Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

For Ginsberg, the privilege granted to economics in American culture robs the imagination of cultural currency as it emphasizes the importance of actual hard currency itself. In “American Change,” as in much of Ginsberg’s work, American economic and imperial expansionism devalue the individual spirit as they increase national wealth. Discourses of history and culture are complicit in this movement away from individual freedom. The fate of the individual is much like that of the buffalo in the first stanza of “American Change”: A pluralist convergence of individual identities is reduced to a “hoar body rubbed clean of wrinkles and shining like polished stone.” The gleam is deceptive, just as it is when the speaker reveals that the nearly baroque illuminations on the dollar bill are merely safeguards against counterfeit currency rather than artistic renderings of the creative imagination.

The literal value of money, too, is reduced in “American Change.” From Howl onward, Ginsberg’s poetry concerned itself with both the materialist and the visionary consequences of contemporary social injustice. Thus, as the visionary potential of the country fades in the poem, so does material value. In the midst of the third stanza, the speaker counts the coins he has thus far described—a nickel, dime, and quarter—and states: “Quarter, remembered quarter, 40¢ in all—What’ll you buy me when I land—one icecream soda?” He is more...

(The entire section is 468 words.)