by Allen Ginsberg
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
- The speaker is addressing America, and not in a "my goodness, it's so nice to see you again!" kind of way. This is more like a, "I can't stand your face" kind of greeting.
- Yep, it looks like he's not too happy with the country. What has he gotten in return for giving it his "all"? Zilch, zippy, nada. That's what we'd call bad return on investment.
- How do you address a country of millions of people? Here, he's addressing the idea of the country. That kind of poetic move—addressing an abstract idea or concept as if it were a person—is called an apostrophe.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
- Here the speaker gets more specific. Is he totally nothing, as he says in line 1?
- Well, $2.27 ain't a lot of dough, even way back in 1956. Maybe this is what the speaker has left in his pocket. Maybe it's what he just feels like he's worth. Do you think this money is real, or imagined?
- We also find out a date—January 17, 1956. Is this the date of the speaker's exchange with America? Is it another important date in the speaker's life? Either way, it gives us a sense of time for the poem's setting.
- Now, odds are that you weren't around in mid-century America, so take it from us: the '50s were kind of a weird time in the states. The country had just helped to win World War II, the economy was going gangbusters, and everybody was happy, right?
- Well, not everyone. The speaker seems to be left out of that party. For more on what he's missing out on, check out the "Setting" section and then click on back here.
- Finally, notice how this line runs together without regard for proper punctuation? Try reading that out loud. Fast, right? It's as if the speaker is breathlessly airing his complaints. He seems to have something to say, and it really needs to get out in a hurry.
- It also jams together two seemingly unrelated ideas: money and the date. What's the connection? We're left to figure it out.
- Either the speaker doesn't want to do it for us, or his mind is too disjointed to stop and make more sense of things. Hmm… we wonder if that trend will continue…
I can't stand my own mind.
- Jeez, this speaker is not happy.
- What would it be like if you couldn't stand your own mind? How does this admission affect how you read the speaker's words? Do you think that America is at fault for this happening?
- And what does that really mean, anyway? Maybe the speaker really hates himself. Or maybe he's a wee bit mentally ill, and his mind is a confusing, exhausting place to be.
America when will we end the human war? Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
- Um, awkward.
- The speaker turns back to America again. He wants to know when we will end the human war.
- Who do you think "we" is? Does the speaker include himself as part of America, too? Let's keep reading to find out…
- Also, what's a "human war"? (Is there a non-human war?)
- It seems like the speaker wants us to focus on the human aspects of war: war between different human beings, wars that might take place within a human being (especially one who "can't stand [his] own mind," like this speaker).
- You know what else, America? You can just go take a stinkin' hike! At least, that's our G-rated translation of line 5.
- We're gonna go out on a limb here and say that the speaker is upset about the atom bomb. History note: the atomic bomb was dropped by America on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, then on Nagasaki, Japan three days later, effectively ending World War II.
- Still, hundreds of thousands of Japanese people—men, women, and children—were killed. This took place less than a decade before the date the speaker gives us in line 2.
I don't feel good don't bother me.
- Once again, we're reminded that the speaker is not in the best of moods.
- More than that, he tells America not to bug him. Sadly, we get the feeling that America is not about to listen.
- Notice, too, that this line is really two sentences smashed into one: "I don't feel good." + "Don't bother me." Plus, it continues right from the line before, which has no punctuation at the end of it.
- An English teacher would give this a big red "RUN-ON" mark, but do you think Ginsberg didn't know his grammar? What's the effect of smashing two sentences into one? What does it sound like?
- For more on Ginsberg's use of this technique, check out "Sound Check" and come on back.
I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind.
- Okay, now this is a bit of a puzzle. So far, the speaker's told us how bummed out he is, and how he can't stand his own mind.
- Apparently, though, he kept on writing his poem—65 more lines of it. Do you think that his "right" mind might mean that his troubled mental state is actually the "right" way to feel? Or is the speaker so confused that he kept writing anyway?
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
- Now we get more questions from the speaker, put to America.
- To be "angelic," like an angel, suggests a kind of holy purity that the speaker is longing to see in America. Can a country of millions truly have such purity? If so, what would it take to achieve it?
- In line 9, though, we get the other side of the purity coin. In asking America to take off its clothes, the speaker suggests that the country might still be an object of desire. It might still be capable of hanging loose and kicking back.
- Too bad. It stays buttoned up like some old Victorian gentlewoman.
- Notice, though, that the speaker thinks that change is possible, since he's asking when these things might happen, even if they haven't happened yet.
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
- It's hard to get your mind around this imagery. How might one look at oneself through the grave? The last we checked, no grave-o-scopes have been invented yet.
- Perhaps the speaker is more asking the country to see itself as a mortal being, to take the perspective that life (even for a country) does not go on forever.
- Do you see that as a morbid thought, or does it help you to appreciate things more if you realize that you won't be around forever to enjoy them? Maybe America as a whole should be more appreciative, at least, according to our speaker.
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
- Here's where Ginsberg launches into a lecture on fossils. Oh wait.
- It's Trotskyites, not trilobites. Leon Trotsky was a Russian political theorist and revolutionary. He was an important part of the communist revolution in Russia that started in 1917.
- A Trotskyite, then, would be a person who would be sympathetic to the communist cause and a champion of workers' rights. The speaker wants to know when America will be deserving of these people. So clearly he thinks being a Trotskyite is a good thing. Sadly, according to our speaker, these folks live in a country that does not match their goodness.
- Does it surprise you to think that communists might live in America? According to the speaker, there are at least a million. For more on the speaker's political leanings, check out "Themes: Politics," then head back this a'way.
America why are your libraries full of tears?
- Here's an unusual question. Now, we're guessing that libraries do see their fair share of tears, especially college libraries around midterm and finals time. But that's probably not what the speaker is on about here.
- By saying that the nation's libraries are filled with tears, he seems to suggest that all is not well in these important rooms, rooms dedicated to learning and knowledge.
- One way to look at this is as personification, as if the libraries themselves possess human qualities and are crying. Maybe that's because they're empty of learners, of curious people. Poor sad, lonely libraries.
- Another idea is that perhaps these places are full, but the people who are going there are not finding what they need. Somehow, their desire for knowledge is not being fulfilled, so out come the waterworks.
America when will you send your eggs to India?
- Have you ever tried a spicy Indian curry with hard-boiled eggs? Take it from us: dee-lish!
- Again, though, that's not what the speaker's on about.
- Which brings us to another history note: the last great famine in India was the Bengal famine of 1943, in which millions of people died of starvation.
- So with this question, the speaker is wondering why America doesn't do more to help India, and perhaps others in need around the world.
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.
- In these lines, the speaker has had it up to here (like, past the eyebrows) with America's insane demands, but that's not enough to stop him from making insane demands of his own.
- Have you ever tried to buy a pack of gum with a charming smile? Odds are, even if you're really good-looking, like Shmoop, it doesn't work.
- But the speaker's question raises a point: does it pay (in terms of social favor and, yes, even money) to be good-looking in this country? Does America judge according to surface appearance?
- Luckily for the speaker, he's perfect. And so is the country that he's been slamming so far in this poem. Of course, in both cases, he doesn't really mean it. Here he's using irony to make a point.
- After all the complaining he's done, about himself and his country, it's not as if he's just changed his mind all of a sudden. This seems to be a sarcastic comment, in which he reverses the equation.
- "The next world" (heaven, we might guess) is not the perfect world. Instead, this superficial, crazy place really is.
- What he's actually getting at, though, is that neither he nor America are anywhere close to perfection. The speaker is trying another strategy here, in his ongoing argument with his country.
Your machinery is too much for me.
- What is the "machinery" of a country? Its legal system? Its government? Its economy or military? All of these and more?
- Whatever you might think of as the inner workings of what makes a country tick, it's just all too much for the speaker. Maybe he needs to rage against it.
You made me want to be a saint.
- Often, we hear about how America inspires people with its promises of freedom and prosperity. Here the speaker reveals that he, too, was once inspired by America.
- But he wasn't just inspired to get a suburban house and a flat-screen TV. He was inspired to become a saint, which is about as pure as it gets. How do you think America inspired him? To follow its model? Or to do the opposite of what the country does?
- Also, it's important to note the past tense here. America, at one point, inspired the speaker. We're guessing that it doesn't anymore. Sad.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
- Now the speaker is looking for a way out of the argument he's having with America.
- He seems to have an uneven energy in this poem. One minute he's ranting at America (line 14), the next he seems defeated (6), and now he just wants to settle the argument altogether.
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?
- Burroughs? That's William S. Burroughs, who was a writer and good friend of Allen Ginsberg. He was also at times a drug addict and once shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in a drunken game of William Tell. Soon after that happened, Burroughs moved to Tangiers, in Morocco, where he continued to write—and do drugs.
- Perhaps that's what's so sinister to the speaker about Burroughs being in Tangiers. In any case, it looks like he's not coming back: bad, bad times.
- The speaker wonders if America is being similarly sinister (say that three times fast), or if, perhaps like Burroughs and his William Tell game, it's pulling some kind of sick joke on him.
I'm trying to come to the point. I refuse to give up my obsession.
- Hey! The speaker has a point. That's good to hear (read).
- We kid a bit, but this poem is kind of a rambling declaration. One minute we're in America, then we're talking India, or Morocco, or supermarkets.
- What's the speaker's point? The next line suggests that it's his refusal to give up his obsession. Or is he saying that coming to the point is his obsession, which he won't give up.
- In any case, things aren't fully clear at this point. To be fair to the guy, he says he's trying to come to it — he's not there yet.
- But if we had to guess, we'd say America is the speaker's main obsession at this point.
America stop pushing I know what I'm doing.
- Quick, call the grammar police. Here are another two sentences smashed into one.
- They say that, even if we're not fully clued in to the speaker's point, we shouldn't think of him as confused or deranged. He's aware of what he's up to. He promises.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
- Oh, that's nice. Plum blossoms are super pretty.
- If they're falling, though, is that also pretty? Or are they disappearing? How should we feel about this idea?
- Does it depend on how we feel about plums? (Our take? Plums = yay! Prunes = boo!)
- In any case, the imagery here is quite the departure from what has come earlier. Instead of supermarkets, graves, and bombs, we're suddenly talking nature and flowers.
I haven't read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.
- Ah, right. Well, so much for the pretty plum blossoms. That was short-lived.
- The speaker knows America so well that he doesn't even have to read the paper to keep up with it. One American fact he knows about is violence. Whether a person is guilty or not, he knows that, every day, a murder trial starts up somewhere in the country.
- And in case you missed it, that was yet another run-on sentence.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies. America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I'm not sorry.
- You know what? We feel sentimental, too! We really miss those guys, always teetering over, but never falling down. What's that? Those were Weebles? Oh, right!
- The Wobblies were members of the Industrial Workers of the World union.
- Our speaker goes back to his political sympathies for unions and laborers. He's not apologizing for his past politics, either. So there!
- These lines also give us a nice little combo of anaphora and apostrophe. Fancy, right? We've got anaphora with the repeated "America" at the beginnings of the two lines, and it's an apostrophe because, like much of the rest of the poem, he's talking to America as a country and an idea. He's just being a bit more up front about it here.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
- Gasp! The speaker is not only admitting that he used to a communist, he's also admitting to illegal drug use. Yikes.
- In the '50s, when this poem was written, that was a bold stand of anti-social behavior. In lots of places today, it still is.
- Clearly, this speaker is going against the grain when it comes to expectations of polite Americans. In fact, it almost seems like he's trying to spite them.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
- Well, that's one way to while away the hours. Although it's certainly not the most productive method. Devoting all your time to the study of beautiful objects? Pssh.
- Clearly, that's a far cry from the 9-5 job we're all expected to get. So the question is—is there something valuable about this way of spending one's days? Or is he just a big ol' lazy bum?
- Also, consider where this beauty is. We mean, really, how well do roses do if you grow them in the closet? We're not green-thumbed gardening wizards, but we know that flowers don't bloom in a closed, dark space.
- Why do you think, for the speaker, these objects of beauty are trapped in place they will not survive?
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
- More bad news for the speaker.
- He goes to Chinatown (likely in San Francisco, since we know that Ginsberg wrote this poem right next door in Berkeley, California) and gets drunk, but he still can't get no (sexual) satisfaction.
My mind is made up there's going to be trouble.
- Here's another smooshed-up sentence pair.
- The speaker has been telling us all the ways he does not do what's expected of him by normal (for lack of a better term) American society. Now he's angling for even more trouble.
- In this line, the speaker is shifting from listing all his complaints, to deciding to actually do something about the problems with the world.
- It's a turning point for him, and for the poem, too.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
- Marx here is Karl Marx, one of the founding thinkers of communist philosophy.
- So once again, the speaker wants America to know ("you should have seen me") that he's not buying into the mainstream, capitalist system of beliefs.
My psychoanalyst thinks I'm perfectly right.
- You know what, America? The speaker seems perfectly normal to a person whose profession it is to study someone's mind. Rather than pill popping, psychoanalysis seeks to have patients talk out their issues with a qualified analyst. The practice was founded by none other than Sigmund Freud.
- The point here is that regardless of how we (or anyone else) might feel about him, the speaker does have some support, and from a professional at that. So hey, at least someone's on his side.
I won't say the Lord's Prayer. I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
- Okay, we think it's high time we started a list of the things our speaker is against: war, violence, capitalism, drug laws, and now organized religion.
- In this case, the Lord's Prayer is being used to represent any form of organized religion, or at least organized Christianity, which has always been pretty popular in mainstream America.
- What does the speaker go for instead? He's into a less formal kind of spirituality. It seems no less powerful to the speaker, though. What might it feel like to experience cosmic vibrations?
America I still haven't told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.
- Okay, America. Now it's personal.
- In this line, we get a sense of the speaker's family history, and it's definitely not a happy one.
- Consider that Uncle Max, as a Russian immigrant, probably came to America seeking a better life. Somehow, though, the speaker refers to Max's experience as "what [America] did to him" (as opposed of doing something for him).
- We get the sense that it was not a good move for Uncle Max. To the speaker, America is to blame for that unhappiness.