Study Guide

"America" by Allen Ginsberg in Cultural Studies

"America" by Allen Ginsberg

Forget Shakespeare and his sonnets. Leave Robert Frosty out to freeze. The noble art form of poetry gets a major shakeup from this member of the "Beat Generation," a crowd that rallied against materialism and formalism and instead engaged in experimentation (be it with drugs or literary forms) and frank explorations of the human condition. In "America," Ginsberg addresses the home of the free and the land of the brave like a real person, and makes it obvious that he's none too happy about the current state of affairs.

Despite its formal experimentation, the poem isn't just an exercise in wordplay or an attempt to look rebellious. That makes it perfect for cultural studies: the theory doesn't conform to boundaries between high and low culture or restrict itself to analyzing classical texts. Good news Ginsberg: "America" is a far cry from the flowery lyricism that the term "poetry" evokes, but it's a potent commentary on modern American culture.

In other words, contrary to that old notion of the "American Dream," Ginsberg's poem is more like a frenzied nightmare where everything is just a little bit off (remember Willy Wonka?). To get an idea of his attitude toward America, imagine a parent who's angry with their bratty kid: underneath that anger there's usually also a sense that they care about the child, however naughty.

This is the sort of vibe that runs throughout "America": the narrator is angry because this is his country and he feels a connection to it. You can even reverse the parent/child role in the sense that he feels like his motherland, or fatherland, has let him down.

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