“A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley” was written by Ginsberg in 1955 shortly after his move from New York to the San Francisco Bay Area. Ginsberg’s own context is important to remember here. His trip from New York to California had been circuitous, moving through Mexico, Denver, and other places before he finally came to the Bay Area to live and work with a growing collection of people who would become the Beat poets.
His travels, in part, were an attempt to gain a better perspective on the natural world. Ginsberg saw himself in a long line of poets, coming from the modern tradition, that saw the ideals of Romanticism being stripped away by the economic and social conditions of modernity. Ginsberg’s mentor and teacher, William Carlos Williams had famously written about Ginsberg’s own hometown, Patterson , New Jersey, and the industrial blight that had overtaken the town. That poem had been a condemnation of modern society and the values of industrial capitalism and Ginsberg sought to continue that tradition through much of his own poetry,
“A Strange New Cottage,” then, finds Ginsberg trying to acquaint himself with the place where he has moved. It must be remembered that the Bay Area, in the 1950’s, did not resemble the urban sprawl that is now associated with the area. Much of the San Francisco area was still greatly undeveloped, though by 1955 there was a trend beginning towards a larger economy and population. Ginsberg’s Berkeley is, thus, caught in the middle of this transition and this is the theme of “A Strange New Cottage.”
Using natural imagery contrasted with symbols of progress and modern life, Ginsberg attempts to compare and contrast the two forms of life that he has know: the urban modern life of New York and the life of the natural world which he knew from other poets and which he was on a quest to discover.
The title and first line of “A Strange New Cottage” sets the time and place for the poem. It is afternoon and Ginsberg finds himself in the yard of his new home in California. Using the same variations of the long line form that he used in “Howl” and “America,” Ginsberg uses alliteration between the words “bramble” and “blackberries” and “brown” to help establish a rhythm for the lines.
Ginsberg’s own action in this first line offers an introduction to the two worlds Ginsberg hopes to contrast in the poem. He is “cutting” the blackberry bushes off the fence in his yard. His first acts in the poem are to try and “fix” many of the things that he sees wrong with the cottage. What Ginsberg will realize is that what he is really fixing are the things that help modern humanity overtake and overpower the natural world.
The fifth line sees him “fixing the drip in the intricate gut machinery of a new toilet...” These are the representations of the things that have come to make his life more comfortable, more livable. Yet, they are intricately complicated things that he, in a way, will never be able to completely figure out. Ginsberg is posing the question of whether it is better to live in a world where one is ignorant of the way things work and to be reliant on the machinery of things that one cannot comprehend.
Lines six and seven begin a transition in the poem. Ginsberg find two items, a coffee pot and a tire, hidden by the wild overgrowth around the cottage. These things are old, yet still are in good condition, but one is left to wonder whether a coffeepot and a tire that have been abandoned are worth keeping in the first place. Ginsberg then contrasts this by doing his own hiding; he finds a place to hide his marijuana.
This mention of drugs then leads Ginsberg to a mini-revelation of the natural world and its beauty. The reader can imagine that Ginsberg not only hid his marijuana but began to smoke some of it as well, causing his to see a beauty in the nature around him that he had not seen before. He sees the beauty of water on flowers and plants and describes them as “godly extra drops...” (9).
Ginsberg continues to see the natural world unfold around him. He says that he “three times walked round the grass...” (10). This line has two meanings, the first being a straightforward description of a walk through his yard. The second meaning being a euphemism, “grass,” for smoking more marijuana. Ginsberg finally receives his “reward” from the nature he has observed. His garden then feeds him plums from a small tree in the corner of the yard. The world has sent him “an angel” that is aware of his needs, both physical and spiritual. Contrast this altruism with the cold uselessness of the machinery that he found in the yard. The modern appliances did nothing for his hunger or his soul. In the end, such things pale in comparison to the strange beauty of the world in the yard of his new cottage.