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Ginsberg’s “America”

The interpretation of a poet is based on narrative, concrete images, tone, timbre, voice and a series of enjambments, end stops and characterization. In Allan Ginsberg’s poem America he seeks to identify the narrator with an entire country, no small feat. This essay will seek to analyze what poetic devices Ginsberg uses in his poem in order to create a sympathetic character and use empathetic devices in order to create a rapport between the narrator and the reader.

Although Ginsberg knew classical poetry, and taught it at Columbia in New York City, his style of poetry mimicked his hero Walt Whitman; that is to say that Ginsberg preferred free style writing to any formal form of poetry such as Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter or Dante’s quatrains. Thus, the poem America reads almost like an intimate letter because the modern day reader doesn’t feel hindered by the sing-song of meter but is allowed to more closely be engrossed in the more casual tones which Ginsberg employs in his free verse writing style.

That is not to say that Ginsberg doesn’t use enjambments or end stops that other more formal poets (even Whitman) employed but that the poem is almost like a monologue with a few places that allow for that formal style. In fact, the reader is wont to interpret the poem as though the narrator (that we may guess is Ginsberg with the use of the “I” throughout the poem) is in fact asking America a question and therefore it maybe almost as though the poem is a personal letter to the United States.

The poem asks America a series of questions such as when will America send eggs to India or stop the human war and most poignantly Ginsberg asks in his poem “There must be some other way to settle this argument” (Ginsberg line 19) as though there had been an open dialogue between himself and the country. This style of free verse advances the themes of war, degradation, sainthood and questions because the free verse allows the reader to feel uninhibited in asking these same questions.

Perhaps Ginsberg’s intentions were to write this poem in a pseudo-letter form in order for the reader to permit themselves to question the same things in the same attitude and to feel like they weren’t alone in asking their country such questions because Ginsberg is asking them first, in print. This uninhibited feeling in the poem is supported by nearly every line of Ginsberg’s but can especially be found in this, “Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke? ” (Ginsberg line 21).

With this use of vernacular in the poem, the idea of anything formal comprises the text of America is surely thwarted; the phrase ‘practical joke’ is what the poem really hinges on. In the face of total devastation, or the destruction of something a person loves entirely such a person, such as their country and that country’s offered freedom, then when those loves fail you, a person can either take it morosely or they can ask themselves if it’s like a joke on them that the whole world is playing.

This type of humanistic side of the poem is what truly allows the reader to feel a complete sense of empathy for the narrator, for everyone feels at one point or another that the joke is surely on them. Without this use of sly vernacular the poem would surely lose that unambiguous certainty that something is going wrong in the country.

Ginsberg employs lines such as “America stop pushing I know what I’m doing” (Ginsberg line 24) and the poet goes on to use the image of “plum blossom” to bring in this concrete image which further supports the reality of this at once sane and insane feeling of the poet matched with this sane and insane state of the country. So, no, without the use of phrases such as ‘practical joke’ and ‘plum blossom’ the timbre of the poem would read quite differently and would lose most if not all of its veracity. Ginsberg presents a semi-soliloquy in his poem.

He makes statements about himself, using the narrator’s “I” in which to identify to the reader a personal message, with phrases such as, I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet. When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid. My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble. You should have seen me reading Marx. My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right. I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer. I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations. America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over

from Russia. (Ginsberg lines 29-36). It is this omission of doubt, fear, and prejudice toward an angry and unforgiving country that Ginsberg poem hinges upon. The poem is obviously all narrative; each device of omission or satisfaction in ‘I won’t apologize’ supports this statement. It is this personal narrative style which allows the poem to be so extremely accessible. It is also the themes of the poem which give the audience pause and allow them their own questions along the same line of thinking that Ginsberg offers in America.

The themes of the poem are many and varied: Grief, solitude, joy, truth, forgiveness, consumerism (“Time Magazine”), communism (“You should have seen me read Marx…”), etc. However, the device of the poet is equally important as the subject matter; Ginsberg, in his free style genius of the Beat Generation uses juxtaposition in order to apply weight to his wanderings, his truths, and questions in America. For instance, Ginsberg states, “America why are your libraries full of tears? ” (Ginsberg line 12).

A layman reader would not have expected to read that a library was full of tears; practically speaking, a library should be full of books, or people reading books. Thus, the importance of the switch in comparison allows the reader to question why he replaced an obvious symbolism of ‘books’ with ‘tears’. The reader wonders, Well, why tears? The inner workings of this symbolic object is that perhaps knowledge is being vanquished, or knowledge, that is books or history or philosophy are being censored in the American public libraries.

The proof of this is found in the theme of communism. In 1956, America was going through the Red Scare in which Senator McCarthy had just gotten done with his prejudices in routing out communists and trying to deport them or send them to jail. Or perhaps Ginsberg is merely stating that libraries weren’t being used, that new thoughts weren’t being generated because no one was asking any important questions and therefore this would be cause of tears being found in libraries. The replacement of books with tears however may be completely subjective as some poets are wont to do.

Ginsberg poem America is one in which he most definitely wrote himself in as is evidence with the line, “I’m addressing you. ” (Ginsberg line 37). In this short sentence the “I” is obviously Ginsberg and the understood “you” is America. Thus, the subjects and themes which Ginsberg is writing about may be more personal than the reader would expect from other poems and poets. This is evidence in Ginsberg’s continual use of the “I” and specific places and events: He even begins the poem with the date “America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.

” (Ginsberg line 2); such specifics allow for a definite concrete and close narrative style that automatically connects the reader to the poet down to the change in Ginsberg’s pockets. Literary fiction allows for these marginalizations of minor characters and their personal histories become relevant through the use of the story. All fiction has its birth from oral tradition; and poetry is a testament and by–product of that tradition.

Ginsberg is placing emphasis on a man’s personal history and that person’s (his) relationship with his country; for, what is a country if not land made up of its people? It is Ginsberg’s use of the “I” in the poem America that allows for an immediate connection between the subject and the narrator and the narrator and his audience. The themes supporting this relationship (in Ginsberg’s case, religion, tears, faith, communism, etc. ) only allow for a more personal if not more marginalized reality in the context and syntax of the poem.

Each element that Ginsberg relates gives the audience more questions to asks, which is the point of Ginsberg’s narrative style; he wants his audience to be enlivened with his words, it is what makes the poem and identity of the narrator less marginalized and more proactive, history, true. That is the theme of Ginsberg’s poems; they speak toward a universal truth of a country and a personal truth of a man in that country. Works Cited Ginsberg, Allan. America. Online. 1956. 9 April 2009. <http://www. writing. upenn. edu/~afilreis/88/america. html>

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