by Allen Ginsberg
In A Nutshell
Note: Let's get real for a second. This is not your mama's poem. In this guide, we won't sidestep or gloss over the, shall we say, controversial parts of "America," because we think that would pretty much defeat the purpose of learning about it. But if you find swear words and frank discussions of sexuality and drug use to be offensive, this might not be the poem for you. Otherwise, read on, intrepid Shmoopers. And get those bleep buttons ready.
Have you ever turned on the cable news, only to end up yelling at the TV not 30 seconds later? Well once you've picked up the remote after throwing it at the coffee table, we've got the poem for you, no matter what side of the aisle you happen to stand on.
Allen Ginsberg's "America" is an epic rant, filled with big questions and unshakable frustrations that will remind you of the way you felt the last time you bumped into politics. Let's face it. More often than not, when people talk about the way this country is run, it ends up in a shouting match, or worse. That's why at our Thanksgiving, we're always sure to assign "table topics" to steer clear of political fights at the dinner table. Example: "Almond Joy is a vastly superior candy bar to Bounty. Discuss." (Although that can get pretty heated, too.)
In Ginsberg's 1956 poem, though, we get to see a man argue not with others, but directly with the country itself. That's right—he bypasses all the middle people and goes straight to the source of all of his trouble. As he does so, we get to read a true document of the 1950s. Think everything back then was white picket fences and Leave it to Beaver? Think again. Ginsberg's "America" tells a radically different tale, with the emphasis on radical.
With its fast-paced, spoken rhythms, intensely personal focus, and lines that stretch to the margin and beyond, "America" is also a calling card of one the most influential poets in American history. Not only was he a counter-cultural icon, a new age hero, and a wild force of unbridled energy, Allen Ginsberg was—and still is—a literary legend. He was the leader of the Beat movement, which began in the 1940s but which reverberated through American literature and culture like an intoxicating bongo, well, beat.
Who are the Beats, you ask? Check this out. If you thought the late-1940s and 1950s in America was all about crew cuts, starched suits, and white picket fences, you're missing a big piece of the puzzle. The Beats were a group of writers, thinkers, and artists who were all about swimming upstream, not conforming to the world of 9-5 jobs, stay-at-home moms, and big, shiny refrigerators.
Instead, these guys and gals were all about expressing their individual freedoms in every possible way: socially, sexually, artistically. At the head of this movement was a bright-eyed, scraggly-bearded, beautiful genius named Allen Ginsberg, shouting out his long lines of poetry to anyone who would care to listen.
Along with Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg became the face, and the voice, of the Beat generation, a group of folks who joyfully resisted the pressure to move to the suburbs, have 2.3 kids, and a dog named Spot. Just think of the Beats as "pre-hippies," as the ones who really paved the way for Woodstock to come about. Sound like fun?
It is! So shut off that 24-hour squawkbox and settle in for a truly vital lesson in history, politics, and tangling with "the man."
Why Should I Care?
Even if you're not old enough to vote, chances are good that you've come across something that's been done by the government that doesn't sit too well with you. Maybe when you heard about it you just shook your head, or maybe you got so mad that you beat up your favorite fluffy pillow. (Really? What'd that pillow ever do to you?)
Feeling frustrated at the way people in power behave is common. More than that, it's a good thing. It means you're paying attention, thinking for yourself, and that you have a stake in the decisions that your leaders make. After all, it is your country.
And while you may not feel especially connected to America—particularly if you're not old enough to vote yet—when you think about it, your voice is as much a part of this country as anyone else's. That's the realization that drives Allen Ginsberg's poem, "America." He rants because he knows that he's a part of his country, and his country does not always behave the way he'd like.
So he's decided to make use of the one thing that makes him equal with everyone else in the country: his voice. He speaks up, and he does so because he cares about the world in which he lives. That's why you'll care about what he has to say, even if you wildly disagree. You live in that world, too.
Ultimately, you care about Allen Ginsberg's "America," because you care about your America.