Masters has written not fables, but the essence of American life. He hasn't captured the life and times of 1915, but has instead recorded in 1915 the life and times of our present day America.
The same reason the paintings of Norman Rockwell makes sense is why Edgar Lee Masters poetry makes sense. To read the quick messages on the gravestone of one man, learning a little bit him, and something about a neighbor or two, we can learn a little about how we live in communities today.
Our lives, like Jimmy Stewart's character in "It's a Wonderful Life" found out, interact and impact everyone we meet. Who we love, who we should love and who we reject. And when we die, others feel the loss. Masters has aptly put this in a humorous, yet insightful way into short verses.
The poems don't rhyme. The meter is not solid, and the poetics aren't intricate. They aren't poems like Poe's or Dickinson, not in the way they wrote American poems. Don't expect iambic pentameter-based sonnets or villanelles. Expect a conversation, and listen in.
The poetry here is in the subtle use of social nuance. In the nuances are his insight and wit. Two readings will bring to light what you miss in the first.
Buy this book, read it slow. It reads faster than most poetry book, but don't get caught in the temptation to zoom through each poem just because you can.
After you read it, see the play if it happens to be performed in your town.
I fully recommend it.
But this book isn't about Abraham Lincoln. It's about the trait that we will all, both saints and sinners, one day have in common: death. And it is about the small triumphs of life that the dead remember. Just as William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and his poetry was informed by his contact with everyday people, so too Masters. He was a lawyer and a keen observationist. He writes directly and frankly, especially about male-female relations, which earned this book a bit of a scandalous reputation in its time. Of course, it is mild enough today that the book is assigned reading in junior highs, even in the South.
I've read this book three times through, and often re-read individual favorites. And I have it in easy reach on my shelf because I plan to keep re-reading it. There is something about the people of Spoon River and their sentiments that keeps me coming back. As May Swenson says, in her introduction to this edition, Masters "bequeathed to us a world in microcosm." A world, in my opinion, worth exploring again and again.