the great rationalizations in literary history he ends the book with this:

Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail.

Both he and the reader know he won’t.

And yes, the book finally came back into print, in a mini compendium  published in 1988, entitled 3 x Handke, and yes, I literally ran out to buy it as soon as I heard.

Originally published in 1972 in German, the Ralph Manheim translation was published in 1974. Handke has gone on to become a major figure in world literature though he probably has had his greatest commercial success collaborating with Wim Wenders on several of his films.

“The Meadow” / James Galvin

First published in 1992, James Galvin’s The Meadow depicts the century-long history of a hay meadow in the mountains of the Colorado/Wyoming border, told through the  eyes of Lyle, Ray, Clara, and App, of their unsentimental struggle to survive on an independent family ranch, along the way debunking much of the traditional romantic myth of the American West as we know it. Galvin knows the meadow like Thoreau knew Walden and the surrounding areas, and writes of it as intimately, giving it a sense of place only a native could. Imagine Walden as a western novel and you have a sense of what the book is like. Similar to Stoner (discussed here in an earlier entry), The Meadow is a quiet classic that you somehow discover because it has been kept alive mostly through word of mouth. It had received, along with Cormac McCarthy’s  All the Pretty Horses, the award for Best Novel about the West that year, but unlike McCarthy’s novel which was a huge bestseller, The Meadow suffered a very different publishing fate, as few bookstores carried it. It came out  in paperback the following year and subsequently obtained a devoted following.

Immediately upon finishing it, if you’re anything like me, you can’t wait to run out and  tell others with a like mind about it. Even better (though rare) if you find someone who smiles and excitedly replies, yes I’ve read it, and you launch into an in-depth discussion of it. Although different in scope and milieu, it reminded me a lot of Vern Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time, published the previous year, also an elegy for a lost time and place, although The Meadow reads more like a novel written by a poet (which Galvin) is, with its close attention to detail, meticulous musical prose, plotted structure (though it also contains just the facts, ma’am), and unrequited denouement. By the end of the book, we know these people, unfamiliar as they may seem, intimately; we become linked to them because we cannot help but identify with and admire their heroic age-old struggle for survival; stoic, on the edge of a subsistence living, yet loving the place for what it gives them materially and spiritually. Even if you’re not interested in the subject matter, read it for the writing itself;  in its way, for what it is, The Meadow is a perfect book..

Wolf Solent / John Cowper Powys

Ah, the Powys family, from Shirley, Derbyshire, where to begin?  They were that rare commodity, a literary family (families who had more than two published members) who overshadowed the other two literary families, the Brontes and the Sitwells, in quantity if not in fame. The father, the Rev.Charles Francis Powys, and his wife, Mary Cowper Johnson, claimed direct descent from both John Donne and William Cowper;  7 of the 11 children (John, Theodore, Llewelyn, Philippa, Marian, A.R., and Katie) all  had books published, over 100 books among them all! John Cowper Powys, the author of Wolf Solent, was a remarkable admixture  of D.H. Lawrence (who compared to Powys was quite the prude), Tolstoy, and Thomas Hardy (particularly known as his successor), with a dash of Aleister Crowley thrown in. He made his  living traveling around the United States as a lecturer; an extremely powerful and charasmatic speaker, with the looks of a silent movie star, people often fainted at his performances. For most people he would be considered an acquired taste but I took to him immediately . I first heard the book mentioned in something I was reading by the Austrian writer Peter Handke and on his recommendation I immediately (figuratively and literally) checked it out. Over the years he’s had such champions (besides Handke) as Henry Miller, Robertson Davies, George Steiner, Iris Murdoch,  Elias Canetti, and Philip Larkin, and the book (as well as A Glastonbury Romance) is listed in Harold Bloom’s Western Canon so who am I to argue? Powys was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, 1959, and 1962. He died in 1963 at the age ogf 90.

Wolf Solent  is set in the fictional towns of Ramsgard, Dorset, which is based on Sherborne, Dorset, where Powys attended school, as well as other towns in the area. The book itself concerns an extremely introverted man, Wolf Solent, a thirty-four year old history teacher returning to his boyhood home, and his courtship of two very different women. The supporting cast includes a lecherous sausage-maker, a peddler of antiquarian pornography, a homosexual clergyman, a voyeuristic country squire, a teenage boy who kisses trees, and a mad poet. It portrays his casual attitude toward polymorphous sex ( “Natural or unnatural,” one of the characters says, “it’s nature. It’s mortal man’s one great solace before he’s annihilated.”), but also his great compassion for the down-and-out, the aberrant, and the misbegotten. Many of the cast of unforgettable characters have equally unforgettable names: Wolf Solent (of course), Selena Gault (my favorite), Gerda Torp, Christie Malakite, Darnley Otter, Lobbie Torp, and Bob Weevil, just to name a few.

Powys wrote 21 novels and over 50 books in all; A Glastonbury RomanceWeymouth Sands, Wolf Solent, Maiden Castle, and his Autobiography, are his most well known works, but several critics consider an almost completely unknown work, Porius (almost 1600 pages) his masterpiece, comparing it to novels as disparate as One Hundred Years of Solitude, Finnegans Wake, and Alice in Wonderland.

There are many great books in this amazing writer’s ouevre, and I recommend you read them all,  but if you’re looking for his most accessible book, Wolf Solent is for you.

discussion of the writing process; contributions of all kinds welcome