Edgar Lee Masters had written nine books in his own name and three under pseudonyms when he published his first selection of Spoon River poems in 1915. The following year he added more poems to that edition. The result was what we now know as Spoon River Anthology. Call them epitaphs or persona poems or whatever else you like. Each poem recounts some memorable happening in the life of a deceased resident from the fictional town of Spoon River. Simple as it sounds, the poems remain thrilling in their immediacy, much the way the best of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg stories from 1919 continue to ring true emotionally. If I had something genuinely groundbreaking to say about the book itself, this probably wouldn’t be the ideal place to do so. Today’s project, a modest one, is to draw attention to one of the finest responses to the book in recent years, Richard Buckner’s song cycle, The Hill.
Buckner is a singer-songwriter with eight solo studio albums to his credit, including The Hill, a song cycle based on eighteen selections from Spoon River Anthology. This wasn’t a particularly surprising choice on Buckner’s part. He’s told the story many times of how he wrote a song called “Emma” (included on a re-release of his debut, Bloomed) because he couldn’t get past the story of Emma in James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and hoped writing a song about her would break the spell. He originally released The Hill as a single, thirty-four minute track, a move designed to allow a fluid move from one song/poem to the next, and to confound downloaders as much as possible. No single song/poem breaks four minutes. Only four of the eighteen pass three minutes. That is to say, Buckner doesn’t take liberties with the rhythm or pacing of Masters’s poems. He opens with swirling notes from a chord organ and occasional dissonance in the name of Masters’s “Mrs. Merrit”, before launching full bore into the tragic story of “Tom Merritt”, a tale Buckner renders in a brief plaintive vocal. Feel free to ignore the video element:
The selections aren’t always presented in the order in which they appear in the book. Buckner does, however, make an effort to link the poems based on their shared narrative elements, and the overlap of characters. Neither does Buckner attempt to shoehorn the words from each poem into the shape of a song. In fact the instrumental passages – there are nine – are moody and atmospheric, essential parts of what is a very personal reading of the book. “Julia Miller” is rendered delicately, building to its heartbreaking finish. “Ollie McGee” is carried along by Buckner’s trademark growl, a gratifying choice when he delivers lines like “a man with downcast eyes and haggard face.” His reading of “Reuben Pantier” is a mix of wistfulness and regret. Album closer “William & Emily” is a standout as well, with Buckner soft-voiced over gentle strains from the chord organ. Buckner takes the measure of Masters and the result is a singular, valuable contribution to the discussion of Spoon River, a revelation for fans of the book and newcomers alike.
– John McIntyre