Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1927. While in high school, he discovered and fell in love with the poetry of Walt Whitman. But despite his interest in poetry his father wanted him to become a lawyer.
So Ginsberg studied law at Columbia University, where he met many of his life-long friends and influences. His new group of friends didn’t really encourage his studies, and eventually he got suspended from Columbia for various small offenses. He hung around people like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and Neal Cassady, who later became known as the “Beat Authors.” Ginsberg was the youngest and most innocent in the “circle,” but was soon corrupted and became equally obsessed with drugs, crime, sex and literature as the rest of them. During this time, Ginsberg haunted Times Square associating with junkies and thieves and began experimenting with drugs. Ginsberg was openly gay for most of his life, and had many boyfriends, Neal Cassady was one of them. Ginsberg traveled all around the world and stayed in India for a while, where he learned Buddhism, meditation and spiritual chants.
He wrote poetry for over three decades, and in doing so, changed the course of American poetry. Ginsberg believed in open, spontaneous poetry, speaking his thoughts and emotions in a raw and “uncensored” way. This rawness seemed to transcend the censoring imposed on his poetry by his digressors who considered his writing un-publishable. His main influences in writing were Kerouac and William Blake. This particular poem, America, was written in Berkley in 1956. Basically, “America” has 3 parts to it: Ginsberg questioning America, Ginsberg “rambling” on, and Ginsberg saying “I am America”. I will also talk about Ginsberg’s life, other authors interpretations of this poem and comments on Ginsberg. Ginsberg starts off “America” by questioning the country, as if it were an actual person, asking it why it is the way it is.
Ginsberg writes, “America, when will you be angelic? When will you take off your cloths?” (8-9) The irony here is, of course, that many Americans still believed that they, along with the government, were angelic since they were God’s “chosen people.” Supposedly, God gave the continent to the original European settlers as a new Eden so that they could start over and build the perfect society. Ginsberg goes on to criticize America for the things he is unhappy with, and the way things were going at the time. He illustrates this by saying, “Your machinery is too much for me. You made me want to become a saint.
” What Ginsberg means here is that all of the technology and machinery that run America today are too much for him, and as a result he wants want to renounce it all and become a saint. After this he “rambles” on for a while, writing lines that make sense when read separately but make little sense when they are read together. It is spontaneous regurgitated thought. He just kind of throws in lines about anything, whatever he was thinking about at the time. An example of this is in lines 29-31: “America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry. I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet. When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.” It is fairly obvious that these are just plain thoughts of Ginsberg’s, but when you look at them closer you can kind of see how it all fits in, he is still talking to America, about his dislike and disgust in it, even though it is not very clearly presented that way. He also briefly talks about his own life and his family life in this part of the poem. After this he focuses back on America, in a more straight forward way. He says ” It occurs to me that I am America. I am talking to myself again.” Allen Ginsberg speculated on the condition of the United States.
Had there actually been a Communist attack on America as people feared due to the red scare, the government would have taken the appropriate steps to prepare for war. Since Ginsberg realized, “I am America,” he followed that paranoia to its logical conclusion by considering his “national resources” in preparation. Among his resources were 25,000 mental institutions, city streets populated by millions of homeless people, and countless prisons, all of which contained Americans. Ginsberg also writes “Asia is rising against me. I don’t have a Chinaman’s chance” (49-50). Though this seems like a silly notion on paper, these sentiments were the all too real results of the “red,” or Communist scare that occurred during the witch hunts of the McCarthy era.
Many people during this era feared a Communist invasion. Some who were accused of supporting the Communist cause, whether they actually did or not, lost their jobs and were blacklisted. Citizens were taught to fear and hate Communists.
These attitudes lingered in the American psyche throughout the Cold War (Montana, Jackie). When Ginsberg says, “America you don’t really want to go to war. America its them bad Russians. them Russians them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians” (74-78) Ginsberg is kind of joking around, kind of in a sarcastical way, saying, “Oh, its just those Russian’s fault,” when actually its not their fault, but our. We created the problems. Then He throws the comment in about the Chinamen, as a joke. When he says “him” in this part, it is in reference to America, the country.
And when he says “her” he is referring to Russia. “She wants to take our cars out of our garages. Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants to grab Siberia.” Also, when he talks about “red” he is referring to the communists. He then closes saying that this is the impression he gets by looking at his television set (impression of America, as described in the poem).
This whole thing is not just something he made up, its what he thinks and feels about the country when he reads about r sees something about it on TV. But it is also about propaganda, and “not believing everything read or see on TV” In the end he says that he doesn’t want to help the country by joining its Army or working in a factory (and that he is nearsighted and psychopathic anyway), he is already working his butt off (or putting his queer shoulder to the wheel, as he puts it). He expresses his disgust in the way he feels about America and his frustrations, about life in general living here.
Biographer Paul Christensen describes Allen Ginsberg as :”The poet who seems to have awakened America’s youth to the power of poetry, make stirring prophecies and reinvigorate the spheres of politics and ideology.” (Asher, Levi) “Allen Ginsberg, chanter of the scorchingly present-tense ‘Howl’, is one of the true lunar voices rising about the skyscrapers; he has the courage of his imagination, and is keening a mighty song for his generation. Ginsberg is both an exciting and highly readable human poet.
His fever is that of thousands; but nobody of his age and time threw the sick-room back at life as he did, and thus redeemed us all as well as himself. Society’s fangs await his beautiful phantasmagorical songs, if only to insure their validity; but he who would be an atom-age Shelley must have a price on his head. The stakes demand it. Ginsberg is really a bit of a miracle”. (Krim, Seymour) “When Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookshop fame, the political establishment immediately branded it obscene. Winning the ensuing court battle to defend ‘freedom of speech’ was a milestone in breaking the grip of the conformist ’50s. The defense presented a united front of artists explaining the role of art and its reflection on life. Thus the gateway was widened for today’s avant-garde”.
(Targowski) During the time Ginsberg wrote these poems he was in a very angry and self-destructive stage. During other times of his life Ginsberg wrote more “peaceful” and calm poetry, and also some very strange poems. However during this particular time, he seemed to be quite “pissed off” and disturbed, so he took it out in his writings, in a very straight-forward and open way.
Ginsberg’s poetry is classified as Contemporary American Poetry. Ginsberg was one of the most famous beat poets of our time, and continued writing and reading his poetry publicly up until the time of his death. On April 5, 1997 Allen Ginsberg died of a heart attack in his home in Manhattan, NY. He had had been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C since 1988. Allen Ginsberg was 70 years old. Works Cited Asher, Levi. The Beat Generation, http://www.
charm.net/~brooklyn/Topics/BeatGen.html, 1996Charters, Ann ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, 16, pt 1:A-L. Bruccoli Clark Books, 1983Krim, Seymour ed. The Beats.
US : Gold Medal/Fawcett Publications, 1960.Magill, N. Frank ed.
Critical Survey of Poetry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1982Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989.Montana, Jackie. Annotated “America”. http://www.
ECNet.Net/users/mujcm3/america.html, 1997Targowski, Henry W. Mark Space Office.http://euro.net/mark-space/bioHenryWTargowski.html, 1995