The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Allen Ginsberg’s “America” presents a sharp critique of American culture delivered by someone who has almost wholly repudiated its values. The poem’s speaker addresses America directly, as if he were delivering a lecture or a sermon to the nation itself, rather than to its people. The nation’s aggressive anticommunist foreign policy and its culture of materialism and conformity are the primary targets of the speaker’s harsh attack.

The poet emphatically denounces America’s Cold War foreign policy. “America when will we end the human war?” he asks in the poem’s fourth line. He follows that question with “Go [expletive] yourself with your atom bomb.” The communists are not this speaker’s enemies. Ginsberg’s speaker informs America that he used to be a communist as a child and is not sorry for it; his mother took him to Communist cell meetings where “the speeches were free” and “everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers.” Now he brags about reading the works of Karl Marx. Near the end of the poem, the speaker satirizes America’s fear of a takeover by the Soviet Union: “America you don’t really want to go to war./ 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 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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ginsberg delivers his critique of American culture in a rambling seventy-three-line free-verse poem. He eschews rhyme. His poetic ancestor is Walt Whitman, whose free-verse poems first appeared in the 1850’s. Like Whitman, Ginsberg, in most of his poems, presents his message in a series of emotional outbursts, seemingly delivered in a random order. The effect, however, is often prayerlike. In “America,” and in other poems in the Howl collection, the speaker resembles an Old Testament prophet chanting a savage critique of the values of his people.

Ginsberg uses some words not found in the Bible, however. He complains that when he visits Chinatown he gets drunk but “never get[s] laid.” He announces that America’s national resources include “two joints of marijuana” and “millions of genitals.” Ginsberg’s use of such terms in “America” and in other poems included in the Howl collection resulted in federal obscenity charges being brought against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights Books in San Francisco, which first published Howl. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, however, successfully defended Howl, and the federal government lost its case in court. By using such language in his poems, Ginsberg was attacking America’s Victorian sexual mores and testing the limits of America’s literary standards. Before the publication of Howl, explicit sexual language rarely appeared in serious literary works. Ginsberg’s use of such language, his rejection of traditional poetic forms, and the sharpness of his critique of American culture partly explain why America’s literary culture, which was dominated by academics during the 1950’s, failed to embrace Ginsberg when Howl was published.

Ginsberg employs both humor and satire in “America.” Some of the humor is self-deprecating: “I’m obsessed by Time Magazine./ I read it every week./ Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore./ I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.” Some of the humor results from puns: “Asia is rising against me./ I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.” Ginsberg’s use of satire is evident in his depiction of Russia as a power-hungry nation intending to “eat us alive,” confiscate Americans’ cars from their driveways, take over Chicago, and transplant automobile plants to Siberia.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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