Study Guide

Petit, the Poet Introduction

By Edgar Lee Masters

Petit, the Poet Introduction

Here's a question for you, Shmoopers: have you ever been in a cemetery and wondered what all those dead folks might have to say? No? It's just us? Hey, why are you backing slowly away?

Honestly, we don't think it's that strange a thing to wonder about. We turn to the dead for their collected wisdom all the time, right? Isn't that part of the point of studying history, after all? So, why shouldn’t any graveyard be full of people who might—under the proper supernatural circumstances—be able to share their wisdom with the land of the living?

As it turns out, that's just the idea behind Edgar Lee Masters' famous poetry collection Spoon River Anthology—well, sort of the idea anyway. You see, Masters' collection is organized as a series of epitaphs (stuff said by, or about, the dead), narrated by the passed-on residents of the imaginary town of Spoon River. So, we should be primed for some real, honest-to-goodness truth about carpe'ing the diem and living life to the fullest, right?

Er, well… not exactly—instead we get talk of sex, hating your spouse, and being disappointed in your children. As it turns out, Masters' dead folk are just as distasteful as all the living people we know. Talk about a disappointment.

Critics weren't disappointed, though. Many of them thought that Spoon River Anthology, first published in 1916, was a bold new step forward in poetry. Not only did it dive head-first into more "adult" themes (no pretty daisies or wandering clouds here), it did so in a way that broke with established American poetry in terms of form (check out "Form and Meter" for more on that) and place (Masters was from the Midwest, which had previously been known more for its meat packing plants than its poets). As a result, this was the most famous work Masters ever produced (though he did go on writing long after Spoon River hit the bookshelves).

"Petit, the Poet" is just one example of this cynical, groundbreaking work. Do you think a poet, reflecting from the Great Beyond, would have some deep insight into life? Well, think again. Better yet, dive into the poem and see for yourself.

What is Petit, the Poet About and Why Should I Care?

You know this person, Shmoopers: they're on social media 24-7. They tweet, they Facebook, they Instagram—and they've sync'd their accounts so that they can do all three instantly, no matter what.

Now, let's take a look at what this master of technology actually has to say: well, here's a pic of their dinner—cool. And here's a pic of their lunch—great. Oh, and it looks like they're not happy because it's raining outside and they're wearing new shoes. Wow, we don't know about you, but we just could not have gone another second without getting those profound updates. I mean, you hate rain too, are we right? LOLOMG.

Yeah, that's sarcasm you're smelling. The point is this: when it comes to communicating, some folks sure can miss the forest for the trees. Just because you can put a thought out there, does that mean that thought is actually worth reading?

And that's where our poor friend Petit comes in. Sure, Edgar Lee Masters wrote long before the days of Twitter were upon us (we can't imagine he'd be a fan), but his poet Petit suffers from the same lack of something to say that most of our most block-worthy social media "friends" do. What's worse: now that he's dead, Petit has missed the chance to say anything worthwhile… to anyone. It turns out he was too busy trying to be fashionable—tough break, P.

Still, there's hope for you, Shmooper, which is why you should care. Are you using your time to say something worthwhile to the world? Or, like Petit, are you too busy Instatweeting your meatloaf sandwich to notice?

Petit, the Poet Resources

Websites

A Master-ful Bio
Here's a thorough biography of Edgar Lee, with links to his work.

The Whole Cemetery
Read the entire collection of Spoon River Anthology, collected right here in cyberspace.

Modern American Edgar
Modern American Poetry provides a helpful timeline, and some keen photos of where Edgar lies buried today (much like Petit was in the poem).

Video

Spoon River Project
Check out this dramatic interpretation of Masters' Anthology. The costumes are sweet.

Spoon River Project, Another Take
This one looks to be a high school production. But hey: original guitars.

Home and Museum
Take a little video tour of Masters' old stomping grounds.

Audio

Full On… Audiobook
Got three and a half hours to kill? Then listen up, Shmoopers.

Petit Out Loud
Got just a minute? Here's the poem on its own.

Student Reading
What it lacks in oomph, it makes up for with dainty background music.

Images

Behold: the Man
Here's a photo of the bespectacled Edgar Lee.

Masters, at Rest
No big deal—he's just chilling with some patio furniture.

Movie or TV Productions

Spoon River, The Movie
The theatrical version of the Spoon River Project was made into this movie in 1969.

The Mystery of Spoon River
Check out this horror flick, based (pretty loosely) on Masters' book.

Articles and Interviews

"An Illinois Iconoclast"
Here's a fun fact for you: apparently our guy Masters hated Abraham Lincoln.

Books

Anniversary Edition
There are plenty of versions of Spoon River Anthology in print, but this one's the 100th anniversary version.

Lincoln the Man
This is the pretty unflattering biography of Lincoln that Masters wrote. Okay…

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