"America" was written in 1956 during Ginsberg's time in Berkeley, California and was included in the original publication of "Howl and Other Poems." “America” was one of the first widely read literary statements of political unrest in the post-World War II United States. Themes from the decade’s previous wars are prominent such as the nuclear bomb or Asian foreign policy, yet the poem also seems prescient in its depiction of national racial unrest and the fight with communism that would characterize the Cold War foreign policy positions of the United States in the second half of the 20th century. Ginsberg was always one of the most politically active members of the Beat Poets and “America” is both an introduction to Ginsberg’s political thought as well as a broad representation of views he would hold throughout his life.
Like "Howl," the poem displays the irregular meter and structure that was to be a hallmark of Ginsberg's poetry. The poem is filled 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. Ginsberg used the "long line" as his creative foundation, experimenting and riffing on rhythm and meter in one long line that would be "all held together within the elastic of the breath...."
Ginsberg relates the poem to music, saying that the key to understanding the structure of the poem is "in the jazz choruses...." Sentences often run on without punctuation and the poem skips from subject to subject with little relation to each other. As in jazz, the point that Ginsberg hoped to get across was not narrative or beauty but spontaneity, human expression, and reaction. A persons emotion was to rise and build just as the long lines themselves built upon the emotion contained within.
The stanzas of the poem are also irregular and spontaneous. The first stanza is sixteen lines, the second and third both twelve, the fourth and fifth both ten. The final stanza is an amalgamation of rhythms and stream of consciousness writing. Ginsberg shifts in the poem from talking to America like a jilted friend or lover, to discovering that much of himself is America, and finally moving towards ridiculing and taunting this personified America for its militaristic culture, its vapid media, and its paranoid politics. Like other Ginsberg poems, the structure is really meant to be heard rather than read. In reading the poem aloud one better understands the conversational nature of the poem.
Lines 1 - 16
The poem's first stanza is somewhat of an introduction that sets the time and context for the poem. The first line sets an exhausted and depressed mood for the poem. Ginsberg expresses his own hopelessness that his life or work, or anyone's life, would mean anything within a culture of censorship and oppression. He laments the cultural poverty of the time, equating it to only a few dollars and cents, and finds that he is not even able to be himself in such a culture.
The following lines of the poem start Ginsberg's conversation with this personified America. He is partly dissatisfied with the militarism of the country and he tells America to "go fuck yourself with your atom bomb" (5). He wants to stop the conversation before it even starts, making excuses that he doesn't want to be bothered with such a conversation (ignoring that he was the one who started it) and declaring that he won't write until "I'm in my right mind" (7). But as he noted before, he will never be in his right mind. He cannot stand his mind.
The stanza then turns into a kind of angry lament. These lines make America seem like a lost lover, someone that Ginsberg once loved and saw great promise and potential in; it was a potential for salvation. Ginsberg is perhaps remembering the great promise that America offered his own family as immigrant to the land. He asks when America will once again become the land that it once promised to be. When will it become "angelic" (8), when will it see the death and destruction that it has caused, when will it understand that its own political oppression is greater than the political oppression of the "Trotskyites" (communists) that it denounces and goes to war with (11)? Ginsberg laments that the libraries of America, representing the potential of free information and free expression, are "full of tears" (12), and he denounces the corporatism of American life symbolized by "the supermarket" and how those with "good looks" are given easy entry into American wealth (15-16).
The second stanza continues the back and forth argument that Ginsberg is having with the personified country. He begins with a tone of reconciliation, trying to find commonality amongst himself and his country. He writes that it is "you and I who are perfect" and insinuates that the longing for the "next world" is pointless. One of the most poignant lines of the poem is line 19, when Ginsberg, speaking to his country like a lost lover, says that "You made me want to be a saint." This confession demonstrates the love Ginsberg once felt, and the hope and optimism he felt in his own earlier life. As a young man, influenced by his mother's Communist affiliations, Ginsberg felt that his first calling was to help workers and laborers as a labor lawyer. Even though his ambitions took him in a different direction - that of a poet instead of a lawyer - Ginsberg admits that he cannot "give up my obsession." It is an obsession with the promise of America, with the things that he once believe deeply in: justice, tolerance, freedom, and acceptance. This is patriotic optimism that Ginsberg writes about here, though as the rest of the poem attests, there has been a definite break in the relationship. Line 20 continues the theme of reconciliation. Ginsberg hopes that "There must be some other way to settle this argument." But this will be the last time that Ginsberg offers to reconcile with his country. As he noted in lines from the first stanza, he feels that, in a way, this conversation is pointless, though through the act of writing it he knows there must be some validity in it.
This stanza also sees Ginsberg offer themes of warning to his country. He asks if America is being "sinister" or if the country, through is artistic suppression and police-like state, is simply playing some kind of twisted practical joke on him and those like him. He tells America that "Burroughs is in Tangiers," a reference to William S. Burroughs' time spent in Tangiers, Morrocco where he was in a kind of exile from the United States because of legal problems related to the transport of illegal drugs from Mexico. Ginsberg, for his whole career, was strongly in support of legalizing drugs and his warning to America in this line is that if the country continues to prosecute for such petty crimes, the country will loose their "best minds." The end of the stanza begins to turn more cynical and violent. Ginsberg accuses the country of "pushing" him and he asserts that he knows "what I'm doing" (25). Line 26 uses imagery from Eastern influences, a region of the world whose religion and culture would fascinate Ginsberg throughout his life. He writes that "the plum blossoms are falling." In Eastern culture, the plum blossom is a symbol of peace. By using this imagery from another country and culture, Ginsberg is attempting to tell America that its essence as a benevolent leader of the world is in decline. It is the East - both in its culture and its politics - that show the way to a better world.
Ginsberg finishes the stanza by telling America that he has not "read the newspapers for months" and that the reason is because "everyday somebody goes on trial for murder" (27-28). This is both a lament at the violence, or threat of violence, that was increasingly a part of American culture. But this line also has personal resonance for Ginsberg. Throughout his time in New York and San Francisco, Ginsberg saw several of his friends and acquaintances in the Beat movement arrested for murder. Most of the arrests were not unwarranted. While Ginsberg often felt that the police unfairly targeted people like him and his friends, the line of the poem also hints at the remorse that Ginsberg feels over the senseless violence that even his own company took part in. The reason that he doesn't read the newspapers is not only because the news will only tell more of how his country betrays him, but because it will also tell of how his own friends and colleagues become a part of the cycle of violence and rage.
Ginsberg starts the third stanza with his most overt political statements of the poem yet. In line 29, Ginsberg tells America that he is "sentimental about the Wobblies." The Wobblies was a nickname given to The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an international worker's union that was a powerful political and social group during Ginsberg's childhood and that leaned strongly towards Socialist and leftist policies. They believed that all wages should be abolished and that all workers should be united as a class of persons. The Wobblies were harshly criticized by the United States government which largely shut down the group during World War I by prosecuting and politically embarrassing many of its leaders. Ginsberg's sentimentality towards the group is a result of his mother's influence. Naomi Ginsberg held strong Communist views throughout her life and, during Allen's childhood, often took him and his brother to meetings of the local Communist Party. Ginsberg admits this sentimentality again in the next line of the poem (30) where he tells America that as a child he was a communist and is not sorry for that fact. Context here is key: during the 1950's there was a strong anti-communist attitude in the nation, exemplified by Senator Joseph McCarthy's congressional hearings in which many Americans were accused of communist activities, often ruining their careers. Ginsberg is taking a social risk by admitting in the poem that he was once a communist. Such a statement risked not only government interrogation but possibly criminal charges brought against him for treason.
This stanza serves as a kind of confession for Ginsberg. He goes on to detail his other "sins," though there is hardly in regret in his recounting. Ginsberg tells America that he smokes "marijuana every chance I get," that he gets drunk in Chinatown, and that he has read the writings of Karl Marx. None of these activities would have been considered morally or legally upstanding, but Ginsberg makes no apologies. As if to make his point, Ginsberg also says that he "won't say the Lord's Prayer." This line symbolizes the confessional nature of the stanza, but it also demonstrates Ginsberg's unwillingness to feel guilty for his acts. The Lord's Prayer, which Ginsberg equates with culpability for one's sins, represents the oppression of what Marx called the "opiate of the masses." This fits with Ginsberg's earlier statements of his communist affiliation.
Ginsberg also attempts to bring in modern psychology to help acquit him of his deeds. He says in line 36 that "My psychoanalyst thinks I'm perfectly right." A few years before writing "Howl" and "America," Ginsberg had sought psychological help for the depression and guilt he felt over the life he was choosing. After the therapist asked Ginsberg what would make him ultimately happy, Ginsberg tells him that writing poetry and living the life of the artist is what would make him happy. The therapist then answers that that is what Ginsberg should do. Ginsberg felt that this was a validation of his feelings, and uses this stanza of the poem to show that the therapists opinion of his lifestyle means that he is justified in shirking responsibility. Ginsberg ends the stanza with a deeper seeded reason for why he feels no culpability for his actions. He tells America that he never "told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia." This line is in reference to Max Livergant, Ginsberg's uncle on his mother's side of the family, who was met with his own hardships after immigrating to America for being both a communist and a Jew. Ginsberg, here, is in effect saying that if America can act badly, so can he.
Ginsberg then shifts his focus away form politics - for the moment - and to the media. Ginsberg often had a kind of "love/hate" relationship with the media. He did not shy away from media attention, especially during the 1960's where his political activism often drew a lot of attention. Yet, while he often appeared in the media, he also often took the opportunity to criticize the media as well. These lines in "America" are some of his earliest public critiques of America's growing reliance on media.
Ginsberg uses Time magazine as his example, here. During this period, Time was the most successful and one of the most read periodicals in America. To be on the cover of Time magazine was to grab the attention of the nation and of the world. Ginsberg here critizes America, not just for seeing all events through the lens of the media (represented by Time) but also for letting its "emotional life" be effected by the magazine. Ginsberg suggests here that the country is really being run by the media, who can effect the emotional outcry of citizens who can then strike fear into their elected representatives. Political and social decisions, therefore, are not being made on rational and humanitarian bases. Instead, they are being made by leaders who are more afraid of how the media might portray them for their decisions.
But Ginsberg makes a surprising turn in the next few lines of the poem. While he spent most of the last stanza of the poem abdicating himself from personal responsibility, he suddenly starts to take responsibility for the "emotional" reactions that media causes. He admits that is reads Time magazine every week. He admits that its news is just as important for his own understanding of the world as it is for everyone else. He is surrounded by Time magazine and, hence, the media. He, who hopes to hold himself to a higher standard of justice and love, cannot escape the way his own perception of events is clouded by media interpretation. Time magazine, he says, helps him to know where he stands in the world. This happens, of course, to be beneath all of the "serious" people in the world, but it does not change the fact that he himself adapts and conforms to the societal norms imposed by Time magazine and the media.
Ginsberg then makes an admission that changes the tone and focus of the poem: he suddenly realizes that "I am America" and that "I am talking to myself again" (49-50). Ginsberg started the stanza by telling America that "I'm addressing you," (41) and ends the stanza by realizing that the "you" is really himself. His own conformity, his own willingness to accept the place in life and the roles of career and personhood within the American context, makes him just as much part of America as anyone else.
The next stanza returns to the political and builds on the psychedelic nature of the poem. While the whole poem has demonstrated a form of spontaneous thought and stream of consciousness writing, this stanza makes particular use of this style.
Ginsberg begins by claiming that "Asia is rising against me" (51). He is referencing two particular events here: the first is the rise of China as a communist power in the East. The United States and Russia had fought throughout the first half of the twentieth century to influence the politics of China and its population. The Chinese Civil War ended in 1949 with the victory of the Communist Party of China. This naturally meant that China would become a ally of the USSR, a setback for US foreign relations in that part of the world following the allied victory in World War II. But Ginsberg is also referencing his own engagement with Asian religion and culture. As a college student Ginsberg had studied Zen Buddhism. Buddhism would be an important religious outlook for many of the Beat writers, including Kerouac and Neal Cassady, as they sought to reach higher levels of consciousness using drugs like LSD. By claiming that "Asia is rising against me," Ginsberg is relating how the tenets of Buddhism - peace, love, transcendence - testify against the America that he himself claimed identity with in the previous stanza. Ginsberg acknowledges that he doesn't have "a chinaman's chance" of avoiding this collision of values. He uses a derogatory phrase here mainly to set the tone of discrimination that he has now admitted he participates in.
Ginsberg then decides that he had "better consider my national resources." Again, Ginsberg has become the personified country that he began the poem in conversation with. Here, he mixes both the personal and the national. He has "two joints of marijuana millions of genitals / an unpublishable private literature..." (54). Ginsberg seems here to be self-deprecating, noting how the lifestyle that he lives (drugs, sex, art) is a poor resource for the monumental challenge to his identity and the political identity of the country. Moving to a broader scope, he notes that he also has "jetplanes 1400 miles an hour and twentyfive-thousand mental institutions" (55-56). The comparisons here are stark. These lines beg the question of why a country with such technological advances criminalizes and punishes their insane in such inhumane ways. Ginsberg's own views of insanity were influenced by his mother's psychological problems that saw her live much of her life in and out of mental institutions. Ginsberg then admits that he is not even bringing up the most damning evidence: "...my prisons...(and) the millions of underprivaledged..." (57). He ends the stanza with another example of discrimination. He says that he wants "to be President despite the fact that I'm a Catholic." Ginsberg himself was Jewish, but he makes this point because during this time it was widely assumed that a Catholic could not be elected President, though this assumption would fall only a few years later with the election of John F. Kennedy.
These lines begin by attacking America's economic modes of production and ends with a political rant on communist Russia. The poem returns here to a less personal point of view. While Ginsberg realized that he himself was America, and then began to introspectively examine his complicity in the America that he was attacking, he has given up this line of thought and returned to conversation with a separate personified America. He accuses America of being in a "silly mood" and that this prevents him from writing a true "holy litany" of the country's faults.
He begins with a kind of acquiescence to American values. He uses Henry Ford, whose assembly line method of production revolutionized industry in the beginning of the twentieth century and made America the economic superpower that it became. Ginsberg says that he will "continue like Henry Ford" with his poetry, writing it not from an emotional and artistic point of view but instead with an eye towards profit. This it he American way, Ginsberg suggests. Everything is done for profit and nothing valuable comes without business sense. This, of course, goes against the values of worker rights and unionizing that Ginsberg says he once adhered to. His profit motive will make him "$2500 a piece $500 down" for his poems, as if he were selling used cars.
But Ginsberg's conscious then speaks up, as if another more interior voice has added its opinion to the matter. Ginsberg begins to make demands of America for justice, using historical examples to make his case. He tells America to "Free Tom Mooney" (65), a labor leader in the early twentieth century who had been falsely imprisoned for a San Francisco bombing in 1916. He tells America to "...save the Spanish Loyalists" (66), the leftist army supported by the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War who fought the Fascist uprising supported by Nazi Germany. He tells America that "...Sacco & Vanzetti must not die" (67), a reference to a famous legal case in which two men, Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian born laborers with anarchist political views, were accused of murder and tried without due process. They were executed, sparking a controversy over the rights of the accused. Ginsberg then separates himself from his previous identity with America by telling it that "...I am the Scottsboro boys" (68), a reference to a 1931 incident in Scottsboro, Alabama where nine black men were tried and convicted of raping two white women and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court over ruled the death penalty sentences, citing unfair representation for the defendants and lack of due process. Ginsberg uses all of these historical examples to demonstrate to America that is is not the country that it presents itself to be in patriotic statements like the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance. He wants the country to remember that there is great injustice in its work as well.
Ginsberg then moves into eight lines of stream of consciousness writing in which he remembers a meeting of a Communist Party cell that his mother took him to when he was seven years old. Here, he explains his earlier statement about how he was a communist as a child and how he was not sorry for this fact. He remembers this meeting fondly, recounting that "everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was..." (71-73). As if to counter the damning claims of injustice that Ginsberg levels against America in the previous lines, he then begins to cite historical socialist and communist leaders who he felt worked for justice and peace, not for war and violence which were the charges leveled against leftists during this period of American history. Ginsberg cites Scott Nearing, an economist who advocated for pacifism and socialism; Mother Bloor, a leading figure in the Socialist Party of America in the early twentieth century who fought for workers' rights; the "Silk-strikers," a radical group of silk workers in Ginsberg's hometown of Paterson, New Jersey who organized a strike against silk manufacters; and Israel Amter, a Socialist party leader in the early twentieth century. These are Ginsberg's examples of the decency of a political ideology that the American government sought to destroy. Ginsberg, being coy, proclaims that "Everbody must have been a spy" (75-76), a sarcastic comment on the government's paranoia over all Socialist or Communist activity during this period. Ginsberg then makes a plea to America in line 77. "America you don't really want to go to war."
As the poem begins to close, Ginsberg continues his rant on America's discriminatory attitudes, it's unthinking patriotism, and it's unjust treatment of minority racial and political groups. Yet, in these lines, Ginsberg moves from an angry tone to a biting sarcasm. He moves his conversation from an attack on a personified country to a sarcastic attack on the citizens of the actual country. He begins with trying to imitate American colloquial speech, an indicator that he's mocking the uninformed and uneducated who would blindly follow a blind patriotism. The antagonists, Ginsberg says, are "Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians" (79). He then makes fun of America's paranoia over communist Russia by making ridiculous statements like "Russia wants to eat us alive" and "She wants to take our cars from out our garages" and "Her wants to grab Chicago" (80-82). Ginsberg mocks the misdirected fear of those that choose not to learn and not to think for themselves about the political and social state of their country. Those uneducated persons can think only that Russia, and therefore all communist and socialist sympathizers, wants to steal the American way of life. Ginsberg tries to point out the absurdity of such thought just as he is trying to point out that the American way of life is bankrupt to begin with and not worth stealing. His most devastating blow to American discrimination comes in lines 85 and 86: "That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black / niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help."
These lines function on several levels. First, Ginsberg continues his mockery of American ignorance by continuing to use forms of colloquial speech. He uses wrong pronouns and incorrect verb tenses, suggesting the ludicrousness of the populist fears of people who have not even learned to read correctly. He also makes use of sounds, a part of the poem that can only be accurately assessed through a verbal reading. The sounds are meant to be primal, again suggesting that these ignorant populists are only a little above animals and certainly not as advanced as those that they fear. His derogatory use of Native Americans and African Americans here is a palpable display of their fear: the Russians, these ignorant populists believe, will elevate these minority groups to a status equal to their own. Communism will make all persons equal and these populists want only to maintain the discriminatory status quo. Finally, Ginsberg suggests that what these persons are most afraid of is that their middle class comfortable lifestyle will be taken from them and they will instead have to work for "sixteen hours a day," a plight that is simply untenable to the culture of laziness that has enveloped America.
The closing lines of the poem abandon the sarcasm and playful language of the previous lines. Ginsberg sets a more "serious" tone for the end by telling America upfront that "this is quite serious" (87). He is almost in disbelief over all that he has just accused the country of. The final four lines are Ginsberg's statement of action. He tells both the country and the reader that it's time for him to "get right down to the job" (90). He then qualifies what he can do: he cannot join the Army and he cannot work in a factory, both because of his political and social beliefs but also because he's "nearsighted and psychopathic anyway," two conditions that would preclude him from this kind of service. Instead, Ginsberg suggests that he will have to find his own way to contribute to changing the social situation that he has just described in the poem, though he makes no positive statement towards what he will actually do. It is probable that in the 1950's, before the anti-war and civil rights activism of the 1960's, there was little outlet for political change and expression and therefore Ginsberg could not add a more detailed description of what work he would actually accomplish.
Instead, he makes a final statement that is both a statement of his difference and a statement of his desire to work towards a better America. "America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel." Putting one's shoulder to the wheel is an expression of hard work and labor. Yet this is contrasted by Ginsberg's use of the word queer, a word that then denoted softness and an effeminate style. Ginsberg suggests that he will prove that even the outcasts, the weak, and the effeminate can affect change, a statement that would prove to be quite true in the coming decades.