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Summary and Analysis

“Homework,” by the American poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), was written on April 26, 1980 in Boulder, Colorado (as a note following the text of the poem reveals). The poem describes how the poem’s speaker would metaphorically cleanse many problems of the world in a metaphorical washing machine, as if they were merely pieces of dirty laundry. The poem is written in Ginsberg’s trademark style, with its long, rambling lines (reminiscent of the poetry of Walt Whitman) and its heavy emphasis on colloquial American diction (also reminiscent of Whitman’s phrasing). Because the poem displays a good deal of humor, its socio-political points seem less strident (and thus more likely to provoke real thought) than if the speaker came across as a hectoring propagandist.

The first line catches us by surprise. The first half of the line leads us to expect one kind of poem (merely domestic), while the line’s second half suddenly switches gears and implies an interest in foreign affairs. Then, just when we may assume that the poem will be an attack on the nation of Iran (one of the main enemies of the United States in the period immediately before this poem was written), the poem switches gears again as it shifts to the second line. That line shows that the speaker, far from being merely critical of Iran, is critical of the United States as well. Thus, by the time we have read less than eighteen words, we begin to suspect that the speaker’s criticism of nations (or at least of their flaws and/or their leaders) will be wide-ranging rather than narrow.  The rest of the poem, of course, confirms this suspicion.

On the one hand the poem deals with serious social, economic, and political issues, such as the loss of jungle habitats in Africa due to the encroachment of humans (2), the pollution of major bodies of water (3), and many other forms of environmental degradation, often involving water. On the other hand, the tone of the work is rather whimsical, concerned as much with displaying the speaker’s imagination and inventiveness as with simply cataloging environmental horrors. However, while in some ways the poem seems designed to showcase the speaker’s wit, in other ways the speaker seems not to take himself too seriously. Paradoxically, the less seriously he seems to take himself, the more seriously we may actually listen to what he has to say.

In some cases the speaker links environmental damage to political or military abuses, as in the reference to “Agent Orange” in line 9. Agent Orange was a chemical sprayed by the U. S. military on the jungles of Vietnam during the War in Vietnam (1960s-70s). It was designed to make enemy soldiers visible by killing the lush vegetation in which they might otherwise hide. Even more obvious political criticism appears in line 10, in the reference to the “the tattletail Gray of U.S. Central American police state.” The mention of “tattletail Gray” probably refers to the characteristic appearance of U. S. Navy vessels, while the reference to the “U. S. Central American police state” alludes to the support the United States often gave to right-wing military dictatorships. Although the speaker does mention the “whole mess” of the then-communist nations of “Russia and China” (10), his main concern seems to be with abuses for which the United States was chiefly responsible. Since his language is obviously American, he may feel that he has a special obligation to cleanse his own nation before worrying too much about the imperfections of other nations.

Oddly, on at least two occasions the poem’s language seems mangled and even ungrammatical (at least by the standards of conventional American grammar). Thus, in line 7 the speaker says that he would like to “bleach the little clouds so snow return white as snow.” In ordinary English (the kind of English used almost exclusively in most of the rest of the poem), this phrase would say that the speaker wants to “bleach the...

(The entire section is 1,152 words.)