Mark Baker writes historical and other miscellaneous non-fiction articles to help expand his readers' knowledge.
Poem Analysis: "America" by Allen Ginsberg
“America” is a poem based on political theory that shows resentment towards democracy and is very opinionated about certain aspects of society. The author’s rebellious nature coupled with his Russian heritage help form a perspective on a socialist society in the United States that was based on Russia’s communism. The inquiries the author asks America as a whole show his steadfast hold on his views, marking him as an extremist in that accord. At the time, the world was locked in a Cold War that helped reveal the true natures of involved nations.
Ginsberg's Anti-War and Anti-Greed Sentiments
To fully grasp the context of the poem as a whole, the history of American–Russian relations must be discussed. From 1945–1960, the Cold War was roaring strong between the democratic West, led by America, and nations led by Karl Marx's socialist ideas such as Russia, which was the leader of the great Soviet Union. An excerpt from the poem gives insight into the tensions between the two ideas of government:
“America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can't stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don't feel good don't bother me.
I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind…” (America)
This excerpt shows how Allen Ginsberg’s emotions express an almost-vengeful hate toward America, especially when he writes, “. . .America when will we end the human war/Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb. . .” The author's sense of resentment toward nuclear testing and America’s bloody destruction of Hiroshima reveals his more liberal view of peace in the wake of war.
To go deeper, let us look at the previous line: “. . .America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17th, 1956. . .” The emotion from this line strikes the very heart of the reader. The phrase touches on America's a history of wealth, especially as it basked in the economic wealth due to wartime manufacturing.
At that time, the average wage was under $1.45 an hour, with women earning slightly less. The $2.27 mentioned in the poem points toward America's thriving greed compared to the other nations that participated in the war.
Ginsberg's Experience With Socialism
Russian-inspired socialist views are expressed throughout the poem, particularly those regarding worker’s rights, government overhaul, giving the state the power to distribute jobs and land. There is one such stanza, however, that gives an increased clarity of communism at its core:
“…America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother Bloor made me cry I once saw the Yiddish orator Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have been a spy…” (America)
This stanza gives an almost flawless picture of communism that is slightly altered to give a more fundamental approach of socialist expansion. The line, “America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings. . .”, shows the how the realism of communism was suppressed in light of Democratic ideals.
It continues, “. . .the speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers. . .” This last line references the enlightened ideas at the core of socialism designed by Karl Marx. Its core values represent the state over the individual, in its process giving every citizen economic prosperity.
The main goal of socialism, or in the author’s words, "Russian Communism," is found in 1835 with Scott Nearing, an American radical whose parents were participants in the Russian advancement of socialism. Nearing helped develop ideas such as worker’s rights, feminism, social caste issues, and various environmental concerns that affect government (Nearing).
The Author's Frustration With America
Other aspects of this poem extract the true nature of the author's standpoint, such as his frustration towards America's political system and aggressive maintenance of power. A few lines create a fuller picture of his hatred:
“…America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?” (America)
To start, the first phrase asks a question of religious morals, a direct criticism of America’s sphere of influence in various nations and of its controlling nature rooted deeply in deception and manipulative greed. The religious metaphor directed at America reveals the writer's spiritual point of view, most likely stemming from his Catholic faith that is stated in another line of the poem: “. . .My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I'm a Catholic. . .”
The author then proceeds to criticize America’s flaunting of its economic monopoly, asking when the democratic system will stop its encouragement of egotistic fundamentalism. America's greedy economic expansion was founded in the manufacturing of explosives during WWI and WWII. Exporting war materials to other countries allowed for a massive boom in capital, which contradicted the communism the author knew in Russia's political heritage.
The last line demands attention to the death of a democratic society through the declaration of communistic ideals, thus revealing the aggressive nature of Ginsberg’s personality and advancing his socialist political theory (Cold War).
In later lines, Ginsberg uses literary deviations to ask about America's economic policies:
“…When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears? “(America)
The first line gives a very severe criticism of America's social structure, as the author references Trotskyites, or followers of Leon Trotsky’s theory of proletarian freedom. He frames America as a dictatorship that rules through economic strangle.
The next line is a disturbing comment on how America’s literary works dictate the sad history of the great capitalist nation. During America’s history, numerous horrific events create a blood-stained timeline, from the Revolutionary and Spanish-American Wars to the Civil and World Wars (Trotsky).
Revealing America's Use of Propaganda
Th basis of any government is the control of social affairs, whether direct or indirect. Propaganda is used to help create a sense of security and manipulate the masses, as is demonstrated in the following excerpt:
“…America you don't really want to go to war.
America it's them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader's Digest. her wants our auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our filling stations.
That no good. Ugh. Him makes Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers.
Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?” (America)
The first few lines depict American propaganda that presented the motivation to go to war as driven by fear of other socialist nations.This allowed the American people to be manipulated into fearing Russian influence. This shut down economic ties and created sanctions against quite a few countries that defied America's "justice" and manipulative power.
There are a few things that stick out in the latter half of the excerpt. There is a reference to the fear of the natural price of things, a theory composed by the economic genius, Adam Smith. With the reference to filling stations controlled by government agencies, the author is proposing that if economy isn't run by the state, then the balances are disrupted by the proletariat and bourgeoisie social castes.
With the last three lines, the author then attacks America with a statement of serious concern about government stability. He questions it, giving credit to his dissection of American propaganda during the Cold War (Cold War).
The poem “America” was a milestone in terms of freedom of speech and ideas. In his reflections on democratic capitalism, Allen Ginsberg gives an alternative portrait of America, with its social reforms and economic monopolies. This poem helps to open the reader to unique variants of government.
This poem, with all its unique abrasion and the author’s sharp jabs at the government, allows the reader to see the government's greedy and manipulative disposition.
"Scott Nearing." Wikipedia . N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2011.
Ginsberg, Allen. "America." University of Pennsylvania. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2011.
"Trotskyism." Wikipedia . N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2011.
JC Scull from Gainesville, Florida on November 08, 2019:
Although I never knew him, I went to the same high school in Paterson, N.J. that Allen Ginsberg attended. He was quite older, so by the time I started school there, he was long gone. Obviously, he was a legend in Paterson. Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.
Ice on February 03, 2013:
"...most likely of a Catholic faith that is stated in another line amongst the poem, “…My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I'm a Catholic…”.
Ginsberg is Jewish, the line you are refering to is meant to be ironic humor.