‘America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel’ — Allen Ginsberg

US Politics
on 30 Comments

Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, June 3, 1926. I think he would not approve of Chris Christie. He graduated high school in 1943 and did not go to war. He enrolled in Montclair State College then Columbia instead.

His poem “America” was finished six months after his mother’s death in 1956; thirteen years before the Stonewall riots. In his “Who’s Who” entry he listed Peter Orlovsky, his companion from 1954 to the end, as his “spouse.” I think he would have been pleased with Windsor, with Obergefell v. Hodgson.
Ginsberg was a flower child in San Francisco in 1967. There, City Light Books published his “Howl,” which includes the poem “America.”
He received a Young Men’s Hebrew Association (now JCC) scholarship to attend Columbia in the late 1940’s. But he was never a Zionist. He once said he agreed with the declaration, “Zionism is racism.” His head was with Pound and Eliot, and later with Indian Swamis, not Judaism and Israel, although he and Orlovsky did visit Jerusalem for a month in 1961 from Damascus.  He was a mystic who saw visions of God and William Blake, not burning bushes and promised lands.
He died April 5, 1997.
Re-reading “America” I find it remains remarkably undated despite its specific reference points. True, the atomic bomb lacks the hold it had on our psyche. Nothing has that kind of hold now. The NSA?
We don’t have any Trotskyites left. It’s possible we don’t have a million who know who Trotsky was (Eastern Ukrainian Jew, born in Yanovka near Mariupol). [Thinking of alternative histories; how would things have turned out if Trotsky had beat out Stalin?] Who are the heirs to our million Trotskyites today?  Not the followers of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.  There are none.
“Shipping eggs to India” refers to the Bengali famine during WWII: 3million people died of starvation.  Today, of course, there are 60 million war refugees, with people drowning in the Mediterranean (1,500 through April of this year), and people getting killed in civil wars in the hundreds of thousands (Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Egypt, Ukraine, Gaza, etc.).
Time Magazine is not what it was. It didn’t have this blog or Don’s Basement to contend with back then….
We’ve now had a Catholic President. There is that. And Ginsberg was not, of course…
“America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel…”   And so he did!
“America”
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven 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 when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
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.
I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.
Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals an unpublishable private literature that jetplanes 1400 miles an hour and twentyfive-thousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underprivileged who live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.
America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his automobiles more so they’re all different sexes.
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
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 1935 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother Bloor the Silk-strikers’ Ewig-Weibliche made me cry I once saw the Yiddish orator Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have been a spy.
America you don’t really want to go to war.
America its 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 fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make 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?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
Berkeley, January 17, 1956

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About Roland Nikles

Roland Nikles is a Bay Area writer and attorney. He blogs here: rolandnikles.blogspot.com. And you can follow him on twitter @RolandNikles

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30 Responses

  1. W.Jones
    July 4, 2015, 11:58 am

    What’s the reference to Trotskyism here for, may I ask?

    • gamal
      July 4, 2015, 4:11 pm

      No Mr. Jones, don’t ask

      “When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?”

      That’s why, its self explanatory. Do you think the USA is worthy of its Trots (then the answer is yes) or not (no).

      “What’s the reference to Trotskyism here for, may I ask?”

      He was a modernist poet, its dangerous to ask, at least venal if not mortal, whats it for, who knows? I am more sympathetic to Stalin than decency allows, Bronstein worries me.

      but then according to the rosross metric I am both brainwashed and from a backwards culture, no more than a brainwashed retard, everywhere I travel i find myself, I am no expert on others.

      Its wonderful to hear from unwashed brain forwardness, even though its the most blood-soaked ideology ever to have existed according to its own assessment, it only destroys the retard brainwashed like me, its not all bad so.

      • CigarGod
        July 5, 2015, 11:30 am

        Gamal, my brother.

      • Mooser
        July 5, 2015, 4:34 pm

        “but then according to the rosross metric I am both brainwashed and from a backwards culture, no more than a brainwashed retard,”

        “Gamal”, my friend, join the club!
        His posts gave me the exact same feeling! And I’m Jewish.

    • JLewisDickerson
      July 4, 2015, 4:35 pm

      FROM WIKIPEDIA (Allen Ginsberg):

      [EXCERPTS] Irwin Allen Ginsberg (/ˈɡɪnzbərɡ/; June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of both the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the counterculture that soon would follow. He vigorously opposed militarism, economic materialism and sexual repression. Ginsberg is best known for his epic poem “Howl”, in which he denounced what he saw as the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the United States.[1][2][3] . . .

      . . . • Relationship to communism

      Ginsberg talked openly about his connections with communism and his admiration for past communist heroes and the labor movement at a time when the Red Scare and McCarthyism were still raging. He admired Castro and many other quasi-Marxist figures from the 20th century.[82][83] In “America” (1956), Ginsberg writes: “America, I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry….” Biographer Jonah Raskin has claimed that, despite his often stark opposition to communist orthodoxy, Ginsberg held “his own idiosyncratic version of communism”.[84] On the other hand, when Donald Manes, a New York City politician, publicly accused Ginsberg of being a member of the Communist Party, Ginsberg objected: “I am not, as a matter of fact, a member of the Communist party, nor am I dedicated to the overthrow of [the U.S.] government or any government by violence…. I must say that I see little difference between the armed and violent governments both Communist and Capitalist that I have observed…”[85]
      Ginsberg travelled to several communist countries to promote free speech. He claimed that communist countries, such as China, welcomed him because they thought he was an enemy of capitalism, but often turned against him when they saw him as a trouble maker. For example, in 1965 Ginsberg was deported from Cuba for publicly protesting at the persecution of homosexuals and referring to Che Guevara as “cute”.[86] The Cubans sent him to Czechoslovakia, where one week after being named the Král majálesu (“King of May”[87] – a students’ festivity, celebrating spring and student life), Ginsberg was labelled an “immoral menace” by the Czechoslovak government because of his free expression of radical ideas, and was then deported on May 7, 1965[86][88] by order of the state security agency StB.[89] Václav Havel points to Ginsberg as an important inspiration in striving for freedom.[90] . . .

      P.S. I’m working on a sequel to “Howl”. Thus far, I only have the title: “Growl”.

      • W.Jones
        July 12, 2015, 12:03 pm

        If he was too much of a libertine for Cuba, he wouldn’t do well in Czechoslovakia. Yugoslavia would have been better.

        But his issue was with openness about homosexuality, and I am not sure what societies were generally on board with that in the 1960’s. Maybe in some of the less militaristic Western Cold War countries like Denmark he would have done better.

    • Mooser
      July 4, 2015, 5:11 pm

      “What’s the reference to Trotskyism here for, may I ask?”

      Remember, Stalin told Trotsky, before he left Russia, “This awl will be yours, someday.”

      • W.Jones
        July 12, 2015, 12:00 pm

        That’s awlful.

    • Sibiriak
      July 4, 2015, 11:47 pm

      …who know who Trotsky was (Eastern Ukrainian Jew, born in Yanovka near Mariupol)
      ———————

      THAT is “who Trotsky was”?

  2. Jackdaw
    July 4, 2015, 4:09 pm

    ” His head was with Pound and Eliot,… ”

    His head was with two notorious anti-Semites.
    Kinda figures, don’t it?

    • Citizen
      July 4, 2015, 10:47 pm

      Pound and Eliot were great poets. Ever read their works?

    • ckg
      July 4, 2015, 10:57 pm

      Jackdaw, poetry criticism is much more than who is and who isn’t antisemitic. Yale literary critic Harold Bloom railed against ‘the school of resentment’. Are you an alumnus?

      • RoHa
        July 5, 2015, 1:05 am

        Ckg, for a Zionist, anti-Semitic or not* is the only question to be considered. No other judgements, whether they be of truth-value, aesthetics, morality, or coolness, are made.

        (*But this alternative is hardly ever chosen.)

      • Jackdaw
        July 5, 2015, 2:51 am

        @ckg @ Citzen

        I’ve read quite a bit of Eliot, notwithstanding his dislike of Jews.

        I admired his poetry until I found out this his wife had heavily influenced his poetry; a debt he repaid by having her institutionalized and looting her estate.

        Ezra Pound, I simply avoid like dog excrement on the street.

  3. michelle
    July 4, 2015, 7:11 pm

    .
    Allen Ginsberg sounds like the sixth Beatle
    .
    G-d Bless
    .

  4. Ellen
    July 4, 2015, 11:02 pm

    Howl is an important and fascinating work for the times. It might no longer be read in 50 years. It could go the way of writers like Flannery O’Conner who are no longer read, but were ” important. ” 30 years ago.

    Having observed and experienced this first hand in the late 70’s Ginsberg was a deeply — and disturbingly so — misogynistic man.

    • Mooser
      July 5, 2015, 1:40 pm

      “Having observed and experienced this first hand in the late 70’s Ginsberg was a deeply — and disturbingly so — misogynistic man.”

      Are you sure about that? He was often seen eating at Japanese restaurants, and always had the soup.

  5. Qualtrough
    July 5, 2015, 12:30 am

    This is all very interesting but I am left wondering how that fits in here? Good to know that Ginsberg was Jewish and not a Zionist, but other than that it seems to be a tangent that has little or nothing to do with the stated purpose of this blog:

    Mondoweiss is an independent website devoted to informing readers about developments in Israel/Palestine and related US foreign policy. We provide news and analysis unavailable through the mainstream media regarding the struggle for Palestinian human rights.

    • CigarGod
      July 5, 2015, 11:46 am

      Oh, you guys.
      He will last thousands of years.
      His value is in teaching us how to observe and to think.

    • Mooser
      July 5, 2015, 1:42 pm

      “This is all very interesting but I am left wondering how that fits in here?”

      And where, exactly, did Allen Ginsburg “fit in”?

  6. Brewer
    July 5, 2015, 6:13 am

    Never could get along with this Ginsberg character even though I am almost of a generation. But then I have never really “got” post-modernism. Always seemed to me the triumph of marketing over talent. The “poem” above appears to be jotted diary notes concerning some very good ideas for possible poems.

    • RoHa
      July 5, 2015, 8:39 am

      I’m not a Ginsberg fan, but I would not apply the “post-modern” insult to him. Although the term “post-modernism” (an even sillier term than “modernism”) has been around since the beginning of the twentieth century, “post-modern literature” seems to have only started in the 1970s. That poem is from 1956, and thus would qualify, I think, as “beat”.

      Perhaps someone who keeps up with this sort of thing can clarify it for me.

      • Mooser
        July 5, 2015, 1:51 pm

        “Perhaps someone who keeps up with this sort of thing can clarify it for me.”

        Where is Maynard G. Krebs when we need him? He would know!

  7. yonah fredman
    July 5, 2015, 11:45 am

    Why the beardless ugly photo of allen ginsberg on your front page looking like the joker and hard to identify as ginsberg? I read the letters between him and his father louis ginsberg, and my sensitivities particularly towards jewishness were far more similar to the father than to the famous son. i liked him getting teary in “no direction home” scorcese’s documentary on dylan, when he talked about passing the torch, in reaction to “hard rain’s gonna fall”. I liked david cross’s portrayal of him in “i’m not there”. i like norman podhoretz recounting his relationship with ginsberg in “ex-friends”. He’s the most famous poet of my lifetime.

    • CigarGod
      July 5, 2015, 11:54 am

      If you changed your comment to: “one of the most important”, we’d have our first agreement.

    • Mooser
      July 5, 2015, 4:38 pm

      “and my sensitivities particularly towards jewishness…”

      Oh yes, your “sensitivities toward Jewishness” are very finely honed, “Yonah”.
      You know exactly what everybody owes you.

  8. John O
    July 5, 2015, 4:51 pm

    “When will you look at yourself through the grave?” – what a great line. Just a pity that the rest of the poem is far weaker. As for his claim to have passed the torch to Bob Dylan, – puhleeeze . Dylan is far and away the better poet. Salieri to Dylan’s Mozart.

  9. Walker
    July 5, 2015, 4:57 pm

    I am a fan of Ginsberg’s poetry. What’s more, I met him. He was really a wonderful person. Pace yonah, the photo does show how he looked in his later years. One of the things about Ginsberg was that he didn’t try to hide much of anything.

  10. brokebook
    July 7, 2015, 12:16 am

    Ginsberg was open about his NAMBLA activism and serial pederasty. It’s an important part of his life and should not be airbrushed from puff pieces.

    • CigarGod
      July 7, 2015, 9:51 am

      I read your comment, then googled: Ginsberg Nambla. The search resulted in an essay: Thoughts on Nambla.
      It is thoughful. You might appreciate it…if thoughtfullness was your point.

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