The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“American Change” is Allen Ginsberg’s meditation on the figurative and literal meanings and values of money. Written in 1958, as Ginsberg was returning to the United States from a stint in the merchant marine, the narrative of the poem traces the speaker’s changing attitudes toward his country as he reflects on the American coins in his pockets. Without their value as American currency, these coins were only souvenirs when the speaker was at sea, but as the poem plots his return to New York, he removes the change from his pocket and revalues it.

The poem is structured in a free-verse form in the breath-unit line structure that Ginsberg popularized. In such a structure, each line represents what Ginsberg once termed “one-speech-breath thought,” fusing each line with equal emphasis on body, speech, and mind, a poetic concern Ginsberg borrowed from his Buddhist practice. “American Change” is divided into five stanzas, each organized according to the particular piece of money the speaker takes as his subject matter. Stanza 1 is devoted to the speaker’s meditation on an Indian-head nickel; in stanza 2 the speaker explores the cultural meanings of a dime; stanza 3 is occasioned by a quarter. The poet takes a five-dollar bill as his subject matter in the fourth stanza, and the last stanza is devoted to a meditation and description of the cultural significance of a one-dollar bill.

The speaker immediately contrasts the symbolic money...

(The entire section is 582 words.)