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Edgar Lee Masters' "Petit, the Poet" and "Ida Chicken"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Introduction and Text of "Petit, the Poet"

Because Edgar Lee Masters died in 1950, he missed the heavy onslaught of the postmodernist movement by about ten years.

But the seeds of that movement had been planted decades before and when a poem like "Petit, the Poet" in the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, comes along, it demonstrates that ideas do, in fact, tend to germinate until they explode with a force.

Petit, the Poet, remains a bland character, likely because readers have come to expect so much more regarding poetry. A little truth, beauty, and love handled with skillful creativity, one would hope, would grace the works of anyone who calls himself a "poet."

However, Petit is aptly named: "petit" in French means "small." And this small minded "poet" has taken up the French poetry styles and apparently made them tick. His performance will leave readers forgetting that he ever existed. He would likely agree, and then get on with listening to that ticking, ticking, ticking.

Petit, the Poet

Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a quarrel—
Faint iambics that the full breeze wakens—
But the pine tree makes a symphony thereof.
Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
Ballades by the score with the same old thought:
The snows and the roses of yesterday are vanished;
And what is love but a rose that fades?
Life all around me here in the village:
Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth,
Courage, constancy, heroism, failure—
All in the loom, and oh what patterns!
Woodlands, meadows, streams and rivers—
Blind to all of it all my life long.
Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, what little iambics,
While Homer and Whitman roared in the pines?

Reading of "Petit, the Poet"

Commentary on "Petit, the Poet"

Petit, the Poet, muses on missing out on the life around him, as he fashions a poem that presages the postmoderns, pressing to absurdity the sound of ticking.

First Movement: Senselessness That Ticks

Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a quarrel—
Faint iambics that the full breeze wakens—
But the pine tree makes a symphony thereof.

Petit, the Poet, begins his soliloquy with a bizarre representation of sound, "tick, tick, tick," ending the first line, and then repeated in the beginning of the second line, "Tick, tick, tick." The sound, he seems to be saying, is what he is hearing from the "seeds in a dry pod." But then he likens those ticking seeds to "mites" that are quarreling.

A mite is very small spider, related to the tick, its bloodsucking, slightly larger arachnid family member. Petit seems to be hearing an argument occurring in "faint iambics" between the seeds in the dry pod and is reminded of ticks and mites. T

he poet claims that the breeze has awakened those seeds and seems to be urging them to quarrel. Concluding the first movement of his repartee, the poet reports that a symphony has been created by the pine tree.

Not making much sense here? Petit, the Poet, apparently has become one of those postmoderns who would affirm that poetry does not make sense, so he does not have to make sense either.

Second Movement: Name-Dropping into the Abyss

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Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
Ballades by the score with the same old thought:
The snows and the roses of yesterday are vanished;
And what is love but a rose that fades?

However, to prove he is, indeed a poet, Petit then throws out a list of poetry styles: triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus, ballades. He is implying that these forms have claimed his attention though he has always placed in these forms, "the same old thought."

Petit then remarks that yesterday's snows and roses have vanished. He then inserts a rhetorical question regarding love: of course, "what is love but a rose that fades?" Who knows? Does Petit know? Will he fill us in on what love is? Or how, exactly, it is like a rose that fades? Don't hold your breath!

Third Movement: Things He Missed

Life all around me here in the village:
Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth,
Courage, constancy, heroism, failure—
All in the loom, and oh what patterns!
Woodlands, meadows, streams and rivers—
Blind to all of it all my life long.

Now, finally, Petit seems to have arrived at his message, which seems to be: "While life was going in the village around me, I missed it." He then spews forth another list; this time it consists of the things he has missed: tragedy, comedy, valor, truth, courage, constancy, heroism, failure, woodlands, meadows, streams, and rivers.

He states that all of these qualities were in the "loom," and they formed quite a bunch of patterns. His "loom" metaphor sounds forced and ultimately ridiculous, but hey! he's a poet and by God, he has to throw out a metaphor, or what's a poet for?

Poor Petit, however, remained blind to all those village qualities his whole life. Bizarre thing for a poet to be complaining about. But nothing is too bizarre for the postmodern.

Fourth Movement: Repeating That Does Not Count

Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, what little iambics,
While Homer and Whitman roared in the pines?

OK, now Petit has made his profound statement; when a poet admits that he has remained blind to his surrounding, you cannot get any more profound than that. So now he is free to repeat a line or two and call it a day.

Petit has been concentrating on the little styles of all those poem that now tick in dry pods in little iambics. Homer and Whitman were roaring in the pines, but no, he had to listen to all that ticking, ticking, ticking in dry pods. He has missed out.

The triolets, the villanelles, the rondels, the rondeaus have all dried up and blown away. Or maybe they just sit and tick, tick, tick. Maybe a tick and mite are fighting, but Petit will not notice.

If he missed out on Homer and Whitman roaring in the pines, what kind of poet is he? It seems that he will be musing on that thought throughout eternity.

Edgar Lee Masters' "Ida Chicken"

The speaker in Edgar Lee Masters' "Ida Chicken" complains about corruption and blames the U.S. Constitution as she blurts out a rather treasonous remark about her nation's governing document.

Edgar Lee Masters - Drawing by Jack Masters

Edgar Lee Masters - Drawing by Jack Masters

Introduction and Text of "Ida Chicken"

Considering herself an intellectual, Ida Chicken deems herself above the ordinary citizens of Spoon River.

She sounds like the typical modern statist, denigrating the U.S. Constitution, complaining that she could not "defend or support it at all!"—and then belly-aching that she had to take an oath to secure a passport to France. One might hope that Ida remained in France for her own peace of mind.

Ida Chicken

After I had attended lectures
At our Chautauqua, and studied French
For twenty years, committing the grammar
Almost by heart,
I thought I’d take a trip to Paris
To give my culture a final polish.
So I went to Peoria for a passport—
(Thomas Rhodes was on the train that morning.)
And there the clerk of the district Court
Made me swear to support and defend
The constitution—yes, even me—
Who couldn’t defend or support it at all!
And what do you think? That very morning
The Federal Judge, in the very next room
To the room where I took the oath,
Decided the constitution
Exempted Rhodes from paying taxes
For the water works of Spoon River!

Reading of "Ida Chicken"

Commentary on "Ida Chicken"

Ida Chicken wants to travel to Paris to put polish on her language skills in French.

First Movement: A Smart Chicken

After I had attended lectures
At our Chautauqua, and studied French
For twenty years, committing the grammar
Almost by heart,
I thought I’d take a trip to Paris
To give my culture a final polish.

(Note of historical interest: "At our Chautauqua" alludes to the lecture circuit of traveling shows that become very popular in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and continues to soldier on today. In addition to lectures, it staged plays, presented concerts, and other entertainment, all modeled on the events that originated at the Chautauqua Institution New York.)

Ida Chicken, by touting an interest in "lectures" and studying French, is self-identifying as an intellectual. It would be natural that such an individual would desire to travel to France to improve language skills and as Ida puts it "give my culture a final polish."

Second Movement: To Secure a Passport in Peoria

So I went to Peoria for a passport—
(Thomas Rhodes was on the train that morning.)
And there the clerk of the district Court
Made me swear to support and defend
The constitution—yes, even me—
Who couldn’t defend or support it at all!

Ida then travels to Peoria to fetch a passport and reports that Thomas Rhodes happened to be traveling on the same train as Ida that day. Ida then complains that in order to get the passport, she had to swear allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, vowing to "support and defend it."

Ida is offended to have to swear such support for a constitution that she obviously feels she could not support and defend "at all!" But to provide Ida with the passport, the clerk of the district court required her to swear to that support and defense.

Third Movement: In a Huff Over Thomas Rhodes' Tax Exemption

And what do you think? That very morning
The Federal Judge, in the very next room
To the room where I took the oath,
Decided the constitution
Exempted Rhodes from paying taxes
For the water works of Spoon River!

Ida then offers an example of her reasoning for remaining a skeptical citizen, who has no compunction about denigrating the nation's governing document. As Ida was securing her passport, the businessman Thomas Rhodes was securing from a federal judge an exemption from paying taxes to support the "water works of Spoon River."

Taking that oath thus grated on the nerves of the intellectual Ida, as she became aware of Thomas Rhodes' tax exemption. As so many of the complaining residents continue to do, Ida offers no clear insight into why Rhodes was able to secure that exemption.

She just assumes the worst corruption and then blames the U.S. Constitution, seemingly unaware that the interpretation of the document is where the blame for corruption lies.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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