January 17, 2006

January 17, 1956

America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.

America has been my favourite poem for twenty years: only Song of Myself has come close to extricating it from that position, which given Ginsberg's own identification with Whitman is not so surprising. To read Ginsberg is to be reminded of Whitman: supposing, that is, that one has read them both. Perhaps that is the reason for my preference: the way it turned out, it was Ginsberg I read first.

I was introduced to Ginsberg in a talk by the late David Widgery, who enthused about Howl for long enough - and well enough - to induce me to buy a copy of Ginsberg's Selected Poems, a copy which I have flicked through many times since, in the time since I first read it, in a period that now encompasses half the time that I have lived. (To my annoyance I have looked for the copy in vain over the past week, but cannot find it. It has given me its all and now it's nothing.)

I never took to Howl, finding it too difficult to understand its rhythm, although its opening, once heard, is hard to let go:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
a line which sometimes brings to mind Pia Zadora, who recites the line at Ricki Lake in Hairspray: but which, a little more profoundly, brings itself to mind whenever I read, or think about, Christopher Hitchens. The best mind of my generation, one of the best at any rate, and destroyed, destroyed in all its purpose, by the consequences of someone else's madness.

The best minds of my generation: I am from a generation which lost its way, or saw that way disappear before the journey even started. Perhaps that is why we find our consolation in the querulous poetry of half a century ago. It is fifty years today since Ginsberg completed his great poem, at Berkeley.

It is less celebrated than Howl, if easier to grasp, and as I say, I found the Howl mostly eluded me until, one evening, I saw some film of Ginsberg reciting from Kaddish:
All the accumulations of life, that wear us out—clocks, bodies, consciousness,
shoes, breasts—begotten sons
and understood consciously what I had only previously felt about America, that it was the recitation that gave the poems their rhythm. That one could only understand their tone and their changes of tone if one imagined them being spoken rather than read. America has the form and texture of a conversation, albeit a one-way conversation, half a conversation, Ginsberg bouncing complaints at accusation against America as one might bounce a tennis ball against a wall. America delivers itself more easily to the reader. Ginsberg addresses America as one might address oneself.
It occurs to me that I am America.
It is more of a harangue than a soliloquy, but more of an appeal than a harangue.
I won't write my poem until I'm in my right mind.
It isnt true: Ginsberg never finds his right mind, never settles, never - until, possibly, right at the end when the poem is already written - descides what his point is, what it is that he would actually like to say. There is a whole series of apparently unconnected questions and accusations, if not non-sequiturs, with which he begins:
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I'm sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I
need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not
the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
He continues:
There must be some other way to settle this argument
I should hope so too, the reader is likely to respond, for as yet it is no argument at all. But Ginsberg has got his excuses in early:
I don't feel good, don't bother me
he says. (He finds an echo eight years later in Bob Dylan:
Right now I don't feel too good
Don't send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them from
Desolation Row.
Ginsberg addresses America as if it were America who were bothering him rather than he who were addressing America. He objects:
I'm trying to come to the point
and fobs America off
America stop pushing I know what I'm doing
and as soon as America has given him the space to string some lines together, he pulls America up as if it were America whose attention had become distracted:
I'm addressing you.
Perhaps America was looking out of the window:
America the plum blossoms were falling.
Indeed, for much of the poem Ginsberg adopts the tone almost of a schoolchild, teasing, changing his mind as often as he may, putting on silly voices, singing nonsense songs. He tells America that he's been naughty:
I smoke marijuana every chance I get
and has no intention of doing as he's told:
I won't say the Lord's Prayer.
What's more, he's not about to apologise:
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid
I'm not sorry

It's the opposition of the adolescent (when I was a kid) which means defiance of the pieities, the norms of the adult world - but no more than that, a testing of the boundaries, a healthy desire to have those boundaries justified.

Well? says Ginsberg. It is America who accuses me of failing to grow up:

Are you going to let your emotional life be run by
Time Magazine?....

.... It's always telling me about responsibility. Business-
men are serious. Movie producers are serious.
Everybody's serious but me.
So let me not be serious: let me be what you say I am and then I'll tell you what I think of you. What are you telling me, businessmen, movie producers?
Asia is rising against me.
Really, it is? Well what shall I do about it? I'd better be serious:
I'd better consider my national resources
or not so serious
My national resources consist of two joints of
marijuana millions of of genitals an unpublishable
private literature that goes 1400 miles an hour
and twenty-five thousand mental institutions
or perhaps more serious than I was letting on?
twenty-five thousand mental institutions.
Perhaps the people forgotten in those mental institutions are something we should be serious about. Not to mention a few others:
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of
for who would be so lacking in seriousness as to mention them? Only somebody as silly as this:
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I'm a Catholic.
So who is silly? Is it Ginsberg or is it America, in so far as he distinguishes himself from them? America, he asks,
how can I write a litany in your silly mood?
Well, let us be serious then. Businessmen are serious and who more serious than Henry Ford? Ford constructed and sold cars - Ginsberg constructed poems and so, as the businessman to whose seriousness he aspires, he must try and sell us some.
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
Ginsberg, I said, needs to be imagined read out loud: when he offers us his part-return poems I always imagine him laughing out loud. But Ginsberg is serious again. Look, if we are to talk of Henry Ford, here are some forgotten slogans of that era. Do you remember them?
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
Ginsberg remembers.
America when I was seven momma took me to Com-
munist Cell meetings....the
speeches were free everybody was angelic and
sentimental about the workers it was all so sin-
cere you have no idea what a good thing the
party was in 1835
and if it was all a very long time ago (in 1835) and if it is no longer quite what he believes in (I used to be a communist when I was a kid) then it nevertheless deserves to be remembered for what it really was, not dirtied by the slanders of a paranoid imagination.
must have been a spy.
Is that really what you think, America? Well, how can one argue with somebody who believes such nonsense?

And that is why Ginsberg addresses America as if he were a kid: as if he were a kid who taunts his stupid schholmate, reciting his stupid opinions in a stupid voice.
America you don't really want to go to war.
Ginsberg rolls his eyes.
America it's them bad Russians.

Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen.
And them Russians.

The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's poer
mad. She wants to take our cars from out our

....That no good. Ugh.
Doh, says Ginsberg.
Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us
all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
Help indeed. After that, there comes the punchline: for all these ridiculous questions, for all these non-sequiturs, for all this senseless gabbling, there is a reason. It is that the impressionistic nonsense reflects an impression of nonsense.
America this is quite serious
His voice is sharp, raised, direct: he is looking straight at you.
America this is quite serious.
This is the impression I get from looking in
the television set.
It is: it is a world full of threats and enemies. America, this is quite serious. In every sense, it is serious. Because this is the America with which Whitman identified himself. As did Whitman, so does Ginsberg:
America I've given you my all.
For what? For two dollars and twenty-seven cents? For twenty-five thousand mental institutions? For the madness he sees when looking in the television set? Well, let it be so, then, for Ginsberg cannot detach himself from America:
It occurs to me that I am America.
and he will serve if America wants him to. But it will be he who serves. It will be Ginsberg as he is.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

It is a great poem. It will be forgotten today, as forgotten as it ought to be remembered, as silent as it ought to be spoken. It should be spoken on the steps of every town hall in America. Because if it were, we would get a different impression, of a different America, than the impression we get from looking in our television sets.


At January 18, 2006 2:23 pm, Blogger Roobin said...

Top stuff! I was always a Burroughs man myself. Legend has it Ginsberg asked Old Bill "what is art?"

"A three letter word" said Bill.

Which just about seals it for me.

At January 18, 2006 2:54 pm, Anonymous Error Gorilla said...

I followed a link from your blog to a page of poetry with America on some time ago and I was so impressed that I copied into a little notebook I have of poems and quotations. You should be on commission for making cultural recommendations.


At January 19, 2006 11:59 pm, Anonymous waterhot said...

My ex-wife and her now partner organised the "Return of the Reforgotten" at the Albert Hall in October 1995 - a bold attempt to recreate the famous Ginsberg-led gig of 1965 (there's some wonderful black and white footage of it if you can find it). Ginsberg's performance that night was stunning - to put it into perspective, he performed with Paul McCartney (the night's "surprise" guest) and it was still stunning.

And that's a comment I never thought I'd find myself writing anywhere. Ever.


At February 26, 2009 7:57 pm, Blogger Meg said...

I think you're writing and explanations are great. The only thing I found is that in my book it says 1935, not 1835.

Perhaps it was just a typo.

Great explanation of the poem though! However, I think I am more fond of "Howl."

At February 27, 2009 3:07 pm, Blogger ejh said...

Oddly (or not) I can find both on the internet, but my copy says 1835.

At March 10, 2011 12:57 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting critique! I love the way you described this poem word for word and you concluding paragraph was well spoken! Thanks so much!



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