After the madness of refinishing our basement in June--the upshot of which is that I'm typing this out in my brand new office--Mel, Abbey, and I spent the first ten days of July back in Illinois, relaxing and celebrating with our families. We do this summer trip every year, drive from Missouri through central Illinois all the way up until we're nearly in Wisconsin, and every year it turns out to be important in that it reconnects me visually and emotionally with the places that have moved me to make my best poetry. This year's trip was especially meaningful from a creative standpoint, since I decided last minute to make it all about digging into the roots of Illinois poets.
We started with Edgar Lee Masters. I first read Masters in middle school and didn't love him, or any poetry, at the time. But what he was doing, characterizing the people of the small towns in my little part of the world, did have a real effect on my conception of what an Illinois or Midwestern poem should do, and when I reread Spoon River Anthology years later, I formed an attachment to it the way a New Englander might form a special attachment to North of Boston.
Our first day back in state, we drove over from my hometown, Bloomington, to Petersburg, where we saw the house the poet lived in as a child and his grave near those of his grandparents in the local cemetery. Masters had a deep love and respect for his grandparents, which is evident from the way he personifies them--they're Lucinda and Davis Matlock in the book.
From Petersburg we drove just a couple of miles to New Salem to trace the history of another Illinois poet who also happened to be President of the United States.
You probably didn't know Abraham Lincoln wrote poetry; I didn't, at least not until I read some of his verse reprinted in an issue of Spoon River Poetry Review that one of my poems appeared in back in 2009.
We stayed in New Salem a few hours, long enough to get a sunburn and see a few cabins and listen to a fellow visitor--he seemed like a retiree who'd dedicated his post-work life to reading and thinking about the Civil War--deliver an impromptu lecture on the mindsets of Northern and Southern soldiers. The temperature was well over 90 degrees, and what the man was saying wasn't that interesting, but there was something in his eyes that said he really felt his words were important. When somebody has that look, I just can't walk away, no matter how much I might want to.
Finally, before heading back to Bloomington, we drove forty-five minutes up to Lewistown, crossing the Spoon River itself, which was pretty flooded at the time. Lewistown is where Masters lived as a teen; it's also the home of Oak Hill Cemetery, model for the most famous cemetery in American literature (although the cemetery in Petersburg was certainly an influence, too).
At Oak Hill I got out to take some pictures and see if I could get a hold on what it was that might have made such an impression on a teenaged poet to be. I don't know if I found that, but I did find myself scribbling down a poem about the visit on the drive back home.
Below are some more of my favorites from Spoon River Anthology. Read them in order to get the interplay between them.
"The Hill" (By the way, the pictures of Oak Hill Cemetery are taken of or on "The Hill")
"Mrs. Benjamin Pantier"
"Trainor, the Druggist"