Oct. 29, 2007


by Dana Gioia

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Poem: "Money" by Dana Gioia, from The Gods of Winter. © Graywolf Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Money is a kind of poetry.
—Wallace Stevens

Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.

Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.

To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

Money. You don't know where it's been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote under the name Henry Green, (books by this author) born Henry Yorke in Tewkesbury, England (1905). He was the son of a wealthy foundry owner, and in the middle of his Oxford education, he dropped out and took a job as an iron molder in his father's foundry. The other workers thought he was crazy, but he loved the way they talked, and so he wrote a novel about them called Living (1929), filled with their voices. He later said, "[The writer's duty is] to meet as many pedestrian people as possible and to listen to the most pedestrian conversation." And he tried to capture the dialogue of as many different kinds of people as he could. His novel Party Going (1939) is about wealthy socialites, his novel Caught (1943) is about fire fighters during the London Blitz, and his novel Loving (1945) is about a staff of servants in an Irish castle who steal liquor and have affairs with each other while their master is away at war. He has been called one of the best novelists of the 20th century by people like W.H. Auden, Eudora Welty, and John Updike, but he never sold many books.

It's the birthday of James Boswell, (books by this author) born in Edinburgh (1740), who began keeping a diary as a young man, writing about his life as if it were fiction, describing his friends in great detail and recording long stretches of dialogue from all the parties he went to. That journal came in very handy when Boswell happened to meet one of his intellectual heroes, Dr. Samuel Johnson, at a London bookshop.

Boswell was just 22 years old and Johnson was 53 when they met, and historians aren't sure how close they really became. Over the course of the next 20 years, they only spent about 400 days together, but Boswell documented each of those 400 days in his journal, recording what Johnson was wearing and whom he was with and what he said on all kinds of subjects: philosophy, literature, trees, turnips, women's underwear, and even what he said to his cat.

After Johnson's death in 1784, a number of biographies came out right away, but Boswell took years to write his own biography, using his journal to write something more like a novel than a biography, with Boswell himself as a central character, playing the fool to Johnson's wise man. At one point in the book, he quotes Johnson as saying to him, "You have but two topics, yourself and me, and I'm sick of both." But when The Life of Samuel Johnson finally came out in 1791, it was a huge best-seller. By 1825, Samuel Johnson's writings had gone out of print, but Boswell's Life of Johnson has now been in print for more than 200 years.

Today is the anniversary of Black Tuesday, the stock market crash in 1929 that signaled the beginning of the worst economic collapse in modern Western history. The stock market had been booming throughout the 1920s. There were stories about barbers and messenger boys who'd gotten rich off of overheard stock tips. But all the speculation was driving prices way too high, and the correction came on this day in 1929, when 3 million shares were sold in just the first half-hour. Stock prices fell so fast that by the end of the day there were shares in many companies that no one would buy at any price.

By 1932, more than 100,000 businesses had failed and about 12 million people had lost their jobs. One out of every four families had no income, and more than a million people became homeless. The situation slowly improved throughout the '30s, but the Depression didn't really end until the United States entered World War II.

The Great Depression inspired many writers. Raymond Chandler lost his job as an oil company executive after the stock market crash, and he started writing detective stories to make a living. Eudora Welty took a job with the WPA photographing farmers affected by the economy, and they inspired some of her first short stories. John Steinbeck wrote about the migrant Dust Bowl farmers in his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939). But the best-selling book of that decade was Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), which apparently helped everyone forget their own troubles.

Ironically, it was during the Great Depression that the United States built what was then the largest building in the world, the Empire State Building, completed in 1931. And it was in 1933 that a man named Charles Darrow trademarked a board game called Monopoly, which gave people a chance to pretend that they were rich.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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