Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem “America” relies on a form of personification known as apostrophe, an address to an inanimate object as though it were a person. The object of the poem is America as a nation, as its citizens, and as a historical and political idea. It’s as boisterous as any Ginsberg poem, leaping, line to line, from declamation to confession to accusation to seemingly private resolution. It jumps from earnest to comical and back again. “I’m addressing you,” the poet reminds himself in line 38, then follows with “Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine? / I’m obsessed by Time Magazine. / I read it every week.” Four lines later: “It occurs to me that I am America. / I am talking to myself again.” Then, much later: “America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?”
The rhetorical model for “America” appears to be Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” a poem in free verse of similarly uneven line-lengths, punctuated by breath, romantically declaiming what it means to live and work in America. For Ginsberg, Walt Whitman was rivaled in stature only by William Blake. Obvious differences lie in the object of Whitman’s address, which is primarily the American people, and in Whitman’s core argument, which favors deep and abiding sympathy and espouses an Americanness that unites and equalizes all Americans past, present, and future. Ginsberg, writing during the Cold War, focuses instead on America’s problems, toggling between love and hate for his native land.
Imagine Covenant College English majors’ surprise when, circa 1992, Dr. Cliff Foreman read “America” aloud, animatedly, including its fifth line, “Go f**k yourself with your atom bomb”—as well as its numerous leftist political references, such as “America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies” and “America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings.” This kind of assigned reading was a bomb in its own right in our small, politically conservative Christian college. When I took a class from Ginsberg himself at NYU two years later, I told him about Dr. Foreman’s live reading and he was shocked. Evidently, we were not an audience he had anticipated.
Ginsberg’s “America” is better than Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” if for no other reason than that it penetrates more deeply into the American crisis of identity. Where Whitman extols and revels, Ginsberg grins and prods. It is also better and more significant as literature than most traditional American national apostrophe, such as Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful.” Where Ginsberg is visionary, chaotic, maybe narcissistic—artful, funny, and angry—Bates merely exalts and blesses America: “God shed his grace on thee […] May God thy gold refine.” Where Ginsberg’s tone is intimate, speaking as if to a lover, Bates is remote, official, formal, and superficially religious. Bates is also unrealistic, envisioning a utopian progress that culminates in “Alabaster cities gleam[ing] / Undimmed by human tears” and where “selfish gain no longer stain[s] / The banner of the free!”
An example of more recent American apostrophe—and perhaps influenced by Ginsberg’s own—is Bill Callahan’s song “America” (2011). Though less ebullient than Ginsberg’s, it strikes a similarly humorous chord: “America! America! / I watch ‘David Letterman’ / In Australia / Oh America, / You are so grand and gold, golden / I wish I was on the next flight / To America.” In this ironic setting, Callahan drills into the more serious, “Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iraq, Native American / America! / Well everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention, / America! America!” But Callahan comes right out and levels charges—tired charges, in fact—rather than including himself in America’s folly.
If Whitman’s deep sympathy is the basis for Ginsberg’s playful attack, and both of these poems soar above other addresses to America or its people, we would do well to consider why. Both poets, despite how they align politically, use poetry to transcend “us and them” rhetoric and put themselves in the middle of the problem, as well as in the middle of the solution. Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s voices endure because they are humble without being self-effacing; they are intense without becoming shrill. As such, they are models for our rhetoric as we discuss American culture and politics.
Hear Allen Ginsberg read his poem to a live audience on this YouTube video.
- Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).