“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...
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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 little clouds so snowwould [or could or might, etc.] return white as snow,” but for some reason the speaker’s phrasing here sounds almost like that of a non-native speaker. Another puzzling passage occurs when the speaker refers in line 10 to the “the tattletail Gray of U.S. Central American police state.” In conventional American English, this phrase would read somewhat as follows: “the tattletail Gray of the U.S. Central American police state.” Why does Ginsberg’s speaker depart, on these two occasions and these two only, from normal American English? Perhaps (one could argue) the speaker disrupts our expectations of conventional American English precisely in order to let us hear, if only briefly, the voices of other cultures, especially the third-world cultures affected by American imperialism. Or perhaps this speaker (who seems closely related to Ginsberg himself) is simply unconcerned with, or even scornful of, the rules of conventional grammar. In any case, the ungrammatical phrasing has the curious effect of making us pay more attention to the sentences in which that phrasing occurs.
For the most part, however, the poem does display various aspects of normal sentence structure that help give it some real rhetorical force. This is especially true of its heavy emphasis on strongly stressed verbs, such as “throw,” “pour,” “scrub,” “put,” and so on. The prominent placement of these heavily emphasized verbs helps make the poem (and the speaker’s imagination) seem highly energetic. He imagines what he would do, yet part of the irony of the poem is that he can actually do almost none of these things. He, as an individual, can actually have very little wide-reaching positive impact on the world. Part of the paradox of this poem, then, is that the speaker seems imaginatively powerful but is actually rather impotent, at least as a single person. (He may be able to have some real impact if he can influence others, which is what the poem seems largely designed to do.) By telling us what the speaker would do if he could, the poem implicitly encourages us to join him in his project of cleansing.
Ginsberg’s poem uses a poetic technique made especially famous by the so-called “metaphysical poets” of the seventeenth century—a technique known as a “conceit.” He adopts a metaphor (in this case, the metaphor of doing laundry) and then develops it in exceptional detail. Whereas most metaphors are used briefly by most poets and then quickly dropped, Ginsberg here displays his wit and inventiveness by exploring and exploiting a single metaphor for line after line after line. Here as in much metaphysical poetry, the point seems to be as much to display the poet’s imaginative inventiveness as to discuss the poem’s ostensible themes. Reading the poem is like watching a tight-rope walker: we are greatly interested in seeing just how far he can go without falling off the rope.