Famous Poems of the Depression
The stock market crash of October 1929 ended a decade of rapid economic growth in America. By 1932, roughly a quarter of workers were unemployed, nearly half the nation's banks had failed, and stocks had lost 80 percent of their value, according to an analysis by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Through the works of poets like Donald Justice and Randolph Goodman, it's possible to gain insights into how America's worst economic collapse affected the average person.
"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
Co-written by lyricist Yip Harburg and composer Jay Gorney, this song emerged as a populist anthem on its 1932 release. What's not commonly known is that Harburg began as a writer of light verse, his son and biographer, Ernie Harburg, wrote in a November 2012 article for the Democracy Now website. The song existed only in lyric form until Gorney allowed Harburg to use one of his melodies. Harburg's theme is the Depression's emotional toll, which he frames throughout the song as a pointed question: "Once I built a railroad, now it's done. / Buddy, can you spare a dime?"
The aftermath of a world turned sour is the theme of Randall Goodman's poem "Lament." As the New Deal Network website relates, the poem appeared in December 1929 --only two months after the crash -- in "The Magpie," the literary magazine of the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School. The poem's opening stanza, "Sweet the water / Bitter to taste / In a world submerged / To a maelstrom of haste," references the disaster to come. Goodman summarizes how fast the popular mood changed in his final stanza, which states: "Sweet this Life -- / God! To feel / Held tight to a rack, / Fettered fast to a wheel."
"Pantoum of the Great Depression"
Born in 1925, Donald Justice had a Depression-era childhood that exerted a major influence on his style, critic Edward Byrne asserts for the "Valparaiso Poetry Review." One example is "Pantoum of the Great Depression," which is told by a survivor recalling his experiences. The narrator stresses that his misfortunes didn't beat him down, as Justice indicates by repeating such key lines as, "We managed. No need for the heroic." Justice creates this effect by structuring the poem as a Malaysian pantoum -- in which each stanza's second and fourth lines become the first and third lines of the next one, "The Washington Post" states.
Published in the June 1932 issue of "The Magpie," Robert Warshow's "Poem" focuses on people's struggles to understand their lot, the New Deal Network website asserts. Warshow's opening references to the "Garden of Wasted Things" and "bitter ghosts of all that had been spent unwisely" scorn the 1920s-era materialism that preceded the Depression. However, for millions of newly impoverished Americans, lack of material resources meant "hopes that had been smothered," and "dreams that never came true," as the middle section states. Warshow laments these lost opportunities, while criticizing "lives that had been misdirected" by the pursuit of luxury and status.
- Democracy Now: A Tribute to Blacklisted Lyricist Yip Harburg: The Man Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz
- The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of English: About the Great Depression
- The Washington Post: A Poem By Donald Justice
- Valparaiso Poetry Review: Music and Memory: Donald Justice's Collected Poems
Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.