Study Guide

America Form and Meter

By Allen Ginsberg

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Form and Meter

Free Verse

When we say "free," boy do we mean it.

One of the ideas that Allen Ginsberg, and many of his Beat companions, had about writing was "first thought, best thought." He frowned on the stuffy, rigid rhythms of conventional poetry, and careful, fussily metered lines. In fact, he wasn't even a big fan of revising. The idea for Ginsberg was for poetry to capture the spontaneity of the mind and the voice as it emerges. In literary circles, this is known as "stream of consciousness."

Think about it for a minute. When you have a thought, does it take the form of iambic pentameter in a fourteen-line sequence? Probably not.

Instead, it more likely resembles this: "America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956" (2). Grammatically, that line makes just about… no sense whatsoever. But we do get a certain meaning from it. If we had to translate to English-teacher, it might read: "America, I have just $2.27 left to my name on this day, which is January 17, 1956." Ginsberg wasn't writing for English teachers, though, he was writing to capture the motions and emotions of his mind on the page.

He was also looking to capture the rhythms of authentic speech. Poetry, from its very beginnings, was meant to be spoken aloud. One of the things Ginsberg tried to do with his work was to restore that tradition by writing lines that lasted the length of a spoken breath.

That's why, in many lines in "America," we get multiple, complete sentences that are squished into one another. The periods have been taken out to preserve the sped-up quality of the lines as they might sound to our ear. When Ginsberg writes, "I don't feel good don't bother me" (6), the idea is to recreate the sulky, mumbling tone of a person who may not feel like being polite just now, thank you very much.

Doing away with pesky things like periods also allows Ginsberg to add energy and speed to his lines. As his sentences start to blend together, they begin to pick up speed, much like a train blowing through a scheduled stop at the station. These ideas, words, and phrases chug along until the lines almost seem to blow their stack, racing toward the margin and beyond.

Consider this single line of the poem, which is indented because it won't all fit on one printed line (unless you go to like 0.0005 sized font):

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.

What looks like a train wreck is actually the motion of a runaway thought, a recollection of the speaker's childhood that comes back to the reader with vigor and excitement about a happier time in life. That kind of energy is made possible by Ginsberg's use of free verse here. Cool effect, huh? We think so. What his teacher would have given an "F," we here at Shmoop award an "A++." (61)

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