The American Crisis Unresolved?

Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America” seems to be a f$$$ you to the red, white, and blue.  The sarcasm and irony behind Ginsberg’s words seep out of his lines and blur the image of the country that birthed this poet.  He writes, “It occurs to me that I am America,” and his American identity seems to haunt him.  He does not relate with the silliness of the country and says, “How can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?”

Ginsberg seems to be trying to write for or as America, but he is so disillusioned by America that he seems to be alienating himself from the country.  He writes against the “normal” American ideals in his poem and embraces a non-American identity and relates more to non-American philosophies such as Marxism and Communism.  The hope we see in “Sunflower Sutra” seems to be lost in “America.”  Ginsberg finds no “beautiful golden sunflower” inside of America.  Instead he finds “silliness,” war, corruption, and insincerity.  The crisis in the poem, which revolves around Ginsberg’s distoted view of his identity as an American, is not recovered in my opinion.  By taking on the persona of America and speaking for America, Ginsberg tries to resolve his issues and re-embrace his American identity, but that seems to be no longer possible.  He cannot identify with America’s hate of communist Russia or Asia.  He cannot identify with America’s anti-drug and anti-homosexual agenda.  He cannot identify with America’s media.  He cannot identify with America’s religion.  He cannot identify with America.  The poem ends with Ginsberg giving up on America, as he writes “America I’m putting my queer soldier to the wheel.”  This line seems to suggest that he is leaving his American identity behind.

While you could argue that the resolution in the poem is that Ginsberg finally embraces his true identity as an outcast, I do not see this as a resolution.  Is their a resolution of crisis in this poem?  Beauty certainly does not seem to be restored in this poem like it is in “Sunflower Sutra.”  Ginsberg runs away from the problem.  He runs away from America, as he sees no way to relate to the country anymore.  Perhaps Ginsberg resolves his crisis of identity by rejecting the American identity that was forced upon him, but this rejection does not resolve the crisis of America.  What happened to the hope of the sunflower?

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5 Responses to The American Crisis Unresolved?

  1. AVZ says:

    Great post, Charles–you bring up something I hadn’t thought of. For me, putting a queer shoulder to the wheel signals a kind of effort–either a moving forward or a moving against, urging progress and effort rather than giving up. But you’re right, it’s also an escape.

    Any thoughts on the distortions of speech in this poem? What does it mean that language itself seems damaged at its core here–corrupted and corrupt?

  2. Nicole Monforton says:

    Towards the end of the poem it seems that Ginsberg begins to plead with America and beg America rather than try to work with America, something he seems to do at the beginning of the poem. As Ginsberg moves from trying to reconcile and work with America to begging and pleading, I think he begins to realize that there is too much wrong with America and that he is simply unable to reconcile. It’s like a bad break-up.

  3. dana t says:

    The way I read it, once Ginsberg says “It occurs to me that I am America” he embodies two different Americas: America the entity, the construct, and him as an individual man in America. It is as if he becomes the mind of America, split between the individual and the big, fumbling hand that moves it. He pushes back and forth, zooming from a national perspective: “I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance. I’d better consider my national resources” out to a bodily, private American perspective: “My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana…” This is when what America has versus what he has begins to take shape. In it, there is room for Ginsberg to give and take, and to test America.

    First he tests America, ordering it in a manner you might give out-of-the-question orders to a helpless, meek and tortured thing. He tries: “America free” and “America save”, and when America fails to react, finally: “America this is quite serious”.

    To all of these tests America’s reaction is flat. But with “them Russians”, America takes over in kind of a crazed frenzy: “Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians”. America’s mind is consumed with these things; they almost spill out of Her as soon as Ginsberg mentions them. Maybe he has found Her weakness.

    It is in America’s speech that I think there is a small victory, perhaps an inch of recovery. And this is when it begins to break down. America the construct cannot speak coherently, Her stutters of “The Russia wants to eat us alive” reveal the fear that has shaken Her silent. She tries to defend herself, to ask to be excused, by bringing it close to home with “Her wants to grab Chicago”, as if trying to find in Ginsberg something he might identify with the fear of losing. The in-between mutterings reveal that America gives up this effort: “That no good…Hah…Help.”

    Here, America almost becomes a helplessly bound child. She made her case mildly and as she went on she faltered in the face of her largeness. It is this faltering that lets Ginsberg recover some and allows him to come out and say, with confidence: “America this is quite serious. … America is this correct?” Again, it is as if he is reprimanding a child.

    With “I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway” Ginsberg exits this whole conversation, and America is left dumbly open. There is a sense of loss for America here—the loss of Ginsberg. He has tested Her and as She buckled at the knees he was able to separate himself, to move away and leave with some piece of mind, some motive of direction. His small quirks of nearsightedness and psychopathy or not complimentary or compatible to America’s own large silliness and inability to hold itself together, as he realizes in Her break down. He holds much less fear in these things than America holds in its problems, so he brushes America off and makes his exit.

  4. Charles Carmody says:

    I agree with both of these comments, and really like the idea of Ginsberg pleading and begging with America, and the way in which Dana brought out Ginsberg struggle in the poem. But Dana, do you think that Ginsberg’s brushing off of America is in a sense his recovery, or the recovery of the poem?

  5. Joshua Goddard says:

    This is a great poem, and I’ve always thought of it as sort of a misunderstood love poem that Ginsberg wrote to America, so I think it’s probably the most Whitmanian of his poems in that sense. Even Whitman found it appropriate at times to question the values of 19th century America, yet few people would accuse Walt of purposefully trying to alienate himself from the country. Hence, I feel that Ginsberg’s “America” follows a similar vein, and chose to read it from that perspective. So while some might feel that Ginsberg was trying to ostracize himself, I tend to think that he loved America the only way he knew how, because he wrote that “I refuse to give up my obsession.” But what was this obsession? The way I saw it, the title of the poem answers the question for us. So if Ginsberg was truly obsessed with the nation, it’s not to hard to image that he could both love it and hate it at the same time.

    Still, I feel that there is sufficient evidence in “America” to support the view that Ginsberg embraced, or at least associated, certain American qualities within himself. For instance, Ginsberg said that “I will continue [writing] like Henry Ford my strophes are as \ individual as his automobiles more so they’re \ all different sexes.” Here, despite all Ginsberg’s appearances, he’s claiming that he can not only out-produce Ford, the quintessential American assembly-line manufacturer, but that his product (poetry) could also be more inclusively consumed. So by using Ford as a benchmark, I feel that Ginsberg wasn’t totally knocking American productivity, but that he was implying we could maybe aim our sights higher and achieve something better. Furthermore, Ginsberg said he was also “obsessed by Time Magazine,” another ubiquitous, mass marketed product during the 50’s. He wrote that “It’s always telling me about responsibility. Business- \ men are serious. Movie producers are serious. \ Everybody’s serious but me.” Yet does Ginsberg really imply here that “responsibility,” as defined by businessmen or Time Magazine, is a bad thing? I tend to doubt that; rather, I sense that he thought of himself as being very serious but was probably venting that contemporary society was incapable of taking him seriously.

    Regarding the final line “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” I felt that Ginsberg wasn’t backing away from America whatsoever. In other words, he was saying that he would continue contributing to society the best way that he can, not in a factory, or in the Army, but by continuing to write poetry.

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