What is an analysis of "America" by Allen Ginsberg?

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"America" by Allen Ginsberg might be described as a protest rant or outcry against perceived social, political, and personal injustice in the United States. Ginsberg was part of the Beat Generation of writers and artists, who embraced jazz music, African American culture, drug use, leftist politics, and sexual liberation. Among others, the "Beats" included Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs. Ginsberg's membership in this "fraternity" is made evident by his reference to Burroughs in Tangiers in this poem.

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The poem "America" by Allen Ginsberg is a simultaneously painful and sardonic cry for what he feels is America's betrayal of its citizens. Allen Ginsberg was one of the pillar figures of the Beat Generation, which arose in the early 1950's streets of New York. The Beat movement is difficult to define succinctly since it refers to both a small, connected group of authors as well as a widespread feeling of anger and apathy that was spreading to many American youths in the post-war era. This poem, "America", was written in 1956; just one year after Ginsberg's first reading of his most well-known work, "Howl". Ginsberg and the Beat movement gained a lot of popularity after the debut of "Howl", and Ginsberg now thought it was time to address America head-on.

"America I've given you all and now I'm nothing"

The first line of the poem makes it clear Ginsberg feels as though the relationship he shares with his home country is unfair or uneven. Ginsberg states that although he has given all of himself away, he has gotten nothing in return. This is Ginsberg's chance to demand answers and change for several of the country's wrongdoings and shortcomings. While Ginsberg makes several serious, straightforward accusations, he also employs a heavy use of irony and sarcasm while speaking to America. He speaks of war crimes and social injustice, but also complains that he wants to buy what he needs from the supermarkets with his "good looks". Ginsberg does this in order to convey the disorienting, tumultuous task of identifying as an American.

Even while Ginsberg makes demands for justice on behalf of the displaced and disenfranchised, it is clear that he does not feel sure of himself or his message. This is crescendoed in the final line of the first stanza, in which he states

"It occurs to me that I am America.
I'm talking to myself again."

Along with a large population of Americans at the time, Ginsberg felt unsure of his place in his country and its plans. He felt genuine anger and desire for justice for so many of America's actions, yet still knew that he himself was made from America, and he himself still is America, no matter how much he dislikes it. Towards the end of the poem Ginsberg presents an excerpt of what could be internal dialogue that plagues him and fellow Americans.

"America its them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black n******. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help."

The short, choppy way in which the sentences are written sound like an individual losing his mind, punctuated by a short, exhausted plea for help from the madness. The poem is presented in a stream of consciousness format, and thus evokes feelings of urgency and rawness. Ginsberg cared about his country and the well-being of its citizens deeply, he just also felt as though it was driving him insane. The poem "America" runs parallel to many of the themes prevalent in other works that came from the Beat Movement. The youth of America felt as though their country was spinning out of control, and leaving its most vulnerable citizens behind. The country was the most powerful force in the world, yet many felt not a force for good. That's why Ginsberg closes his poem with a statement of independence; declaring that no matter the wrongs done to him and others around him, he's not stopping.

"America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel"

Explore the links below to hear a live reading of Ginsberg's "America", as well as a short video which pairs his reading with images of America at the time. Be sure to pay attention to the emotions you hear in Ginsberg's voice, and the emotions you feel as you hear the words and imagine the scenes presented; it's the most important part of reading Ginsberg's poetry.

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