blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Edgar Lee Masters as Critic

Ronald Primeau

Petit the Poet's wisecrack about versifiers who prefer trivial formalities to visionary singers is Masters' most famous critical statement. Petit regrets his own concern with "little iambics" while he missed the tragedy and heroism all around him. That sentiment recurs frequently in Masters' interviews and essays, as well as his autobiography. It is also the kind of remark which gave him the reputation of a quarrelsome man with explosive opinions. But on closer inspection, Masters' seemingly spontaneous outbursts reveal a definite pattern. What appears to be merely the anger of a cynic turns out to be penetrating insight on the state of poetry in our culture in the first few decades of this century.

Masters often noted what he thought was wrong with the literature of his time. He offered several choice remarks, for example, about the "haughty exclusiveness" of many literati who gathered themselves into "unctuous" and "pretentious" clubs and produced verse that was "largely derivative and warmed over." He was very good at this kind of put-down, but his observations offered much more than saucy commentaries about what was wrong with America's poetry. His criticism traced what he found to be best in the American tradition as he knew it. He sketched a theory of poetry based on the primacy of the visionary as well as the necessity of realism.

from Ronald Primeau, Beyond Spoon River, p. 18.

Return to Edgar Lee Master