Feb. 18, 2007


by Tony Hoagland

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Poem: "Greed" by Tony Hoagland, from Hard Rain: a Chapbook. © Hollyridge Press. Reprinted with permission (buy now)


painted on a wall on 20th and Grant—just the word,
Greed. Just that word facing the street
for the drivers in their cars to read
while waiting for the light to change.

No who, no why, or is, just Greed
with no appendage—no promised consequence;
not greed as deadly sin, or greed named
as a traditional form of suffering.

What is surprising is that, after all the words
that have been chiseled into us,
—stenciled, scrawled, printed and embossed,
we still seem able to read one more.

Just the word Greed, at eye level,
printed on the wall at Grant and 20th.
Greed, said calmly, without inflection.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and teacher Wallace Stegner, (books by this author) born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1909). His father was a schemer who was constantly moving the family from place to place, hoping to strike it rich in one of the Western boomtowns. He watched as his father tried and failed to plant a farm in North Dakota, tried and failed to run a lunchroom in the backwoods of Washington state, sold bootleg liquor in Great Falls, Montana, poured the family's savings into an invention that was supposed to detect gold in the ground, and finally bought a piece of redwood forest in California, only to cut it all down and sell it for firewood. By the time Stegner was 20, he had lived in more than 20 different houses, including, at one point, a derailed dining car. But though he had a tough childhood, Stegner grew to love the great open wilderness of the American West.

Stegner managed to get into the University of Utah by the time he was 16, and he went on to get a Ph.D. in English literature. But while he was working on his dissertation, his brother died of a sudden attack of pneumonia. Then, his mother was killed by cancer. And finally, his father committed suicide. By the end of the 1930s, Stegner had lost his entire immediate family.

He'd already begun writing fiction, but he wanted to write a new kind of novel about the American West. At that time, the only novels being published about the West were full of cowboys and heroic pioneers. Stegner said, "I wanted to write about what happens to the pioneer virtues and the pioneer type of family when the frontiers are gone and the opportunities all used up. "The result was his first big success, his novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), loosely based on the experiences of his own family. It tells the story of a man named Bo Mason and his wife, Elsa, who travel over the American West, trying to make it rich.

Stegner went on to write dozens of novels about the West, including Angle of Repose (1971) and The Spectator Bird (1976). But he also started one of the most influential creative writing programs in the country, at Stanford University, where his students included Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, Raymond Carver, and Scott Turow.

It's the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison, (books by this author) born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio (1931). She didn't start writing fiction until she was in her 30s, working as an editor for Random House and raising two children. Her breakthrough book was the 1977 novel Song of Solomon. But Morrison is probably best known for her novel Beloved (1987), about a former slave named Sethe, living just after the Civil War, who is haunted by the ghost of the baby daughter she killed in order to save the girl from a life of slavery. It was after Beloved came out that Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, (books by this author) born in Heraklion on the island of Crete, Greece (1886). He's best known for his novels Zorba the Greek (1946) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955).

He didn't make it big as a writer until he was 60 years old, with the publication of Zorba the Greek (1946). It's about an intellectual who travels to Crete with his uneducated friend Zorba to manage a group of mine workers. Kazantzakis wrote in Zorba the Greek: "How simple ... a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. ... All that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple ... heart."

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