Allen Ginsberg’s ‘America’ deals with the turbulent times in America during the time post Second World War. Ginsberg is one of the lead figures in the “Beat Movement” the poems ironically satirizes the conventions of American life. It was written on January 17, 1956, while he was in Berkeley, California. It is included in his collection ‘Howl and Other Poems’ published in November 1956. The poet has used the stream of consciousness technique to delineate the time of political unrest when the prospects of the country looked dismal and bleak. He has also personified America and urges it to bring in some positive change, that is possible only if it comes out of its inactivity.
Summary of America
In this poem, ‘America’, the speaker addresses America directly. He expresses his despair about his financial situation and the way the country is engaged in the war. He compares the time of communist ruling to his present time of idleness. In the poem, the speaker converse with America as if he is talking to himself. He makes a plea full of sarcasm for the sake of poetic originality. The plea is also for other downtrodden people. The poem carries a reference to the meetings of the communists, yet he knew that the era is long gone. It also makes fun of the people who blame every mishap on Russia.
On the whole, the poet expresses his view on the present condition of meaningless inactivity that cannot go on forever. Further, he states that change cannot come unless the people take initiative themselves. The poem concludes with the optimistic view of the speaker’s determination to help correct all these problems on his own accord.
Form and Structure of America
The poem ‘America’ highlights the irregular meter and structure that is the hallmark of Ginsberg’s poetry. Even the stanzas of the poem are also irregular and unplanned. The first stanza has sixteen lines, the second and third consists of twelve lines, and the fourth and fifth stanzas consist of ten lines each. Like other Ginsberg poems, the structure is really meant to be heard rather than read, as it is conversational in nature. He relates the poem to music, saying that the key to understanding the structure of the poem is “in the jazz choruses.” The final stanza of the poem is an amalgamation of rhythms and a stream of consciousness writing. And, the sentences often run on without punctuation. Also, the poem skips from subject to subject with little relation to each other.
Theme and Setting of America
The poem involves many prominent themes such as the previous wars of the decade, nuclear warfare, the foreign policy in Asia, racial unrest in the US, and resistance against communism. The themes are well explained with cultural and political references as well as references to incidents and events in Ginsberg’s own life as well as the lives of his friends and fellow Beat writers. As the title suggests, the setting of the poem is in America, especially in the 1950s. The time after the World Wars, when America faced a terrible economical surge is the time the poet discusses in the poem.
Literary/ Poetic devices used in America
“Apostrophe,” the poetic technique refers to the practice of addressing someone or something in a poem as if it could hear and respond. Here, in this poem, the speaker addresses the country, America, directly, as though it could hear and respond to him.
“Personification” is the other technique the poet has used in the poem. The speaker seems to be arguing with America, the country. He also personifies other things like Time Magazine and Russia. He says that “its cover stares at [him]” every time he passes the corner store.
“Anaphora” the rhetorical device used that consists of repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighboring clauses to give emphasis to the poet’s view or perspective. Here, the poet has used it ironically “The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad.” to emphasize the ignorance of the people of America who simply blamed Russia as a cause for all the difficulty faced post World War. The word America is also repeated many times at the beginning of the lines to indicate how the poet insists on getting a response from America.
“Rhetorical Question” does not expect a direct answer, rather used in many cases to put across the speaker’s opinion. In ‘America’ the poet has used rhetorical questions to express his perspective of America and to criticize the way of life prevails. The purpose of the device switches depending on the mood of the poet from the question to the country, to a detailed description of his perspective on the country.
Analysis of America
Lines 1 -26
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.
The poem begins with the author stating his disappointment in America and introducing his poor financial and mental condition. He disapproves of the human and nuclear warfare present in America at the time of war. He questions America when it can offer him justice, tolerance, freedom, and acceptance as it has made the world believe about it or changes its perspective of itself. In line, 13, “America when will you send your eggs to India?” he criticizes America for failing to aid countries such as India. In the lines that follow the comments on the “insane demands” of America that affect even the trivial acts of life.
The conversation turns into an indirect warning to America by line 16 for viewing itself as that sort of perfect world. Meanwhile, he tries to reconcile with America, suggesting it to look for “some other way to settle this argument” than using the military power. In the lines follow, from his accusation on the government, the poet redirects his perspective towards people, their nature, and possibly the justice system of America post World War.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.
In the lines between 27 and 36, Ginsberg moves from criticizing America to throwing light upon his own character. It describes him as a supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World, “the Wobblies”. Influenced by his mother’s Communist affiliations, Ginsberg wanted to help workers and laborers as a lawyer. Even though he became a writer, he never let that passion go away.
In, line 33, he highlights his support for socialism “You should have seen me reading Marx” the leading figure of socialism. It is again proof of his indifference to the existing capitalist or the system of America at that time. He quotes his psychoanalyst’s opinion, who thinks he is perfectly right in thinking, to reiterate that he is aware of all that he is doing and speaking. About his religious beliefs, he doesn’t conform to any for he says, “I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer./I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations”. In the line, line 37, Ginsberg disapproves of what America has done to a family who came over from Russia. and is affected/changed by some part of America’s nature.
Lines 38 – 46
I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.
In the lines between 38 and 46, Ginsberg addresses America directly and question the way the people live and lead by. He wonders how long the country is going to let the Time Magazine rule or run their emotions for them. In the following lines, he expresses how he too is obsessed with it and reads it every week. He continues to comment on what the magazine telling him and the people. It is always speaking of the seriousness of businessmen and producers, possibly alluding to the conformist nature of American workers. On the contrary, Ginsberg seems to be varying of it, as stated in line 44 that “Everybody’s serious but me.” Once again he continues with his perspective that he is America and in these lines 45-46, he states that he is “talking to myself again.”
Lines 47 – 53
Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.
From line 47 onwards, the poet takes a fresh perspective yet continuing with seeing himself as America itself. He sees how Asia is growing against America, which has no chance similar to that of China in the War. He reflects America’s resources through his own as “two joints of marijuana millions of genitals an unpublishable private literature that jet planes 1400 miles an hour and twenty-five thousand mental institutions.” He continues to criticize America for ignoring his people where he alludes to the prison and the millions of underprivileged of the country. The next line is a direct accusation of America for ignoring its people and focusing on other issues such as “the whorehouses of France” and “Tangiers”. Line 53 is an allusion to John F. Kennedy, whose Catholic faith caused the American people to doubt his political standing prior to his election
Lines 54 – 61
America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his automobiles more so they’re all different sexes.
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
[…] Everybody must have been a spy.
Lines 54 to 61, begins with the poet’s question and his commands to America. He asks, how he is supposed to write a prayer with the country’s present state. He compares his poems to the assembling of automobiles. Like, Henry Ford, he plans to assemble his poems as he likes individuals from others as sexes are from each other. In lines 57 to 60, Ginsberg speaks of Tom Mooney, a World War worker, the Spanish Loyalists who fought for the Spanish republic, Sacco & Vanzetti the executed Italian activists, and the Scottsboro Boys who were released from their death sentences. Line 61, describes the happy memory of a communist meeting Ginsberg attended as a child. However, “Everybody must have been a spy” at the end of the line, expresses the diplomatic thought of the poet, albeit America.
America you don’t really want to go to war.
America its them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
[…] Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
In lines 62 to 67, the poet adapts to a more sarcastic tone and criticizes America for blaming Russia. Then, he makes fun of America’s paranoia over communist Russia. Further, he ridicules the people for being ignorant through the phrases like “Russia wants to eat us alive” and “She wants to take our cars from out our garages” and “Her wants to grab Chicago”. Ginsberg mocks the misdirected fear of those that fail to learn and think about the political and social state of their country. Ginsberg continues his mockery of American ignorance by continuing to use forms of colloquial speech.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
In these lines, the poet uses a more “serious” tone to tell America that “this is quite serious”. He tries to ensure whether the impressions that he has made from the television is true. Further, he decides to “get right down to the job” and put his “queer shoulder to the wheel”. The job the poet indicates here is to take up his own way to bring changes to the social situation. In spite of his desire to see changes in society, he has not revealed, how he would attain it.
“First thought, best thought” is the attitude of writing Allen Ginsberg and his fellow beat poets followed. Their writings were poetically experimental and politically rebellious, as we see in ‘America’. Similar poems of Ginsberg include ‘A Supermarket In California‘, ‘Howl,’ ‘Homework,’ ‘An Eastern Ballad,’ ‘A Western Ballad,’ and ‘Death & Fame.’
Other poems with similar ideas and theme consist of: