Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
- A holy litany is a kind of prayer in which a list of things are mentioned or asked for. It's usually repeated.
- The speaker would like to write one of these kinds of prayers, but someone keeps hitting him the back of the neck with spitballs. Come on, America. It seems as though the country has no time for serious religious contemplation.
- Once again, the speaker can't get away from the country itself. As he's part of America, America's mood affects him, for better or, in this case, for worse. How can we tell? Because of that weird pronoun confusion. America's mood affects the speaker's ability to write. Or maybe America's mood is the speaker's.
- Add that to the speaker's Big List o' Gripes!
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
- Looks like another definition is in order here. A "strophe" is a section of a poem. It's kind of like a stanza, only a strophe does not follow a pre-set pattern.
- You want 'em? The speaker's churning 'em out! In this simile, he's making these bits of poetry just like Henry Ford, whose company developed the assembly line in order to crank out automobiles with greater efficiency and consistency.
- But the speaker's strophes are unique, in a way. At first he says they're as "individual as…automobiles," but of course each automobile produced on an assembly line is practically identical. Even so, the speaker's lines come in "all different sexes." Can a strophe have a sex, really? The speaker says that he's churning out words that exist across a spectrum of gender identity, more than just "women" in one door, and "men" in the other.
- Act now, and you can buy your very own! The speaker's like a used car salesman here, offering you a fair trade-in value on your old strophe. But is he being serious? Or is this another joke to point out how very different the act of writing a poem is from the act of making and selling a car?
- Poetry's not something that can be spat out of a factory and pushed into the economy, he seems to be saying. It's a lot more complex and, therefore, more important to the speaker.
America free Tom Mooney
- History note: Tom Mooney was a labor activist and a member of the Wobblies (check out line 27 for more on them).
- He was arrested on suspicion of his involvement in a 1916 bombing in San Francisco, but the evidence was sketchy. He was eventually freed in 1939, but all the same the speaker wants us to know that he totally had Tom's back all the way.
America save the Spanish Loyalists
- Who were the Spanish Loyalists—other than some folks who were loyal to Spain? Well, they were on one side of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. They fought in favor of the elected government of the Spanish republic, which was more liberal in its policies (pro-labor unions, for example). The Loyalists fought against the Nationalists, who were the more conservative members of the army, business, and the Catholic Church. Again, the case was decided before this poem was written (the Loyalists lost), but the speaker still wants us to know that he stands with their cause.
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
- Wanna know who else the speaker is a big fan of? These guys. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian immigrants who were arrested in 1920 for robbery and murder. Many folks thought that they were only arrested because they were known anarchists and anti-war activists (not to mention foreign-born). After lots of debate and legal wrangling, the pair was executed in 1927. Once again, the speaker has the back of the losing side.
- And he seems to be stepping out of time a bit, too. These guys were dead long before this poem was written. So what's all that about?
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
- More history notes, you ask? Why, certainly.
- The Scottsboro boys were nine African-American men who were arrested on suspicion of raping two white women on a train, in March 1931. Initially, all but one of them was sentenced to death.
- The lack of evidence and the racial nature of the case, however, sparked protests worldwide. After many appeals, they were all eventually freed (though the last defendant was not released until 1950). In this line, the speaker allies himself once more with a persecuted, underprivileged group that (in this case, literally) had to fight for its life.
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 Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have
been a spy.
- Okay—deep breath here. This is actually one looooong line that is, like several lines before it, multiple sentences all smooshed together. (For more on the effect of this style of writing, see "Sound Check," and then head on back here.) This looks to be a memory from the speaker's childhood, a fond memory of going to communist meetings with his mom. There he enjoyed some yummy (and cheap!) snacks.
- We also learn that the people there were pure in their support of the workers. There's that word "angelic" again (see line 8).
- The speaker tells us how great the communist party was in 1835, which is a bit odd time-wise, since we're reading this as written in 1956. As the speaker looks back on his childhood, though, he's also here looking much further back in time to a better place.
- Of course, it's also possible to read this another way, since there is no punctuation to guide us. You could see the line as "In 1835, Scott Nearing was a grand old man…" Still, we don't think this is what is meant.
- Why? Because Scott Nearing wasn't born back then, man! Nearing was a radical economist, pacifist, socialist, and communist (and probably some other -ists, too) who lived from 1883 to 1983. The speaker is clearly a fan of his.
- He's also a fan of Mother Bloor who, like Nearing, was a social reformer and communist sympathizer who lived around the same time as Nearing (though she died in 1951). The speaker says that she made him cry, but we're guessing that this was in a tears-of-inspired-joy sorta way, not in a tears-due-to-slamming-your-hand-in-the-car-door sorta way.
- The speaker says that he saw Israel Amter, another pro-communist activist and organizer who was active the same time that Nearing and Bloor were. More than that, he saw him "plain," which suggests that he got a true sense of the man.
- Still, even this joyful memory turns sour at the end. The speaker thinks now that everyone at the meetings "must have been a spy." This suggests that he's coming to some kind of conclusion about meetings like this one. Is he suggesting that the ideal of national communism was never achieved in America because it was undermined from within? Or did he find someone's secret decoder ring after a meeting cleared out?
America you don't really want to go to war.
- Really, you don't. Do you? No, we didn't think so.
- That's because America, at the time this poem was written, was in the middle of the Cold War. The Cold War was a political standoff with the Soviet Union that never actually resulted in direct armed conflict. That was probably because, in part, both sides had enough nuclear weapons to blow up the Earth many times over. So, rather than a shooting ("hot") war, it was U.S.A. versus U.S.S.R in the Cold War. (For more on this, check out Shmoop's take on the Cold War.)
- Still, we don't think that the speaker is being descriptive here. And it's not like he's taunting America. It seems more like he's trying to convince America that it doesn't really want to fight a war.
America it's them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
- This is an interesting turning point in the poem. While the speaker has so far had a tendency to smoosh sentences together into a single run-on for effect, here we get what seems to be deliberately bad grammar.
- What are we to make of "them bad Russians" and "them Chinamen." Who says "them" instead of "those" anyway? It seems like this bad grammar is purposeful, maybe to emphasize the ignorance of those who would blame China and Russia for America's problems.
- Also, notice how "them Russians" is repeated so many times in these lines. It seems like the speaker is poking fun not only at these people's ignorance, but at their obsessiveness, as well.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
- Huh? The Russia? Is after our cars? This just doesn't make much sense. We mean, we drive a Ford Pinto, Shmoopers, and last time we checked, there was no waiting list.
- Why would Russia want that? It's the kind of thing we might expect to hear from a delusional person. The speaker here seems to be poking more fun here, suggesting that the kind of people who really fear Russia, and who might support the American role in the Cold War, are a bit paranoid, and a bit out of touch with reality.
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.
- Man, this grammar is getting worse in a hurry. By "her," we're assuming that the speaker means Russia. It's interesting to note here how, as the grammar of the language gets worse, the paranoia of the lines also increases.
- So it's not just that "the" Russia wants our cars. "Her" is after our cities now, and our magazines (Reader's Digest, and "red" was a popular nickname for a communist). "Her" is also out for our auto plants, and our filling stations.
- The dumber these ideas are, the dumber they literally sound. Our speaker is putting those people, who would claim that Russia is an imminent threat, in a very unflattering light.
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.
- Here's a touchy line, but it's important to understand that the speaker is continuing his criticism of America (in this case both "him" and "her").
- We still have the degenerated grammar, and it goes along with the degenerate things that have been done in America's history—namely, the forced acculturation of the Native Americans (forcing them to read English and convert to Anglo ways), slavery (using African Americans as a source of unpaid labor), and the abuse of labor (forcing factory workers and others to work sixteen hours a day).
- All of this seems to be too much for the speaker. All he can do is utter a small cry for help.
America this is quite serious.
- … as a heart attack, Jack! In case you think the speaker is joking by pantomiming with this bad grammar and caricatures of those bad elements of America, he wants you (and everyone else) to know that this is no joke.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
- Ah, okay. Things are becoming a bit clearer now. We would say that, starting in line 63 up to here, the speaker has been performing a kind of imitation of the nonsense that he sees on TV. Everything he watches suggests a brutish, ignorant, and abusive country. (Maybe he should've switched over to Sesame Street?)
- Still, he wants to be sure that this impression over the last few lines is accurate. Might he be wrong? Could America be more than just a collection of mindless brutes?
I'd better get right down to the job.
- That's right! These vacuums aren't gonna sell themselves! Wait. By "the job," perhaps the speaker means something more than just a 9-5.
- If we follow from the question he asks in line 70, we might say that the work he speaks of might be the work of correcting the negative impression he's gotten of his own country.
- Not to pooh-pooh the importance of vacuum salesmen, but we get the feeling that this speaker has more far-reaching work in mind.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
- To back our reading of line 70 up, the speaker tells us that he's not after any sort of regular job (like joining the Army or working in a factory).
- Again, it's not that he looks down on those sorts of jobs. In fact, he says he's super-unqualified ("nearsighted and psychopathic") to hold those jobs. He must be talking about some other kind of work.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
- Okay! Well, whatever job this speaker is taking up, he seems wholly determined to see it through.
- "Shoulder to the wheel" is another metaphor. Basically, the speaker tells us that he's going to be putting his all into this work, exerting every ounce of energy he has to see it through. What's this job, you ask?
- Well, we know that it's not any sort of regular work. Given the list of complaints about his country, and the way he begs and cajoles America to behave better, we're left to assume that this speaker is putting down his pen and getting straight to work to make his country a better place to live.
- Perhaps by writing this poem, he's already gotten started. What do you think?
- And one last thing. That word "queer"? Well, that's just another example of Ginsberg identifying himself with what would have been, at that time, the margins of society.