EAR & Mr. Flood

November 25: Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Mr. Flood's Party" was published for Thanksgiving Day, 1920 by the weekly magazine, The Nation. It is one of his most anthologized and highly-praised poems, categorized by Robinson himself near the end of his career as probably the best thing he'd written. As a Thanksgiving poem it is bleak and cautionary, Old Eban Flood now reduced to his own company and conversation:

"Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon

Again, and we may not have many more;

The bird is on the wing, the poet says,

And you and I have said it here before:

Drink to the bird." He raised up to the light

The jug that he had gone so far to fill,

And answered huskily: "Well, Mr. Flood,

Since you propose it, I believe I will."

Prohibition having recently been enacted, it would have been moonshine in the jug—another, more temperate magazine declined to publish the poem "for alcoholic reasons." Robinson had his struggles with alcohol, but he believed in the Dionysian spirit and passionately advocated against Prohibition. Robinson also had his struggles with loneliness, noting as early as age twenty-five that it would likely be the "one great trouble" of his life. Although well-liked and convivial in the right situations, he never married, perhaps for professional reasons: "A poet must stand in an alcove and watch life go by." Throughout his writing life he spent his winters in inexpensive one- or two-room apartments, his summers at the MacDowell Artists' Colony in New Hampshire. He went there each year for over two decades, becoming famous for both his social detachment and his devotion to writing (and the three Pulitzers which were mostly written there). The following is from Scott Donaldson's 2007 biography, Edwin Arlington Robinson:

Robinson could become obsessive in his quest for the one perfect word. "For two weeks," he told a young colonist, "I've gone to my studio every morning after breakfast and stayed until after five o'clock. For two weeks I've searched for one word—and I haven't found it yet." According to a story that has become legendary at MacDowell, a brash young newcomer waxed expansive at dinner about the two thousand words he'd written that day. "How about you, Mr. Robinson?" he asked. "Did you have a good day?"

"This morning," EAR dourly replied, "I removed the hyphen from hell-hound. And this afternoon, I put it back."

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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