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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Howl and Other Poems became the bible of the Beat generation, the group of counterculture writers who surfaced in the United States during the 1950’s. The Beats, who included Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, and others, criticized the conformity and materialism that they saw developing in American culture during the post-World War II years. During a time when many young Americans enrolled in colleges or corporate training programs, married and started families, and purchased homes in the suburbs, the Beats and their followers drank to excess, experimented with illegal drugs, engaged in nontraditional sexual practices, worked odd jobs (mainly to support their fondness for travel), and condemned America’s corporate culture. The Beats were cultural rebels.

“America” is a Beat anthem. In this poem, Ginsberg presents the Beat critique of a nation gone wrong—an entire culture obsessed with waging war, making money, and fostering a stifling conformity. Ginsberg’s speaker sets himself against this cultural tide. He will not join the Army or take a job in a precision parts factory. He will not allow his own cultural values to be set by Time magazine. He will continue to engage in activities frowned upon by individuals within the mainstream culture—engaging in sex, smoking marijuana, reading Marx. The speaker in “America” represents the disillusioned youths of post-World War II American society.

Yet Ginsberg’s poem is not wholly anti-American. His jeremiad contains the sincere hope that his nation will change its ways. “America when will you be angelic?/ When will you take off your clothes?” Ginsberg asks early in the poem. “America why are your libraries full of tears?” he asks a few lines later. He interrupts his critique of America to remind it that “the plum blossoms are falling.” He wants the nation to take notice of its natural beauties. Ginsberg is serious when he says, “America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world,” as well as when he admits, “It occurs to me that I am America.” He pleads with America to commit itself to justice—to free Tom...

(The entire section is 523 words.)