The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

As with two other poems of the same period in his career, “America” (Howl and Other Poems, 1956) and “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear!” (Reality Sandwiches, 1963), Ginsberg builds “American Change” on a shifting foundation of despairing and ironic statements. In the first stanza, the speaker opens with nostalgic articulations of home; yet as he meditates upon his return, he sadly realizes that the home he yearns for never existed. He longs for an ideal, and the tiny nickel in his hand contains within it all the deadness that prevents this ideal from coming into being. The next stanza introduces a dime, with its “sexless cold & chill.” The George Washington quarter in the following stanza is “snub-nosed” and reflects the wishes of a designer who idealized Washington as a “sexless Father.”

The speaker becomes miserable in the next stanza, emphasizing in the five-dollar bill “Lincoln’s sour black head moled and wrinkled.” The poem shifts to an ironic tone in this stanza. The speaker addresses his American change as the “dear American money” he clutches at his arrival at the Statue of Liberty. He accedes that he might as well dedicate his poetry to money—as if he, too, has been consumed by American materialism. Irony links this stanza to the final stanza, which begins with mock joy. His return to the United States is reflected in his return in the poem to George Washington—this time Washington on the face...

(The entire section is 497 words.)


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