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Edgar Lee Masters' "Petit, the Poet"

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

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. The 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 - Jack Masters Drawing

Edgar Lee Masters - Jack Masters Drawing

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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